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In the Last Instance
David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, London: Basil Blackwell, 1989. pp. 372
Copyright © 1997 John Abromeit, all rights reserved.
In The Condition of Postmodernity David Harvey makes the ambitious attempt to identify the logic underlying the chaotic cultural developments of the past twenty-five years. He believes that is possible to distill an essence from the manifold appearances of postmodernism, despite the emphatic arguments to the contrary of its theorists. He conceives the essence of postmodernism not as the static essentia, the "being" of the middle ages, but rather as the dynamic becoming, the "creative destruction" as he calls it, of modern capitalist mode of social reproduction. While Harvey does argue that the differences between the cultures of modernism and postmodernism are not as great as the defenders of the latter would have us believe, insofar as both are ultimately grounded in capital's restless transformation of the modern world, he also attempts to establish the specificity of postmodern culture by rooting it in a shift in the dominant form of accumulation within larger capitalist context.
To support his claim that even postmodernism is determined "in the last instance" (to use the phrase which Harvey appropriates from Engels) by economics Harvey provides the reader with parallel surveys of the development of culture and economics in the twentieth century. In the first section of his book he documents the turn from "modernism" to "postmodernism" and in the second he examines the change from Fordism to flexible accumulation. Both of these rather dramatic shifts occur within a relatively short timespan -- sometime between 1965 and 1973. After having demonstrated this correlation between the cultural and economic spheres, Harvey attempts in the third section to support the stronger claim that there is also a relation of causation between the two. He does this by surveying the historical transformation of the categories of space and time from the middle ages to the present. He wants to show that if the material developments of modern capitalism determine even these two most fundamental categories of human perception, then cultural activity as a whole certainly cannot be understood without reference to economic conditions. Harvey appends a fourth and final section, in which he assesses the promises and perils of postmodernity in greater detail and offers a few brief recommendations for the future of critical theory and politics, but the bulk of his evidence about the causal relationship between base and superstructure -- to use the traditional Marxist terms which Harvey scrupulously avoids -- is presented in the first three sections. It is the strengths and weaknesses this central argument which I will address in what follows.
The strength of Harvey's argument lies in his demonstration of a temporal correlation between the shift to postmodernism in the cultural sphere and the shift to flexible accumulation in the economic sphere. Harvey succeeds in extensively documenting both these shifts by drawing on the work of persons of diverse background and political persuasion. He shows that even the most intransigent critics of postmodernism had admitted by the mid-eighties that some type of cultural sea-change had occurred around 1970. Harvey draws on three different recent economic works -- from the neo-liberal, social democratic, and Marxist perspectives -- which all argue that a fundamental shift in the economy occurred around 1970, even though they differ in their assessment of that shift. Having thus convincingly established the existence of temporal correlation, Harvey's argument is far from complete, since there is, as David Hume reminded us in the eighteenth century, no necessary relationship between temporal correlation and causation. In order to ground his stronger claims about causation Harvey must move from the general to the specific; he needs to examine specific areas of culture or certain artistic works in order to demonstrate in greater detail how the economic determines the cultural in particular instances.
The two instances when Harvey engages in this type of concrete analysis he succeeds in supporting his main argument. In a chapter entitled "Postmodernism in the city: architecture and urban design," Harvey draws on his vast knowledge of urban geography to demonstrate a link between Fordist methods of mass production and the international high modernism of Le Corbusier and Mies Van der Rohe. He shows, in particular, how the industrial methods of Fordism, which established their primacy in the realm of production in response to the crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War, were applied in the architectural realm to solve urgent problems of postwar urban renewal. Similarly, Harvey shows that when the decline in the rate of profit forced the rigid Fordist system to yield to the speedier methods of flexible accumulation, there was a corresponding shift in architecture. The functional universalism of high modernism gave way to new forms of particularism. As examples, Harvey cites garish monuments to personal power such as the Trump Tower, or to the active marketing of cultural difference at the Baltimore City Fair which was used to make that city more attractive to outside investors.
Harvey's second more detailed discussion of specific cultural works is an attempt to place the popular postmodern films Blade Runner and Wings of Desire into the context of increased space-time compression of flexible accumulation. Harvey's observation that robot "replicants" in Blade Runner represent the ultimate in short-term, highly skilled and flexible labor power is insightful as are his comments on the role of images in maintaining a tenuous link to history and personal identity in Los Angeles in the year 2019, at a time when the chaos of flexible accumulation seems to have been driven to absurd extremes. While less insightful than his discussion of Blade Runner, Harvey's analysis of Wings of Desire also succeeds in relating the film's concern with fragmentation, history and identity to the social conditions objectively produced by flexible accumulation.
After having laid the groundwork in the second part on the historical transformation of twentieth century capitalism Harvey is indeed able to show how transformation is reflected upon in the cultural sphere, but instead of engaging in more specific analyses of specific branches of culture or individual works of art in order to show precisely how economic factors determine postmodern culture, Harvey attempts to buttress his claims about postmodernism with a broad historical argument about the economic determination of culture throughout the modern period. This more ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt, leads him away from the interesting correlation between postmodernism and flexible accumulation that he sets up in the first two sections of the book. In his attempt to show that the remarkable correlation between economic and cultural transformation that seems to exist in the postmodern epoch has existed throughout the modern age Harvey makes a series of arguments that do not hold up under closer scrutiny.
He attempts, for example, to link the rise of cultural "modernism" to the first crisis of capitalist accumulation in 1848 and to the first experience of non-linear "explosive" time on the barricades in Paris during the revolution of 1848. The concept of modernism he invokes in this context is clumsier than the one he uses in the first section, where he is careful to differentiate between various stages in the development of modernism. The placement of the onset of "modernism" in 1848 seems rather arbitrary; did not the early romantics in England and Germany develop the themes of fragmentation, irony, and non-linearity? How can Harvey account for the return of the linear temporal narrative as the structuring element of the late nineteenth century realist novel?
Whereas Harvey fails to demonstrate convincingly the specificity cultural response to the economic-political crisis of 1848, he fails to identify the economic roots of the unprecedented flourishing of modernism between the years 1910-1915. There had been no major economic crises in the West since 1893, and until the beginning of the first world war, capitalism seemed to be functioning better than ever. Even the majority of the world's largest socialist party, the SPD in Germany, were convinced that reform within, not revolution against capitalism was the best way to achieve their goals. Harvey does point to the development of Fordism during this period, but as he himself argues, Fordism did not establish itself as the dominant mode of production in the West until the second world war. In short, Harvey's attempt to generalize historically the correlation between postmodernism and flexible accumulation leads him to make broad claims that he cannot support.
The second main weakness in Harvey's account of the relationship between economics and culture is that the relationship he posits between the two is too simplistic, too unmediated. While Harvey is by no means a vulgar Marxist, who posits a mechanical relationship between base and superstructure, many of the generalizations he makes bring him dangerously close to this undialectical position. He claims, for example, that he sees no difference in principle between the vast range of speculative and equally unpredictable activities undertaken by entrepreneurs (new products, new marketing strategems, new technologies, new locations, etc.) and the equally speculative development of cultural, political, legal and ideological values and institutions under capitalism. Statements such as these reduce culture to nothing more than a reflex of the economy, i.e. to a commodity which is produced just like any other. Harvey's repeated use of the metaphor of the mirror to describe culture in capitalism also reflect his view that culture is "in the last instance" determined by economic conditions. It is a platitude to claim that one cannot understand a work of art or other cultural product without reference to the historical-material context in which it is produced. Even the most abstract pieces of art are "determined" in some way by material conditions. The more interesting question that must be posed, and which it is the job of the interpreter to answer, is the precise nature of this determination, which differs widely from case to case. To argue that this determination is not mediated by subjective factors, i.e. by the needs, desires, freedom, ideals, etc. of those who produced the art work, as Harvey sometimes seems to do, is to fall back into a rigid historical determinism which leads to absurd and unacceptable conclusions. Was Harvey's book nothing more than a commodity whose production was somehow dictated by the current state of flexible accumulation? This is not, of course the position that Harvey himself adopts, but by downplaying the subjective factors involved in cultural and artistic production, sometimes to the point of eliminating them altogether, Harvey borders on a theoretical position which, if thought through to the end, could lead to such absurd concrete conclusions.
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