catacomber (catacomber) wrote,

David Harvey and PoMo (Monday)

On a structural level, David Harvey's book uses a call and response technique to exposit his notion that Postmodernism is less its own revolution than it is a more fully realized version of the artistic sentiments and theories that we regard as traditional modernism. His argumentation is at times elliptical, leading us in one direction and then back to another as he first demonstrates conventions that we regularly categorize as PoMo, particularly fragmentation, but also notions of the 'unreal' and the self-serving or self-reflexive, and then gives a series of examples of how those ideas were, for the most part, already employed in the service of Modernism.

For Harvey, the cultural artifacts that people leave behind can be interpreted as evidence of a general, society-wide gestalt that is substantially linked to the intents and dreams of the people who constructed them. Another important link for him is the cultural environments which would have a certain impact on the thoughts and actions of these "Modern" and "Postmodern" people. Under Harvey's umbrella, the arts which have appeared in western society over the last twenty years are intrisically related to, have great impact on, and are impacted by the cause of capitalism. Likewise, at least as far as an underlying theme is concerned, he believes that Pomo and regular old Modernism are essentially emulations of the same core sentiments, whether the people who 'perform' them think they are or not. I was struck by the use of American avant-garde artists like Rothko and Pollock as vehicles of "violent fragmentation" and "creative destruction"(37), characteristics so often given to Postmodern artists. "Post modernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is."(44) He uses the examination of architecture and urban planning to show how these sentiments that we usually confine to coffee table books and museums has actually permeated our own living spaces. He cites "Britain is rapidly turning from the manufacture of goods to the manufacturing of heritage."(86)

While Harvey argues that Modernism and Pomo are intimately connected, he does acknowledge their differences as well. It seems post-modernism seems to emulate a more developed and complete (totalizing) brand of self-circulaiton.

By the end of the first part Harvey finally confesses his starting point as a follower of Marxism. (My girlfriend said of him, "of course, he's a geographer".) For him, post modernism "takes matters too far".(115) The basic premise for this, is that as a society we have departed from our contact with the "real". Alienation, or creation of otherness has transformed the purpose of work from the obtaining of bread to the strict obtaining of money: "All traces of exploitation are obliterated in the object."(101)

But this assertion has its problems. Potentially, the most important of these problems is the way that Harvey tends to place humanity along a timeline wherin the people of the past were somehow closer to "the real" than we, the people of the present, are now. This is a point of view that has recieved tremendous scrutiny in the field of anthropology, which has all but anihilated itself as a field and which looks with a scorning eye at the poor sods who founded the discipline for having made the same mistake: by treating the people of the past as "the sacred other", somehow fundamentally different from the anthropologist. In some ways, I get the impression Harvey is placing a golden halo over pre-industrial (that is, premodern) society. This isn't to suggest Harvey doesn't have his point: it would be difficult to convince anyone that there haven't been significant cultural changes in the west (if we accept that there is such thing as the West) since the late 60s, or since the beginning of the 19th century. It is the Lacanian notion that there has been a semiotic departure from the needs of the infantile body (mutated Freud) that makes me uneasy.

It is an assumption that claims people have changed as a whole in recent years. The reason it makes me uneasy is that it is terribly chronocentric, or coeval. Why would it all of a sudden have just happened that things suddenly went down the shitter? I don't want to ride this horse for too long, because I don't want to place myself as being adversarial toward Harvey. On the contrary, the book is a remarkable piece of research and scopel. I just feel the need to illustrate potential imperfections in his theoretical armor; I want to point out the linchpins of his reasoning that I believe might invite debate.
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