Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Condition of Postmodernity

Changes in cultures may seem to be abrupt, but the underlying social process seldom experiences the changes, argued David Harvey, a Marxist Sociologist as well as a geographer, in his book “The Condition of Postmodernity”, a book on the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

What is postmodernity
Harvey uses architectures, arts, media and so on as examples to describe the general concept of postmodernity. He concludes that postmodernity is represented by its fragmentary, ephemeral and chaotic characteristics. The table below shows the comparisons between modernity and postmodernity (detailed in the table of page 340).

Economics of scale
Economics of scope
Detail division of labor
Socialdivision of labor
Monopoly capital
State power
Financial power
Trade unions
God the Father
The Holy Ghost
Blue collar
White collar
Operational management
Strategic management
State interventionism

For instance, a typical modern building is somewhat simple, valuing its function. On the other hands, a typical postmodern building is somewhat chaotic. An office building of postmodernity may have forests in its mezzanine floor, which represent a fictional space.

Take another example. Art of modernity is somewhat simple. For instance, the arts born during the civil revolution represented very simple enlightenment agenda. Art of postmodernity, on the other hand, is more chaotic. As a typical postmodern art, Harvey cited an advertisement of Citizen (watch), in which a naked woman wears only a watch. He says that this advertisement engages directly with the postmodernist techniques of superimposition of ontologically different worlds that bear no necessary relation to each other. (page 64)

Underlying substructure of postmodernity
Harvey uses the concept of substructure-superstructure relation proposed by Karl Marx, arguing that there only was the change in production style during the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Substructure of modernity is organized capitalism, best typified by Fordism mass production. Concentrated and centralized production, large commercial and monopoly capital, state powers, expansion of economic empires and the others represent this capitalism. Harvey argues that modernity is the response to this production relation.

Postmodernity is not the mutant, Harvey argues. The shift from modernity to postmodernity merely represents a change in the production relation in the society, to which superstructure corresponds. The “Disorganized capitalism” is represented by de-concentration of corporate power, internationalization of capital, decline in state power, outright decline of class-based politics and institutions and so on (the contrast between organized and disorganized capitalism is shown in page 175).

The technology advancement also had significant influence on the production relations, through “compressing the time and space”. Harvey argues that time-space compression is the conspicuous characteristic of postmodernity. For instance, the development of aviation industry made the world smaller, enabling the globalized production relations. The progress of information technology brought about just-in-time production. Using the words more familiar to us, we can say that the globalization and worldwide collaboration brought about the mixture of different cultures, spontaneous activity of people around the world, and so on.

Thus Harvey argues as follows in the beginning of this book. 

“There has been a sea-change in cultural as well as in political-economic practices since around 1972.
  This sea-change is bound up with the emergence of new dominant ways in which we experience space and time.
  While simultaneity in the shifting dimensions of time and space is no proof of necessary or causal connection, strong a priori grounds can be adduced for the proposition that there is some kind of necessary relation between the rise of postmodernist cultural forms, the emergence of more flexible modes of capital accumulation, and a new round of ‘time-space compression’ in the organization of capitalism.
  But these changes, when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, appear more as shifts in surface appearance rather than as signs of the emergence of some entirely new postcapitalist or even postindustrial society.”

Consequences of postmodernity
Harvey argues that the time and space cannot be free from social affairs. They always express some kind of class or other social content, and are more often than not the focus of intense social struggle. In the developed capitalism, the time and space are more tightly connected with money.  For instance, in the postmodernity, people may seem to enjoy more liquid labor market, but that phenomenon is the reflection that time is more closely connected to capitalism. This new production relation could be the bedrock of Lassies-faire and “self-responsibility”, the shift that Harvey issued an warnings.

Though some arguments are not logically clear to me, it is valuable to see postmodernity from the perspective of historical materialism.

The book shows us how to predict what will come next. 21th century will mark the full-fledged globalization and information technology advancement, which are changing our production relations and thus lead to the corresponding cultural changes, some of which are already in progress. 

David Harvey, “The Condition of Postmodernity”, Wiley-Blackwell, 1992/4/16

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