A Unitary Postmodernity?
David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity is a scholarly work that references many of the key works in the area of modernity studies. Harvey skillfully picks out the salient works and movements of the times and weaves a narrative together that analyses the transition from modernity to postmodernity. Beginning with the pre-World War II era and Fordism, Harvey explains how time, space, and capital – or at least how we think of them and how they function in society – have changed qualitatively that the era we now live in can be called postmodern.
The postmodern world is, Harvey agrees with theorists, one that is most marked by the end of meta-narratives, meaning, and value. Instead, more pronounced is the lack of meta-narratives, focus on the subaltern, fragmentation, and social shift. For Harvey, this is largely due to economics – the different requirements necessitated changes in the structure, and thus occurred the transition from Fordist economies of scale to postmodern economies of scope. These changes are reflections of cultural changes as well. Flexible accumulation is what Harvey sees as the new mantra. With increasing consumerism and decreasing lifespan of products, industrial priorities changed.
Although Harvey posits an interesting and not wholly problematic picture of an international transition into postmodernity, his theory leaves some important questions unanswered. The 1990s, for example, saw a resurgence of nationalist sentiment in the Balkans, and the early years of the twenty-first century have been spent fighting a resurgence of religious fanaticism. Undoubtedly, there is an economic component to these struggles, but the contention is that people outside the rarified halls of academia still cling to meta-narratives. Economics has been more of a tool for them to reach where they want, but in their mental scapes, they still work around larger orders of religion and nation, concepts that were the mainstay of a modernist period.
In favouring a modernizing narrative so fully, Harvey does great disservice to the many voices that do not go along with the majority trends of the moment. In opposition to globalization are many small groups all around the world. In the face of secularism thrive strong religious movements around the world. Even groups that seek to break away from a nation desire to establish their own nations, and ideology is not yet dead as is evidenced by the resurgence of the Communist Party in India in the 2004 elections.
There is obvious resistance to not just postmodernity but even modernity in many countries, particularly the Third World. This stems partly from the fact that development is seen strictly in a European/American model of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and alternative discourses have almost been silenced. It is today difficult to imagine what modernity would look like if not as a reflection of European achievements. Harvey clearly belongs to a school of thought that is ironically very modernist. His arguments etch out a certain model of development, at times problematically teleological, that obviously value certain standards. Postmodernity, although it pretends to abhor standards and values (because it sees them as arbitrary) necessarily grows out of modernity. Postmodernity’s evolution from modernity is in itself evidence of a subconscious notion of “progress.”
Harvey’s work applies mostly to the West, and even then only partially. Many of the movements and ideologies I mentioned exist in the West as much as elsewhere. The reawakening of religious sentiment in the United States and Brazil over the last decade, for example, is clear indication that postmodernity fails as a doctrine to appeal to most people. It fails to answer one of the most basic needs we have: the need to belong to something larger than ourselves.