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The Condition of Postmodernity

David Harvey sets out as his goal, in the introduction to The Condition of Postmodernity, as an exploration of what “postmodernity” came to mean in the years from 1970 to early 90s. At this point, the text will be dated. The first and even second wave of postmodernisms have swept the academy and chattering classes and have abated. So what Harvey is discussing is not exactly current events. But I am interested in it anyway as he wants to explore the material basis behind the traffic in elite discussions of late-capitalism.

In introducing us to postmodernism’s rise, Harvey turns to a book called Soft City. Its author, Jonathan Raban, argued that the new city, the city of the postmodern condition, is distinct from the rationalized architecture of the modern city. It is a motley conglomerate of styles, which by virtue of performative fluidity rapidly dissolves the old hierarchies and power structures that constitute the modern city.

Harvey is not interested in exploring whether or not Raban is correct in this characterization. Rather, he wants to examine why the book received such a warm welcome in the cultural sphere when it was published. He claims that one reason it was well received was that it presents of a picture of cities that could not be subsumed completely by “the totalitarianism of planners, bureaucrats, and corporate elites”(5). Raban’s cities were far to complex and variegated to be mastered and rationalized by autocratic whim. Another appeal of the book was its blatant individualism, an emphasis on self that had been less pronounced in the collectivist rhetoric of the 60s. This individualism was interpreted by Raban to be an integral part of the city: city-dwellers no longer toiled in the brick and mortar stuff of concrete modernism, but donned new faces and refashioned roles for themselves on the stage the city offered them. Everyone, potentially, was the star of his own play. And so the city seemed, Raban argued, to set forms of behavior into free variation and decouple the self from societal restrictions that were latched onto it in town and country.

This is, of course, a non-materialist way of viewing the situation of the city. It traffics only in the realm of ideas, and in a way that has little use for banal reality, the sort of concerns that would interest us if we wanted to understand how, for instance, different modes of behavior or different styles circulate the city; or in how they generate a profit. Raban is not interested in such things. Presumably he possesses the luxury to not do so. We, however, do not, and the ownership of presses, radiostations, even nightclubs where the wondrous styles of the self can be played out to grand effect, must interest us. At least, I think this is where Harvey will go with the book.

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