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Thursday, 19 April 2018

Book review: The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey (1989)

This book suffers from so many deficits that it’s hard to know where to start. Initially positing the beginning of modernity in the era of Charles Baudelaire, the French poet, the book then twangs back optimistically to the Enlightenment in the 18th century and talks about “reason” with the same credulity that Steven Pinker does in his ‘Enlightenment Now’, a book I reviewed in March. This book suffers from the same problem as Pinker’s, assuming that what a person living in the late 18th century meant by “reason” is the same thing that we understand by the word today. I say that this is a complete fallacy.

Harvey twangs between 1848 and 1776, then scoots along to the first decades of the 20th century as though nothing had happened in-between. Let alone the major writers of the Victorian era, which Harvey seems, from an ideological position, to be set on ignoring (there is not a word about Dickens, for example). He also totally ignores the achievements of such artists as Turner, Swinburne and Hopkins. Jane Austen gets no mention, nor Mary Shelley, and the Romantics of either the first generation (Wordsworth and Coleridge) or second generation (Keats, Shelley and Byron) are almost completely ignored.

The starting point for the author seems to be 1848, when a number of revolutions took place in continental Europe in aid of the aspirations of the working classes living there. But there’s no mention of Chartism in England, which along with the Reform Act in the Parliament there saw the franchise expanded more broadly. Bounding enthusiastically to the period after WWI might make it easier to make the rhetorical points the author has in mind to make, but it ignores a lot of real history that actually took place. The likes of Tennyson, Thackeray and Trollope never get a showing in Harvey’s view of history.

The spastic trajectory of Harvey’s historical view is entirely unconvincing, and unnecessarily so. For a moment or two he plays with the idea of “unreason” foregrounded by the Romantics but avoids the implications, and therefore gives himself leave to overlook entire generations of writers who were producing interesting work in an age notable for the devolution of real political power. Harvey feels more confident when he gets to the post-WWII period when he can point to the deleterious effects of Nazism, a form of government that worked in close cooperation with Capital, but totally ignores the birthplace of fascism in the Romantic era of 140 years earlier. The blood and soil of nativist Nazis had a lot in common with the irrational leanings of the early Romantics, but Harvey entirely ignores the connection, content to move ahead with his precious plan and into the post-war era where it’s easier to grasp the importance of referents, and to analyse the significance of the contracts that people made with the popular cognates they used in their daily lives.

I found this book entirely unsatisfying and disingenuous. While I am aware of the danger of resolving everything into the so-called Whig version of history, I think that what is important is the relationship between the governed and the government. Such matters were very much front-of-mind for the early Romantics, who lived in England in the era immediately following the American Revolution. The discoveries in narrative form that were achieved in the years following 1776 were surely germane to Harvey’s project. But he lets them alone and seems intent on pursuing an entirely continental model, entirely ignoring the achievements of generations of English writers and artists, for no other reason than that they belonged to the dominant global political apparatus. It’s just sad.

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