Geographers on postmodernism [I]: introduction

November 7, 2009

In the last 20 years geographers have taken the lead in drawing up spatially-informed theory (notably Lefebvre) to analyze cities, both contemporary and historical.  They have been at the forefront of what many see as a “spatial turn” in the social sciences.  At the moment I’m reading three books from this “space”; the three are, in chronological order (which is clear and significant):

  • David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford [England]: Blackwell, 1989).
  • Edward W Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1996).
  • Michael J. Dear, The Postmodern Urban Condition (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000).

The three make an excellent set:  all analyze the present city (bearing in mind that Harvey’s book was published 20 years ago) in relation to postmodernism.  None questions that we are now postmodern, that there has been a broad cultural and intellectual shift since the 1970s, rooted in the social upheavals and transformations of the 60s.  However their positions toward that state of affairs are quite distinct.

What interests me most is that in taking on the large and contentious topic of “the postmodern city” these geographers must also at least sketch the modernism that preceded it. 

Hardly a trivial task, and the authors’ willingness to take on such large questions makes the books fascinating, whether or not you agree with their analyses.  Each provides a clearly-argued, strongly-stated position toward modernism and its meaning in the present.  (The big picture approach and unambiguous taking of a stance makes for an interesting comparison with architectural theory, where I think the tendency has been toward more narrowly-focused analyses of modernism.)  What makes this relevant to my own research is that I am interested precisely in the period of transition, the late 1960s and early 1970s, before “postmodernism” cohered as a concept but when something of its dynamic was already in play.

A few other ways Harvey, Soja, and Dear make an interesting group:  They are sometimes at odds with each other, implicitly and in Dear’s case often explictly.  Soja and Dear both study Los Angeles and use it extensively as a case for developing their ideas (a different sort of comparison but equally interesting would be the trio of these two plus Mike Davis).  And Harvey, Soja, and Dear are representative of a shift in geography that has produced a lot of good work recently on cities, both contemporary and historical.  For someone like me, coming from architectural history/theory, this work is a methodological point of reference, especially because of the incorporation of ideas from Lefebvre.

One question I will have in mind while reading is that all of the three appear to draw their material primarily from the U.S.  Dear does look at Tijuana, and clearly for both Soja and Dear Los Angeles is some kind of proxy for the world, but if postmodernism is by definition a global phenomenon I wonder what we’re missing by not looking at cities in East and South Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe.  That said, the larger shift in geography these works are part of does encompass such a view.

[First in a series of posts, but still working out topics I will focus on.]

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