David Harvey’s “The Condition of Postmodernity” (1989)

Modernity and Modernism, from David Harvey’s “ The Condition of Postmodernity ” (1989)

Marxist geographer David Harvey can be regarded as one of the earliest theorists of the postmodern condition. Harvey, in his book mentioned above, discusses the postmodern condition with respect to various critical ideas that contributed to the epistemology of the postmodern condition. Harvey begins by locating central debates to the idea of modernity itself as a project that postmodernism emerges from. In this chapter on Modernity and Modernism, Harvey mentions and comments on various discourses that reflected on the condition of Modernity, espousing Modernism and the emergence of “Modern” philosophy. It is important to locate what is being responded to by postmodernism, in order to better understand and unfold the intricacies of this “quest for human emancipation” that the Enlightenment project proposed and why did postmodernism seek to abandon it.

The Enlightenment Project

Harvey begins by looking at the descriptive nature of modernity in terms of its tendencies and its history and quotes Marshall Berman in doing so. As per Berman’s description, we come across the paradoxical nature of Modernity, what he calls “a unity in disunity”, something that promises a transformation, but at the cost of the destruction of the status quo. Some words that are gathered from other theorists include: “ephemerality”, “fragmentation”, “immutability”, “transitoriness of things” and “chaotic change”. Thus modernity is seen as a project that contains within itself, “a maelstrom of change”, a destructive whirlpool of transformation. In this sense, Modernity is seen as a radical force, a force of disruption in the name of an avant-garde. Thus, Harvey notes that due to the radically destructive nature of modernity and a lack of historical continuity, modernity ends up being a fragmented reality, placing an emphasis on the difficulty of finding coherence in this maelstrom. Harvey then traces the history of Enlightenment thought, beginning with Habermas who says that the “enlightenment project amounted to an extraordinary intellectual effort on the part of Enlightenment thinkers ‘to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic.” Harvey then describes the optimism of Enlightenment thinkers who sought to look at this “transitoriness”, “fragmentation” and “maelstrom of change” as necessary conditions for the success of the modernizing project. They saw it as a justification for the scientific domination of nature and the chaotic transformation that came with the avant-garde. According to Condorcet, “the arts and sciences would promote not only the control of natural forces but also understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings.”

Failure of the Modernizing Project

However, Harvey remarks that this optimism towards human emancipation and liberation was shattered by militarism and the destruction brought forth by the 20th Century. The death camps, the world wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – all point towards the expected failure of the Enlightenment project, which turned against itself as it was since the very beginning, a project driven towards human oppression as opposed to liberation. Forerunners of this critique are the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Horkheimer) who presented this vision of the failure of the Enlightenment project in their “The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972)”. The Frankfurt school is itself intellectual resistance that critiques whilst in the shadow of authoritarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. They call the end result of this project a “Nightmare of self-domination” driven by a rationality that guides the domination of nature vis a vis the domination of human beings. And even Habermas, who supports the project according to Harvey, looks at it with a pinch of scepticism and pessimism of realising the nature of the modernizing project under “present” socio-economic and political conditions.

Cultural and Aesthetic Modernism

Harvey also refers to an idea of “creative destruction” that is evident from all these conditions mentioned so far, as proposed by Nietzsche. The idea is similar to the paradoxical unity of the enlightenment project, it carries with itself a sense of novel transformation accompanied by a destruction of the status quo. He also refers to several archetypes representing “creative destruction”, namely the mythical figure of “Dionysus”, the literary archetype of Goethe’s “Faust”, and the “Capitalist Entrepreneur” according to Schumpeter and according to Gertrude Stein, “Picasso”. All of these are archetypal of the union of the ephemeral and the eternal according to Harvey.

According to Harvey, if “creative destruction” is an essential condition for Modernity, then the artist has a heroic role to play. The exploration of aesthetic experience as separate from the rational is an important aspect of Cultural Modernism. As emphasized by Russeau’s challenging of Descartes’s maxim “I think therefore I am” with “I feel therefore I am”, Harvey points out the fact that the aesthetic movement is therefore an end in itself. This became more evident with the Romantic movements that began taking place. Harvey further explores the subject of the aesthetic movement, “the successful modern artist”, who can extract what is eternal from the ephemerality of ordinary subjects. The artist does so by using shock tactics and by violating expected continuities. The artist spacializes time, in a way by freezing time to seek the eternal from the ephemeral.

This also leads us to the obsession of Modernism with language. In the backdrop of the inadequacies of Realism and Naturalism, Modernism sought to find mode/s of representation that could seek the eternal in all this chaos and ephemerality. Eugene Lunn traces the works of various artists who sought innovation in language and in modes of representation.                                                                   

Aside from representation in image and word, Architecture was seen as the spaciotemporal representation of language, or “the will of the age in special terms”. One means to combat this problem of representation was through simultaneity depicted in montage/collage, where simultaneous effect was produced through the combination of different times and spaces. This was seen by modernists as a way to accept the ephemeral as the locus of their art.

Consumer Culture, Everyday Life and Craft

The modernising project, while it sought to replace the pre-modern status quo, it did introduce the Capitalist mode of production, and with it market competition. This instigated the commodification and commercialization of cultural products, as the market competition also penetrated the realm of art. This created the struggle for producing a “work of art” and most individual aesthetic judgement was influenced by exchange value.  Cultural consumption of art also fostered the very nature of modernist art as an “auratic art”, where the work of art assumes a creative aura of its own, and therefore of uniqueness and distinct character. This made the work of art eminently marketable at a monopoly price. Therefore this aesthetically informed reconstruction of art also fostered its fusion with popular culture and caused art to enter the realm of everyday life. The dissemination of image and word to mass audiences had more than a passing influence on aesthetic sensibility, which was enhanced even further with the invention of technologies like photography and film. As Walter Benjamin puts it, this fascination with mechanisation radically changed material conditions for artists. The penetration of art into pop culture and everyday life also changed the nature of households, which came to be regarded as modernist factories for the production of happiness. Another implication of mechanisation was the importance given to craft. With the impact of mechanical reproduction, the idea that machine was the modern medium of design gained prominence and this led to the approach to design, by mixing “art” with “craft” as propagated by the German Art School “Bauhaus” to gain subsequent prominence. The craft was redefined by Bauhaus as the skill to mass-produce goods of aesthetically pleasing nature, with the help of the efficiency brought forth by the modern machine.

The Modernist Movement and it’s Urbanity

All of these cultural developments also gave the modernising project its own political identity, assuming an internationalist and universalist stance. This also propagated the idea if an elite, international avant-garde art, which as per Harvey, had a fructifying relationship with a strong sense of place. The modernist movement(s) also flourished in its natural habitat, which was the city and its urban cores. This could be traced through various political uprisings that were a part of the very modernist movement that were central to the city space. Notable examples are End of Century Vienna, Paris and Berlin as well Chicago and New York – characterised by the mass orderings of the creations of built environments that met with the urban population explosion. Thus modernist art became the “art of cities”, that flourished in the city. Georg Simmel in his work “The Metropolis and Mental Life” speaks of the modern metropolis as characterised by a “blasé attitude” of the rush of modern city life, that causes its people to resort to a sham individualistic inclination for status symbolism, fashion and individual eccentricity.

The Later Years of Modernism: Changing tone and Counter-Culture movements

Modernism in its later years moved from a single mode of representation and logic of categorical fixity (Enlightenment thought) to a logic of multiple perspectivism and relativism. This was propounded by challenges to categorical fixity, particularly by a post-1848 scenario of class struggles caused by the publishing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. A pre-world war I period saw the coexistence of bourgeois consumerism alongside the democratizing spirit and progressive universalism of modernism, whereas the inter-war period made political affiliations even more profound in the realm of art. The “heroic” period of modernism was concerned with a mythologizing of reason, which became convoluted in the image of rationality, as seen in the machine, the factory, the city and contemporary technology. The problem arose when this very myth was subject to perversion and abuse of which archetypal figures like Mussolini were symbolic of. After the abandonment of the modern machine myth, practically any myth came to be highlighted at the centre. During this inter-war period, even politics came to be aestheticized by all-consuming myths of which Nazism is an important example. Moreover, the modernization of European economies, linking it more and more to a hig culture, is also a factor that facilitated the colonization of the “primitive” third world post which US Hegemony was markedly visible in International Trade and Politics. 

Therefore we see, that Modernism itself has very instrumentally associated itself with centres of institutionalised power and as a result, most counter-culture movements that came about in the 1960’s were in response to and against these centres of institutionalised power. This is precisely what also helps us to understand the failure of Modernism following the World Wars. This further helps us to better understand what kind of a response Postmodernism itself is, and what it question and critique in the first place.


Harvey, D. (1989). Modernity and Modernism. In D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (pp. 10-39). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell.

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Kartik (she/they) studies Sociology and Women and Gender Studies at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts. She is also the cead of the Queer Collective at her college and has previously headed the poetry club. She is deeply interested in historical and contemporary politics surrounding gender and sexuality, particularly in post-colonial nation-states that are still experiencing modernity while being privy to the disjunctures created by globalization and neo-liberal capitalism. They really enjoy poetry and theatre and exploring urban queer subcultures in the cities that they frequent in. They also thoroughly enjoy watching films that are particularly either arthouse/parallel productions or occupy progressive subject positions within the culture industry.