David Harvey begins his preface to The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change with the observation that his initial response to "postmodernism" was to try to wait it out, "hoping that it would disappear under the weight of its own incoherence or simply lose its allure as a fashionable set of 'new ideas.'"1

Only when postmodernism began to appear "more and more as a powerful configuration of new sentiments and thoughts" that is, as a genuine cultural change signaling an epochal transition or shift did Harvey turn his concerted attention to it. What is a trend or a fashion? What is an epochal or, more modestly, a cultural change? The distinction between them, and debates about what it means for a cultural expression or mode of thought to correspond with a time, to be timely, were at stake in the term "postmodern" nearly from the start. Harvey himself remains ambivalent about the actual holding power of postmodernity, and especially about its status as epochal marker, to the end of this long, multifarious, and carefully argued book.

Of all the academic 'isms,' postmodernism arguably had the furthest reach across disciplines and into the popular press, and became a kind of shorthand for and often a caricature of intellectual fashions or theoretical trends animating literary and cultural studies around 1990. And yet, in the last two decades, postmodernity seems to have dropped out of sight almost entirely in the US literary humanities, in marked contrast to other texts and topics from 1990 under consideration in this forum. Not undead but disappeared: a former Zeitgeist, the ghost of another intellectual time, and perhaps of the strict historical demarcations underlying other times.

Reflecting back on Harvey's book and on postmodernity more generally through the Janus-like prism of this forum has meant re-reading the text measured initially against the present of the MLA forum in January 2020, to which the previous sentence belongs; but then revising those remarks in April and May of 2020 (the date of this phrase) in a present overshadowed by the proximate global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic and its massive, as yet unpredictable, and possibly epochal transformations, has altered the valence of the original remarks, prematurely historicized them, if you will, and cast a newly sharp, urgent and affective spotlight on the question of epochality itself.

The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change was a bestseller reprinted many times during the 90s and named by The Independent one of the fifty most important works of nonfiction published since 1945. Harvey, although an eminent Marxist geographer and anthropologist, is perhaps a less familiar figure than Fredric Jameson for the idea of postmodernism in what literary scholars loosely call "theory." The Condition of Postmodernity is a synthesis and summation of intense and high profile transdisciplinary debates in the academy over the 1980s.

Harvey prefaces the book with a pithy statement of his argument:

There has been a sea-change in cultural as well as in political-economic practices since around 1972.

This sea-change is bound up with the emergence of new dominant ways in which we experience space and time.

While simultaneity in the shifting dimensions of time and space is no proof of necessary or causal connection, strong a priori grounds can be adduced for the proposition that there is some kind of necessary relation between the rise of postmodernist cultural forms, the emergence of more flexible modes of capital accumulation, and a new round of 'time-space compression' in the organization of capitalism.

But these changes, when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation,  appear more as shifts in surface appearance rather than as signs of the emergence of some entirely new postcapitalist or even postindustrial society.2

Unlike Jameson's strong argument for postmodernism as "the cultural logic of late capitalism," Harvey's claim of an association between changes in cultural practices, on the one hand, and shifts in modes of capitalist accumulation, on the other hand, is more tentative.3 As the final sentence above indicates, the changes at hand amount to "shifts in surface appearance" rather than "signs ... of some entirely new" order. Compared to Jameson's marvelously quotable and often hyperbolic claims, Harvey's are measured, almost deflationary. Even though he clearly argues that postmodernism is a cultural change, not a mere ephemeral trend or fashion, it isn't quite a rupture but a shift. In Harvey's account, the postmodern condition bears many similarities to other moments of crisis and transition. This emphasis complicates any simply linear progression and dramatically distinct epochal boundary separating a "then" from a "now," and often interrupts the sharp difference between modernism and postmodernism assumed in the ubiquitous parallel tables inventorying antithetical characteristics accompanying articles in the popular press at the time.

Claims for postmodernism in Harvey's and Jameson's vein are epochal; they investigate a historical change, postulate a before and an after, but the temporality in Harvey's account is not strictly linear, because time-space compression intensifies at moments of crisis and his analysis opens on to historical analogies between, for instance, the postmodern period (loosely starting around 1972) with the modern period of turn of the twentieth-century Berlin or Vienna. In this way, Harvey can align "modern" sociologists like Georg Simmel with "postmodern" prognosticators like Alvin Toffler.4

The signal contribution of Harvey's argument is the analysis of "time-space compression" in which capitalism, as he puts it, "annihilates space through time." The way global space shrinks in our experience and understanding relative to the time it takes to traverse it is one basic index of the time-space compression, but the term also points to "processes that so revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves."5 Harvey specifies several "rounds" of time-space compression in the history of capitalism. These time-space compressions are prompted by alterations in "the objective qualities of space and time," but their ramifications are an alteration not only in our experience but also in our representation of the world. Representation is the key vector in Harvey's analysis that allows for the intersection of visual art, film, architecture, urban planning and other modalities of postmodern culture. The book is richly illustrated. For Harvey postmodernism marks a crisis in representation, a fundamental fissure in and faltering of a modern representational regime that can be traced back to the Renaissance. By that same token, it nonetheless occurs in the space of representation and permits copious illustration and elaboration through art, visual culture and architecture, including works by David, Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Philip Johnson.

Rereading Harvey "now," I marvel at the intellectual vigor, the broad erudition and scope brought to bear on a singular multifaceted phenomenon. It is reminiscent of texts of social theory, literary and art criticism, and philosophy from the early twentieth century, before disciplines were rigidified into narrow realms of institutional authority and expertise, many of which Harvey cites (Weber, Leiris, Benjamin, Bataille, Simmel), and of the line of French theoretical writings starting from the late 60s and 70s we are more proximately familiar with, by Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lyotard, Lefebvre. Key texts by Andreas Huyssens, Fredric Jameson, Marshall Berman, Ihab Hassan, to name a few on modernity and postmodernity, contemporary to Harvey's, also in their way exhibit that broad, ecumenical intellectual reach. Undergirding this intellectual amplitude is a unified European cultural and philosophical genealogy, all the more unified perhaps in view of the forceful critique of Enlightenment premises and nineteenth-century historicism and naturalizations of historicism shared by the poststructuralist French theorists. This critique is most pointedly harnessed to the concept of the postmodern in Lyotard's inaugural work, The Postmodern Condition (1979). From the vantage point of this present, that unity stands out in particularly sharp relief as a fading former intellectual touchstone: the unquestioned Euro-American genealogy of modernity.

I cringe at some of Harvey's occasional "postmodern" gestures, like welcoming difference undifferentiatedly, for the sake of difference, without actually inquiring into gender and sexual difference, or race, or geopolitical location as intrinsic elements of the analysis. Women readers "of postmodern persuasion," Harvey's words, complained enough about the unremarked images of female nudes in the third chapter that Harvey felt compelled to insert a defensive note in the 1991 edition.6 The gender and gendering of the authoritative postmodernizing subject of knowledge in historical time who occupies the rarefied position from which it is possible to contemplate grand historical processes seem in this 1990 text to go almost without saying.

1992, the quincentenary of Columbus's first voyage and its inauguration of the conquest of the Americas, occasioned lively debates and epochal reckonings with the long arc of European colonialism. Sylvia Wynter's magisterial essay "1492: A New World View" offers a sweeping conceptual and intellectual-historical account of notions of human difference as they coalesce around a sequence of alterations in the image of "man" over these five hundred years.7 Informed in part by Foucault, Lyotard, and Jameson but going against their grain, Wynter widens the historical parameters of European modernity far beyond the strictures of the Enlightenment and thus delineates one geopolitical area and era of colonial modernity. Recall the title of Anthony Appiah's widely read essay, "Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?"8 Did postmodernism name the process of a narrowly conceived Euro-American metropolitan modernity exhausting itself? A broader, longer, even more violent (and for this reason, no less Euro-American), "modernity" might encompass time-space compressions of another order altogether. Was it, in part at least, the tension between the two posts, modern and colonial the weight of that tension that ultimately pulled postmodernism under the waters of Lethe?

More immediate and proximate events announced postmodernism's downturn. The postmodern was particularly vulnerable to public takedown because it had a high profile both across university disciplines and in the press as shorthand for an entire realm of thought one might otherwise name poststructuralist or anti-foundationalist, one that could also could be stretched to include, though less so for Harvey, the so-called "new humanities" of gender, race, sexuality, and postcolonial studies. That takedown came with the so-called "Sokal affair" in 1996, when physicist Alan Sokal's fake postmodern science essay on the "transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity" was accepted for publication in the cultural studies journal Social Text.  The intention of the hoax was to expose the alleged lack of rigor and the smug assurance underlying the simplistic "postmodern" tenet that everything was a "social construction."

The backlash against postmodernism was not itself a rigorous argument against the epochal claim as Harvey or Jameson developed it, but rather a spoof on the intellectual orthodoxies that the postmodern had loosely come to name in the heated polemics animating the culture wars. The postmodern persists in various academic quarters in this reduced form as a straw man (or beaten horse) for discrediting and dismissing critiques of rationality and factual evidence.

Postmodernism has been a lightning rod for polemic and carries an accumulated magnetic attraction for pronouncements, premature or not, of demise and gleeful or nostalgic diagnoses of obsolescence and irrelevance. Nonetheless, the theoretical task of inquiring into the connection between phases of capitalist accumulation and cultural forms and more generally into the ramifications of cultural change, so rigorously modeled in The Condition of Postmodernity, persists. Two recent interventions bear titles that explicitly cite Harvey's. One is Robert Hassan's The Condition of Digitality: A Post-Modern Marxism for the Practice of Digital Life, which argues for the urgency of a postmodern Marxism and in effect extends and adjusts Harvey's analysis to account for the radical expanse of digitality and the creation of a global networked society over the last two decades.9 Peter Osborne in The Postconceptual Condition argues directly against Jameson's and Lyotard's assertion of the "post" in "postmodern" to develop his argument for an expanded disjunctive contemporaneity as a mode of temporalization reflected in global postconceptual art as an engagement with late capitalism that is continuous, if discordantly, with the ethos of the modern avant-garde, asserting that: "Baudelaire's writings resonate as much with life in Hong Kong and Shanghai today as they do with Paris in the 1850s."10 Are we all modern now?

Was "postmodernism" the last of the academic, explicitly historicist "posts-"? The operative term now for new theoretical and methodological approaches seems to be "turn," a proliferation of turns. The turn, as spatial figure, sidesteps the question of temporal sequence, historical logic, and generally dispenses with arguments for conjuncture or correspondence of culture with "a time." Has the temporality of "the next new thing," linear and teleological, progressing along an arc (acknowledged or not) of overcoming the past, itself waned?

Reconsidering a work from the distance of three decades induces reflection on the experience of passing time, on obsolescence, on the ruination of what was then new, a reflection all the more immediate and visceral because the evidence of the built environment features so prominently in The Condition of Postmodernity. Harborplace, the indoor shopping center and "festival marketplace" opened in Baltimore Harbor in 1980 is a signal instance for Harvey of the passage from the "austere modernism of the downtown renewal" in the 1960s to the postmodernist ethos two decades later. Harborplace offers "an architecture of spectacle, with its sense of surface glitter and transitory pleasure, of display and ephemerality, of jouissance."11 In our time, we experience the eerie ruination of shopping centers, several of which have succumbed to the wrecking ball; plagued with vacancies, Harborplace went into receivership in June of 2019.12

The iconic instance of postmodern experience contained in Jameson's description of his profound cognitive and bodily disorientation in the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles seems almost quaint in retrospect. And yet I would venture that the tenor of what counts as obsolescence has itself shifted in our time because it is now immaterial; it lacks a distinct space of experience. The shift from austere modernism to postmodern jouissance (or cognitive disorientation, as the case may be) in Harvey's examples is encoded in the distinct, describable, indeed visitable shift between distinct architectural style indexing distinct periods. A distinctly new experience of space marks the passage of time and induces a felt sense of obsolescence.

As I reflect on Harvey's examples, intimations of obsolescence are not emanating from the experience of a new built environment existing in Harborplace's future, but rather from its sheer ruination. At the least, and possibly provisionally, epochality, not just as a cognitive or epistemological frame, but as experience, drops away, leaving me with a dissociated sense of obsolescence, anachronism severed from historicity. The overwhelming consensus now is that the pandemic is dealing a death blow to so-called brick-and-mortar consumerism, with its layered histories of commodity fetishism and allure, making it all the more difficult to imagine where people will habitually gather in consumerist publics henceforth, and to what purpose.

For Harvey, as for Jameson, the postmodern time-space compression gave on to a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history at least in its dialectical form. Our own moment, under the pressure of ecological crisis, seems instead preoccupied by a futurity bound to the consciousness of a geological time scale, a scale that utterly dwarfs historical epochality.13 The extinction of homo sapiens, along with other animal and plant life, is persistently knowable but unrepresentable, no less so than the aesthetic problematic of globality in postmodernism that Jameson describes and names the "postmodern sublime" at the end of the eponymous essay in Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism. Is there a distinct rupture between contemporary discourses on environmental catastrophe and the thematics of postmodernism, or is there a hidden continuity, or both?

One recalls Jameson's resounding sentence in The Seeds of Time: "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of capitalism."14 It has grown even easier today to imagine that ecological deterioration, though increasingly wider segments of society recognize that only an end to capitalism as we know it can prevent humans and other living beings from perishing in ecological catastrophe. This would mark both an intensification of postmodernist ahistoricity as well as a decisive turn away from it. A dismal futurity has perhaps encroached upon postmodernism's eternal presentism.

Natalie Melas is associate professor of comparative literature at Cornell University. She is the author of All the Difference in the World (Stanford University Press, 2007).


  1. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), viii.[]
  2. Harvey, unpaginated frontmatter.[]
  3. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.[]
  4. Harvey, Postmodernity, 284.[]
  5. Ibid., 240.[]
  6. Ibid., 65.[]
  7. Sylvia Wynter, "1492: A New World View," in Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View, edited by Vera Lawrence Hyatt. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian, 1995). []
  8. Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?" in Contemporary Postcolonial Theory, edited by P. Mongia (London: Arnold, 1996). []
  9. Robert Hassan, The Condition of Digitality: A Postmodern Marxism for the Practice of Digital Life (Westminster: University of Westminster Press, 2020). []
  10. Peter Osborn, The Postconceptual Condition: Critical Essays. (London: Verso, 2018), 6.[]
  11. Harvey, Postmodernity, 91.[]
  12. Ethan Mcleod, "What Happened to Baltimore's Harborplace?" Citylab, January 19, 2020. []
  13. Dipesh Chakrabarty, "The Climate of History: Four Theses," Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009). []
  14. This text was first delivered as the Wellek lectures in 1991. See Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), xii. []