David Harvey’s “The Experience of Space and Time”

In chapter 3 of The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey contends that since the early 1970s, the emergence of a new postmodern sensibility has resulted in significant changes to political, economic, and cultural practices. Throughout this chapter, Harvey relates postmodern developments to shifts in the organization of capitalism and new forms of time-space experience.

Fredric Jameson attributes the postmodern shift to a crisis in our experience of space and time, a crisis in which spatial categories come to dominate those of time, while themselves undergoing such a mutation that we cannot keep pace “‘in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism.”

At the start of the chapter, Harvey references Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” because he believes that postmodernism is more than a transitory next step in cultural flux and needs to be read in terms of its break with modernity. Unlike some other Marxist readings, Harvey believes that postmodernism, insofar as its embrace of complexity, difference, otherness, and plurality, offers diversity in a way not that is not present inmodern practices.

Cyclical and repetitive motions […] provide a sense of security in a world where the general thrust of progress appears to be ever onwards and upwards. Harvey talks about progress as it was informed by modernism, and how time and space were defined by efficiency and production, rather than by the people. He writes: Individuals are here viewed as purposeful agents engaged in projects that take up time through movement in space. These “purposeful agents” could be referring to workers, who were defined by the spaces they occupied, which were determined by the Fordist assimilation of production and consumption.

Since modernity is about the experience of progress through modernization, writings on that theme have tended to emphasize temporality, the process of becoming, rather than being in space and place. Here, Harvey seems to be linking “becoming” with progress and the upwards motion of development, as “temporality” usually refers to the linear progression of past, present, and future. On the other hand, “being” can be referring to the person as they exist in space, independent of how space and time have been conceived in modernism (with the person’s spatial existence informed by production and consumption).

Harvey then cites Foucault, who writes: ‘Space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile’ while ‘time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic.’ This passage is slightly unclear, but seems to indicate a difference between space in modernism, which is frozen, and time, which is constantly in motion. Harvey continues: Any system of representation, in fact, is a spatialization of sorts which automatically freezes the flow of experience and in so doing distorts what it strives to represent. This reference is likely about the spatialization of the clock and how it defined time as a measurable concept that was no longer abstract, and could be used to define efficiency of space.

Harvey believes that in the time of postmodernity, we must challenge the idea of a single and objective sense of time or space, against which we can measure the diversity of human conceptions and perceptions […] that we recognize multiplicity of the objective qualities which space and time express, and the role of human practices in their construction. Time and space cannot be universally defined and must take into account the differences in human perspectives of how time and space should be managed, and how they can fit into it.
From this materialist perspective we can then argue that objective conceptions of time and space are necessarily created through material practices and processes which serve to reproduce social life. Here, Harvey is arguing that time and space cannot simply be assigned objective meanings that are independent of human practices. We cannot ignore geographically and culturally different spaces and how they are constructed. He states: Each distinctive mode of production or social formation will, in short, embody a distinctive bundle of time and space practices and concepts. This “distinctive” concept of time and space can only be determined by measuring the changing social and cultural needs of the people, depending on where and how they live, and what they require in terms of consumption.

Again, for Harvey, postmodernism rejects all attempts to represent the ordered patterns and totalities, in order to revel in flux, fragmentation, difference, and chaos. Harvey postulates that he does not see postmodernism as some radically new postindustrial development; it has emerged from the shift from Fordism to a more flexible mode of production, dictated by changing economic and social practices. Harvey rejects the rigidity of Fordism and its tendency to assimilate the working class with capitalist consumption.

Ford had shown how social processes could be speeded up, and productive forces augmented, by the spatialization of time. The problem was to harness this capacity to human emancipation rather than to some narrow set of interests, such as those of capital. Harvey links Fordism with modernity and progress because it represents the practice of providing workers with enough income, work time, and leisure time to adequately consume the products they produce.

For Harvey, this defines the worker as a product of the space they occupy, when space should really be constantly redefined and adjusted based on the changing social and cultural needs that relate to capital, but are not dictated by it. The transition from Fordism to flexible accumulation, such as it has been, ought to imply a transition in our mental maps. Again, Harvey emphasizes that flexibility and change must inform our definition of space and time, and that postmodernism requires a different viewpoint.

Works Cited:

Harvey, David. “The Experience of Space and Time.” The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. 201-284.


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