PRINT February 1990


Men in Space

WITH THE PUBLICATION OF TWO NEW BOOKS—both by geographers—urban studies has decisively entered “the postmodern debate,” determined, apparently, to win. Indeed, Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (1989) and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (1989) possess a winning combination: they bring together critical discourses about space, culture, and esthetics within the framework of a social theory that purports to explain postmodern life. This formula has been used before—though never so thoroughly—by a disparate group of scholars writing not only about postmodern culture but about modernism as well.

For anyone in the art world eager to escape the control that traditional esthetic categories exercise over how art is defined, such interdisciplinary approaches have a strong, even fatal attraction. Strong for many reasons, but especially because they permit us to view art from previously excluded perspectives within which, linked to new elements, it modifies its very identity. That shift is illuminating not only for what it reveals about art but also for what it suggests about knowledge: for an instant, all explanation appears to be uncertain, since objects of knowledge are themselves indeterminable, fixed by discursive relationships and exclusions. Knowledge is “complete” when it conceals this process. The interdisciplinary approach is appealing because, momentarily, it undermines the authority of all knowledge that claims to know definitively the things it studies.

But interdisciplinarity holds dangers, too, because it does not automatically become antidisciplinary. More often, disciplines unite in alliances that fortify an authoritarian epistemology—by adding to its appearance of completeness—instead of relinquishing it for a more democratic one. Is the current synthesis of urban studies, cultural theory, and sociology such a defensive formation? If so, what are its casualties?

In 1985, sociologist Janet Wolff raised similar questions. Investigating the biases that had shaped her profession’s definitions of both the modern urban experience and the culture of modernism, she drew a succinct conclusion: “The literature of modernity describes the experience of men.” Seconding Wolff’s opinion, and reiterating her assertion that modernity is a product of the city, Griselda Pollock later extended Wolff’s thesis to evaluate another field—art history—and, in particular, T. J. Clark’s “exemplary” text of social art history, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984). Here, Clark compared the spatial compositions and iconography of late 19th-century modernist painting to modern city spaces. He described Haussmann’s spatial renovation of Paris and fit his analysis into a sociological pattern popularized in Marshall Berman’s influential book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982): modernization is a process of capitalist socioeconomic restructuring; modernity, the experience produced by that process; and modernism, a cultural form developing from the historical modern experience.

Adhering to this model of society in which so-called levels and sets of relations are, in the end, hierarchically compartmentalized, Clark explained that for him, economic life is not a given reality but, like the cultural realm, consists of representations. He neglected, nonetheless, to consider the political meaning produced by his own representation of society, one that, in fact, he didn’t examine as a representation at all. Instead, he felt free to “insist,” unproblematically, “on the determinate weight in society of those arrangements we call economic.” Consequently, Clark interpreted 19th-century modernist painting as an artistic response to the experience produced by Haussmann’s spatial reorganization of Paris, which was determined, in turn, by the restructuring of capitalism during the Second Empire. Modernism “failed,” in Clark’s view, because it did not map the class divisions of modern Paris but only obscured them by recreating in painting what Haussmann produced in the actual built environment—a mythologization of the city as “spectacle.”

Not surprisingly, this account produces, as Pollock notes, “peculiar closures on the issue of sexuality.” However, Clark’s descriptions of cities and paintings don’t entirely discount women’s experience or even gender relations. What his book dismisses is feminism as a requisite, rather than expendable, mode of social analysis. This repression is necessitated less by Clark’s interest in class than by his image of the social as an “a priori” totality in which a single set of social relations are privileged as determinate. Now, feminism challenged this kind of totalizing depiction long ago. It has also contributed indispensably to esthetics precisely in Clark’s principal area of concern—the visual image. For years, feminist theories have differentiated vision—pleasure in looking—from the notion of seeing as a process of perceiving the real world. The image and the act of looking are, instead, understood to be relations highly mediated by fantasies that structure and are structured by sexual difference. Visual space is, in the first instance, a set of social relations; it can never be innocent or assumed to reflect, either directly or through contrived mediations, real social relations that reside elsewhere—in Clark’s account, in the economic relations producing the built environment. When, in fact, that environment, created in part by capitalism, becomes an image, it is no longer reducible to the economic circumstances of its production.

At this point, feminist theories of visual space intersect with and complicate the political economy of urban space which doesn’t inherently exclude feminism. That relation of exclusion takes place in an epistemological field where grandiose claims are made on theoretical space, where only one theory is allowed to explain social relations of subordination. Refusing difference in social theory, the literature about modernity issuing from a synthesis of urban and cultural disciplines has, in this manner, constructed a coherent field by eliminating feminist criticism.

Will the same be true for urban post-modernity? This question has hovered at the margins of cultural discourse since 1984, when Fredric Jameson, drawing eclectically from spatial and esthetic discourses, published his famous article, “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Jameson negatively assessed postmodernism as a cultural “pathology,” a symptom produced by postmodern fragmentations—of space, society, the body, the subject—caused by the economic and spatial restructuring that constitute capitalism’s third stage. The proper activity for radical artists, he prescribed, is an “aesthetic of cognitive mapping”—the production of spatial imageability—by means of which inhabitants of “hyper-space” might overcome fragmentation, recover the ability to perceive the underlying totality, and, concomitantly, find their place in the world. Jameson contends that he is suggesting how radical forces can engage in political battles over representation. Yet his proposal for analyzing space as a visual image begs, just as Clark’s does, all political questions raised by feminist critiques of representation—most notably, the issue of positionality. A commanding position on the battleground of representation—one that denies the partial and fragmented condition of vision—is an illusory place whose construction, motivated by wishes, entails hallucinations and hysterical blindness. This realization cannot be wished away by stating, as Jameson has, that his concepts are, of course, representations; the form of representations matter. If representations are relationships, then the high ground of total knowledge is gained by violently relegating others to positions of invisibility. Jameson’s image of society and his desire for accurate maps illustrate the mechanism. Fragmentation, in his account, is only a pathology, and the ability to find “our” place has been destroyed by late capitalism alone. Because he disavows the importance of other social relations, Jameson confuses capital’s fragmentations with the “fragmentations” caused by challenges—from feminists, gays, lesbians, post-colonials, antiracists—to the types of discursive power Jameson himself exercises: universalizing thought, essentialist discourses, constructions of unitary subjectivity. Such challenges expose Jameson’s fragmented unity as a fiction from the start and he responds by silencing them. Accordingly, he has dispelled any doubts about the nature of “cognitive mapping” by revealing that he actually meant it to be a code phrase for “class consciousness,” thereby definitively wiping feminism off the map of radical social theory. How does it resurface? As just another force fragmenting our ability to apprehend the “real” unified political field.

The Jameson School of Interdisciplinarity has yet to receive sustained attention from art critics. Its relation to feminism is placed on the agenda again by Harvey’s and Soja’s books about postmodernism. Leading figures in Marxist geography, the authors of these texts have each contributed invaluably to analyses of the social production of space as the very condition of late capitalist restructuring. Their turn to cultural theory arises from several needs: to participate in arguments within their own fields; to respond to postmodernism’s divergences from traditional Marxism; and, perhaps, to cope with sociology’s inability to understand the built environment as a signifying system. The seriousness of Harvey’s and Soja’s desire to embrace the cultural field is, however, brought into question by their bibliographies of postmodernism, which are very exclusive, virtually restricted to white, Western males. To note these similarities is not to equate the two books. Soja is uncomfortable with Harvey’s rigid economistic formulas for explaining the production of space, and, to define space as social from the beginning, he first advances a concept he calls the “socio-spatial dialectic” and then, a “spatialized ontology.” He is willing to disintegrate boundaries between disciplines and, at the same time, to avoid reducing their specificity, but his readings of “postmodern landscapes” leave the cultural and economic realms curiously unmodified by their encounter. Further, Soja seems ready to transform Marxism but, strangely, misapprehends the political reasons, and therefore the best tools, for doing so.

Harvey, in contrast, setting out on the path followed by Clark and Jameson, defends political economy against postmodern fragmentation. Jameson is no longer alone in the strength of the negative evaluation he brings to postmodernity. Postmodernism, for Harvey, mirrors fragmented, dislocated, compressed, and abstracted experiences of space and time, experiences wrought by post-Fordist capitalism’s regime of flexible accumulation—the very condition of postmodernity. The interest of postmodern artists in what Harvey terms “image creation” is necessarily complicit, a turn away from the “real” social; it doesn’t provide us with Jamesonian “mental maps” to “match current realities” or a “trajectory out of the condition of postmodernity.”

Now, it is certainly true that contemporary art has explored the image, but materialist practices have done so not to assert the status of the image as a container of universal, esthetic meanings but to reveal its identity as a realm where meanings and subjects are socially produced as, among other things, gendered. To the extent that this is its goal, postmodernism’s concentration on images is emphatically not a turn away from, but rather toward, the social. If, that is, gender relations count as more than epiphenomena of society. Yet Harvey believes that “postmodernism. . . takes matters too far. It takes them beyond the point where any coherent politics are left. . . . Postmodernism has us. . . denying that kind of meta-theory which can grasp the political-economic processes. . . .” Everyone knows by now that postmodernism means different things to different people. But distaste for this “complication” is no excuse for ignoring the persistence of feminism within postmodern culture. Given that presence, what can it possibly mean to characterize post-modernity, negatively, as fragmented? Such assertions veer dangerously close to right-wing tenets that feminists disrupt “our” unified heritage.

It would be a shame if urban studies intervened in cultural theory only to reinstate such ideas. A nonsubordinated feminism could, then, only be equated with political escapism. Feminist contributions to analyses of the visual environment would evade “real” urban politics. Artists don’t need more directives for the “cognitive mapping” of global space. Postmodernists who problematize the image—artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Silvia Kolbowski, Mary Kelly, Connie Hatch—reject such vanguard roles. They have been saying for years that, thanks to the recognition that representations are produced by situated—not universal—subjects, the world is not so easily mapped anymore. They don’t seek to conquer complexity but to multiply the fragmentations, mapping the configurations of fantasy that produce coherent images, including coherent images of politics. Geographers will have to consider that space.

Rosolyn Deutsche is an art critic and historian who teaches at the Cooper Union in New York City. She has written extensively about art and urban redevelopment.