Spaced Out

Terry Eagleton

  • Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference by David Harvey
    Blackwell, 496 pp, £50.00, December 1996, ISBN 1 55786 680 5

From the Romantics to the Modernists, time was a fertile concept and space a sterile one. Space was static, empty, what you had between your ears or needed to eradicate by bridging; time – or perhaps history – was fluid, burgeoning, open-ended. For a Modernist writer like Bertolt Brecht change in itself is a good, just as for Samuel Johnson change was in itself an evil. Bad things were reified products; good things were dynamically evolving processes.

This piece of Romantic banality never went entirely unchallenged. If Pascal was still able to glimpse in space an unsettling sublimity, Marx found in capitalism a system which was claustrophobic exactly because it never stopped evolving. As some Modernist artists came to arrest and disorder time, some of their hemmed-in urban audiences began to appreciate the virtues of space. Space became something we needed to give each other, no longer flat but curved, constructed by the mind or by the mutual pressures of the planets. In a post-Einsteinian epoch it began to take on some of time’s more alluring qualities: mobile, heterogeneous, multi-layered, no longer sheer void but dynamic force, mutating like a living organism. In the guise of environment, it became something to be nurtured and revered; as the medium carved out by the interplay of our bodies, it was enticingly eroticised. ‘Stasis’ gave way to the rather more appealing ‘structure’, and Pascal’s sense of sublimity returned in the pleasantly spooky sense that there was something out there in outer space. Spaces were now pregnant with possibility, and intellectual life was a matter of terrains of discourse and continents of enquiry. To be spaced-out was no longer to be depleted.

We had, in short, had enough of historicism. The Romantic dream of some infinite temporal unfolding of our creative powers had been aimed at a sternly repressive God, but had ended up as a humanist mirror-image of His omnipotence. There was something unpleasantly self-promoting about this generous-sounding humanism, which in its haste to praise human uniqueness ignored what we had in common with slugs. Historicism needed to be humbled by the biological and the geographical; we had to be recalled to our creatureliness, whipped back inside our material limits, and space – not least because we had all too little of it – was one mode of that self-chastening.

Space is nowadays not only catching up with time but pulling ahead of it. In the shape of the untheorisable uniqueness of place, it has come for some Post-Modern minds to figure as the joker in the conceptual pack, that which resists abstraction and disrupts all metanarrative. It is now time which is drearily homogeneous, just the same damn thing over again, a phallic trajectory in contrast to the teeming womb of spatiality. And while space has been busy wreaking its revenge on time, nature has been asserting its rights over human history, which is now viewed by the more sinister sort of ecologist as a cancerous growth on the world’s body. Hence the paradox of a Post-Modernist age which insists that everything comes down to culture while turning contemptuously from culture to nature. Both ecology and cultural relativism are ways of dethroning the sovereignty of universal man.

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