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.

In an age when the traditional boundaries between intellectual disciplines are rapidly blurring, geography shares with literary studies the signal advantage of never having had much idea of what it was about in the first place. Just as literary studies covers everything from dactyls to death, geography spans everything from sand dunes to marriage rituals. David Harvey, the doyen of radical geographers, writes of material limits in a language which disdains all bounds, crossing from Spinoza to scallop fishing, the architecture of Baltimore to the circulation of capital. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, which argues the case for a materialist, relational concept of time and space, is a buckled, ramshackle, almost comically ambitious book, which manages to combine Modernity and Post-Modernity, ethics and ethnicity, nature and culture, universality and uniqueness, in its very title. Just as David Lodge’s fictitious literary critic, Morris Zapp, hoped to bring criticism to a halt by writing on every conceivable author from every imaginable approach, so Harvey has more than a touch of Life, the Universe and Everything about him, pushing the fuzzy boundaries of his academic discipline to cosmic proportions.

In an age which has fetishised the fragment, Harvey’s dialectical concern with whole systems and their internal contradictions is bravely unfashionable. In a methodological Introduction on the nature of dialectical thought, he has much of value to say about the priority of relations over things, the mutual constitution of part and whole, the way that forces both resist and collude with one another. But to deny the very distinctions between mind and matter, fact and value, thought and action, as Harvey tends to do, is to sound more like a monist than a dialectician; and though he is well aware of the vacuousness of claiming that everything is related to everything else – that the Pentagon and my left armpit are subtly interconnected – his extension of dialectics from history to nature courts precisely this danger. Othello may be said to be internally contradictory, but in what sense is an onion? What of the case that contradictions apply to the realm of meaning rather than of matter, and can be used of badgers and bananas only in some far-fetched metaphorical sense? Both history and nature are matters of process, to be sure; but to over-emphasise this is to risk eliding the distinctions between them in positivist or idealist style. A river does not flow as a sonnet does, nor does time fly like a goose.

As a radical, Harvey believes that change and instability are the norm; but that this is not always politically true is one reason for being a radical in the first place. History from a socialist viewpoint has been at least as much tedious continuity as giddy change. Nor is it persuasive to suggest, as he does, that the stable features of our world are just ‘reifications of free-flowing processes’, another piece of old-style Romantic vitalism. Objects are not just snarl-ups in the onward flow of nature. If it is illuminating to show that capital is a process rather than a thing, it is not especially eye-opening to show that a banjo is. To dissolve human beings to nexuses of processes may be useful if you had previously thought of them as solitary atoms, but unhelpful when you want to insist on their moral autonomy. Identities are not just Platonic illusions thrown up by a processual reality.

Much of this rather arid Introduction, which oddly discovers dialectical thought in the implacably anti-Hegelian Foucault, could have been profitably slimmed. Part Two of the book turns to nature and ecology, kicking off with a comment by a group of Baltimore blacks some years ago that their main environmental problem was known as President Nixon. Among more important things, the remark serves to illustrate the emptiness of the term ‘environment’, and Harvey himself is far from some tremulous tree-hugger. Reminding us that the first radical environmentalists in charge of a state were known as Nazis, he claims that there is almost always an authoritarian edge to ecological politics, and with brusque impiety regards New York as an ‘ecosystem’ which is no more remote from nature than Moreton-in-Marsh. Native peoples are not always ecological angels, and doomsday scenarios ignore the fact that the conditions of human life are better today than they have ever been. ‘It is materially impossible for us to destroy the planet earth,’ Harvey asserts with what some will read as cool realism and others as scandalous complacency. He also rightly considers, against the more Neanderthal type of environmentalist, that controlling nature and dominating it are far from synonymous.

For Harvey, there can be no question of relating society to the ecosystem: the very distinction is fraudulent. Money flows and commodity movements are as central to the environment as whales and waterfalls, and debates about preserving nature are really arguments about preserving particular social orders. Space and time are social products, and different societies produce qualitatively different conceptions of them. New notions of space-time have been imposed by imperial conquest or colonial domination, and contemporary capitalism has dramatically compacted both time and space with its instant decision-making and dismantling of distances. The more global space becomes homogenised, however, the more fine differences between places come to matter, since multinational capital is better able to exploit them. And the more somewhere becomes everywhere, the more these somewheres need to attract investment by demonstrating that they are not just anywhere. A relentless levelling of space thus finds its counterpart in various clamorous cults of difference, all the way from nationalism and post-structuralism to the exotic tourist resort, the uniquely hospitable city and the proliferation of jelly bean flavours.

Yet place, in Harvey’s dialectical vision, can be a resistance to capital accumulation as well as a form of complicity with it. Place is space, but also in a way its opposite: as a locus of human longings and desires, a site of memories and affections, it represents all that the commodity form finds it hardest to squash. The problem is how a viable sense of place is to be disentangled from mystified Heideggerian mumblings about authentic in-dwelling, just as some genuine meaning of ‘community’ has to be salvaged from those American communitarians for whom it seems to mean beating up your neighbours if you catch them smoking on the street. Place can be seen as a ‘closed terrain of social control’, or as an apparent ‘permanency’ which is in fact always a social process. Some of Harvey’s most compelling chapters are about space and time as social artefacts – the way, for example, in which the female-controlled space of the household comes to be disrupted by the insertion of that privatised male space known as the study, sign of a lofty intellect beyond sexuality and domestic labour.

There is something challengingly counterintuitive about such claims for us heirs of the Enlightenment, since it is well-nigh impossible for us not to see space and time as containers within which things happen, stable frameworks of social action rather than constitutive structures of it. It is hard not to feel that a caterpillar was three inches long even before we came to invent such measurements, or that if it is Tuesday on earth then it must also be Tuesday on Saturn. We can quite easily imagine that there was a space of a certain size which someone then walled off, or catch ourselves marvelling at the exquisitely exact way in which Bradford fits into the area provided for it. In fact, we are busy fashioning the nothing we call space all the time. But there are puzzles even so, which Harvey does not adequately examine. To produce space we need already to be standing in space, just as a new conception of time must have emerged at some particular time. And if colonialists really can reorganise the space and time of their colonial subjects, on what spatio-temporal plane do the initial encounters between them take place?

The dialectic at the heart of Harvey’s book is one between difference and universality, which he rightly takes to lie also at the root of the idea of justice. How are we to avoid at once a fetish of the particular and a universalism cruelly indifferent to difference? If old-fashioned Left internationalism was callously cavalier about the pieties of place, sex, body, the Post-Modern politics which have followed have too often been unable to raise their eyes above their bellies. As Harvey reminds us, the dialectic is delivered to us every morning along with the Rice Krispies: we continue to enjoy a self-contained relation to our breakfast, even though it took millions of people to place it before us. The Post-Modern vision is at once too parochial and too cosmopolitan, delighting in disconnection while for the most part blandly endorsing an increasingly regimented world order. Harvey is out to provide us with a more dialectical relationship of part and whole, a universality which works through difference rather than against it. This is as true of the form of his book as of its content, shifting as it does from Leibniz to workplace safety regulations, Bakhtin and Whitehead to the hazardous waste sites of Mississippi. This is not the kind of geographical discourse we learnt at school, where geography was about maps as history was about chaps. But the book accumulates this prodigal wealth of insights only at the risk of a compulsive relating of everything to everything else which leaves it shapeless. Harvey too often sounds as though he is thinking relaxedly out loud, with a touch too much assurance that nobody will shut him up. His rapid shifts from philosophy to the high street are an admirably bold instance of dialectical thought, yet succeed more than often in showing up the yawning gap between the two. ‘One of the viruses of a dialectical/relational approach,’ he writes, ‘is that it opens up all sorts of possibilities which might otherwise appear foreclosed.’ Though ‘viruses’ is presumably a misprint for ‘virtues’, its suggestion of both scrambling and uncontrolled proliferation is none the less appropriate.

This is, however, symptomatic of a general political condition, not just a compositional failing. If Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference veers somewhat unsteadily between the universal space of theory and the specific places of politics, it is partly because it knows that the problems it broaches could only be resolved by a change in what we do, not just in how we think. Harvey believes that if we pursue only those ecological projects compatible with democracy and equality, we will find ourselves with precious few options. He also agrees with some Post-Modern critiques of universalist notions of justice, while believing that we can’t get on politically without such ideas. Like Walter Benjamin, he is a compulsive collector of theoretical odds and ends, since in our current confused conditions you can never know which of them is going to come in handy. His book is too much a compendium of other people’s work, too doggedly encyclopedic in method; but hardly any other Western academic has such an assured command of so many intellectual idioms, or such devotion to that in human life which is not, in the end, a question of intellect at all.