Dear social sciences, and to a lesser extent
Dear and Flusty’s (1998) article in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers(AAAG) on “Postmodern Urbanism” is just one recent example (among many others) of thiskind of work. Postmodernism has risen to prominence just at a time of peculiar ferment in thesocial sciences. This ferment has two distinct components:• A concerted general attack on the legitimacy of social science;• A renaissance in the specific realm of social theory.Their core concern is with the structure and evolution of society over time and space. This’movement’ may have special prominence in human geography and history, the twodisciplines with special claims to space and time. But it is also strongly rooted in sociology,some other social sciences, and to a lesser extent in the humanities and some naturalsciences. The search for a common ground in social theory is, I believe, the single mostimportant trend in contemporary social science. It is not a coincidence that the revitalizedsocial theory is surfacing at the same time as postmodernism. But will the glitter ofpostmodern chic outshine the repolished social theory? Or will both movements be sunkwithout trace by a resurgent conservatism?Although Dear and Flusty (1998) present some interesting points, their paper fails to present aset of coherent and convincing arguments. Not only are numerous arguments in their paperself-contradicting, but the paper overarching theme to establish the Los Angeles School ofpostmodern urbanism is problematic. Far from shedding new light, the authors generate alittle heat at best or, at worst, create lots of smoke that cloud rather than clarify ourunderstanding of cities. I hope this review symposium will blow away the dense smoke thatDear and Flusty have generated in urban studies. In this commentary, I will first comment onDear and Flusty’s postmodern urbanism, followed by brief remarks on postmodernism ingeneral. I do not believe we can gain a clear understanding of Dear and Flusty’spostmodern urbanism without touching on Dear’s larger agenda: to promote postmoderngeography.Dear and Flusty’s key argument is that most 20th-century urban analyses have beenpredicated on the Chicago School’s model of concentric rings. By synthesizing recent studieson the contemporary form of Southern California urbanism, they aim to develop a newconcept, called postmodern urbanism, under the banner of the Los Angeles School ofcenterless “keno” capitalism. The fundamental features of the Los Angeles model include aglobal-local connection, a ubiquitous social polarization, and a reterritorialization of theurban process in which the hinterland organizes the center. This is, indeed, an ambitiousundertaking. And yet, in the conclusion, we are told that their notion of keno capitalism is nota met narrative but rather a micro narrative awaiting dialogical engagement. If theargument to shift our understanding of cities from the Chicago School to the Los AngelesSchool is not a metnarrative (which most postmodernists oppose), I really do not know whata metanarrative is. This is not a new problem in Dear’s writings: critics pointed out 10 yearsago that Dear seeks to have his own cake and eat it too (Scott and Simpson Housley, 1989).The most serious problem of the postmodern urbanism thesis, as I see it is that the argument ispremised on the dubious assumption that our society has been transformed and has movedfrom a modern epoch to a postmodern epoch an unproven argument that has been hotlycontested among social scientists, as the authors acknowledge in their first footnote.Following this assumption, the authors present only those studies that seem to support theirargument. We are told, for example, that the Los Angeles School has emerged andreplaced the Chicago School of urban studies. Here readers get the impression that therehas been a huge vacuum in urban research between the development of the ChicagoSchool in the 1920s and the Los Angeles School in the 1990s. The authors lead the reader tobelieve that no meaningful or significant urban studies were conducted in the intermediateyears. I believe that this characterization of the urban literature is neither fair nor accurate.Ironically, the three pillars used by the authors to construct their postmodern urbanism theworld-city hypothesis, the dual-city theory, and the edge city model are concepts thatemerged in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.As another example, the global-local connection thesis is built on what economist PaulKrugman has called pop internationalism (Krugman, 1997). New trade theories based onincreasing returns (rather than comparative advantages) have clarified many of themisperceptions of the globalization process for example, recent research findings revealingthat globalization has minimal impact on local employment (Krugman, 1998). No wonderKrugman refers to many of the global-local connection arguments based on popinternationalism as “globaloney” (Krugman, 1998).Yet another example is Joel Garreau’s edge-city model, which Dear and Flusty employ tosupport their idea of centerless keno capitalism. Although Garreau captured someinteresting characteristics of urban development in the United States, his journalist’s intuitionand speculation have not stood up to scholarly scrutiny. Garreau’s ideas have beendiscredited by most urban scholars. According to Beauregard (1995), the edge-city thesis is afatally flawed rhetorical move to mitigate the urban sting of society’s contradictions. Abbott(1993) regarded edge-city as an updated version of suburban mythmaking. The fatal flaw oflooking at urban development via the edge-city lens is that it tends to lead us to “take theshell for the whole oyster.” Even Melvin Webber, one of the earliest urban scholars tospeculate about the emergence of a post-city age (Webber, 1963, 1968), has admitted thatcities are tenacious and that his previous speculations have not obtained strong empiricalsupport because of the persisting power of propinquity (Rusk, 1995; Webber, 1996).If Dear and Flusty had paid attention to numerous studies of recent trends in thegentrification of American cities (Smith, 1996), they would not have proclaimed theargument that the hinterland organizes the center in a centerless keno capitalism. How doesthe hinterland organize the center that does not exist? And if the center does not exist, doDear and Flusty mean to imply that gentrification is a myth?As for the dual-city thesis, it is problematic to use it to describe American cities, whether thedualism be Black versus White, rich versus poor, or haves and have-nots (van Kempen andMarcuse, 1997). The complexity of reality simply defies this kind of binary characterization.Marcuse (1989) has provided appropriate evidence to illustrate the muddiness of the dualcityargument. Despite these devastating and credible criticisms, Dear and Flusty haverelabeled the dual-city thesis as the new world bi-polar disorder, based on which we are toldthat cyburbia versus cyberia and cybergeoisie versus protosurps are just the continuation ofthe dual-city phenomenon in the postmodern age.If the Los Angeles School of postmodern urbanism does exist, as the authors claim, I am notsure what the common threads are that tie such a diverse group of scholars’ work together. IfI understand Soja, Scott, Davis, Wolch, and Dear’s writings correctly, these Los Angeles–based authors are really talking about quite different things under very different the oreticalpremises using very different methodologies. The so-called Los Angeles School is at best arandom cannibalization of existing theoretical frameworks or, worse, a hodge podge ofideas that happen to be developed by people living in the Los Angeles area. In contrast,scholars pursuing research under the banner of the Chicago School share a commontheoretical framework (urban/human ecology) and generally accepted methodologicalprocedures to validate and replicate their claims. That is why the Chicago School hascontributed enormously to our understanding of how cities work and has exerted farreachinginfluences in numerous branches of the social sciences.I must comment on Dear’s larger agenda his concerted effort to promote postmodernism ingeography during the past 10 years. Dear has earned himself the reputation of being the adman for postmodern geography (Symanski, 1994). In commenting on Berry’s call forgeographers’ recommitment to a new metaphysical realism, science, and scientific method(Berry, 1993), Dear (1994b) was fearful that Berry’s effort would bring a new Dark Age tourban geography. But it was science and the whole enlightenment project that, despite theirproblems and imperfections, liberated people from the jail cells of ignorance and superstitionof the Dark Ages. What I am really afraid of is just the opposite: that the project ofpostmodernism will lead us inevitably to a new Dark Age of intellectual inquiry.Since Dear’s oft-cited article (Dear, 1988), postmodern discourse has permeated certainsubfields of geography like a virus. I think that it is a deadly virus because of thepostmodernists’ assumed or implied ontological relativism, epistemological nihilism, andmethodological neologism. If we really care about the health and survival of geography, wemust make both individual and collective efforts to eliminate the postmodern virus before itslowly destroys geography’s fragile intellectual immune system. Ten years are enough. Noneof the so-called achievements of postmodern geography documented by Dear (1994a) willsurvive a reality check. Most of the postmodernists’ writings are largely wrong (althoughsometimes for the right reasons); most frequently, we cannot even tell whether they are rightor wrong since we are told that everything is socially constructed. Truth is irrelevant topostmodernists. Not surprisingly, postmodern geography has increasingly become irrelevantboth socially and intellectually. It is time to extricate ourselves and our students from thepostmodern web by undertaking a course of intellectual self-defense.The best weapons we have for intellectual self-defense against postmodernism arerationality, reason, and science. This self-defense is motivated not only by love of ourdiscipline but also, perhaps more importantly, by the search for truth that is intellectuallystimulating and socially relevant. Since most postmodernists refuse to invoke any validationprocedures to test their argument, what they are practicing is cultism, not scholarship. It istime for us to get back to Enlightenment ideals, to seek re-enchantment with the world, notthe word. Geographers should join the mainstream of the scientific community to disrobepostmodernism to reveal the fundamental emptiness in its ontology, epistemology,methodology, and sloppy ethics. Only then can we dismantle the postmodern illusions andsuperstitions that are so detrimental to our intellectual endeavor. Only then can weaccomplish a geographic consilience to better understand the fabric of reality in its whole(Deutsch, 1997).If Dear’s 1988 article served as a birth announcement for postmodernism in geography, Dearand Flusty’s Annals piece properly should be read as an obituary. This article gave us anopportunity to take a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor, and yes, he has noclothes. It is time for the next generation of geographers to start putting the first nail in thecoffin before the ghost of postmodernism comes out to haunt us again.