David Harvey reflects

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Aug 8 09:50:20 MDT 2000


(From an interview in the July/August 2000 New Left Review. Although I
number myself as one of the most bloodthirsty critics of "Justice, Nature &
the Geography of Difference" on the planet, I found Harvey's reflections
most salutary in their honesty. This honesty was in fact present in the
introduction to the book, where he confesses being unable to integrate
himself into a study group organized on behalf of auto workers facing a
plant shutdown. As a prominent intellectual, Harvey could teach some other
big names--who will remain nameless here--a thing or two about humility.)

NLR: There seems to be an alteration of references in Justice, Nature and
the Geography of Difference in other ways, too. Heidegger and Whitehead
become much more important than Hempel or Carnap. It is a very wide-ranging
collection of texts. What is its main intention?

Harvey: It must be the least coherent book I’ve written. There may even be
some virtue in its lack of cohesion, since the effect is to leave things
open, for different possibilities. What I really wanted to do was to take
some very basic geographical concepts—space, place, time, environment— and
show that they are central to any kind of historical-materialist
understanding of the world. In other words, that we have to think of a
historical-geographical materialism, and that we need some conception of
dialectics for that. The last three chapters offer examples of what might
result. Geographical issues are always present—they have to be—in any
materialist approach to history, but they have never been tackled
systematically. I wanted to ground the need to do so. I probably didn’t
succeed, but at least I tried.

NLR: One of the strands of the work is a critical engagement with radical
ecology, which strikes a characteristic balance. You warn against
environmental catastrophism on the Left. Should we regard this as the
latter-day equivalent of economic Zusammenbruch theories of an older Marxism?

Harvey: There was quite a good debate about this with John Bellamy Foster
in Monthly Review, which laid the issues out very plainly on the table. I’m
extremely sympathetic to many environmental arguments, but my experience of
working in an engineering department, with its sense for pragmatic
solutions, has made me chary of doomsday prophesies—even when these come
from scientists themselves, as they sometimes do. I’ve spent a lot of time
trying to persuade engineers that they should take the idea that
knowledge—including their own technical ingenuity—is still socially
constructed. But when I argue with people from the humanities, I find
myself having to point out to them that when a sewage system doesn’t work,
you don’t ring up the postmodernists, you call in the engineers—as it
happens, my Department has been incredibly creative in sewage disposal. So
I am on the boundary between the two cultures. The chapter on dialectics in
Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference was designed to try to
explain to engineers and scientists what this mystery might be about.
That’s why it is cast more in terms of natural process than philosophical
category. If I had been teaching dialectics in a Humanities programme, I
would, of course, have had to talk of Hegel; but addressing engineers, it
made more sense to refer to Whitehead or Bohm or Lewontin—scientists,
familiar with the activities of science. This gives a rather different take
on dialectical argumentation, compared to the more familiar,
literary-philosophical one.


Louis Proyect
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