Dear has moved from a modern epoch to a

 

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 this kind of work. Although
Dear and Flusty (1998) present some interesting points, their paper fails to
present a set of coherent and convincing arguments. Not only are numerous
arguments in their paper self-contradicting, but the paper’s overarching theme to
establish the Los Angeles School of postmodern urbanism is problematic. Far
from shedding new light, the authors generate a little heat at best or, at
worst, create lots of smoke that cloud rather than clarify our understanding of
cities. I hope this review symposium will blow away the dense smoke that Dear
and Flusty have generated in urban studies. In this commentary, I will first
comment on Dear and Flusty’s postmodern urbanism, followed by brief remarks on
postmodernism in general. I do not believe we can gain a clear understanding of
Dear and Flusty’s postmodern urbanism without touching on Dear’s larger agenda:
to promote postmodern geography.

Dear and Flusty’s key argument is that most 20th-century
urban analyses have been predicated on the Chicago School’s model of concentric
rings. By synthesizing recent studies on the contemporary form of Southern
California urbanism, they aim to develop a new concept, called postmodern
urbanism, under the banner of the Los Angeles School of centerless “keno”
capitalism. The fundamental features of the Los Angeles model include a
global-local connection, a ubiquitous social polarization, and a
reterritorialization of the urban process in which the hinterland organizes the
center. This is, indeed, an ambitious undertaking. And yet, in the conclusion,
we are told that their notion of keno capitalism is not a met narrative but
rather a micro narrative awaiting dialogical engagement. If the argument to
shift our understanding of cities from the Chicago School to the Los Angeles
School (if indeed such exists) is not a metnarrative (which most postmodernists
oppose), I really do not know what a metanarrative is. This is not a new
problem in Dear’s writings: critics pointed out 10 years ago that Dear seeks to
have his own cake and eat it too (Scott and Simpson Housley, 1989).

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The most serious problem of the postmodern urbanism thesis,
as I see it is that the argument is premised on the dubious assumption that our
society has been transformed and has moved from a modern epoch to a postmodern
epoch—an unproven argument that has been hotly contested among social
scientists, as the authors acknowledge in their first footnote. Following this
assumption, the authors present only those studies that seem to support their
argument. We are told, for example, that the Los Angeles School has emerged and
replaced the Chicago School of urban studies. As the authors describe this change,
readers get the impression that there has been a huge vacuum in urban research between
the development of the Chicago School in the 1920s and the Los Angeles School in
the 1990s. The authors lead the reader to believe that no meaningful or
significant urban studies were conducted in the intermediate years. 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 the world-city hypothesis, the dual-city theory, and the
edge city model are concepts that emerged in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

As another example, the global-local connection thesis is
built on what economist Paul Krugman has called pop internationalism (Krugman,
1997). New trade theories based on increasing returns (rather than comparative
advantages) have clarified many of the misperceptions of the globalization
process—for example, recent research findings revealing

that globalization has minimal impact on local employment
(Krugman, 1998). No wonder Krugman refers to many of the global-local connection
arguments based on pop internationalism as “globaloney” (Krugman, 1998).

Yet another example is Joel Garreau’s edge-city model, which
Dear and Flusty employ to support their idea of centerless keno capitalism.
Although Garreau captured some interesting characteristics of urban development
in the United States, his journalist’s intuition and speculation have not stood
up to scholarly scrutiny. Garreau’s ideas have been discredited by most urban
scholars. According to Beauregard (1995), the edge-city thesis is a fatally
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 of looking at urban development via the edge-city lens is that
it tends to lead us to “take the shell for the whole oyster.” Even Melvin
Webber, one of the earliest urban scholars to speculate about the emergence of
a post-city age (Webber, 1963, 1968), has admitted that cities are tenacious
and that his previous speculations have not obtained strong empirical support
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 the gentrification of American cities (Smith, 1996), they
would not have proclaimed the argument that the hinterland organizes the center
in a centerless keno capitalism. How does

the hinterland organize the center that does not exist? And
if the center does not exist, do Dear 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 the dualism be Black versus White, rich
versus poor, or haves and have-nots (van Kempen and Marcuse, 1997). The
complexity of reality simply defies this kind of binary characterization.
Marcuse (1989) has provided appropriate evidence to illustrate the muddiness of
the dual-city argument. Despite these devastating and credible criticisms, Dear
and Flusty have relabeled the dual-city thesis as the new world bi-polar
disorder, based on which we are told that cyburbia versus cyberia and
cybergeoisie versus protosurps are just the continuation of the dual-city
phenomenon in the postmodern age.

If the Los Angeles School of postmodern urbanism does exist,
as the authors claim, I am not sure what the common threads are that tie such a
diverse group of scholars’ work together. If I 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 oretical
premises using very different methodologies. The so-called Los Angeles School
is at best a random cannibalization of existing theoretical frameworks or, worse,
a hodge podge of ideas 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 common theoretical framework (urban/human ecology) and generally accepted
methodological procedures to validate and replicate their claims. That is why the
Chicago School has contributed enormously to our understanding of how cities
work and has exerted far-reaching influences in numerous branches of the social
sciences.

I must comment on Dear’s larger agenda his concerted effort
to promote postmodernism in geography during the past 10 years. Dear has earned
himself the reputation of being the ad man for postmodern geography (Symanski,
1994). In commenting on Berry’s call for geographers’ 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 to urban
geography. But it was science and the whole enlightenment project that, despite
their problems and imperfections, liberated people from the jail cells of
ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages. What I am really afraid of is just
the opposite: that the project of postmodernism will lead us inevitably to a
new Dark Age of intellectual inquiry.

Since Dear’s oft-cited article (Dear, 1988), postmodern discourse
has permeated certain subfields of geography like a virus. I think that it is a
deadly virus because of the postmodernists’ assumed or implied ontological
relativism, epistemological nihilism, and methodological neologism. If we
really care about the health and survival of geography, we must make both
individual and collective efforts to eliminate the postmodern virus before it
slowly destroys geography’s fragile intellectual immune system. Ten years are enough.
None of the so-called achievements of postmodern geography documented by Dear
(1994a) will survive a reality check. Most of the postmodernists’ writings are largely
wrong (although sometimes for the right reasons); most frequently, we cannot even
tell whether they are right or wrong since we are told that everything is
socially constructed. Truth is irrelevant to postmodernists. Not surprisingly,
postmodern geography has increasingly become irrelevant both socially and
intellectually. It is time to extricate ourselves and our students from the
postmodern web by undertaking a course of intellectual self-defense.

The best weapons we have for intellectual self-defense
against postmodernism are rationality, reason, and science (Sokal and Bricmont,
1996). This self-defense is motivated not only by love of our discipline but
also, perhaps more importantly, by the search for truth that is intellectually
stimulating and socially relevant. Since most postmodernists refuse to invoke
any validation procedures to test their argument, what they are practicing is
cultism, not scholarship. It is time for us to get back to Enlightenment
ideals, to seek re-enchantment with the world, not the word. Geographers should
join the mainstream of the scientific community to disrobe postmodernism to
reveal the fundamental emptiness in its ontology, epistemology, methodology,
and sloppy ethics (Gross and Levitt, 1994; Koertge, 1997). Only then can we
dismantle the postmodern illusions and superstitions that are so detrimental to
our intellectual endeavor. Only then can we accomplish a geographic consilience
(Wilson, 1998) 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, Dear and Flusty’s Annals piece properly
should be read as an obituary. This article gave us an opportunity to take a
reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor, and yes, he has no clothes. It is
time for the next generation of geographers to start putting the first nail in
the coffin before the ghost of postmodernism comes out to haunt us again.