Being an ecumenical Marxist, I worship many writers. Mike Davis, however, occupies a special place in my pantheon of political and intellectual heroes. That owes something to the nature of my fateful encounter with him. Let me explain.
I arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 1989 to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Southern California, having already been introduced to certain kinds of Marxism as a university student in Sri Lanka, a country then as now riven with radical political conflict. Although my graduate course readings started with Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” essay and were loaded with neoliberal shibboleths, I thought I learned something about both planning and Los Angeles in two years at USC, before starting a PhD at Cornell University, not least because I noticed a course on Marx’s Capital in their City and Regional Planning Department.
As I was settling into the most radical planning school in the US in fall 1991, a fellow student inquired if I had read Davis’s brand new book on Los Angeles, drawing a disappointing blank response from me. “Oh, you have to read him, you will love it,” he said. But the copy of City of Quartz I duly purchased just lay on my desk for months, while course readings on Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, and the Frankfurt School kept me busy for nearly two semesters—until late April 1992, when I saw on TV my old Pico–Union neighborhood in Los Angeles going up in flames in a city that suddenly looked like a war zone.1The reference here is to the LA uprising after the police beating of Rodney King [Editors]. That was the moment I finally put everything else aside and picked up City of Quartz. I finished the book in one sitting, mesmerized, especially by these among many other words:
In Los Angeles there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor-white boondocks with their zombie populations of speed-freaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger-happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon.2Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London and New York: Verso, 1990), 316.
My reading of City of Quartz could not help but be refracted, from cover to cover, through a nagging question: how could I, with my tiers-mondiste political sensibilities and professional background in architecture and planning, live as a graduate student in Los Angeles for two impressionable years and still not sense what Davis knew was imminent? True, I instinctively knew something of the class, race, and other inequalities in the capital of postmodernism, but not that such injustices simmered only just below boiling point. So, I registered not only what Davis had to say about Los Angeles, but also what enabled him to see in southern California things many others didn’t see. The acuity of Davis’s vision, I felt, was integral to the power of his prose.
Approaching City of Quartz this way made Davis an essential guide for my doctoral studies and a prime inspiration for subsequent work as an academic over two decades. For it was he who impressed upon me with most lucidity how space is political. And how production of space and production of ideology are dialectically related—in early as well as late capitalism. In City of Quartz, moreover, Davis made me see how the constellation of theories I was drawn to as a doctoral student—Gramsci on hegemony, Althusser on ideology, Foucault on power, Adorno on culture, Jameson on postmodernism—illuminated real and everyday life. He clarified the basic theoretical question of my doctoral dissertation—how does space mediate ideology? And it challenged me to write about the politics of “the urban sensorium.” It was with reference to Davis too that I would devote a considerable portion of my scholarly work on urban studies and critical theory to the European Marxist that most resembles his own oeuvre on capitalist space: Henri Lefebvre.
Of course, I was not the only one blown away by City of Quartz—a book that both enhanced the art of writing on cities and placed urban and spatial issues at the heart of radical politics. Nor was the acclaim for this pathbreaking work limited to academia. Indeed, the best indicator of its sheer epistemic force was to be seen in the enormous popularity of the book among the people of Los Angeles. Predictably, there were sensational sightings of Hollywood stars reading Davis, a former meatcutter and truck driver, onetime member of the US Communist Party and editor of New Left Review. But my favorite story about what this work meant for ordinary people in the city comes from renowned photographer Allan Sekula, who once noticed a supermarket cashier stealing glances at City of Quartz during breaks between customers and inquired what the twenty-something thought of it. In Sekula’s animated recollection, the worker spoke of it as nothing less than a revelation, in biblical terms: “I’m going to ask everyone I know to read this book.”
I must confess that I too have done some work to spread the word of Davis, especially in my courses at the University of Toronto. Beyond beholding the pleasures of his devastating demystification of Los Angeles against the grain of the postmodern culture industry, however, I have urged my students and Sri Lankan friends who received copies of City of Quartz from me as an omiyage to ask themselves: what is it that makes Davis a great writer? Davis himself provides a clue about his credentials to chronicle Los Angeles, in the form of a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s memoir of his Berlin childhood, in the epigraph to City of Quartz:
The superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner. To portray a city, a native must have other, deeper motives—motives of one who travels into the past instead of into the distance. A native’s book about his city will always be related to memoirs; the writer has not spent his childhood there in vain.3Ibid., xi.
Davis’s southern California upbringing and political radicalization, brilliantly recalled in the autobiographical chapter on Fontana, certainly played a decisive role in his writing. Yet it is also apt to adapt in this regard a famous phrase from a book that strongly influenced Davis, Search for a Method by Jean-Paul Sartre: Mike Davis is a southern Californian, no doubt about it. But not every southern Californian is Mike Davis.4In Search for a Method, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “Valery is a petit bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it. But not every petit bourgeois intellectual is Valery” [Editors]. In addition to southern California, what makes Mike Davis who he is—as I came to know in some detail when I was a starstruck fellow at the Getty Center in Santa Monica along with him and a few other radical scholars of Los Angeles in 1996 and ’97—is his critical and extensive knowledge of Marxist theory.
Though never theory divorced from everyday life, theory it is. Given Davis’s uncanny ability to speak in the concrete rather than the abstract, however, academic audiences in particular have typically missed his theoretical sophistication, which he didn’t care to wear on his sleeve. But the extraordinary first chapter of City of Quartz on the political–economic–cultural history of Los Angeles could only have been conceived by a master of Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School. Davis’s severe indictment of the racial and capitalist forms of planning in Los Angeles likewise reveals an astute appreciation of Michel Foucault’s conceptions of power and space, although the Frenchman is not mentioned by name in the coruscating chapter on urban design entitled “Fortress Los Angeles.”
None of this should have surprised readers who knew Davis’s writings before City of Quartz became a bestseller. Prisoners of the American Dream, first serialized in New Left Review and published by Verso in 1986, had established Davis as a leading Marxist historian and remains a landmark interpretation of the US left from the early nineteenth century to the ascent of neoliberalism in the reign of Ronald Reagan. No less indicative of Davis’s theoretical grasp of history and geography is his spirited critique of Fredric Jameson’s iconic theorization of postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” published in New Left Review in 1984.5Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review I/146 (1984): 53–92. Here Davis took issue with not only Jameson’s periodization of postmodernism with reference to Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism, but also his theorization of totality:
This vision of the end of the twentieth century as the triumph of postmodernism—and, correlatively, the conception of postmodernism as the cultural “dominant” corresponding to the highest, “purest” stage of capitalism—has an exhilarating allure. It regiments sundry partial, discrepant observations into a coherent focus, while providing some sure footing on that most slippery of terrains for Marxists: the theorization of contemporaneity. The ability to summarize vast tracts of modern and postmodern history, to focus their respective vectors in exemplary instances or moments, and to provide a synoptic overview of how the pieces in this complex puzzle fit together—this is an achievement to which few can lay claim, and for which contemporary workers in the fields of culture, politics and history must be continually grateful. But like all imposing totalizations (modes of thought that Althusser, among others, has taught us to be wary of), Jameson’s postmodernism tends to homogenize the details of the contemporary landscape, to subsume under a master concept too many contradictory phenomena which, though undoubtedly visible in the same chronological moment, are nonetheless separated in their true temporalities.6Mike Davis, “Urban Renaissance and the Spirit of Postmodernism,” New Left Review I/151 (1985): 105–106.
The praise with which Davis’s Althusserian critique of the Hegelian–Lukácsian cast of Jameson’s conception of postmodernism is prefaced—the latter’s ability to see the woods in the trees—of course applies to Davis himself. Robin Blackburn is on record saying that Davis and fellow New Left Review editor Perry Anderson were kindred spirits in spite of their quite different social backgrounds, for they both possessed a “gift for mapping large trends.”7Quoted in one of the best overviews of Mike Davis: Adam Schatz, “The American Earthquake: Mike Davis and the Politics of Disaster,” Lingua Franca 7, no. 7 (September 1997). This Hegelian–Marxist quality, notwithstanding Davis’s invocation of Althusser against Jameson, is abundantly evident in the architecture of his incomparable Los Angeles trilogy. In Davis’s own words:
I had this daydream of Walter Benjamin finally coming to LA and sitting in a bar with Fernand Braudel and Friedrich Engels. They decide to write a book about LA and divide it into three projects. Benjamin is going to get at all the complex and lucid fragments about power and memory. Braudel will explore its natural history, the larger world-historical forces that made it possible. And Engels will report on LA’s working classes.8Quoted in ibid.
So, City of Quartz was duly followed by Ecology of Fear (1998) and Magical Urbanism (2000). But I remember wondering while Davis and I were Getty Fellows in 1996 and ’97: how could he or anyone else for that matter possibly write another book as good as City of Quartz? Evidently, it turned out, by centering ecology and class struggle in the already peerless narrative of Los Angeles he had begun to execute. But, again, what could he muster after such an accomplishment? Davis’s next major work then transported his great “gift for mapping large trends” beyond Los Angeles to the world historical level, in a stunning account of the El Niño famines and the making of the Third World, aptly entitled Late Victorian Holocausts(2000). This phenomenal work weaving together of colonialism, nature, and uneven capitalist development, though for some reason it hasn’t quite achieved the fame of City of Quartz or lesser achievements in so-called postcolonial theory, may yet be regarded as Davis’s greatest contribution to world literature.
There is more to be said about the rest of Davis’s writing, including his remarkably contemporary reinterpretation of Marx’s political writings with an eye on nature and urbanism in Old Gods, New Enigmas (2018) and other exciting yet unfinished projects. But better to end on a personal recollection from the wonderful time when our paths crossed regularly. Every attempt of mine those days to engage Davis in a conversation on theory seemed somehow to end in failure: a question concerning what he found interesting about his one-time guru, Herbert Marcuse, immediately turned into a story about how he taught my teacher and Frankfurt School scholar, Susan Buck-Morss, to shoot pool; another regarding his aristocratic, Marxist friend, Perry Anderson, similarly led to a story about how this editor of New Left Review came to occupy the apartment allocated to Davis by the Getty Center only after a homeless friend of his flatly refused the offer of that elegant Brentwood abode. Davis’s true passion and talent obviously lay in telling a good story.
I eventually gave up on theoretical questions in casual conversation with Davis and decided to raise instead a practical question: could I leverage Davis’s Verso connections to acquire a copy of his dear friend Michael Sprinker’s Imaginary Relations as well as Gregory Elliott’s Althusser? I was struck by his palpable dismay in being informed that these high theoretical titles were out of print. Davis’s prompt inquiry on my behalf from Verso offices was to no avail. But a few weeks later he knocked on my office door bearing the gift of Althusser’s Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays: “here’s something for you to read!” This fleeting gesture of generosity still adorns my immeasurable admiration of and gratitude to Davis as an exemplary revolutionary writer—immersed in reality, infected by theory, impelled by storytelling.
Notes & References
- The reference here is to the LA uprising after the police beating of Rodney King [Editors].
- Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London and New York: Verso, 1990), 316.
- Ibid., xi.
- In Search for a Method, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “Valery is a petit bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it. But not every petit bourgeois intellectual is Valery” [Editors].
- Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review I/146 (1984): 53–92.
- Mike Davis, “Urban Renaissance and the Spirit of Postmodernism,” New Left Review I/151 (1985): 105–106.
- Quoted in one of the best overviews of Mike Davis: Adam Schatz, “The American Earthquake: Mike Davis and the Politics of Disaster,” Lingua Franca 7, no. 7 (September 1997).
- Quoted in ibid.