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Reading the L.A. Landscape: on geography and social theory

Claire Rasmussen

Geography must indeed necessarily
lie at the heart of my concerns.

Michel Foucault
"Questions on Geography"
from Power/Knowledge

Janet L. Abu-Lughod.
New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America's Global Cities.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.
580pp. $39.95,
592pp. $24.95 (paper)

Mike Davis.
Ecology of Fear.
New York: Henry Holt, 1998.
484pp. $27.50,
496pp. $14.00 (paper)

Edward Soja.
Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions.
London: Blackwell, 2000.
320pp. $66.95, $28.95 (paper)

Ever since Fredric Jameson recounted his elevator ride in the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, making the Los Angeles landscape the centerpiece of the "cultural logic of late capitalism," L.A. has been studied as the city demonstrating something about something called postmodernity. Jameson's elevation of Los Angeles on the cultural landscape was accompanied by a declaration that space had displaced time as our central category of meaning. Jameson's prediction that postmodernism would replace history with geography has been, if not confirmed, at least substantiated by a blossoming relationship between the disciplines of geography and social theory.

Geography and social theory grew closer within the academy as the field of critical geography emerged, drawing primarily from the theoretical resources of Marxist theory. While Marxist geography has a rich history it was not as influential in shaping Marxism outside of the discipline of geography. Jameson and others (see especially Harvey 1989) suggest the new relationship has something to do with cultural and economic changes that foreground space in specific ways.

Sharing an emphasis on context, particularity, and locality, geography and postmodernity have become increasingly linked, as Foucault's above comment suggests. The growing use of geographical metaphors (spatiality, place, territoriality, boundaries) by social theorists, and a growing use of social theory by geographers, has brought postmodern theory to social science.

Perhaps no academic movement is more illustrative of the foregrounding of geographical concerns in social relations than the self-titled "L.A. School."  The informal "school" consists of social scientists (especially geographers, sociologists, and urban planners) clustered in L.A. institutions, mostly UCLA and USC. The mutual interest in Los Angeles indicates more than a fascination with a convenient object of study; it springs from a belief that the geography of Los Angeles reveals important lessons about contemporary social relations. The "Chicago school" of the 1920s and 30s attempted to generate models that demonstrated the "natural" and orderly growth of cities. The L.A. school shares the belief that urban environments construct particular social relations, but explodes the idea that cities are either natural or orderly. Further, the L.A. school in general refuses to see the city as simply the backdrop or stage for economic, social, and political forces, but insists that cityspaces are themselves political forces bringing social relations together in particular ways. While L.A. remains an object of fascination to popular and academic imaginations alike, the verdict is still out on whether the city is a postmodern wasteland or wonderland. Three recent texts attempt to put Los Angeles in its place. While the authors write from within different disciplinary boundaries - and only one is a bona fide geographer - all three place geographical concerns at the heart of the development of social theory.

mapping a global city

Janet Abu-Lughod, author of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America's Global Cities, is not a member of the L.A. School, but as a scholar of both globalization and urbanization she was exposed to L.A. via the planning program at U.C.L.A. Her central focus is not L.A., but a comparative study of what she calls America's hegemonic global cities. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are chosen because while they represent different regions and historical developments (they were all founded at different times and affected by different environmental factors), all three are key to America's role in the global economy. Historical analysis reveals the global city is not a recent phenomenon, but an enduring element shaping city landscapes. Abu-Lughod argues that cities must be understood as emerging historically through the interaction of forces at various scales - local, national, and international. She structures her temporal framework chiefly by economic cycles, noting how national and local economic needs and resources, patterns of employment and immigration, and transportation and interaction with national and global markets have made and remade cities. Against arguments that globalization is wiping out the significance of local structures (both at the level of the nation-state and within cities), Abu-Lughod proposes the local and global interact, and have always done so, altering the futures of cities and possibilities and shape of globalization. Geography does not become unimportant in a global economy, mere nodes in a network of capital, but is actually central to understanding and shaping global structures. We cannot understand globalization without understanding why these three cities are hegemonic in articulating America's relationship to it, nor can we predict the shape it will take without thinking about how the particularities of these three cities may modify the global processes that circulate through them.

The central narrative of the book outlines the construction of specific spatial patterns that make each city unique. The result is often a laundry list of the usual suspects in urban form: transportation infrastructure, industrial development, residential location, immigration, political districting, etc. - the most easily accessible social scientific tools for defining urbanism. Abu-Lughod successfully convinces us that historicizing and analyzing city spaces shows how historical forces (mostly capitalism and occasionally culture) operate to construct material social relations. The text fails, however, to analyze how these differences matter, leaving the impression that if historical and environmental quirks have made the cities different, they are merely manifestations of broader socio-political forces. The author herself bemoans her own inability to capture the specificity and meaning of spatiality, or how social and spatial relations interact, a failure she feels does not allow her to capture the character of her cities:

Space...is one such shaper of behavior, and the impressionistic journalists are sometimes better able to capture it than are more cautious social sciences. (423)

Curiously, she remarks that when she asked her colleagues how to come to terms with the real L.A., she was referred to cinematic cities - Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. In the end, her conclusions are mixed: "LaLa Land" (her characterization of the city) is perhaps the best-equipped global city to deal with the "irrational boundary conditions" caused by shifts in local-global relations. Los Angeles's fragmentation, geographically and socially, may in fact be its strength in adapting to a global economy with shifting boundaries: "the fragmented city jurisdictions...seem the strongest position to overcome some of the problems generated by irrational boundary conditions" emergent in a global economy" (418). Thus, the most unreal of cities is best suited to changes in the "real" world.

angry los angeles

If one is looking for a cross between the hyperbolic cinematic-nightmare metropolis and the real streets of L.A., Mike Davis's writing might be most appropriate. Davis is perhaps the best-known member of the L.A. School, at least outside of academic circles. A committed Marxist and long-time Los Angeles activist, his mixture of journalistic style and apocalyptic soapbox finger-waving has drawn criticism for playing fast and loose with the facts. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his non-academic style, the popularity of his books has won him a place on the New York Times Bestsellers list. The publication of Ecology of Fear drew a paradoxical response typical both of Davis and the Los Angeles he relentlessly critiques. While Angelenos complained about his portrayal of them as self-centered, racist, new age elitists, the text made the bestseller list and was a hot commodity in Southern California.

Davis's most famous indictment of L.A. came in City of Quartz (1990), a nightmarish vision of L.A. as a "carceral city" before which even Foucault would have trembled. Composed of a patchwork of privatized, heavily-policed zones and segregated wastelands populated by (the now majority) minority populations, L.A. had become America's most diverse and segregated city. Davis set out to debunk any false hopes of multiculturalism and pluralist tolerance, replacing them with a vision of self-policing citizens and gated communities protected by charged electric fences. The explosion of the city during the 1992 uprising seemed to confirm Davis's prediction that disintegration into class/racial/ethnic warfare could be prevented only through an ever more repressive regime of spatial policing. Davis's work also confirmed the belief of geographers (and others) that space was a central category in structuring social relationships. The phrase "only in L.A." was more than a pop culture expression, it also captured the unique social relations produced in Southern California through the active manipulation of spatial relationships - who comes together and how. Policing, Davis argued, was fundamentally the policing of space.

Ecology of Fear, like Quartz, uses a bricolage of facts, anecdotes, popular cultures, and photographs to capture L.A. through the author's eyes. Though maintaining a public commitment to Marxism, Davis focuses less on economic and political processes and continues his in-depth probing of the culture of L.A. urbanism as particular, unique, and grotesque. Rather than launching an argument, Davis launches an onslaught of images of L.A. that repulse and attract the reader. The "ecology of fear" describes Angelenos' odd relationship to nature. In real terms, Los Angeles was built at the crossroads of a variety of natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, fires, etc.); this threatening ecology is a central element of Angeleno identity, a lifestyle of permanent risk and the management or channeling of those risks in what Davis ultimately argues are extremely unjust ways.

Ecology's first five chapters focus on the literal environment and the "natural disasters" that loom on L.A.'s horizons. The strongest by far is the chapter on fire management, with its incendiary title "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn." Davis makes this case compellingly by setting up two counter-histories: the first that of fatal tenement fires in urban areas caused or exacerbated by the unwillingness to regulate or enforce fire codes in lower-income areas. The second history is that of the upper class enclave Malibu, built in a wilderness area prone to wildfires that firefighters, even before the populating of the area, were unable to control. Not surprisingly, the Malibu fires received greater media attention and more resources to combat the fires and rebuild homes, even drawing federal aid. In both cases, the "natural" disasters were social products that reinforced the city's class lines. Davis loses his focus, however, as he attempts to extend his argument. "Our Secret Kansas" argues that L.A. has a secret history of tornadoes that, Davis hints, it is unwilling to admit, though the reader is never quite sure how this fits into the conspiracy of class domination. "Maneaters of the Sierra Madre" promises to relate Angelenos' relationship to non-human animals to their understanding of human "others," beginning with two attitudes towards animals embodied in the contradiction between violent market/sporting practices and a humane, peaceful coexistence with pacified nature. The chapter, however, disintegrates into a series of anecdotes about "animal panics" from bacteria-spreading squirrels to killer bees. The imagery, while potent, spirals into a chasm of unrelated social phobias that Davis never quite links back to his analytical, and political, point. He shifts from mocking to mimicking the ecological hysteria he sees as defining the Angeleno consciousness.

In the final two chapters, Davis takes us back to familiar terrain in a review of past intellectual triumphs in the city of quartz. First is a whirlwind tour of popular representations of L.A. in literature and film as the "disaster city," with threats (hordes, nukes, an unidentified apocalypse, and aliens) corresponding to cultural/historical trends. Drawing largely from pulp fiction (especially science fiction and detective novels) and popular film (ranging from Earthquake to Independence Day), Davis traces a history of America's glee in imagining the city of L.A. leveled in various natural and unnatural disasters. The final chapter, "Beyond Blade Runner," returns us to Davis's favorite dystopic scenes - social conditions he portrays as even more fantastical and horrific than any fiction. Poking delightful fun at the Chicago School's famous diagram of city development, showing the growth of cities in concentric circles from the inner city to the burbs, Davis draws the "ecology of fear." Beginning with the core (homeless containment zone), the circles expand outward from blue collar neighborhoods to gated, affluent suburbs and edge cities, all spotted with drug-free zones, neighborhood watches, gang-free parks, and a child-molestation exclusion zone. The entire diagram is encircled by prisons. In the end, Davis takes his panoptic satellites to observe "hot spots" on the earth's surface, namely the geography of L.A. as it burned in 1992:

Seen from space, the city that once hallucinated itself as an endless future without natural limits or social constraints now dazzles observers with the eerie beauty of an erupting volcano. (422)

The ending leaves us dangling. Like movie-goers we seemed doomed to sit back and wait for the fires to rage again, the inevitable climax of this several centuries-long thriller.

l.a. vida loca

While reveling in rhetorical excess similar to Davis's, Ed Soja takes a more hyperbolically ecstatic view of the future from L.A. If less known in popular parlance than Davis, Soja, a geographer/urban planner at USC, has been no less central to forming and naming the L.A. School, and promoting it as the vanguard of postmodern geography. Soja's 1989 Postmodern Geographies made a strong pitch that critical geography needed to look beyond the resources of Marxism, a central critical force at that time, to a social theory informed by postmodernism. (Whether this is an accurate portrayal of the state of social theory in geography is debatable). The chapter "It all comes together in L.A." was the cornerstone, indicating how this postmodern city changed the critical landscape. Drawing from Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, and John Berger, Soja argues postmodern social science must abandon the "modernist myth of linear narratives" by emphasizing locality and particularity through attention to geography. L.A. serves as the model because of its fragmented geography that resists causal explanation and its anomalous character that shapes social relations. Like Abu-Lughod, Soja believes the city's history can shed light on its unique urban form, but he further argues critical geography must consider what these patterns mean and how they generate specific, local practices. Postmetropolis furthers this project and in many ways feels like Soja's manifesto, as his breathless opening "as we enter the new millenium..." promises.

Soja presents three key arguments: (1) that social theory has an inherently spatial dimension, (2) that we may theorize spatiality through an "urban-centered geographical imagination," and (3) that doing so will allow us to develop a critical spatial perspective. To demonstrate the dynamism of space, Soja takes us on an exhausting tour of the history of The City (yes, the city, starting in 6000 B.C.), followed by a very brief history of L.A., a literature review of six key paradigms used to understand L.A., and finally, a short discussion of a critical, democratic project emergent from a spatialized politics. The point is to capture the idea of synekism, a borrowed Greek term meaning the dynamic emergent from living in a shared space. His wide-ranging chapters, connected only by reference to L.A., make the case that the city is the product of synekism including, but irreducible to, the single causal narratives of race relations, economic growth, popular culture, architecture, and city planning. What is curious about Soja's L.A. is that unlike the built city of Abu-Lughod, or the cultural clash of space in Davis, it is largely a product of the academic imagination. The city is subdivided into various themes from different disciplinary discourses about the city: the L.A. of economic geographers, globalization theorists, urban planners, and so on. Soja unites them in a sort of meta-geography, fractured through the lens of those who wish to make the city their object. If Abu-Lughod's L.A. was built by interaction of economic and political forces at historical junctures, Soja's L.A. appears to be built by academics, subdividing urban processes into intellectual suburbs.

Unlike Davis, Soja does not believe this fractured city is a wasteland; he is extravagantly hopeful about the synekism at work in L.A. He describes localized movements in L.A., including the recent bus riders strike and the janitors-for-justice movement, as examples of struggles for "spatial justice" and "regional democracy" that highlight the way the city makes different political movements possible. He argues,

I do not want to exaggerate the power and achievements of these emerging...struggles over the spatial specificities and structures of privilege in the postmetropolis, but neither should they be buried under the edenic visions of urban boosterism or the apocalyptic predictions of a cynical Left withdrawing from the conditions of postmodernity. (415)

Soja's final evocation is oddly similar to Davis's: he argues that we must "watch" L.A. to see a future unfolding, though clearly he is not as bothered as his fellow Angeleno by what he sees. If L.A. is a city shaped by global processes, its political future appears to be localized in small skirmishes brought on by the spatial relations coming together in Southern California, an outcome from which he does not cringe, even in the shadow of the forces of globalization or cultural warfare suggested by the previous texts. If Davis embodies an Angeleno paranoia, Soja embodies a degree of excess, pulling the reader through thousands of years of history and pages of text to arrive at the conclusion that the future of politics is now, more importantly, here.

Where these three accounts of the city of angels come together - and apart - is on the importance of the particularity of space as a central component of social theory. All agree that because of its attention to particularity and contingency, geography is a useful tool for thinking about and engaging in postmodern social science. But they diverge on how space ought to be understood and how to interpret what it reveals. Los Angeles is a slippery object under the eye of social scientists who beg the question of where the study of the city takes us. The emphasis on the local and particular demanded by a city so fractured, subdivided, and contradictory highlights the productive tensions of importing postmodern theory into social science. On the one hand is Abu-Lughod's account of an urban politics - deeply embedded in globalized processes - that struggles with the inability of empirical and historical narrative to capture the "essence" of the city. On the other hand are Soja's sweeping theoretical gestures, accompanied by a litany of academic description that leave us in a city that appears to be a figment of the L.A. school's intellectual imagination. Between them is Davis, who implies the air in L.A. crackles with spatial injustice, and enacts his L.A. on the page with a mixture of paranoid storytelling and moralistic rants. Oddly, the writer who best captures the character of the place all three writers claim they hope to represent is the non-geographer and the avowedly anti-postmodernist. If Davis's argument often veers off track, his simultaneous discussion of cultural, social, economic, and political phenomena is the most effective in capturing the specificity of the city without imposing a totalizing view.

The lesson of Los Angeles may tell us more about the future of social science than about the city itself. The traditional maps that once characterized the "truth" of modernist geography seem grossly inadequate to capture social reality, but in its wake, the multiple representations produced by geographers imply that geography is capable of producing more dynamic and interesting studies of the social world. Social science has begun to read more like fiction as it incorporates trends in social theory. Conversely, we must also consider the claims of geographers that their work is indispensable to keeping postmodern social theory grounded. The integration of theoretical concerns into geography has demonstrated that postmodernism need not be the reserve of literary critics, as many social scientists might prefer. As the ire evoked by Davis (and to a lesser extent by Soja's celebratory spatial justice) remind us, even if social science's representations are always partial and incomplete, they are too politically important to be left to the scientist. The question of postmodern social science must be, then, not whether to represent, but how to do so responsibly - a question geographers seem well-equipped to tackle.

works cited

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. New York: Verso, 1990.

Foucault, Michel.  Power/Knowledge. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1990.

Harvey, David.  The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry Into the Origins of Social Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989.

Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies. London: Verso, 1989.







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