Noir Politics in Mike Davis's "City of Quartz"Roundup
tags: racism, California, Los Angeles, urban history, radical history, 20th Century history, Mike Davis
Charlotte Rosen (@CharlotteERosen) is a PhD Candidate in History at Northwestern University. Her dissertation, Carceral Crisis: The Challenge of Prison Overcrowding and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, 1970-2000, examines the history of prisons, punishment, and prisoner resistance in late-twentieth century Pennsylvania. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, n+1, and Truthout. Charlotte is also a team member of Study and Struggle, an ongoing project to organize against incarceration and criminalization in Mississippi.
"(Social) space is a (social) product," Marxist theorist Henri Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space, but this "fact" is "concealed" under global capitalism because space reduces the "real'...to a 'plan.'"1 The idea that spaces develop from "logical" or apolitical forces — that they are "innocent" and "free of traps or secret places" — shields any reference to the structures of accumulation, political decision-making, and historical power dynamics that go into and explain the intentions behind the construction of the modern urban built environment. The construction of this "abstract space" as Lefebvre calls it, thus provides capitalists with a spatial instrument through which to covertly embed forms of social control and methods of capital extraction all while dodging accountability for the death-dealing political repercussions that such built environments produce. Disrupting this cruel abstraction of space, Lefebvre insists, requires that leftists "read" and "decode" the built environment to reveal the "real 'subject" of space — that of "state (political) power."2
Mike Davis is one of the finest decoders of space. The construction of and control over a particular geography, Davis's work shows, is a modality of state power, a site where the true intentions and material effects of a territorially-bounded political project are made legible, often in sharp contrast to that governing body's stated commitments. Although as a Marxist historian and organizer he has made innumerable contributions to leftist history and political analysis, writing searing and all-too-prescient studies of everything from global pandemics to the history of labor and social movements in the postwar United States to a history of the car bomb (a "poor man's air force," as he provocatively named the tactic), Davis is, I believe, at his best when he is elucidating the vexed political economy of the modern city. He is an expert in making plain how power gets spatialized, and thus further entrenched and obscured, which keeps the gears of capitalism and the United States racial fascism afloat and impenetrable.
His magnum opus on such subjects, City of Quartz, is no traditional scholarly inquiry into the history of Los Angeles, a city near and dear to Davis, who proudly reps his origins and decades of rabble-rousing work in Southern California. As many have commented since its publication, City of Quartz reads less like a standard academic account of political theory or history and more like a noir-thriller that seeks, through the mordant "anti-myth" construction of the noir genre, to lay bare the "'bright, guilty place'...called Los Angeles."3 It is a brilliant tactical move: throughout the text, Davis impales the futuristic, "sunshine" presentation of the city, revealing instead the true, diabolical underbelly of Los Angeles's sprawling landscape, which operates as a "stand in for capitalism in general."4 Central to Davis's project is getting his readers to view the spaces and geographies around them as products of intentional political decision-making, as evidence of metropolitan elites' corrupt priorities and material investment shoring up their profits through the police-backed maintenance of racial and economic segregation. Los Angeles's postwar suburban subdivisions may appear as "sterilized sites stripped bare of nature and history," but we must not fall for the ruse; these "Chardonnay lifestyle, air conditioned, and over watered" spaces are, Davis shows, just as representative of class war as one might find on the factory floor.5 Once decoded, the built environment becomes a lens into grossly uneven structures of investment, surplus profits for developers and speculators, and state-backed racial and economic fragmentation, revitalized anew through so-called colorblind appeals to property values, environmental preservation, and the right to local control.
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