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Re: <nettime> interview with Mike Davis
Peter Lunenfeld on Mon, 1 Sep 1997 21:56:12 +0200 (MET DST)

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Re: <nettime> interview with Mike Davis

Mike Davis: Eschatologist

Los Angeles is a region of over 14 million people that has but one public
intellectual. WeAngelenos could, however, do far worse than having that
sole voice belong to Mike Davis. With _City of Quartz_, Davis initiated a
tsunami of studies and reflections on Southern California that includes but
is not limited to the work of Ed Soja, Lynell George, Ralph Rugoff and
Norman Klein (in fact, through his position at Verso, Davis has helped to
publish George, Rugoff and Klein). That said, I want to circle back to the
fact that while LA is indeed lucky to have Davis, it is quite problematic
that he is de facto _the_ interpreter of Los Angeles for the rest of the
world. Although Davis opens _City of Quartz_ with the dialectical question
"Sunshine or Noir?" (a title appropriated as "Sunshine and Noir" by this
summer's overview of LA art at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark), Davis
himself has shown no such ambivalence in his comments since he shot to
prominence. His answer to the question is that LA is exclusively,
unrelentingly noir.

There is a bleakness and contempt for the city that shows through on every
level of his comments. Nothing that develops here is good. Beyond the basic
nobility of the dispossessed's class struggles, LA is irredeemable. It is
all noir, with no shadings of gray, much less light. He no longer discerns
a difference between Universal City Walk - an old fashioned mall gussied up
with a new name and the open air plan that LA's desert ecology makes
possible - and the redeveloped, mixed-use urban developments of Santa
Monica's Third Street Promenade and Old Town Pasadena. His unceasingly
apocalyptic vision allows him no space to see anything even slightly
positive in the spectacle of millions of suburbanites drawn from their cars
and slowly infected with the virus of urbanism. Third Street and Old Town
are admittedly not the full dose of "the dangers and pleasures of real
streets" for which Davis pines, but they are a step towards reminding both
people and developers of what they do not get at the Beverly Center or the
Glendale Galleria (SoCal's ur-malls).

Davis is best when analyzing urbanism through the lens of high-leftist
discourse, and when he backs up his quasi-religious faith with detailed
historical work, he is devastating. His explication of the patchwork
quilting of SoCal's municipalities as the result of racial exclusion was,
for me, the high point of City of Quartz. When he starts to move beyond the
industrial paradigm into post-industrial economics (especially as they
relate to telematics) and when he deals with aesthetic issues, he reaches
his limits. I am not going to deal with his comments on art here, but for
those who are interested, see the MAK's _Kunst im Abseits? - Art in the
Center, Two Discussions of documenta X_, ed. Peter Noever (Stuttgart: Cantz
Verlag, 1997), for Davis's program for art and aesthetics. Suffice it to
say, his attitudes on social utility and the artist's obligation to the
worker seem to have been cryogenically preserved since the 1930s.

In the nettime interview to which I'm responding, his comments on the
wiring of poor neighborhoods are by turn commonplace and
self-contradictory. Since the very earliest days of the World Wide Web and
the attendant net-hype, people have been talking about the developing split
between techno-haves and techno-have-nots. And yet in the next line, Davis
talks about how "you cannot keep that stuff away from kids in the inner
cities. If you go to South Central Los Angeles, you will see people in
their garages with state of the art equipment, not just internet." As Davis
has observed this phenomenon, he needs to go on and ask further questions:
Why is happening? What strategies can we develop from this penetration of
technology? How can it be broadened and made socially valuable (as well as
or rather than simply commercially viable)?

I found the juxtaposition of Scott Thompson's report from the Walter
Benjamin Congress and this interview with Davis to be interesting. For me,
the great attraction of Benjamin is the redemptive quality of his criticism
(to use Habermas' phrasing). I sense little of this redemptive spirit in
Davis' recent work. In the recently released book, _The History of
Forgetting: The Erasure of Memory in Los Angeles (Verso, 1997), Norman
Klein offers the most perceptive critique of _City of Quartz_ and Davis's
more recent writings on the environment and ecology of Southern California
(see Davis's "Bad Lands" column in the _LA Weekly_). Klein sees Davis as a
thinker in mourning. The discourse of the Marxian left (old, new,
revisionist, whatever) had essentially exhausted itself, and was dealt a
blow by 1989 from which it will have to be reborn, not simply recover. For
Klein, Davis has written his grief over this loss first on the history of
the city and then on its ecology.

I read Davis as an eschatologist rather than a reporter, and, as
interesting as his discussions of the end times are, it troubles me that a
region as large and disverse as LA has yet to generate a public
intellectual with a countervailing vision of the city and its future.

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