Endgames in the sprawl

Nov 13, 2002 at 12:00 am

Who cares if you don’t believe everything he says, any more this time than you did the last time around — this guy is just plain fun to read: a two-fisted fabulist for the postapocalyptic world. It’s Mike Davis I’m talking about, who’s just published his 9/11 book, which isn’t really new (except for the getting-in and getting-out essays). It’s mostly old work, some of it dating back to 1990, and relatively speaking, old news. (Yes, the world is still going straight to hell, thanks to the bosses and polluters and most things big, as in big oil, big government, big business and big lies.) Yeah, so this book isn’t exactly news. So what? This guy is a hoot to read and (God forbid) he might even be right.

There’s no general thesis here, aside from the big-time subjects that typically preoccupy Davis: the city (especially Los Angeles, which figures in maybe half the essays); government scams; the police and police-state repression, particularly among America’s urban poor and disenfranchised; the ecological impact of greed and capitalist corruption; the depredations of racism and middle-class ignorance. It’s all here. For readers coming to Davis for the first time, this is an OK place to start.

The pieces are various (20 essays plus introduction), some incidental and circumscribed by the events they respond to, others more substantial. All will seem familiar to anybody who knows Davis’ work (City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Magical Urbanism). And all the essays, particularly the best ones, show off to fine advantage Davis’ method of “excavating the future,” as the subtitle of City of Quartz says. He’s digging through the layers of the past to find where the future came from — the future we can’t now seem to escape, even when we want to. He’s America’s pre-eminent syncretic archaeologist, a guy with a flypaper memory that everything seems to stick to, with a no-holds-barred style.

Take this, for example, you circle-jerk deconstructing pinhead academics: “While postmodernism has defoliated the humanities and turned textualism into a prison-house of the soul, the natural sciences — which now include planetology, exobiology and biogeochemistry — have once again, as in the time of Darwin, Wallace, Huxley and Marx, become the sites of extraordinary debates that resonate at the deepest levels of human culture … [O]ne debate — over the role of asteroid and comet impacts in mass-extinction events — has opened a door to a new vision of the Earth, and, even perhaps, of human history.” How’s that for modesty of scale?

The essay “Cosmic Dancers on History’s Stage” is one of the best in the collection, and the most indicative of Davis’ method and writerly persona. In it he fesses up to an old lefty’s come-lately admiration for science: “I must confess that as an aging socialist, who spent the glory years of the Apollo program protesting the genocidal bombing of Indochina, it has taken me half a lifetime to warm to a scientific culture incubated within Cold War militarism and technological triumphalism.”

Now he’s a techno wonk who’s read everything, it seems. Which leads him back to his original urbanist conclusion, except on a vast, cosmic scale. Namely, that everything — and I mean everything — is connected: “… [T]he greatest discovery of solar system exploration has been an existential Earth shaped by the creative energies of its catastrophes.” The piece is a tour-de-force exhibition of syncretic thinking, the point being that life on Earth is the end result of all the “accidents” that created the universe, and that’s the scale we have to operate on if we’re going to understand anything. Thinking doesn’t get any bigger than that.

The same big-think strategy is working in the other best essays, which vary widely in subject matter. “Berlin’s Skeleton in Utah’s Closet” describes a once top-secret version of German workers’ houses out in the Utah desert that the U.S. government constructed in World War II to test incendiary bombing techniques (think the firebombing of Dresden). The idea — unrestricted bombing of civilians, which we accepted — was to burn the working class into an anti-Hitler opposition party. What we did then makes you think about what we might do now, which is Davis’ point.

“Las Vegas Versus Nature” talks about America’s fastest-growing metro area, not as academic, postmodern dreamscape, but as an economic and ecological disaster of global proportions. There are also essays about Pentecostal religion, the cinematic invention of Los Angeles and teen violence of the early 1960s, with a firsthand account of Davis’ own experiences, again, as always, excavating connections that are as definitive as they are frequently overlooked: “… [T]he white teen riots of the early 1960s were largely driven by the hidden injuries of class colliding with an overweening ideology of affluence: an affluence, that is, that we reinterpreted with the help of beatniks and surfers as the possibility of free time and space beyond the program of Fordist society.” Who’d have guessed that collusion?

Diverting and informative as these pieces are, though, Davis’ great subject, here as elsewhere, is the city and the cruel, ignorant mess we’ve created in our “dead cities,” which have become dumping grounds, both metaphoric and real, for all the stuff we don’t want to think about: “Very large cities — those with a global not just regional environmental footprint — are … the most dramatic end-product, in more than one sense, of human cultural evolution in the Holocene. Presumably they should be the subject of the most urgent and encompassing scientific inquiry. They are not. We know more about the rainforest ecology than urban ecology.”

Say Amen, somebody. Say thanks, too, to this insistent, cranky man, who seems hell-bent on connecting all the dots — local, global, cosmic. He’s a great read. But God forbid he’s right about any of this stuff, because then we’re all in trouble.

Jerry Herron is the new dean of the Honors College at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected].