Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mike Davis' Urban Sociology in "Dead Cities"

Davis is a documentarian of corporate excess, a biographer of big capital’s attack on the public sphere. Dead cities, especially in the American West, where Davis takes his aim, can be found everywhere. From the nuclear testing grounds of Utah and Nevada to the streets of Compton, the poor and underprivileged are stuck digging out a meager existence among the graveyard of urban society. He writes extensively about how capital hijacks public projects to subsidize private gain. It’s a cycle of shamming the public that anyone with a brain already knows of, but Davis gets into the details. He really shows capital at its worst. Davis documents examples of predatory capitalism instilling fear and the only solution to fear: a product. Public land, public transportation, public health and the public environment are all up for sale if you've got enough money. Poisoned families, displaced natives, unsanitary waterways, crime, degraded public space all mark the trail of big business’ money-grabbing crusade across the American West. And Davis is right there, where the capital meets the road, taking notes.

He is at his best when analyzing what he calls “urban ecology.” In his essay “Dead Cities: A Natural History,” he writes: “The ability of a city’s physical structure to organize and encode a stable social order depends on its capacity to master and manipulate nature.” He chronicles the massive extent society must manipulate the natural world in order to keep a modern American city functioning.

Even though he rails against the sorrows of urban living for page after page, this is a 400-something page document, Davis retains a respect for the urban environment. Urban movements, he points out again and again, have shaped history in profound ways. “The real engine room of the sixties, both politically and culturally, was not the college campus but the urban ghetto.” He has a kind of love-hate, or maybe I should say hate-love, relationship with American cities. They’re cesspools of violence and revolutionary breeding grounds, shrines to corporate excess and centers of artistic expression, environmental terrors and opportunities for green growth, and they are all these things at the same time. It’s this dichotomy that fascinates Davis. The cities of the American West, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and others, are sprawling and destructive. But they don’t have to be that way. Human beings cannot live in harmony with nature, but they can live in relative disharmony as long as individuals and governments commit to change.

Where I agree with Davis most is in his analysis of how hierarchical religious institutions co-opt working class angst. It’s by no means a new idea, but it is increasingly evident that powerful religious institutions are defenders of the status quo. Some churches, synagogues, etc., might make tiny moves in a progressive direction, but for the most part, they have the same purpose as accumulated capital and unchecked government: control. In his essay “Pentecostal Earthquake” Davis dissects several evangelical and Pentecostal revivals in California, spanning the 1920s to the 1990s. He documents the way self-appointed apostles have hijacked working class movements, especially Latino immigrants, and roped them into bizarre religious diversions. Pentecostal revivalism has sprouted up “with a particular intensity wherever the emotional fuel is supplied by poverty and injustice,” including, “Appalachian valleys, big-city ghettos, migrant labor camps, black townships in South Africa…”

As far as I know, Davis is the only academic who, in the course of an argument, analyzes John Carpenter's 1988 film “They Live,” which is about a bunch of alien yuppies who have taken over L.A. and forced the working class into poverty and bondage. Amazing violence ensues as people rise up in guerrilla warfare and slaughter their captors. This pop-culture savvy insight is great. But, in that same piece, “Hollywood’s Dark Shadow,” Davis strays into pretension. He lists off works of art and artists and films and filmmakers like he’s trying to pick up a PhD candidate at an academic cocktail hour. “Usually considered a Thomas Hart Benton regionalist, Sheets for a brief moment was a hard-eyed unpuritanical Otto Dix.” Seriously? This is a sentence educated people read and pretend to know what it means so they don’t feel dumb. But the sentence makes no damned point unless you research for hours to find out what Davis is talking about. Sometimes I just want Davis to say what the hell he’s saying instead of weighing us down in endless names and references. I get it, Davis is well read. Fine, but he’s supposed to be writing. When he points to works of art, film and philosophy in one paragraph, referring to the work of ten people without a passing bit of context, I’m lost. And when he does slow down to describe a place, he writes a lot of lame clichés. Davis could use a writing workshop or five. There are many pages in this book filled with ineffective, drab, insider mumbo jumbo that represents a lot of what I hate about academic sociology. Davis is frequently just a blabbermouth. It’s hard to get through. But it is, however, somehow worth it in the end. Davis is like that crazy uncle you tolerate because you know he’s going to offer you another beer as soon as he’s done ranting.

LA is a screwed up city and Davis spends a good 150 pages of this book explaining why. For example, their pathetic light rail line cost $290 million per mile because it was concocted to fail, and it ended up collapsing in Hollywood, literally swallowing a city corner.

But Davis goes too far in some of his discussion of the 1992 riot in Los Angeles, and inner city violence in general. “The 1992 riot and its possible progenies must likewise be understood as insurrections against an intolerable political-economic order.” Okay, this is technically true. Davis takes pages and pages to list the legitimate political and economic grievances against the established order, filling this documentation with emotionally-charged language designed to highlight his point that people in LA are being harmed by the authorities. But he completely writes off the extreme, coordinated and in some cases bigoted attacks during the riots as legitimate means of social change. Yes, Mr. Davis, the established order is dedicated to squeezing the lower class. But corporatists are even more dedicated to dividing the working classes to into racial, ethnic or gang groups so they’ll just fight each other all the time. And Davis promotes this chaotic cycle. He comes absurdly close to flat-out saying that the 1992 riot was not only inevitable, but good social policy. I’m sorry, smashing windows and stealing microwaves isn’t a good way to fight inner city decay. Looting isn’t a good way to change a city’s economy. I agree with so much of his criticism of the rich elite, but Davis’ hatred for certain wealthy sectors of California society blinds him from the excesses of some violent, hateful rioters who turn on their own neighborhoods when they commit unjustified acts of violence. It also blinds him to his own immovable and rigid biases. Especially when he’s talking about inner cities, Davis becomes less of an educator and more of a raving evangelist for his own narrow views. And I’m not a fan of doctrinaire evangelists no matter where they fall on the political spectrum.
In all the chapters on LA, Davis writes irresponsibly about the solution to an unequal and unjust society. He condones random acts of violence, theft, property damage, arson, etc., on behalf of underprivileged people as plausible alternatives to a fractured economic system. In way too much of this book, Davis comes across as an angry fifteen-year-old (albeit one with good research skills) who just wants to smash windows for no other purpose than to see the glass break. And I understand this. Davis is such a good researcher and he makes so many great points. There is so much wrong with a city like Los Angeles, and cities all across America. And the corrupt nexus of unchecked corporate tyranny, pliant local governments and runaway law enforcement is a web I also want to untangle. But problems must be rectified constructively. And all Davis lauds in his essays is destruction. An armchair sociologist, he can’t be bothered with promoting solutions, especially ones that involve cooperating with businesses and government. And because of his excesses, irresponsibility and refusal to question his own assumptions, Davis isn’t the best messenger for some of the good arguments he makes.

His data, fact-finding are overall agitative stance are great. But people with actual ideas, here and now, need to take Davis’ information and run with it, because he refuses to.

More info on the book...

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