California Noir

Michael Rogin

  • Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
    Picador, 484 pp, £18.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 330 37219 X

The first picture to greet the reader shows cars half-submerged under water, scattered in all directions as far as the eye can see. ‘January 1995 storm (Long Beach)’, the caption reads; ‘Apocalypse Theme Park’ is the heading that introduces the section to follow. Welcome to Ecology of Fear. Turn the page for the second photograph, which displays a collapsed freeway behind a ‘Los Angeles City Limit’ sign. Opposite this evidence of damage is a table entitled ‘Biblical Disasters?’ that lists the deaths and dollar-losses from three years of earthquake, fire, riot and flood in the mid-Nineties. Ecology of Fear throws just about everything at metropolitan Los Angeles: water, earthquake and drought (Chapter 1), concrete (Chapter 2), fire (Chapter 3), wind (Chapter 4), wild beasts (Chapter 5), science fiction (Chapter 6) and spatial apartheid (Chapter 7).

‘California has been given so many signs,’ we are told, ‘floods, drought, fires, earthquakes lifting mountains two feet high in Northridge. Yet people turn from His ways.’ These remarks are not by the author of Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis, but the Southern California congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, speaking on behalf of Jehovah. Although the Los Angeles Times reassured its readers that ‘as far as can be determined’, the dozens of large snakes deposited on Southern Californian beaches during the winter of 1995 ‘are not some Biblical curse visited on the region to punish the wicked and sybaritic’, Mike Davis responds that ‘native Californians might disagree.’ What is the difference between the Marxist urban social critic and the religious fundamentalist such as Seastrand? Is Mike Davis analysing the elective affinity between Los Angeles and apocalypse, or is he participating in it? Whose ‘Imagination of Disaster’ has taken over the Ecology of Fear?

Although the author offers one explicit answer to these questions, he also deliberately scatters clues to suggest another. The straightforward approach distinguishes symptom from diagnosis. Los Angeles is a crime against nature, Davis argues, because profit and fantasy-driven speculations have over-developed Southern California by violating the ecology of the region. Promoters and developers pretend that they can invade wild areas without the risk of destruction by fire, can build shoddily over a web of earthquake faults and not have their condominiums come crashing down. But their sanguine profiteering is only one mode of courting disaster, Davis shows. He is equally interested in the recurrent fascination with Los Angeles apocalypse which begins well before Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), extends through the Aryan racist tract The Turner Diaries (1978, the bible of the Oklahoma City Federal Office bomber, Timothy McVeigh), and which has managed to keep Ecology of Fear itself on bestseller lists in Los Angeles and around the United States for 18 weeks.

The ecology of fear erects physical barriers – paved river-beds, gated communities, prisons with electrified fences – against the return of the natural and social repressed. The symbiotic relationship between the developers who override nature in the name of the American dream and the fundamentalists who warn against the coming of Judgment Day depends on the latter’s imagination of disaster shifting the blame from the assault on the environment to racial and extraterrestrial aliens. (Nor is this particular combination confined to Los Angeles, as is illustrated by Peter Brimelow’s borrowing of the title of the 1988 science fiction film, Alien Nation, for the anti-immigrant tract he published seven years later.) Congresswoman Seastrand invokes Sodom and Gomorrah because ‘we probably have the most adulterers living here in California, child pornographers and molesters ... and divorce, family break-ups, all of that evil.’ Davis, too, returns to Biblical literalism because ‘the Bible, as three eminent seismologists recently pointed out, is superb environmental literature.’

Nineteenth-century geologists such as Charles Lyell rejected Biblical accounts of creation and catastrophe in favour of slow geological evolution, but Southern California’s Mediterranean-style desert ecology, Davis argues, with its ‘episodic bursts of natural energy’, produces ‘a revolutionary, not a reformist landscape’. Geographers have discovered devastating drought in Southern California’s medieval past and predict mammoth earthquakes in its future. The straightforward difference Davis proposes between himself and Andrea Seastrand, then, is the difference between science and religion.

As the sanctification by ‘environmental literature’ suggests, however, there is another divide separating the Bible-spouting social scientist from the fundamentalist, a genre distinction within the imagination of disaster itself. ‘Los Angeles is the city we love to destroy,’ Davis writes. Since Homer Lea inaugurated Los Angeles disaster fiction in 1909 with The Valour of Ignorance, his yellow-peril fantasy of Japanese invasion, Los Angeles has been destroyed, by Davis’s count, 138 times: 49 times by nuclear bombs, 28 by earthquakes and 10 by invasion from outer space. Most of these figures are to be found in his penultimate chapter, ‘The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles’. Floods, plagues, fires, volcanoes and other destructive forces have also played their part. ‘Disaster,’ Davis writes, ‘saturates almost everything now written about Southern California.’ That includes Ecology of Fear. But as the disaster genre has shifted in the past twenty years from the catastrophe itself to ‘life among the ruins’, it has, according to Davis, split in two. ‘Armageddonists’ look back to the ‘racial infernos’ of the earlier school of catastrophe. They participate in ‘the collapse of American belief in a utopian national destiny’ as Los Angeles shifts from a white to a non-white majority. ‘Magical dystopians’, on the other hand, fashion ‘alternative Los Angeleses with surreal topographies, genders and futures’. Where the Armageddonist imagines a final conflict, the magical dystopian foresees periodic eruptions varying in cataclysmic intensity, from which the economically advantaged will seek hopelessly to insulate themselves, but from which they will nonetheless recover far more easily than the white and coloured poor. Consider as an Armageddonist the Christian Coalition founder (and one-time candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination) Pat Robertson. A giant meteor and a mile-high tsunami destroy Los Angeles in his 1995 The End of the Age, leaving survivalists to battle Satan (now President of the United States) and his billion Third World minions. Consider as a magical dystopian example Davis’s Ecology of Fear.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Beyond Blade Runner’, looks forward from the ‘militarisation of the Southern California landscape’ that Davis had anatomised in his 1990 history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, to a social apartheid future. Rejecting Ridley Scott’s futuristic city as deriving more from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than from actually existing Los Angeles, he models his ‘map of a future Los Angeles’ on the ‘disciplined extrapolation’ of the science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. Just as the magical dystopian ‘substitutes space for time and phantasmagoric topographies for linear narrative’, so the final chapter of Ecology of Fear juxtaposes on facing pages ‘the most famous diagram in social science’, the map of concentric urban zones drawn in the Twenties by the Chicago School sociologist, Ernest W. Burgess, and a future Los Angeles segregated along the stratifying dimensions of land value, class, race and fear. A ‘Core City’ homeless containment zone sits at the centre of an inner city surrounded by a circle of decaying blue-collar suburbs, then a gated-suburban, edge-city, outer ring, and finally a ‘gulag rim’ of prisons. The map is dotted with narcotic enforcement zones, gang-free zones, surveillance apparatuses and a ‘child molestation exclusion zone’.

Although Davis explicitly confines his magical dystopian projections to this final chapter, he has been flirting with science fiction from the opening pages. In a series of attacks begun by Los Angeles realtors, developers and information-age boosters, which have been given credibility and wide circulation by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Davis has now been accused of inventing his data. His membership of what he calls ‘the local franchise of magical realism’ has brought the imagination of disaster down on him.

The uncanny originator of this trouble sits before his computer taking apart every page of Ecology of Fear. Davis is being haunted by his dark (or rather light) twin, a stalker of footnotes who knows all his habits and moves. Davis, the working-class son of the Southern California interior who has proposed ‘The Case for Letting Malibu Burn’ (Malibu is the exclusive Los Angeles neighbourhood lodged between mountains and beach) has met his match in the form of a retired Malibu realtor who goes by the nom de plume of Brady Westwater. Westwater offers Los Angeles as ‘The Millennium City; an Rx’ (prescription) for the metropolis of the future; Davis offers it as a cautionary tale. The fundamentalist Seastrand knows the apocalypse is coming but misidentifies its cause; the realtor Westwater, his alias laying confident claim to the beach-fronting upper-middle-class Los Angeles west side and to the element on whose unreliability Southern California dangerously and destructively depends, sees nothing but sunshine, water and the amenities of life – except in Ecology of Fear.

Denying that Davis is a legitimate native informant, Brady Westwater aims to transmogrify him into an alien born outside the Los Angeles city limits and contaminated by his sojourn among British Marxists. (Long associated with the New Left Review and Verso books, Davis lived from 1973 to 1987 in Glasgow, Belfast and London.) The attempt to wall Davis off in this way from some ‘real’ LA to which he does not belong is self-discrediting, as is the associated fantasy that insecure Angelenos have embraced Ecology of Fear to smear their city and curry favour with the New York establishment. It is also true, as Davis and his defenders point out, that no scholar’s footnotes could withstand unscathed the attention to which Westwater and others (now including the Los Angeles Times) have subjected them. Davis has worked for years as an impoverished independent scholar, with barely an institutional affiliation or network of financial support (a scandal of American intellectual life in itself), and it is inevitable that mistakes should creep into the massive archive of original research that gives his books their force. Yet magic realism, the method of Davis’s great achievement, is also the source of his trouble.

Magic realism achieves its special effects through the vividness of bizarre episodes and images. Some are impossible but true, like the ‘Hands Off Our Kids’ sign, warning child-molesters to stay out of the town of San Dimas. Others, possible but false, move from an actual, though surreal landscape into science fiction, like the ‘sweltering day in Los Angeles, 1962’, in which a girl taking off her clothes at a bus-stop is suffering from the ‘Gypsy Rose [Lee] virus’. Although Davis strings us along for a page, this bit is from a 1952 Robert Heinlein novella. One hundred million house mice did indeed overrun the Southern Californian town of Taft in 1926, and the picture of ‘Federal men killing mice’ with what look like scythes is a documentary photograph not a science fiction film still. The cougar that nearly decapitated a five-year-old girl in Orange County was real, the ‘goat-sucking vampire’ that migrated from Puerto Rico and Mexico to a Latino barrio in the San Fernando Valley was a way to account for crazed, drought-driven, feral attacks on domestic animals.

Davis honours the goat-sucking vampire as ‘simultaneously an avatar of poor people’s deepest fears and an exuberant tongue-in-cheek emblem of Latino cultural populism’. But sometimes he loses sight of which of his magic realist vignettes were invented by Los Angeles and which embellished by him. His exuberant, Southern-California-generated flirtation with the border between science and fiction has brought Davis, too, under vampire attack.

The distinctive feature of Ecology of Fear and City of Quartz is the vivid depiction of bizarre statistical and pictorial detail that allows Davis to claim (I borrow the formulation from a famous remark of Richard Wright about horror) not that he has invented magic realism, but that Southern Californian magic realism has invented him. But sometimes, it now seems, the image that lodges with such conviction in Davis’s mind and in this book has undergone creative transformation. Nor can one tell, a priori, the improbable actual history from what Huck Finn would call the ‘stretchers’. Yes, mice and starving deer invaded Southern Californian towns, but no, Los Angeles will not be the first city in the Northern hemisphere infested with African killer bees (that honour has already fallen to Mexico City). Yes, his detractors notwithstanding, there are close to two thousand street gangs in the Los Angeles metropolitan area; yes, a tapeworm-shaped ‘City of Industry’ with 680 residents and over two thousand factories, warehouses and discount outlets has been carved out of Los Angeles County so as to deprive the surrounding working-class suburbs of their tax base; yes, there are ‘tourist bubble’ theme parks to simulate urban space without its actual life; but no, steel doors did not drop down to protect Bunker Hill financial district buildings from South Central rioters in 1992. Yes, one-third of the city of Los Angeles has been given over to the car, but no, one-third of the Los Angeles metropolitan area is not paved over in concrete. Yes, the 29-campus California prison industrial complex is the third largest in the world, and more expensive per inmate than is the California state university system per student, and yes, the prisons are draining state money from the schools. Yes, the fence around Calipatria prison had to be expensively modified to stop it from electrocuting migrant birds, but no, the Los Angeles City Council never designated a portion of skid row sidewalks as official sleeping zones, and no, there was never a year in which 30 corpses turned up in MacArthur Park. Yes, Federal aid to rebuild Malibu after the 1993 fire was taken from money originally slated for poorer Americans, and yes, fire-fighting resources go to Malibu instead of going to stop the shoddy building and poor code enforcement that produce urban cauldrons for the immigrant poor, but no, the tenement area around downtown Los Angeles does not have the highest fire incidence in the nation, and no, the ‘fine print’ in Davis’s source does not say that two rich matrons escaped the Malibu fire with their jewellery and left their Chicana maids behind. Yes, the requirement of a two-thirds electoral majority and charges of ‘creeping socialism’ have blocked significant public housing construction in Los Angeles County for half a century, but Davis is wrong to claim that absolutely no units have been built. Yes, LA is tornado territory, but no, once the new method of counting tornadoes is also applied to Oklahoma City, LA does not become the new tornado capital of the United States. No, Los Angeles may not have the exceptional ecology that Davis claims, but yes, science and not fiction discovers the natural hazards in its erratic environment.

Ecology of Fear would lose none of its force if it stuck with what it does so well, excavating the hidden history of Los Angeles and letting the metropolitan area speak for itself, since Davis has plenty of reliable data to support the imagination of disaster. Imagine the author now wishing for a warp in time so that his book could magically reappear with its inventions removed. For the errors are peripheral, and seizing on them serves to deflect attention from the real debate, which no facts on their own can definitively settle, between those who support and those who oppose apocalyptic history.

A long war has pitted speculators, developers and boosters, for whom the exceptional promise of American life reached fulfilment in Southern California, against what City of Quartz called the historical school of ‘California noir’. ‘American exceptionalism is real,’ exulted Newt Gingrich after the 1994 Republican Congressional landslide; noir is a response to defeat. California noir goes back to Louis Adamic and Carey McWilliams, writing in response to the post-World War One Red Scare and the defeat of socialism in American life. Film noir was in important respects the product of Hollywood leftists anticipating the blacklist: they had lost their Popular Front optimism and knew they were in for hard times. Never adhering to the optimistic schools of American and California exceptionalism, Davis has always been drawn to the darker exceptionalist vision: if not the best, then the worst. From that perspective, the extremes of American hope and desperation, beginning with the Gold Rush and the genocide of the indigenous population, and lodged in this century in the southern part of the state – Hollywood, the personal and government gun belt, the insulated suburban enclave and the private car – have met in California.

Critics of apocalyptic history charge that the need to make Los Angeles biggest and worst on every count turns Davis into the inversion of his booster adversaries, conjuring up tsunamis to flood Westwater’s Eden. The left-wing Californian urbanists Philip Ethington and D.J. Waldie, who have participated in the controversy over Ecology of Fear, see Davis as suffering from what he himself so brilliantly labels the ‘nervous breakdown of American exceptionalism’. Like Michael Bernstein in Foregone Conclusions, Ethington and Waldie counterpose the ‘prosaics of the quotidian’ to ‘apocalyptic history’. In Davis’s vision, by contrast, the apocalyptic is built into the quotidian. Progressive optimists, Davis wrote at the beginning of his first book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1983), obscure the ‘cumulative impact of the series of historic defeats suffered by the American working class’. Those defeats are the prehistory of Ecology of Fear. Showing definitively how the distribution of resources in the wake of fire and earthquake is ‘recycling natural disaster as class struggle’, Davis does the reverse. When he gives Southern California ‘a revolutionary, not a reformist landscape’, he is consciously echoing Rosa Luxemburg’s famous pamphlet. Taking over from the working class, nature will wreak its revenge on the culture that refuses to accept its limits, unless some form of proper collective responsibility can emerge from the bottom up. This is the subtext of Ecology of Fear.

Ethington and Waldie wish Davis would abandon his Marxian apocalypse instead of transferring it to ecology. The Los Angeles Times concludes its most recent exposé of Ecology of Fear with the disjunction between the author’s self-proclaimed ‘radical political agenda’ and his ‘common-sensical’ assessments – that sprawl trumps planning, that public spaces are sacrificed to private ones, that cost-cutting developers bury the reality that environmental eruptions are a normal, not an extraordinary feature of the region, and that (by way of tax breaks and government subsidies) racial minorities and the working class subsidise the middle class and the rich. But in confusing common sense with political possibility, the Times is indulging in magic (realist) thinking of its own. ‘Socialism or barbarism’ were the alternatives posed by Trotsky on the eve of World War Two; we know what happened to socialism. The shock of recognition that Mike Davis aims to produce – the first step towards an awakening – is that (in the closing words of his first book) ‘we are all, finally, prisoners of the same malign “American dream”.’