Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster
Reviewed by Matt Wray
Sunday, November 01 1998, 2:25 AM
Whether he's writing for The LA Weekly, The Nation, Grand Street or the New Left Review, Mike Davis always writes to provoke. He provokes us to think, provokes us to argue and discuss and, more often than not, he provokes us to laughter. Mike is one of those rare social critics who, despite all his erudition and meticulous research--those particular modes of scholarly discourse which too often kill the prose and stifle the imagination--Davis always manages to blend his criticisms with witticisms. Somehow, the laughter makes the sly and bitter ironies, the painful truths of his message slide more easily into our consciousness, where they begin to do their work, changing our minds, changing what we think, even the way we think.
What is also rare about this work is the way it brings together seemingly disparate discourses, showing the correspondences and transferences between one field and the next. This is a historically new kind of analysis, marked by interdisciplinarity, holism, and geographic specificity and Mike's writing is exemplary of the form. Where previous researchers have been digging ditches in the archives, Davis "excavates," unearthing broad plains of lost meanings. Where other critics have been content to show us culture and society, Davis shows us the complex interrelations between culture, society, and environment--he shows us a whole "ecology." For Davis, our dialectical relationship to our environment, both the natural and built environment-- is the key to unlocking the secrets of our own pasts and the clue to understanding our likely futures.
This is even more true of his books than it is of his journalistic efforts. Beginning with Prisoners of the American Dream and continuing with City of Quartz, Davis shows us how our dreams become prisons and how the fantastic plans of starry-eyed city planners and greedy developers crystallize into urban nightmares. In these books, he has consistently delivered writing which surprises us, which scares us, which makes us learn more than we really want to know and makes us see more than we really want to believe.
Because of this, these books have occasionally come under attack for being, as one critic recently put it, "just too damn depressing." Admittedly, there is a good deal nay-saying in these books--a refusal of much if not all that has been said before, a firm resistance to accepting the social conditions of inequality and injustice which attend capitalist development. This is perhaps clearest in City of Quartz, where his negative critique forcefully rejects the bogus ideology of civic boosterism which has made Los Angeles our capital city of shameless self-promotion.
But I think to focus exclusively on the negativity of the critique here is to miss the passion Davis brings to his work. He writes about Los Angeles, because, as a native son, he cares. It is often said that if you scratch a cynic, you'll find a romantic underneath. I think that just might be the case here. In short, you really have to be in love with something a great deal in order to hate it this much.
I also believe that this critique of negativism obscures the possibility that there might actually be something utopian about having a dystopic vision. I don't mean utopian in the "pie-in-the-sky" sense, but more in the sense of "we can hope for and work for change." As liberals and progressives, we are often quick to judge apocalyptic thinking as regressive and politically suspect, something only religious fundamentalists and bomb chucking terrorists believe in. But what exactly are the politics of apocalyptic thinking? What does it mean to wish for, to actively imagine, a fiery and catastrophic end to our present social conditions? Could there be something hopeful hidden in those horrible wishes, those explosive desires, those violent imaginings? Or is every apocalyptic wish simply a retrograde desire? More importantly--and this is what I think Mike explores so effectively in his new book--what are the environmental and social, the ecological conditions which produce such thinking in the first place? And what are the social and cultural effects of a society structured in fear and paranoia?
As a child of the apocalypse and an avid student of catastrophe myself, I read The Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster as being centrally concerned with these questions. Anyone familiar with Davis' previous work knows will find few surprises here: paranoia and fear lead to regressive sociality, the emotional life embedded in gated communities, neighborhood watch programs, and race and class segregated urban life.
In this latest book, Davis manages once again to cover enormous terrain, reviewing the environmental history of the greater Los Angeles basin from prehistoric times to the present. His often chilling accounts of the devastation and human wreckage which has followed in the wake of flashfloods, firestorms, tornadoes, and ravenous beasts makes for compelling reading.
Metropolitan Books, New York. 1998. 484 pp.$27.50 Hardcover