Books

I Still Don’t Understand How Mike Davis Could Write Like That

A Marxist whose books did it all.

A man with a gray beard stands in front of a mural.
Author Mike Davis. Jean Claude Dhien/Corbis via Getty Images

I have never lived in Los Angeles, but I have probably spent more time thinking about L.A. than any other city that I haven’t resided in. This is partly the fault of Hollywood, of Ice Cube and The White Album, of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Party Down, of the despised Lakers, but it’s mostly the fault of Mike Davis. Davis, the historian and urban theorist who died on Tuesday, was probably my favorite writer about cities that I have ever read. He didn’t only write about L.A., not by a long shot, but L.A. was his Beatrice, his Dark Lady. Every time I visit Los Angeles Davis’ work floods through my brain, often down to specific words, phrases, and sentences.

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Davis’ path to becoming one of the most renowned writers and thinkers of his generation was anything but conventional, and for a more detailed account I strongly recommend this wonderful interview that he gave in 2020 to the great L.A. journalist Jeff Weiss. A very abridged version: Born and raised in southern California, Davis briefly dropped out of high school to work in a slaughterhouse. After spending most of his twenties working as an organizer for groups like the Congress for Racial Equality and Students for a Democratic Society, he entered UCLA as a 28-year-old freshman. He tried unsuccessfully to get a Ph.D. in history from the same university but was thwarted when the department rejected his dissertation, an early draft of what would become his landmark book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (As someone who sits on Ph.D. committees with some regularity, this is beyond funny.)

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Davis’ first book, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class, came out in 1986, but it was his second, City of Quartz, published in 1990, that would make his reputation. City of Quartz became a sensation and established Davis as a leading public intellectual, particularly in the aftermath of the 1992 L.A. Riots, when, in Weiss’ words, “his tome became everyone’s favorite Rosetta Stone for translating the civic unrest.” If Davis never wrote another book after City of Quartz he would still be a legend; he of course wrote many, many more, including 1998’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, 2001’s Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, 2006’s Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class, and, most recently, 2020’s Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, which he co-wrote with journalist and historian Jon Wiener.*

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City of Quartz was the first book of Davis’ that I ever read, early in graduate school, and it was a staggering experience. The book is a masterpiece, and a nearly indescribable one. It’s a history book that’s also a work of social and cultural criticism that’s also a work of urban theory, all while carrying the righteous heft and energy of a moral polemic. As a writer, there are books that you wish you’d written and books that you hope to someday be good enough to write, and then there are books that just make you awed and grateful that someone this smart is walking (or, now, has walked) the earth. City of Quartz belongs to the last category.

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It’s in City of Quartz that Davis articulated one of his most memorable dialectics, in an opening chapter entitled “Sunshine or Noir?” It is this tension which Davis saw as the central push-and-pull of Los Angeles, as the city has been imagined, represented, and lived. “Sunshine” is the boosterish impulse to frame the city as a white Anglo-Saxon paradise, all palm trees and pristine coast and limitless potential for success, wealth, and glamor. “Noir” is, effectively, the rejection and critique of this tendency; the artists and thinkers that Davis categorized as noirs believed that what is superficially promised by the sunshine proponents in fact is just a veneer over vicious exploitation, injustice, and inequality. Think of the degraded but innocent Frank on death row, at the end of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, or the monstrous Noah Cross getting away with all of it at the end of the 1974 neo-Noir Chinatown. The noirs are often the heroes of Davis’ work, forging terrible beauty from conditions of depravity.

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Davis was a Marxist, and his work pulses with the most capacious and humanistic possibilities of that tradition. Marxist historians and critics are sometimes caricatured as being myopically blinkered in their focuses of concern, but in Davis’ case nothing could be further from the truth. Davis was interested in everything: architecture, movies, literature, music, politics, nature, technology, all of which he viewed as arenas for struggles over social power. What allowed Davis to yoke all these subjects (and so many others) together was his extraordinary abilities as a synthetic and idiosyncratic thinker, and also—I can’t emphasize this enough—his intoxicating gifts as a stylist. His writing surges off the page irresistibly, exciting and compelling in equal measure. Ecology of Fear starts as an environmental history of Los Angeles and, more than 400 pages later, ends with a chapter on science fiction that closes thusly:

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In this fashion, the Rodney King riot, although composed of tens of thousands of individual acts of anger and desperation, was perceived from orbit as a unitary geophysical phenomenon…. Indeed, had alien voyeurs really been watching the earth from a secret observatory on the moon or suburbs on Mars, they would have been mesmerized by Los Angeles’ extraordinary combustibility. No other urban area on the planet so frequently produces large “thermal anomalies.” Seen from space, the city that once hallucinated itself as an endless future without natural limits or social constraints now dazzles observers with the eerie beauty of an erupting volcano.

This is a magnificent passage: whip-smart, transportingly evocative, even darkly funny. I quote it at length because, well, how can you not. But Davis also had a brilliance for economy, pithy and erudite phrasing that somehow managed to convey everything you need to know about a subject. “Noir,” wrote Davis, “was like a transformational grammar turning each charming ingredient of the boosters’ arcadia into a sinister equivalent.” Or, one of my favorite Davis-isms, from a chapter in Ecology of Fear entitled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” (Davis wasn’t much for soft-pedaling), a description of the glamorous coastal city as a place “where hyperbole meets the surf.” Marvel for a moment at just how perfectly chosen the word “surf” is, and all that it conjures.

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The deep environmental concerns of so much of Davis’ work are just one aspect of what made him such an inspirational, even prophetic figure to a 21st-century generation of leftists. He was a veteran of the Sixties New Left who never made the centrist (or rightist) turn of some of his former comrades, nor did he stubbornly cling to that movement’s shibboleths. His thinking was ever-evolving and constantly responsive to the world around him. In 2005 he published The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, in which he warned that the conditions of global capitalism were making the world increasingly vulnerable to a devastating pandemic; earlier this year he published a revised edition to address COVID-19, now fittingly re-titled The Monster Enters. He was a lodestone for a younger generation of left intellectuals and activists, and a generous one at that, as evidenced by the recent outpouring of tributes in the wake of his illness and death.

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I am a professor of American Studies, and it recently dawned on me that I have assigned Mike Davis’ work in nearly every American Studies class that I’ve ever taught, even though I don’t teach classes on Los Angeles, or even (really) on urban history. Davis’ brilliance was for rendering L.A. into a site of unique specificity and character that doubled as a sort of bleeding-edge metonym for America itself. I’m not sure that there’s a better dialectical formulation for how Americans think about themselves than Sunshine and Noir; we are a nation that’s still awash in ideas about Manifest Destiny, limitless opportunity and a near-divine sense of exceptionalism, but that has also produced a long tradition of critique of those ideas that, I would argue, is just as central to something like American identity.

But I also teach Davis because he’s a model of how I want my students to learn and think and write. He was someone who constantly looked at where he was, at the world around him in both its most immediate and most distant capacities, and strived to see it more completely, in all its beauty and awfulness. He thought and wrote so as to leave that world a better place, and he was better at it than just about anyone.

Correction, Oct. 30, 2022: This article originally misspelled Jon Wiener’s last name.

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