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The Future of the City

Quote of the Day

Conor Friedersdorf

Los Angeles is usually seen as peculiarly infertile soil, unable to produce, to this day, any homegrown intelligentsia. Unlike San Francisco, which has generated a distinctive cultural history from the Argonauts to the Beats, Los Angeles's truly indigenous intellectual history seems a barren shelf. Yet -- for even more peculiar reasons -- this essentially deracinated city has become the world capital of an immense Culture Industry, which since the 1920s has imported myriads of the most talented writers, filmmakers, artists and visionaries. Similarly, since the 1940s, the Southern California aerospace industry and its satellite think-tanks have assembled the earth's largest single concentration of PhD scientists and engineers. In Los Angeles immigrant mental labor is collectivized in huge apparatuses and directly consumed by big capital. Almost everyone is either on a corporate payroll or waiting hopefully at the studio gate.

Such relations of 'pure capitalism', of course, are seen as invariably destructive of the identity of 'true' intellectuals, still self-defined as artisans or rentiers of their own unique mental productions. Snared in the nets of Hollywood, or entrapped by the Strangelovian logic of the missile industry, 'seduced' talents are 'wasted', 'prostituted', 'trivialized' or 'destroyed'. To move to Lotusland is to sever connection with national reality, to lose historical and experiential footing, to surrender critical distance, and to submerge oneself in spectacle and fraud. Fused into a single montage image are Fitzgerald reduced to a drunken hack, West rushing to his own apocalypse (thinking it a dinner party), Faulkner re-writing second rate scripts, Brecht raging against the mutilation of his work, the Hollywood Ten on their way to prison, Didion on the verge of nervous breakdown, and so on. Los Angeles (and its alter-ego, Hollywood) becomes the literalized Mahagonny: city of seduction and defeat, the antipode to critical intelligence.

Yet this very rhetoric (which infuses a long tradition of writing about Los Angeles, since at least the 1920s) indicates powerful critical energies at work. For if Los Angeles has become the archetypal site of massive and unprotesting subordination of industrialized intelligentsias to the programs of capital, it has also been a fertile soil for some of the most acute critiques of the culture of late capitalism, and, particularly, of the tendential degeneration of its middle strata (a persistent theme from Nathanael West to Robert Towne). The most outstanding example is the complex corpus of what we call noir (literary and cinematic): a fantastic convergence of American 'tough-guy' realism, Weimar expressionism, and existentialized Marxism -- all focused on unmasking a 'bright, guilty place' called Los Angeles.

-- Mike Davis, writing in City of Quartz, Chapter One: "Sunshine or Noir"   


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