‘The Aleph?’ I repeated.
‘Yes, the only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending’ – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”
So begins “Taking Los Angeles Apart: Towards a Postmodern Geography”, the final chapter in Edward W. Soja’s landmark book Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. The book uses Borges’ short story about the Aleph, a mystical point of universal convergence, to explain the postmodern paradoxes of Los Angeles and the ultimate difficulty of capturing the city’s postfordist landscape through traditional language.
Soja, an influential political geographer and urban planner at UCLA, has written half a dozen books and countless essays imploring readers to rethink urban spaces and how they function in the political and social sphere. He is the father of “Thirdspace”, in which he says (in a book by the same title) “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history.” Thirdspace is derived from Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre’s notion of heterotopia, and also resemble’s Homi Bahba’s concept of cultural hybridity. Soja’s work employs a trialectics, rather than dialectics, of human geography–emphasizing the equal importance of history, contemporary social relations, and spatial constructs in understanding the urban environments around us.
A Los Angeles resident, Soja has focused much of his work on his home city, veering from the highly critical and sometimes jaded (think Mike Davis in “City of Quartz”) to the the radically optimistic (a-la-Reyner Banham). Over the years he has collaborated with influential thinkers such as David Harvey, Allen J. Scott, and Frederic Jameson.
In Postmodern Geographies, Soja uses Marxist criticism to outline a new form of spatial awareness before focusing his attention on the capitalist (and postfordist) urban example par excellence: Los Angeles. Yet before dismantling the (arguably) already-dismantled city, Soja assembles it: the chapter that precedes “Taking Los Angeles Apart” is aptly titled “It All Comes Together in Los Angeles”. So for Soja, deconstruction is impossible without its opposite, and precedent, activity. In the book, Soja also introduces a number of interesting concepts, which reoccur in some of his later work:
- Flexicity: Deindustrialization has been occurring alongside a potent reindustrialization process built not just on high technology.
- Cosmopolis: The primacy of globalization. Globalization of culture, labor and capital. “Re-worlds” the city.
- Expolis: The city that no longer conveys the traditional qualities of cityness. No cityness about Los Angeles. Growth of the outer city and city edges. More urban life.
- Metropolarities: Increasing social inequalities, widening income gaps, new kinds of social polarization and satisfaction that fit uncomfortably within traditional dualisms based on class or race, as well as conventional. New underclass debate.
- Carcereal Archipielagos: A fortified city with bulging prisons (City of Quartz) and increased surveillance.
- Simcity: A place where simulations of a presumably real world increasingly capture and activate our urban imaginary and infiltrate everything urban life. An electronic generation of hyper reality.
These concepts can help us understand Los Angeles, but also the postfordist landscape that L.A. exported to the rest of America and the world. Soja’s theories are incredibly useful in analyzing – and ultimately, as he would have it, deconstructing – suburban wastelands and unplanned urban sprawl all over the globe. Hopefully a new critical, trialectic spatial ontology, as outlined in Postmodern Geographies, can provide real solutions for urban planners and theorists in our young century. And until then we can marvel at the complexity of urban life, as multifaceted as the limitless Aleph.
After his death in 2015, Verso Books published an extract from Soja’s classic work Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory on their blog, in which he discusses the production of space and power in Los Angeles. Here is an excerpt of that extract:
The downtown core of the City of Los Angeles, which the signs call ‘Central City’ is the agglomerative and symbolic nucleus of the Sixty Mile Circle, certainly the oldest but also the newest major node in the region. Given what is contained within the Circle, the physical size and appearance of downtown Los Angeles seem almost modest, even today after a period of enormous expansion. As usual, however, appearances can be deceptive.
Perhaps more than ever before, downtown serves in ways no other place can as a strategic vantage point, an urban panopticon counterposed to the encirclement of watchful military ramparts and defensive outer cities. Like the central well in Bentham’s eminently utilitarian design for a circular prison, the original panopticon, downtown can be seen (when visibility permits) by each separate individual, from each territorial cell, within its orbit. Only from the advantageous outlook of the centre, however, can the surveillant eye see everyone collectively, disembedded but interconnected. Not surprisingly, from its origin, the central city has been an aggregation of overseers, a primary locale for social control, political administration, cultural codification, ideological surveillance, and the incumbent regionalization of its adherent hinterland.
Looking down and out from City Hall, the site is especially impressive to the observer. Immediately below and around is the largest concentration of government offices and bureaucracy in the country outside the federal capital district. To the east, over a pedestrian skyway, are City Hall East and City Hall South, relatively new civic additions enclosing a shopping mall, some murals, a children’s museum, and the Triforium, a splashy sixty-foot fountain of water, light, and music entertaining the lunchtime masses. Just beyond is the imposing police administration building, Parker Center, hallowing the name of a former police chief of note. Looking further, outside the central well of downtown but within its eastern salient, one can see an area which houses 25 per cent of California’s prison population, at least 12,000 inmates held in four jails designed to hold half that number. Included within this carceral wedge are the largest women’s prison in the country (Sybil Brand) and the seventh largest men’s prison (Men’s Central). More enclosures are being insistently planned by the state to meet the rising demand.
On the south, along First Street, are the State Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) with its electronic wall maps monitoring the arterial freeways of the region, the California State Office Building, and the headquarters of the fourth estate, the monumental Times-Mirror building complex, which many have claimed houses the unofficial governing power of Los Angeles, the source of many stories that mirror the times and spaces of the city. Near the spatial sanctum of the Los Angeles Times is also St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, mother church to one of the largest Catholic archdioceses in the world (nearly four million strong) and controller of another estate of significant proportions. The Pope slept here, across the street from Skid Row missions temporarily closed so that he could not see all his adherents.
Looking westward now, toward the Pacific and the smog-hued sunsets which brilliantly paint the nightfalls of Los Angeles, is first the Criminal Courts Building, then the Hall of Records and Law Library, and next the huge Los Angeles County Courthouse and Hall of Administration, major seats of power for what is by far the country’s largest county in total population (now over eight million). Standing across Grand Avenue is the most prominent cultural centre of Los Angeles, described by Unique Media Incorporated in their pictorial booster maps of downtown as ‘the cultural crown of Southern California, reigning over orchestral music, vocal performance, opera, theatre and dance’. They add that the Music Center ‘tops Bunker Hill like a contemporary Acropolis, one which has dominated civil cultural life since it was inaugurated in 19647. Just beyond this cultural crown is the Department of Water and Power (surrounded by usually waterless fountains) and a multi-level extravaganza of freeway interchanges connecting with every corner of the Sixty-Mile Circle, a peak point of accessibility within the regional transportation network. On its edge, one of Japan’s greatest architects has designed a Gateway Building to punctuate the teeming sea.
Along the northern flank is the Hall of Justice, the US Federal Courthouse, and the Federal Building, completing the ring of local, city, state and federal government authority which comprises the potent civic centre. Sitting more tranquilly just beyond, cut off by a swathe of freeway, is the preserved remains of the old civic centre, now part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historical Park, additional testimony to the lasting power of the central place. Since the origins of Los Angeles the sites described have served as the political citadel, designed with other citadels to command, protect, socialize and dominate the surrounding urban population.
There is still another segment of the citadel – panopticon which cannot be overlooked. Its form and function may be more specific to the contemporary capitalist city but its mercantile roots entwine historically with the citadels of all urbanized societies. Today, it has become the acknowledged symbol of the urbanity of Los Angeles, the visual evidence of the successful ‘search for a city’ by the surrounding sea of suburbs. This skylined sight contains the bunched castles and cathedrals of corporate power, the gleaming new ‘central business district of the ‘central city’, pinned next to its ageing predecessor just to the east. Here too the LA-leph’s unending eyes are kept open and reflective, reaching out to and mirroring global spheres of influence, localizing the world that is within its reach.
Nearly all the landmarks of the new LA CBD have been built over the past fifteen years and flashily signify the consolidation of Los Angeles as a world city. Now more than half the major properties are in part or wholly foreign owned, although much of this landed presence is shielded from view. The most visible wardens are the banks which light up their logos atop the highest towers: Security Pacific (there again), First Interstate, Bank of America (co-owner of the sleek-black Arco Towers before their recent purchase by the Japanese), Crocker, Union, Wells Fargo, Citicorp (billing itself as ‘the newest city in town’). Reading the skyline one sees the usual corporate panorama: large insurance companies (Manulife, Transamerica, Prudential), IBM and major oil companies, the real estate giant Coldwell Banker, the new offices of the Pacific Stock Exchange, all serving as attachment points for silvery webs of financial and commercial transactions extending practically everywhere on earth.
The two poles of the citadel, political and economic, connect physically through the condominium towers of renewed Bunker Hill but “interface’ less overtly in the planning apparatus of the local state. Contrary to popular opinion, Los Angeles is a tightly planned and plotted urban environment, especially with regard to the social and spatial divisions of labour necessary to sustain its pre-eminent industrialization and consumerism. Planning choreographs Los Angeles through the fungible movements of the zoning game and the flexible staging of supportive community participation (when there are communities to be found), a dance filled with honourable intent, dedicated expertise, and selective beneficence. It has excelled, however, as an ambivalent but nonetheless enriching pipeline and place-maker to the domestic and foreign developers of Los Angeles, using its influential reach to prepare the groundwork and facilitate the selling of specialized locations and populations to suit the needs of the most powerful organizers of the urban space economy.
Although conspiracy and corruption can be easily found, the planned and packaged selling of Los Angeles usually follows a more mundane rhythm played to the legitimizing beat of dull and thumping market forces. In the created spaces which surround the twin citadels of Los Angeles, the beat has drummed with a particularly insistent and mesmerizing effect. Through a historic act of preservation and renewal, there now exists around downtown a deceptively harmonized showcase of ethni-cities and specialized economic enclaves which play key roles, albeit somewhat noisily at times, in the contemporary redevelopment and internationalization of Los Angeles. Primarily responsible for this packaged and planned production of the inner city is the Community Redevelopment Agency, probably the leading public entrepreneur of the Sixty-Mile Circle.
There is a dazzling array of sites in this compartmentalized corona of the inner city: the Vietnamese shops and Hong Kong housing of a redeveloping Chinatown; the Big Tokyo financed modernization of old Little Tokyo’s still resisting remains; the induced pseudo-SoHo of artists’ lofts and galleries hovering near the exhibitions of the ‘Temporary Contemporary” art warehouse; the protected remains of El Pueblo along Calmexified Olvera Street and in the renewed Old Plaza; the strangely anachronistic wholesale markets for produce and flowers and jewellery growing bigger while other downtowns displace their equivalents; the foetid sweatshops and bustling merchandise marts of the booming garment district; the Latino retail festival along pedestrianpacked Broadway (another preserved zone and inch-for-inch probably the most profitable shopping street in the region); the capital site of urban homelessness in the CRA-gilded skid row district; the enormous muralled barrio stretching eastward to the still unincorporated East Los Angeles; the de-industrializing and virtually resident-less wholesaling City of Vernon to the south filled with chickens and pigs awaiting their slaughter; the Central American and Mexican communities of Pico — Union and Alvarado abutting the high-rises on the west; the obtrusive oil wells and aggressive graffiti in the backyards of predominantly immigrant Temple-Beaudry progressively being eaten away by the spread of Central City West (now being called ‘The Left Bank’ of downtown); the intentionally yuppifying South Park redevelopment zone hard by the slightly seedy Convention Center; the revenue-milked towers and fortresses of Bunker Hill; the resplendently gentrified pocket of ‘Victorian’ homes in old Angelino Heights overlooking the citadel; the massive new Koreatown pushing out west and south against the edge of Black Los Angeles; the Filipino pockets to the north-west still uncoalesced into a ‘town’ of their own; and so much more: a constellation of Foucauldian heterotopias ‘capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible’ but ‘function in relation to all the space that remains’.
What stands out from a hard look at the inner city seems almost like an obverse (and perverse) reflection of the outer city, an agglomerative complex of dilapidated and overcrowded housing, low technology workshops, relics and residuals of an older urbanization, a sprinkling of niches for recentred professionals and supervisors, and, above all, the largest concentration of cheap, culturally-splintered/occupationallymanipulable Third World immigrant labour to be found so tangibly available in any First World urban region. Here in this colonial corona is another of the crownjewels of Los Angeles, carefully watched over, artfully maintained and reproduced to service the continued development of the manufactured region.
The extent and persistence of agglomerated power and ever-watchful eyes in downtown Los Angeles cannot be ignored by either captive participants or outside observers. The industrialization of the urban periphery may be turning the space economy of the region inside-out, but the old centre is more than holding its own as the pre-eminent political and economic citadel. Peripheral visions are thus not enough when looking at Los Angeles. To conclude this spiralling tour around the powerfilled central city, it may be useful to turn back to Giddens’s observations on the structured and structuring landscapes of modern capitalism.
The distinctive structural principle of the class societies of modern capitalism is to be found in the disembedding, yet interconnecting, of state and economic institutions. The tremendous economic power generated by the harnessing of allocative resources to a generic tendency towards technical improvement is matched by an enormous expansion in the administrative ‘reach’ of the state. Surveillance – the coding of information relevant to the administration of subject populations, plus the direct supervision by officials and administrators of all sorts – becomes a key mechanism furthering a breaking away of system from social integration. Traditional practices are dispersed (without, of course, disappearing altogether) under the impact of the penetration of day-to-day life by codified administrative procedures. The locales which provide the settings for interaction in situations of co-presence [the basis for social integration] undergo a major set of transmutations. The old city-countryside relation is replaced by a sprawling expansion of a manufactured or ‘created environment’. (1984, 183–84)
Here we have another definition of spatial planning, another indication of the instrumentality of space and power, another example of spatialization.
Radiating from the specifying nodality of the central city are the hypothesized pathways of traditional urban theory, the transects of eagerly anticipated symmetries and salience which have absorbed so much of the attention of older generations of urban theoreticians and empiricists. Formal models of urban morphology have conventionally begun with the assumption of a structuring central place organizing an adherent landscape into discoverable patterns of hinterland development and regionalization. The deeper sources of this structuring process are usually glossed over and its problematic historical geography is almost universally simplified, but the resultant surfaces of social geometry continue to be visible as geographical expressions of the crude orderliness induced by the effects of nodality. They too are part of the spatialization of social life, the extended specificity of the urban.
The most primitive urban geometry arises from the radial attenuation of land use ‘intensity’ around the centre to an outer edge, a reflection of the Thunian landscape that has become codified most figuratively in the irrepressible Two-Parameter Negative Exponential Population Density Gradient. The TPNEPDG, in part because of its nearly universal and monotonous exemplification, has obsessed urban theorists with its projectable objectivity and apparent explanatory powers. From the Urban Ecologists of the old Chicago School to the New Urban Economists, and including all those who are convinced that geographical analysis naturally begins with the primal explanation of variegated population densities (the most bourgeois of analytical assumptions Marx claimed), the TPNEPDG has been the lodestar for a monocentric understanding of urbanism. And within its own limited bands of confidence, it works efficiently.
Population densities do mound up around the centres of cities, even in the polycentric archipelago of Los Angeles (where there may be several dozen such mounds, although the most pronounced still falls off from the central city). There is also an accompanying concentric residential rhythm associated with the family life cycle and the relative premiums placed on access to the dense peaks versus the availability of living space in the sparseness of the valleys (at least for those who can afford such freedoms of choice). Land values (when they can be accurately calculated) and some job densities also tend to follow in diminishing peaks outwards from the centre, bringing back to mind those tented webs of the urban geography textbooks.
Adding direction to the decadence of distance reduces the Euclidian elegance of concentric gradations, and many of the most mathematical of urban geometricians have accordingly refused to follow this slightly unsettling path. But direction does indeed induce another fit by pointing out the emanation of fortuitous wedges or sectors starting from the centre. The sectoral wedges of Los Angeles are especially pronounced once you leave the inner circle around downtown.
The Wilshire Corridor, for example, extends the citadels of the central city almost twenty miles westwards to the Pacific, picking up several other prominent but smaller downtowns en route (the Miracle Mile that initiated this extension, Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, Brentwood, Santa Monica). Watching above it is an even lengthier wedge of the wealthiest residences, running with almost staggering homogeneities to the Pacific Palisades and the privatized beaches of Malibu, sprinkled with announcements of armed responsiveness and signs which say that ‘trespassers will be shot’. Here are the hearths of the most vocal homeowners movements, arms raised to slow growth and preserve their putative neighbourhoods in the face of the encroaching, view-blocking, street-clogging, and declassé downtowns.
As if in counterbalance, on the other side of the tracks east of downtown is the salient containing the largest Latino barrio in AngloAmerica, where many of those who might be shot are carefully barricaded in poverty. And there is at least one more prominent wedge, stretching southward from downtown to the twin ports of Los Angeles— Long Beach, still reputed to be one of the largest consistently industrial urban sectors in the world. This is the primary axis of Ruhral Los Angeles.
A third ecological order perturbs the geometrical neatness still further, punching holes into the monocentric gradients and wedges as a result of the territorial segregation of races and ethnicities. Segregation is so noisy that it overloads the conventional statistical methods of urban factorial ecology with scores of tiny but ‘significant’ eco-components. In Los Angeles, arguably the most segregated city in the country, these components are so numerous that they operate statistically to obscure the spatiality of social class relations deeply embedded in the zones and wedges of the urban landscape, as if they needed to be obscured any further.
These broad social geometries provide an attractive model of the urban geography of Los Angeles, but like most of the inherited overviews of formal urban theory they are seriously diverting and illusory. They mislead not because there is disagreement over their degree of fit – such regular empiricist arguments merely induce a temporary insensibility by forcing debate on to the usually sterile grounds of technical discourse. Instead, they deceive by involuting explanation, by the legerdemain of making the nodality of the urban explain itself through its mere existence, one outcome explaining another. Geographical covariance in the form of empirico-statistical regularity is elevated to causation and frozen into place without a history–and without a human geography which recognizes that the organization of space is a social product filled with politics and ideology, contradiction and struggle, comparable to the making of history. Empirical regularities are there to be found in the surface geometry of any city, including Los Angeles, but they are not explained in the discovery, as is so often assumed. Different routes and different roots must be explored to achieve a practical understanding and critical reading of urban landscapes. The illusions of empirical opaqueness must be shattered, along with the other disciplining effects of Modern Geography. Continue reading at versobooks.com