Saturday, February 6, 2010

Quartz pillars for the guardian of forever

I am flying out of Los Angeles once more, heading half a way across the world for just a week. Every time I come to the gates of this city, beautifully represented by the powerful symbolic presence of the kinetic installation of the pillars of light in the LAX gateway monument, I cannot help thinking of the "guardian of forever" in that old and very quaint Star Trek episode, "the city on the edge of forever". The gateway to the turbulent stream of time, with all the interwoven strands of past and future histories, with their parallel and interlocked courses, is a passage back to our past and the opening of our future.

There is no better choice than Los Angeles for a city on the edge of forever. Geographically, there is no sharpest edge on earth than the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the ultimate frontier of human habitat beyond which 170 million square kilometers of water surface cover 46% of the globe. This is the last shore upon which all dreams come to rest before the immensity of the ocean.

The 1990 book of Mike Davis, "City of quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles", provides a deep analysis of the history and sociology of the city, from a Marxist perspective. A city of utopia and dystopia, of extreme class warfare, of urban sprawls stretching in the night like a shining lava flow from ocean to mountains. The policy of real estate across neighborhoods, the disappearance of public spaces in favor of a collection of private hidden gardens, the dismantlement of the railroad system, the tense race relations and brutal police repression, all contributed to make Los Angeles the vanguard of assault capitalism, and yet at the same time there is a sense of something undefined, which makes the struggle for the future worth fighting, something that makes the fortress of displacement impossible to conquer. Its undefined structure can become fertile ground for a very different type of undergrowth, the spontaneous clustering of a myriad of identities, an anarchist's paradise of loosely associated collectives, of actions, insurgencies, rebellions and acts of creative invention and revolt.

There is full scale war in Los Angeles, with armies counting tens of thousands of foot soldiers facing each other in urban battlefields. A lucid historical analysis of the gang wars is given in another seminal book dedicated to our city on the edge of forever, "Street Wars", written by a main figure of American political activism, Tom Hayden. From the bloody wars of the 1980s to the truces of the 1990s, Hayden describes the parabola that can lead from a spiral of increasing violence to the transformation into peacemaking and community rebuilding. Stressing constructive solutions and prevention against the myopic punitive law-and-order approach generally favored by the American public, Hayden's book illustrates how the creation of opportunities, rather than the ballooning inflation of the punitive structures, can stop the course of violence.

Both Mike Davis' "City of quartz" and Tom Hayden's "Street wars" featured prominently at the recent annual Anarchist Bookfair in West Hollywood, along with all a full display of the high browse philosophical collection of Semiotext(e) and a whole kaleidoscope of smaller anarcho-socialist Californian publishers. The rich underground of political movements here in LA is less openly visible and concentrated than in Berkeley. It has no obvious center of aggregation in this large delocalized urban structure, where space and time lose their intrinsic coherence. Yet this fluid nature makes it more mobile and transformative, and if we are indeed looking at a history of our future, that history carries within itself strong currents of change and revolution.