STERLING RUBY I first read City of Quartz on my way out to Los Angeles more than fifteen years ago, and because I had no real idea of what to expect, I thought that Los Angeles would be as you’d described it. Your book was an apocalyptic vision, a fever dream, so compelling, but also a narrative, a fiction. The strange thing is that your book read like fiction to me. I have spent time in a lot of different cities, and I still find that Los Angeles, unlike any other place, continues to feel like a fiction, almost made up. Why do you think that is?
MIKE DAVIS LA is ruled by Newton’s first law of real estate: build, destroy, build anew. If the landscape feels like fiction, it’s because so little of the past is ever spared to anchor memory and personal authenticity. “Home“ is a stage set where the narrative is changed and resold with each new generation, where the master myths ritually murder history. Even the flora, from the palms to the crabgrass, is entirely invented, originally to sell lots to Iowans who, as Ray Bradbury once pointed out, didn’t realize that they had moved to Mars. LA reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s famous story of Dorian Gray, where the secret of his deathless beauty reveals itself in his grotesque aging portrait. Perhaps this is the second law of real estate in a society of income extremes: what is turned into gold in one place dooms another place to become debris. The crisis of the inner city has been exported to the suburbs. Compare hipster renaissance Downtown and Venice to Southern Californian Detroits, like San Bernardino or El Cajon.
SR Your writing has been a big influence on me. I feel like I have tried to make artworks that have the same exegetic intensity that your writing has, but making an artwork that directly or indirectly addresses political subject matter, incarceration or homelessness, is to inevitably run the risk of being misunderstood or thought of as being exploitative. But I’ve always thought that art or writing that takes a stand and tries to improve things runs another risk: it loses its ability to be detached critically, to see things from all sides. Might I ask if you ever feel any regret or guilt associated with your work? In your 2009 interview with Bill Moyers, you mentioned that you have no trouble finding or seeing hope. Do you still feel that way? If so, where is that hope coming from for you? Do you ever consider writing a more hopeful lineage into the narrative, or do you feel that would weaken your criticality?
MD How can you be critical by seeing things “from all sides“? The “center,“ whether in politics or art, is a chicken shit place to live. It’s passive support for the status quo. City of Quartz, like all my books, squarely plants its feet on the side of what the young Frederick Engels once reported as “the deep wrath of the whole working class against the rich by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate.” Did his description of the streets of Glasgow and London in 1845 apply with any validity to Los Angeles in 1990? Is it an absurd comparison? The answer is what ultimately separates me from my critics. If, on the other hand, by “all sided,“ you mean a historical critique that addresses every important facet of a phenomenon, however unrecognized by past analysis, then my efforts in my LA books have been strenuous. I have written at length on such relatively novel themes as the secret affinity of “sunshine“ and “noir“ in LA narrative; the political and cultural role of the Catholic Church; subsistence crime as an adaptation to economic globalization; homeowners’ associations and middle-class rage; deindustrialization and working-class identity; the racial politics of the apocalyptic novel; Latino new urbanism; the criminalization of nature, and so on.