If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from the classrooms, streets, and studios of forty years ago, then so be it; on the basis of the evidence before us, taking a "realist" view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa's head, would simply turn us into stone.

Mike Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas1

If you've ever taught a course on Los Angeles in/and contemporary literature, as I do most years, you may well have drawn students' attention to this passage from Karen Tei Yamashita's 1997 novel Tropic of Orange:

Buzzworm studied the map. Balboa'd torn it out of a book for him to study. Quartz City or some such title. He followed the thick lines on the map showing the territorial standing of Crips versus Bloods. Old map. 1972. He shook his head. Even if it were true. Even if it were true, whose territory was it anyway? Might as well show which police departments covered which beats; which local, state, and federal, politicians covered which beats; which kind of colored people (brown, black, yellow) lived where; which churches/temples served which people; which schools got which kids; which taxpayers were registered to vote; which houses were owned or rented; which businesses were self-employed; which corner liquor stores served which people; which houses were crack; which houses banging; which houses welfare; which houses had young couples with children; which elderly; which people been in the neighborhood more than thirty years. And where in Compton did George Bush used to live anyway? If someone could put down all the layers of the real map, maybe he could get the real picture.2

The book that Buzzworm slightly retitles, of course, is Mike Davis's incalculably influential L.A. history City of Quartz (1990), the Davis you've read if you've only read one Davis, and the one that recurs most frequently in this cluster celebrating his work. The map in question appears on page 301, though Buzzworm mischaracterizes it a little. It actually shows a constellation of smaller gangs which, in 1972, were on the verge of "federating" as the Bloods in response to "incessant Crip pressure" the map's Mondrian-like intersecting planes articulate a more complex territorial dynamic than Buzzworm allows (Davis beautifully calls it a "quiltwork").3 Buzzworm seems here to be critiquing City of Quartz: he notes how much such maps can't show, the sheer number of them you'd have to superimpose to get anything like "the real picture," the limitations of representation.

But that isn't, in fact, a critique of Davis at all: it's an endorsement. Davis never claims, and never would claim, to offer "the real picture," but in City of Quartz he gets as close as one might be able to through a "quiltwork" of his own, an amalgam of overlapping critical transparencies not unlike the stitching together of multiple maps that Buzzworm imagines. Indeed, a 2020 interview describes Davis's interior archive as a perfect double of Buzzworm's model of social history. "Davis also holds all kinds of maps in his head," Jonny Coleman and Molly Lambert write. "Fire maps, hydro-geographical maps, maps of migration, maps of banishment, maps of the old Central Avenue jazz scene in LA, maps of people, maps of the earth."4 It's this sense of one unerring journey made counterintuitively possible by following a multitude of maps at once that is the governing logic of City of Quartz, a free-ranging maximalist assemblage in its subjects, sources, and methods, and in its own sense of genre, form, register, and affect. Through this accretive, endlessly curious determination to marshal as much and as many kinds of information about his subject as possible, Davis operates on the basis that although knowledge is (as he has always emphasized) tragically distinct from power, there is no power without it.

I used to struggle with Davis's use of a quotation from the architectural critic Michael Sorkin, who claimed in 1982 that "L.A. is probably the most mediated town in America, nearly unviewable save through the fictive scrim of its mythologizers."5 That line has become something of a cliché in L.A. studies, an almost obligatory citation (a status which entirely postdates and can, I think, largely be attributed to its deployment in City of Quartz). It always felt to me like a postmodernist feint, a way to dodge the difficulty of locating the place itself by saying that there is no there there only a Baudrillardian hall of representational mirrors. That seemed at odds with Davis's Marxism, the avowed materialism that defines and suffuses not just City of Quartz but all of his writing. An ahistorical affectation that L.A. does not and never did exist other than as its representations would abnegate critical responsibility to reckon with material realities, and Davis is the last thinker to whom I'd ever impute such a failing. But Davis, I realized more slowly than I'd care to admit, derives a more sophisticated meaning from the Sorkin line than its more frequent critical deployment as shorthand for so many bromides about Los Angeles's false fronts and illusions. The key word here is "nearly." Sorkin is usually quoted to the effect that L.A.'s "mythologizers" prevent us from discerning reality; when Davis quotes Sorkin, I think, he takes him to mean that L.A.'s mythologizers enable us, counterintuitively, to discern reality. There is no denial here that myths obscure our vision of the real yet, dialectically, myths are also what prevent a "nearly unviewable" reality from becoming completely so.

What Buzzworm doesn't know, because he's only been given a single ripped-out page from City of Quartz, is that the gang affiliation map is a creation of perhaps modern Los Angeles's most persistent and powerful mythmaker: the LAPD. Yes, the territorial demarcations on the map tell us something about gang culture in early 1970s L.A. But far more important, for Davis, is what the document tells us about the city and city-myths that policing has constructed. We understand more about the real place when we understand how an institutional narrative represented it as this set of unambiguous and unarguable black lines, a literal boxing-in of communities' sense of the possible. We see here a single-issue geography of racialized terror that turned individuals into territories and, in doing so, ironically reified gang power in ways expeditious to carceral interests. You have a choice, the map says, to read the city in one of two modes either as the legitimate geography of the street grid, or as the outlaw geography of the gang grid: which side are you on? As Davis writes, "the LAPD has vehemently (and usually successfully) opposed attempts by social workers and community organizers to allow gang members to tell 'their side of the story.'"6 The map's adversarial binarity mobilizes exactly that kind of narrative control by immobilizing real-and-imagined space. What Buzzworm alights on that the map's inadequacies and exclusions are in fact its power is also what Davis shows us about it. The map exemplifies Davis's declared project of tracing how "culture produced about Los Angeles . . . has become a material force in the city's actual evolution," and in so doing demonstrates why his materialism isn't inconsistent with an approbation of Sorkin's "fictive scrim" paradigm.7 A document of a myth's construction, here, shows us a reality.

For Julian Murphet, "to suggest that all of [Los Angeles's] slippery signification is nothing but a superficial appearance beneath which squats a deeper and iniquitous essence is to lapse into the kind of moralistic dismissal of the place that is now so shop-worn as to be useless."8 Murphet here seems to compound Sorkin's vision of the "nearly unviewable" city into a paradoxical claim that to say there's anything real about Los Angeles is to deny its realities. There's a straw man here, ambling in the chasm between the singular existence of a "deeper and iniquitous essence" and the idea that Los Angeles is a wholesale "subsumption of the real by representation."9 Buzzworm's unitary, stable, and objective "real picture" might not exist, but that doesn't mean there isn't something to be grasped beyond or beneath the "self-referential . . . patchwork of undecidable clichés," or that we're absolved of responsibility for seeking it.10 I simply don't think it's true that, as Murphet asserts, in thinking of Los Angeles we need to think of "appearance as essence": that's as evasive and obfuscating an L.A. myth as any, and indeed it's one that serves capital's purposes perfectly, because it's a declaration of irresponsibility for what is.11 Davis's dialectic shows us instead that appearance and essence are neither opposites nor one and the same; rather, we apprehend and understand them through each other. Attempting to do so is hard work, and it's always incomplete, but that doesn't get us off the hook. There's always a there there, and materialists have a responsibility to try to locate it, that we might change it.

By the point in the semester when I'm teaching Tropic of Orange, we've already read City of Quartz, or at least the stunning master key for L.A. mythologies contained in its first chapter, "Sunshine or Noir?" We read it early and its intricate cultural cartography helps us locate other visions of the city. So, I ask my students when Buzzworm pores over the map, what does its presence in Yamashita's novel tell us about Davis's status as an interpreter of Los Angeles and his presence in culture more generally? The first thing they note is that the citational exchange here is the inverse of what they're accustomed to. These are literature students: they're familiar with scholars writing about and referring to novelists, not the other way around. We're the commentators, not the commentated-upon. If you're a critical writer on culture, and you in turn are showing up in the culture you write about, it says something about your influence. There are very few "academic" writers (I mean that term to connote an institutional context, though Davis would be right to bristle at it) who have entered that space. It's a reversal that suggests you're inflecting rather than just reflecting; you've stopped annotating the world and started editing it. But recognition of this role-reversal does more than simply measure the length of the shadow that Davis has come to cast over cultural studies of Los Angeles: it tells us what Davis's writing is for.

Many scholars, across disciplines, would blanch at the possibility of being no longer a mere observer of discourse but an actor in and on it, with all that implies about the collapsing of critical distance, the abandonment of a dispassionate view from nowhere, investments demanded and exposures created. Davis does not, and it gets him into trouble. Davis can operate as a forensic documentarian with granular attention to detail (he has some of the most generative and generous citation practices in the business), but he's also an unabashed big-picture polemicist and he can often be both, balletically, in the space of a paragraph. Davis's most stinging but least sincere critics seize on this: either failing to recognize Davis's modal flexibility or unwilling to credit it as legitimate historical method, they elide the rubrics by which we might assess what are customarily different modes of writing in order to reproach Davis for refusing to pick one. The charge that Davis's drive to change the world compromises his ability to see it as it is, that he is in the business of shaping rather than documenting reality, has been leveled plenty. "Is Mike Davis' Los Angeles all in his head?" asked a lurid 1998 Salon profile.12 The answer, of course, is no. Doubts about the existence of Mike Davis's Los Angeles can be assuaged by spending five minutes anywhere from Inglewood to Brentwood; Bunker Hill to Baldwin Hills to Beverly Hills or, ideally, by moving between them, to apprehend what Charlotte Rosen elsewhere in this cluster calls the city's "casually carceral landscape." The fundamental problem with the suggestion that Davis has his thumb on the historical scale, though, is less one of inaccuracy than of category error. It isn't, in fact, a criticism of Davis so much as an unintentional acclamation of what his work is trying to do. Even if, as Davis has professed, you believe significant political change in America to be vanishingly unlikely, to write as a Marxist should never merely be to observe or to document but to agitate, to nudge the dial, to change. The thumb on the scale is the point. If you're the pseudo-dispassionate observer pretending objectivity or at least padding your subjectivity in layers of disclamatory academic distance, you're doing your best to make nothing happen, and Davis's enduringly ambivalent relationship with the institutional structures of the academy should be evidence enough that he has no interest in that. Moreover, it isn't simply that Davis, skeptical of what academic history can offer if it is not also political cri de cœur, refuses to distinguish between the two: Davis's writing often seems to be trying to wrap itself around the whole world in the disciplinary, formal, and contextual interests it declares.

For want of a better word, I've now used the term "history" several times to denote what Davis writes. The trouble is, I do want a better word. Davis is often described as an "urban theorist," and that's not inaccurate, but he's just as invested in theories (and practices, and histories) of empire, of environment, of ideas, and, above and beneath all, of labor and capital perpetually mustering the "simultaneous depth and breadth of learning" that Sheetal Chhabria marvels at in another of this cluster's essays. Though Davis isn't primarily a literary or film critic, and even claims to have "never read much fiction," he peppers his books with observations about literary and visual culture that are more acute than those of many a specialist perhaps because he's also a prose stylist of the first order in his own right.13 His faculty page on the UC Riverside website ducks the question of what kind of work Davis makes; there, he is simply "Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing." But perhaps "creative writing" is a richer descriptor of his sui generis craft than it first seems, and as accurate and instructive a label as we'll get. When I teach Davis alongside fiction by Yamashita, Raymond Chandler, or Octavia Butler, or Luis Rodriguez's poetry, or Eve Babitz's memoir, it's in part this difficulty of categorization that I'm asking students to grapple with. They're unsure, especially given the disciplinary context in which they're being introduced to Davis, whether to think of City of Quartz as a primary or secondary text, to analyze it a work of literature or deploy it as a contextualizing, historicizing critical aid to their readings of more familiarly "literary" L.A. writings. Frankly, I'm not sure either; it's played both roles, and many others besides, in my own thought.

To say Mike Davis is interested in everything, though, and that this voracious intellectual appetite manifests itself in the tricksy modal hybridity of his work, is ultimately to stay fixed on the twin questions of what his writing is for and why his critics object to it. Davis's omnivorousness as both writer and reader (a recent interview reported a 500-page-per-day reading habit that, frankly, is enough to make me want to sell my books and join the circus) is a function of his Marxism, part of his praxis. The range and depth of Davis's appetites is, I think, reflective of a thoroughgoing desire to practice Marxism's totalizing principles in a critical method that is also a way of life an attempted intellectual compassing of the world in all its dimensions that rides roughshod over disciplinary or formal boundaries (befitting the famously winding and wary route that Davis took to the academy). Such efforts endeavor to resist how, in a phrase that Davis has quoted from the French Marxist Guy Lemarchand, institutions under capitalism (including the discipline of history itself) "break the dialectical links between the different instances of the social totality."14 Davis's interest in changing the parameters of what historical writing might look like, therefore, is the same thing as his interest in changing what the world might look like. Not that Davis thinks this personal embodiment of epistemological totality is achievable; quite the opposite, he knows it's doomed to failure. What might seem like a project of dizzying grandiosity is therefore in fact one of utter humility, because it is service willingly given in pursuit of a task believed passionately to be essential but known to be impossible. No one person can read everything, nor synthesize everything he has read within even a career's worth of books. The point is that, knowing it cannot be done, he does it anyway. Even now, as the final incompleteness of everything encroaches, he goes on.

This is the very core of Davis's belief: although convinced that "you can never discard hope," he cares less about hope than about the will and ability to "fight when the fight seems hopeless."15 Though seldom accused of utopianism, Davis is adamant that "utopia is available to us" and to uphold that principle of fighting when the fight seems hopeless, as his scholarship does, seems to me the most utopian idea of all, because it is an act of believing most in that which you do not believe can be.16 It's on these grounds that Madeline Lane-McKinley is exactly right, in her contribution to this cluster, to characterize Davis's thought as anti-anti-utopianism, and that a slogan daubed on the walls of the Sorbonne in May 1968 gave Davis the title for his 2012 pamphlet on futures of the post-Occupy Left: Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible. His books' wholehearted yet doomed-to-fail attempts to act as theories of everything are therefore of a piece with Davis's pessimism about their ability to bring about the change they demand: it's precisely the absence of conditions for success that makes the effort necessary. What one individual's lifetime of labor cannot achieve becomes, moreover, as essential an expression of Davis's politics as anything his works do achieve, because individual failures enact the necessity of collective action. A totalizing project carried out in full knowledge of its own impossibility is a project that demands the massed contributions of others to further its ends. As we face the prospect of a world in which Mike Davis is no longer writing (I won't say no longer present), that demand only becomes more urgent. It's up to us now.

Given the importance of collectivity in Davis's work, the politics of class consciousness it manifests in both content and construction, and the deep humility it manages to preserve alongside fearsome intellectual authority, perhaps it seems inappropriate to build a cluster of essays around the laudation of a single individual. I once read an appraisal of Davis that characterized his writing as "packed with self-regard," and I've seldom been so baffled by an act of negligent reading: the Davis sentence that asks for medals to be pinned on it has yet to be written.17 Yet here we are, with these inadequate valedictory garlands. I trust, though, that while these essays are a warm and grateful embrace of one man's work they are also an expression of the indispensability and possibility of collective effort, a way of recognizing mutual concerns, dismays, griefs and perhaps some hopes, too. It was late June when word started to spread that Davis was gravely ill. I opened Twitter one evening to see a flurry of tweets that read like eulogies. Eventually I came across one that clarified the situation: a screenshot of a Facebook post by the artist and scholar Alessandra Moctezuma explained that her husband, Mike Davis, had ended grueling cancer treatment and entered palliative care. I kept scrolling and soon I saw more tweets, and then still more. Message after message, from names I knew and names I didn't, from scholars of different generations, institutional backgrounds, geographic locations, disciplinary and theoretical affiliations. Most importantly, there were messages from activists and organizers too, the influence upon whom of Davis's work (and in some cases his direct assistance) vindicated his project of writing history that knew how to get its hands dirty.

It felt like watching a series of beacons being lit, one after another, along a digital ridge gleaming far into the distance. Each was important in its own right, an individual testimony to how encounters with Davis had shaped a way of writing about, of seeing, of being in the world and in so doing had made the world better, even if only by the finest gradation. More important, though, was the collective illumination that each of those beacons constituted: stronger than the sum of its parts, and sure to be more enduring. I immediately suggested to my Contemporaries co-editors that we needed to do something to mark this outpouring of appreciation, as quickly as possible given the circumstances. Several of the contributors we invited to participate were among the folks who'd lit those grateful 280-character beacons in Mike's honor. We hope the pieces they've written give at least a partial sense of the range of places in and perspectives from which Davis's influence has been felt. If I may paraphrase some words that Davis himself wrote on loss and legacy in the acknowledgements for City of Quartz over three decades ago, we want him to know that his rebel spirit moves our pens. Not that a pen has ever been enough for Mike Davis, and nor should it be for us. We have to move more than that. We didn't want these essays to be eulogies, therefore: we wanted them to be agitations.

When Eric Avila ends this cluster's most personal reflection by thanking Davis for "setting our minds on fire," he shares my instinct that a flame is the right metaphor for what Prisoners of the American Dream, City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, or Planet of Slums can do to a person's thought. I don't think there are many scholars ("scholar" remains an inadequate term here) who can be said to have lit a political torch in so many others as Davis has, and seeing that light burn so clearly does give me a sense of hope, I'll admit. Perhaps I'm more invested in the idea of hope than Davis is because I'm more naïve than him; perhaps the extent of my hopes should tell me that my hopes aren't revolutionary enough. Ironically, though, what facilitates my hope more than anything is Davis's exhortation that hope isn't the point, that what matters is the possibility and indeed necessity of continuing to fight when there isn't hope to sustain you. That maxim is a reminder that hope isn't a prerequisite for anything; we don't need hope to persevere; we don't need hope to make things better. Being liberated from the need to hope isn't apocalypticism, or defeatism, but the opposite; it's a license to carry on in the darkness. That is to say, it's hope itself.

Michael Docherty co-edits Contemporaries and is a postdoc at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Michael's primary specialism is the multiethnic literary representation of California. Other interests include legacies of frontier myth in twentieth-century American culture, American crime fiction, and the cultural representation of baldness. Michael's first book, The Recursive Frontier: Race, Space, and the Literary Imagination of Los Angeles, is forthcoming with SUNY Press. His research has appeared in Textual Practice, Crime Fiction Studies, and the European Journal of American Culture. He tweets @maybeavalon.


  1. Mike Davis, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx's Lost Theory (London: Verso, 2018), 222.[]
  2. Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange (Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2017), 72.[]
  3. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2006), 299.[]
  4. Jonny Coleman and Molly Lambert, "The History of California Politics with Mike Davis," Knock LA, August 12, 2020.[]
  5. Davis, City of Quartz, 20. For the original instance of the line, see Michael Sorkin, "Explaining Los Angeles," in California Counterpoint: New West Coast Architecture 1982 (New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 1982), 8. The sheer number of citations this single phrase of Sorkin's has received over the past thirty years from scholars who have clearly only encountered it second-hand in City of Quartz represents one of the great white lies in the history of referencing standards.[]
  6. Davis, City of Quartz, 300.[]
  7. Davis, City of Quartz, 20.[]
  8. Julian Murphet, Race and Literature in Los Angeles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 9.[]
  9. Murphet, Race and Literature, 9.[]
  10. Murphet, Race and Literature, 8.[]
  11. Murphet, Race and Literature, 9. Italics in original.[]
  12. Veronique De Turenne, "Is Mike Davis' Los Angeles All in His Head?" Salon, December 7, 1998.[]
  13. Sam Dean, "Mike Davis is Still a Damn Good Storyteller," Los Angeles Times, July 25, 2022.[]
  14. Quoted in Mike Davis, "Taking the Temperature of History," New Left Review, no. 110 (April 1, 2018). The French original, "une histoire politique qui fractionne le réel social et brise les liens dialectiques entre les instances du tout social," can be found in Guy Lemarchand, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Karine Rance, "Regards croisés," Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 351 (March 1, 2008).[]
  15. Dana Goodyear, "Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe," The New Yorker, April 24, 2020; Sam Dean, "Mike Davis is Still a Damn Good Storyteller."[]
  16. Goodyear, "Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe."[]
  17. Christopher Hawthorne, "Reading L.A.: Mike Davis, 'City of Quartz' and Southern California's 'Spatial Apartheid,'" Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2011.[]