Welcome to the first post in “Opening the Canon,” a new section dedicated to exploring the work of foundational thinkers in the fields of urban studies and spatial theory. Specifically, it invites contributors to reflect on how the work of these theorists has been taken up within the field of media studies as well as how it has contributed to their own formation as scholars. Each entry in the series will concentrate on the corpus of a single figure, beginning with Mark Shiel’s discussion of Edward Soja, who passed away in 2015 and whose work was central to the wider ‘spatial turn’ within the humanities. Shiel discusses both his own first encounters with Soja’s key works and the legacy of those works for the fields of media studies and urban studies now and into the future.
Edward Soja passed away in 2015 after a long and fruitful career as a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. He was a scholar who did not say much directly about cinema or other media, but whose influence on their study was nonetheless broad and deep. Famous for his trilogy of works in critical urban geography – Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (1989), Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions (1996), and Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real and Imagined Places (2000) – his fourth monograph, Seeking Spatial Justice (2010), examined the relationship between geography and community activism, while his final book, My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (2014), collated and expanded upon his most important findings on that city. Los Angeles was a constant theme in his work from the early 1980s, and also the subject of an important collection of essays – The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (1996) – which he co-edited with his UCLA colleague, Allen J. Scott.1Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London and New York: Verso, 1989; Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Places, Oxford and Malden, MA: 1996; Allen J. Scott and Edward J. Soja, eds, The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996; Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions, Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2000; Seeking Spatial Justice, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010; My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
What follows is an appreciation of the foundational importance of this work in general, with particular attention to ways in which it can and has shed light on issues in cinema and media studies. For example, Soja is cited in many of the most important edited collections on cinema, media, and the city, from Clarke’s The Cinematic City (1997) to Andersson and Webb’s Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media (2016). Soja is frequently cited in cinematic studies of Los Angeles – e.g. David James’ The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (2005) – but also in relation to diverse other cultures, as in Podalsky’s Specular City: Transforming Culture, Consumption, and Space in Buenos Aires, 1955-1973 (2004) and Braester and Tweedie’s Cinema at the City’s Edge: Film and Urban Networks in East Asia (2010). These and many others draw inspiration from Soja’s ground-breaking articulation of the “spatial turn” which has overtaken the social sciences since the 1970s, and which he played a key role in advancing.2Soja, Postmodern Geographies, pp. 16, 39. It is for that – examined at length in Postmodern Geographies – that Soja probably remains most widely known in cinema and media studies, and in other fields. For example, in Cinema and the City (Shiel and Fitzmaurice, eds, 2001), when articulating the rationale for the existence of the book in the Introduction, I approvingly quoted Soja’s explanation of “how relations of power and discipline are inscribed into the apparently innocent spatiality of social life, how human geographies become filled with politics and ideology.”3Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice (eds), Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, Oxford and New Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001, p. 6. In what follows, I want to acknowledge the importance of Soja’s thesis while also addressing what I see as four of the other key lessons to be drawn from his work: the paradigmatic importance of L.A, even if the so-called “L.A. School” of urban studies is less prominent than it once was; the importance of the city, but more especially of the urban region, a concept which Soja preferred; the healthiness and moral goodness of diversity in urban society, despite its many challenges; and the importance of maintaining links between progressive scholarship and social activism.[supsystic-gallery id=1 position=left]
All of these positive features were evident the first time I encountered Soja, though it was not in Los Angeles or in a book, but on British TV. In September 1992, BBC television produced and broadcast an informative and timely educational documentary called Los Angeles: City of the Future (1992). Punctuated occasionally by brief and impartial comments by a British narrator, this was a sober and well-made study of what was presented as a new and outlandish cultural cornucopia – introduced by footage of the Venice Boardwalk – whose apparent freedom was actually underpinned by a remarkable concentration of socio-economic extremes, quietly authoritarian architecture, crime and physical danger. Soja appeared throughout the program as both interviewee and tour guide, beginning with an extended 12-minute sequence in which he was filmed talking to camera while sitting on a chair somewhat out of place on a grass verge outside downtown LA’s Bonaventure Hotel. He explained the controversial edifice affably but with some gravity, initially by summarizing Fredric Jameson’s abhorrence of the place for its disorientingly bland interior layout and its characterless curved steel and glass façade.4Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991, pp. 39-42. These qualities made the building emblematic of postmodernism, Soja agreed, before adding his own perspectives on the larger city by addressing the building’s contrast with the physically-nearby but metaphorically-remote art deco City Hall and the colorfully proletarian and multicultural Grand Central Market, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. While Soja describes L.A. as an exemplary environment of difference, the BBC’s vehicle- and shoulder-mounted cameras survey these locations to show an obviously low-income but authentic street life – “Third World” environments whose hustle and bustle Soja gently but favorably contrasts with the muted authoritarianism of the Bonaventure and City Hall.
The documentary was filmed shortly before the Justice Riots of April 1992, which seemed to bear out the film’s emphasis on L.A.’s malaise, and it had little of the irony or whimsy of Reyner Banham’s much more famous BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972), which was more fun to watch but arguably less accurate. Where Banham sees LA’s urban landscape as hugely entertaining with hints of social injustice, Soja’s analysis for the BBC finds LA full of social injustice despite its catering to pleasure – Soja was not only interviewed in the program but was credited as an ‘Academic Consultant’, so presumably shaped it editorially.5Two ‘Academic Consultants’ were named in the program’s credits, Soja and Kenneth Thompson, who was also the British narrator. Thompson was a professor of sociology at the Open University, known for works on Emile Durkheim and related subjects, and he was occasionally a visiting professor at UCLA in the 1980s and ‘90s. The program was produced by Vic Lockwood and the BBC Open University Production Centre for the Open University degree course Understanding Modern Societies. See http://collections-search.bfi.org.uk/web/Details/ChoiceFilmWorks/150408918 I had not encountered Banham’s documentary at this time, but Soja’s foreboding delivery seemed in tune with the cinematic LA I had recently encountered in films such as Grand Canyon (Lawrence Kasdan, 1991), Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991), and Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1991), as well as, musically, in Henry Rollins and Orange County punk (which I often listened to and sometimes still do).6See, for example, the Rollins’ Band’s album The End of Silence (Imago Recording Company, 1992). As an undergraduate student at the time, this was one of my first mass media encounters with a sociologically-rigorous and historically-sensitive analysis of place and, I later learned, it contained many of the seeds and site-specific subjects which would fuel Soja’s subsequent publications.
Of course, Soja’s first monograph, Postmodern Geographies, had already been a few years in print and its precept was built into the BBC program – that the development of a critical spatial analysis of culture was among society’s most urgent needs, required by the emergence of a new and worrying ‘postmodern’ urbanism in the late twentieth century. Delineating and drawing attention to such analysis, and its growth since the revolutionary moment of 1968, was the key task Soja undertook in that book, inspired by what he characterized as the social sciences’ increasing interest in, and openness to, the formative influence of essentially spatial processes such as urbanization and the value of space as a concept and analytical tool.7Given Soja’s argument that the international renown of French Marxism circa 1968 was key to progressive change in Geography and the social sciences more broadly, and given his effective elucidation of the theses of Foucault and Lefebvre, in particular, I see Soja as one of the key conduits through whose work the example and lessons of mai ’68 gained influence in the US, alongside work in philosophy and comparative literature by Mark Poster and Sylvère Lotringer. This he saw in the progressive reshaping of the discipline of Geography by a range of innovative thinkers who were especially sensitive to space (e.g. Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Doreen Massey, Manuel Castells) and in a parallel and equally important emergence of spatial analyses of culture (e.g. Michel Foucault, John Berger, Marshall Berman, Fredric Jameson). These had begun to break the stranglehold of historicism in academe, in which time had long been seen as the most important explanatory factor in human life and ideas, at the expense of considerations of space, which Western metaphysics and Western Marxism essentially viewed as empty or dead.8Soja, Postmodern Geographies, p. 37. If such spatial thinking seems second nature to many of us now, in My Los Angeles, Soja gives a salutary explanation of just how new it was in the 1980s, and how skeptically it was often viewed, when, as he puts it, he and Lefebvre were put down as “spatial fetishists” and Harvey was almost the only other prominent social scientist really thinking in similar terms.9Soja, My Los Angeles, p. 173.
Postmodern Geographies put forward, I would say, a more or less unprecedented blending of cultural and sociological, spatial and temporal thinking, tracing the roots of postmodernism and its theorization with an internationally varied frame of reference and a truly impressive bibliography and intellectual range. Here was a book that was equal to the Herculean task of shifting the balance of power from History to Geography, although Soja’s positive and enabling formulation of the ‘postmodern’ remained deeply attentive to the evolution of societies and ideas over time – “a simultaneously historical and geographical materialism”, as Soja described it.10Soja, Postmodern Geographies, p. 12. This makes Postmodern Geographies surely one of the most important books on a huge subject – postmodernism – alongside other key works by the aforementioned Jameson and Harvey, as well as Jean-François Lyotard, Michael Dear, and Charles Jencks. Soja’s aptitude for historical analysis was also evident in Postmetropolis, much of which presented a new interpretation of ancient urban societies such as Jericho and Catal Huyuk, re-reading them against the grain of well-established urban histories by arguing that it was not so much the rise of agriculture that caused the emergence of cities but the growth of cities that encouraged the rise of agriculture. Later sections of that book traced urban history through to the Industrial Revolution (Manchester, Chicago) and then Los Angeles in the late 20th century, emphasizing the long slow evolution of cities punctuated by moments of rapid and dramatic restructuring. Postmetropolis bridged the gap between mud huts and the military-industrial complex, ancient sculpture and satellite imagery, but with nuance rather than shorthand. Soja was also wary of descriptions of the postmodern which underestimated what he saw as the endurance of issues and problems of industry, labor, and class, especially descriptions which shaded into other uses of the prefix ‘post-’ – for example, in a section with the insistent title “Manufacturing Matters: Against Postindustrial Sociology”.11Soja, Postmetropolis, p.164. Indeed, in My Los Angeles, Soja admits to having come to find the term “postmodernism” less useful as the 1990s wore on, as the term became over-used and muddled, and he came to find “post-metropolis” more useful and practical, while still seeing in it many of the characteristics and processes associated with postmodernism.
Although Soja often wrote admiringly of what he called Jean Baudrillard’s “powerful critique”, Soja’s characterizations of LA always emphasized the city’s materiality as well as – or more than – its hyperreality.12Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 328. In this vein, in Postmodern Geographies, he argued for LA as the place where “it all comes together… amongst the most propulsive and super-profitable industrial growth poles in the world economy”.13Soja, Postmodern Geographies, pp. 190-1. Not only in economics, but for its ethnic diversity, racial conflict, built environment, and street life, LA was “the paradigmatic window through which to see the last half of the twentieth century”.14Ibid. p. 221. This was a momentous claim when made, as it was, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall: it seemed then that rapid growth in the number and the autonomy of world cities enabled many of them to claim some kind of pre-eminence, though arguably none was better represented by scholarly evidence. In My Los Angeles, Soja reflects with satisfaction on the city’s exceptionally large and rich literature centered on the so-called ‘LA School’ of urban studies, which flourished in the 1980s and ‘90s: e.g. works by the aforementioned Dear and Scott, as well as Mike Davis, Michael Storper, and Jennifer Wolch. Although Soja modestly declares that “[i]t does not matter whether or not there is an LA School”, his particular influence has been felt in an ongoing stream of innovative work in which LA’s exceptional importance is seen: for example, Cecile Whiting’s Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s (2006) and Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (2007), a vivid portrait of the artists, communists, and gay men and women who gathered in the district of Edendale in the early 20th century.
Soja’s prose is less dramatic than that of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990), and it is not peppered by Davis’s memorable cinematic allusions, although Soja seems to have broadly accepted Baudrillard and Umberto Eco’s descriptions of Southern California’s hyper-reality, especially when discussing Orange County, which he argued was an “exopolis”, a new kind of urban space beyond the metropole: “…a theme-park paradise, the American Dream repetitively renewed and infinitely available, as much like the movies as reel life can get… Everyday life seems increasingly to have moved beyond the simpler worlds of the artificial theme parks that you visit when you want to. The new theme parks now visit you, wherever you may be: the disappearance of the real is no longer revealingly concealed. This ecstatic disappearance is fast feeding a new mode of social regulation in the contemporary postmodern world, absorbing us unobtrusively into politically-numbed societies of hyper-simulation where even everyday life is thematically spin-doctored and consciousness itself comes in prepackaged forms.”15Soja, “Inside Exopolis: Scenes from Orange County”, in Michael Sorkin (ed.), Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, New York: Hill and Wang, 1992, pp. 95, 121. But Soja saw fit not to pursue his own close analysis of such forms and rarely even mentioned specific texts, let alone individual filmmakers or other artists.16There are occasional references to particular films or TV in Soja’s books, but they are few and far between. For example, in My Los Angeles, see his mention of “Blade Runner scenarios”, audience reaction to LA’s destruction in the sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day (1996), and the appearance of LA Civic Center in the TV crime show Dragnet (1951-59). Soja, My Los Angeles, pp. 3, 62. This is worth noting because it reminds us that while Cinema and Media Studies have been positively shaped by Geography and Urban Studies in recent years, the various fields are not automatically connected but require constant activity to link them. Soja’s work suggests the links, but others have to build on his example.
Although it was an otherwise excellent book, I recall being just a little disappointed that Soja and Scott’s edited collection The City was so wide-ranging in its study of Los Angeles culture (architecture, ecology, transportation, industrial design, high technology, race and homelessness) but gave relatively little attention to cinema and television.17The “movie-industrial complex” is discussed in three pages in Harvey Molotch’s chapter on “LA as Design Product: How Art Works in a Regional Economy”, in Scott and Soja, The City, pp. 225-75. On the other hand, I knew that Soja’s thinking in general was informed by studies of literature, art, and media by Jameson, Berman, and Berger, and I always respected what seemed to be his decision to work across certain disciplinary boundaries and not others. Note too that Soja’s final book, My Los Angeles, includes an appendix of “Complementary Video Sources”, including a VH1 TV News Special, “Orange County: America’s Hip Factory” (2002), for which Soja acted as a consultant, as well as feature films and documentaries shedding light on LA’s urban geography: Bread and Roses (Ken Loach, 2000), Bus Riders Union (Haskell Wexler, 2000), and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (Robert Greenwald, 2005). This is another reason the BBC documentary is so interesting, because it allows us a concrete way to think through the relationship of Soja’s ideas to visual media, by seeing how he communicated them in that format.[supsystic-gallery id=2 position=right]
To return to its narrative of LA, after the opening segment in which Soja addresses the Bonaventure and downtown, the program ranges across the region to detail other places and their inhabitants in a series of sequences cut together for deliberate contrast. Sitting in a modest bungalow, a black social worker specialized in rehabilitating teenage gang members in South Central outlines the district’s endemic lack of education and employment opportunities, as well as her own difficult youth, former drug addiction and recovery. Her narration is reinforced by two young black men sitting on a stoop, who recount their conflicts with authority and ensuing disillusion. Their impoverished surroundings are then counterpointed by two further interviews: the first, with the African-American manager of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, who proudly declares his shopping mall a hub of the middle class black community, an engine of upward mobility on what he sees as a long road to recovery after the Watts rebellion of 1965; and the second, with the manager of the high-rise art deco apartment complex of Park La Brea, on Wilshire Boulevard, a gated community whose seemingly all white residents emphasize its safety for children and the elderly in a city that is routinely threatening. All of these interviews are recorded in a straight style, without flourish, but with dignity, by a quietly listening and watching camera, before a series of aerial shots of the LA landscape and its freeways brings us to the film’s second half, which centers largely on Anglo American middle class experience in Orange County.
In this geographical structure, the documentary anticipates some of Soja’s urban typology in Postmetropolis: the post-Fordist city, cosmopolis (LA and globalization), exopolis (Orange County as edge city), fractal city (racial and socio-economic inequality and conflict), carceral archipelago (defensive built environment and punitive policing and judiciary), and simcity (the hyperreal city of the electronic age). It begins with downtown, and presents it in some detail, but promptly displaces it by establishing the existence of an equally important ex-urban urban space. This dichotomy also structures the second part of Soja’s Thirdspace, in which he discounts descriptions of Orange County as post-industrial or suburban, arguing that it is both industrial and urban, but in new ways,18Soja, Thirdspace, pp. 245-46; see also “Inside Exopolis”, p. 98. or, in Postmetropolis, an exceptionally important example of the late 20th century US tendency toward “outer cities, postsuburbia, and the end of the metropolis era.”19Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 238. Herein lies one of Soja’s most important contributions to urban geography – an emphasis on the city as an extended urban region. In Thirdspace, this means an innovative examination of new spaces, which Soja mistrusts, such as Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral at Garden Grove, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library at Yorba Linda, the campus of the University of California Irvine, and the South Coast Plaza shopping mall at Costa Mesa.[supsystic-gallery id=3 position=left]
In the documentary, two locations similarly serve to represent what Soja characterizes as Orange County’s in-authenticity: the Noguchi Garden, a minimalist sculpture garden overshadowed by the South Coast Plaza, and the master-planned suburban enclave of Mission Viejo. In the first, Soja, wearing sunglasses, sits in the garden on a rock sculpture which he proceeds to interpret as evidence of the falsehood of the place. Isamu Noguchi’s Spirit of the Lima Bean (1980) is a smoothly-carved granite representation of a cluster of lima beans, whose relationship to real lima beans and Orange County’s lost agricultural past Soja implies to be an analogue of Orange County’s relationship to Los Angeles, and of any exopolis to its adjacent central city (while the camera cuts to multiple local street signs identifying “Center Tower” and “Park Center Drive”, so many expressions of a desire for centrality in what used to be peripheral space). Interestingly, this is one of the few occasions when Soja engages in the close analysis of art (see also his brief discussion of Los Angeles murals in My Los Angeles), but he does it in a thought-provoking way – and the photography and editing of the scene by the BBC adds a dimension missing from his re-telling of the subject in Thirdspace.20Soja, Thirdspace, pp. 263-65[supsystic-gallery id=4 position=right]
The final sequence of the documentary presents another off-putting landscape, Mission Viejo, whose regimented bungalows and driveways we see from numerous angles. Here, though, Soja’s commentary is intercut with interviews with managers and residents of the site, all of whom are Anglo American and seemingly well-to-do. Admiring it without question, one of its developers proclaims Mission Viejo “a totally balanced community… What we build will not be perfect, but it will be a better place”; another happily outlines its detailed architectural regulation by residents’ committees (e.g. strict guidelines on the color of house paint and the placement of garden accessories); a middle-aged mother suggests her relief at having moved here from LA; and, finally, members of the world-leading local swim team set out their aspirations for success in the Olympics. Soja is careful to describe Mission Viejo respectfully, as “interesting” and “successful” on its own terms, an exercise in “collective image-making” which is not completely “fake”. But the spatial and socio-economic contrasts across the documentary as a whole inevitably imply that Mission Viejo is a conservative and privileged locale, in a setting now reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998). In this context, the naming of Mission Viejo in homage to the region’s Spanish and Mexican history is surely one of the factors which animates Soja’s closing declaration, filmed in an eccentric overhead long shot, that Mission Viejo is “one of the factories of hyper-reality”, like Disneyland but now “spread everywhere in everyday life, throughout the city, throughout the urban landscape”. As if to underline the problem, the film’s final credits bring us back to its opening at Venice Beach where Los Angeles’s super-diversity continues apace (and is more interesting for the viewer to watch).
As I read it, this mapping of Los Angeles quietly but unmistakably implies that ethnic and socio-economic diversity is a net benefit to big cities, that multiculturalism is an asset, and that places are poorer without it – an attitude which makes Soja’s work all the more valuable today, in a time of racist reaction. In Thirdspace, for example, Soja appreciates feminist and postcolonial spatial critiques before describing downtown LA history as a contest between dominant and resistant spaces, represented by Los Angeles Civic Center, the modern seat of government and policing authority, and its displacement of El Pueblo, the city’s Hispanic point of origin, full of hidden histories of immigrants and the poor.21Soja, Thirdspace, pp. 204-228. Postmetropolis too considers multicultural societies, especially in the aftermath of the 1992 Justice Riots, which Soja ultimately took as a basis for “new beginnings… [s]truggles for spatial justice and regional democracy”.22Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 407. His emphasis on the need for struggle indicates that his was not a naive utopian fantasy of multiculturalism but a deeply-held conviction, grounded in real-world evidence, that society could avoid disaster only by embracing difference. An enjoyment and valorization of dense, layered, and diverse environments was evident, for example, in his typical description of one LA community: “Since at least the 1920s, the Gardena area has contained a large resident Japanese population and a distinct cluster of Hawaiians, also mainly of Japanese origin. The combined Korean and Chinese populations have increased in recent years almost to the size of the Japanese, and there are growing numbers of Filipinos as well, giving the city of over 50,000 a distinctive ‘Pan-Asian’ flavor. Gardena’s Japanese heritage made it an important service center for businessmen traveling to the more than 300 Japanese firms that clustered in the larger South Bay area, including at one time the US headquarters of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. Even today, Gardena is considered to have some of the best sushi restaurants in the region. … In part based on its extraordinary cultural diversity, the city government of Gardena has become one of the most progressive in the USA.”23Soja, Postmetropolis, pp. 295-96.
In My Los Angeles, Soja reminds us of his origins outside LA, born in the Bronx, and initially specializing in the economic geography of East Africa.24My Los Angeles, pp. 11, 20. To my knowledge, he never said as much directly, but his perspective on cultural diversity seems at least partly a function of this earlier professional focus, his African studies surely having sensitized him to the importance of de-centering Euro- and Anglo-centric knowledge, and further fueled by his admiration of radicals’ demands for a “right to the city” in Paris in 1968.25Of course, the concept of the “right to the city” is originally Lefebvre’s but Soja cited it frequently, with admiration. See, for example, Postmodern Geographies, p. 49. These influences also presumably explain his explicit efforts to resist the tendency to pessimism of some critiques of the postmodern city by drawing inspiration from movements of resistance to urbanization and globalization in the post-colonial world, especially through the work of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Arjun Appadurai, whose thinking he brought to be bear on LA and cities worldwide.
An increasing interest and belief in linking scholarship and progressive social activism seems evident in Soja’s work from Postmodern Geographies through Seeking Spatial Justice, the latter a book which he explicitly acknowledged was a change in direction, or at least in emphasis – still resolutely spatial, but very much a practice-based study of grassroots community organization by racial minorities and the poor against official or prescribed uses of urban space, especially in LA, which Soja saw as a fruitful test bed for progressive approaches to urban planning. One of the most important of the book’s case studies was the Bus Riders Union, which successfully organized in the 1990s against de facto and institutional discrimination in the city’s mass transit distribution and policies – the subject of the aforementioned documentary film by Haskell Wexler.
We do not know exactly what words Soja would have used to describe the current condition of the city, the US, and LA, but in his books he occasionally made his views unreservedly clear in a way which echoes uncannily today. In the concluding pages of Postmetropolis, for example, he expanded his critique of “Simcities” to denounce “SimAmerica”: “Among the most convincing hypersimulations of the Reagan years was the crusade against ‘Big Government’, a political scam that restructured the national ideology and, along with it, what I have called the urban imaginary. The spin-doctored ideology of small-is-better government was used as a potent weapon to attack the Keynesian welfare state, to dismantle many anti-poverty programs under the guise of a hyped-up New Federalism, to re-simulate the civil rights movement through cleverly-composed imagery that associated its accomplishments with ‘reverse racism’ and ‘political correctness’, to root recession in negative thinking and rationalize the need for a downsizing new austerity, and to virtually deconstruct and reconstitute the meaning of liberal democracy and representative government.”26Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 345. In My Los Angeles, Soja associates this new dispensation especially with Orange County, which he portrays as the epicenter of a growing US and global problem of simulation, which is a kind of lying or spreading of falsehood. This encompasses savings and loan company fraud, military-industrial complex machinations, and a media-based “scamscape” of “politically-biased television news broadcasts”, “the computer games of SimCity and its many offshoots”, and Hollywood, “America’s fulsome dream machine, pouring out realistic fakes that entertain nearly everyone on earth.”27Soja, My Los Angeles, pp. 2, 103-07. And yet more damaging than entertaining falsehoods, he argues, are those that go to the heart of “contemporary American politics”, as they did when Karl Rove and the Bush-Cheney administration spun media attacks on “the reality-based community” of academics and the press.28Soja, My Los Angeles, pp. 87, 166. These comments are more polemical than most of Soja’s work, including his work for the BBC, but like the documentary Los Angeles: City of the Future, they astutely describe problems that have not gone away.
Mark Shiel is Professor of Film, Media, and Urban Studies in the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London. He is the author of Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press, 2012) and Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City (Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press, 2005). He is the editor of Architectures of Revolt: The Cinematic City circa 1968 (Temple University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Screening the City (Verso Books, 2003) and Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context (Blackwell Publishing, 2001).
|↑1||Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London and New York: Verso, 1989; Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real and Imagined Places, Oxford and Malden, MA: 1996; Allen J. Scott and Edward J. Soja, eds, The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996; Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions, Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2000; Seeking Spatial Justice, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010; My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.|
|↑2||Soja, Postmodern Geographies, pp. 16, 39.|
|↑3||Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice (eds), Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, Oxford and New Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001, p. 6.|
|↑4||Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991, pp. 39-42.|
|↑5||Two ‘Academic Consultants’ were named in the program’s credits, Soja and Kenneth Thompson, who was also the British narrator. Thompson was a professor of sociology at the Open University, known for works on Emile Durkheim and related subjects, and he was occasionally a visiting professor at UCLA in the 1980s and ‘90s. The program was produced by Vic Lockwood and the BBC Open University Production Centre for the Open University degree course Understanding Modern Societies. See http://collections-search.bfi.org.uk/web/Details/ChoiceFilmWorks/150408918|
|↑6||See, for example, the Rollins’ Band’s album The End of Silence (Imago Recording Company, 1992).|
|↑7||Given Soja’s argument that the international renown of French Marxism circa 1968 was key to progressive change in Geography and the social sciences more broadly, and given his effective elucidation of the theses of Foucault and Lefebvre, in particular, I see Soja as one of the key conduits through whose work the example and lessons of mai ’68 gained influence in the US, alongside work in philosophy and comparative literature by Mark Poster and Sylvère Lotringer.|
|↑8||Soja, Postmodern Geographies, p. 37.|
|↑9||Soja, My Los Angeles, p. 173.|
|↑10||Soja, Postmodern Geographies, p. 12.|
|↑11||Soja, Postmetropolis, p.164. Indeed, in My Los Angeles, Soja admits to having come to find the term “postmodernism” less useful as the 1990s wore on, as the term became over-used and muddled, and he came to find “post-metropolis” more useful and practical, while still seeing in it many of the characteristics and processes associated with postmodernism.|
|↑12||Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 328.|
|↑13||Soja, Postmodern Geographies, pp. 190-1.|
|↑14||Ibid. p. 221.|
|↑15||Soja, “Inside Exopolis: Scenes from Orange County”, in Michael Sorkin (ed.), Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, New York: Hill and Wang, 1992, pp. 95, 121.|
|↑16||There are occasional references to particular films or TV in Soja’s books, but they are few and far between. For example, in My Los Angeles, see his mention of “Blade Runner scenarios”, audience reaction to LA’s destruction in the sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day (1996), and the appearance of LA Civic Center in the TV crime show Dragnet (1951-59). Soja, My Los Angeles, pp. 3, 62.|
|↑17||The “movie-industrial complex” is discussed in three pages in Harvey Molotch’s chapter on “LA as Design Product: How Art Works in a Regional Economy”, in Scott and Soja, The City, pp. 225-75.|
|↑18||Soja, Thirdspace, pp. 245-46; see also “Inside Exopolis”, p. 98.|
|↑19||Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 238.|
|↑20||Soja, Thirdspace, pp. 263-65|
|↑21||Soja, Thirdspace, pp. 204-228.|
|↑22||Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 407.|
|↑23||Soja, Postmetropolis, pp. 295-96.|
|↑24||My Los Angeles, pp. 11, 20.|
|↑25||Of course, the concept of the “right to the city” is originally Lefebvre’s but Soja cited it frequently, with admiration. See, for example, Postmodern Geographies, p. 49.|
|↑26||Soja, Postmetropolis, p. 345.|
|↑27||Soja, My Los Angeles, pp. 2, 103-07.|
|↑28||Soja, My Los Angeles, pp. 87, 166.|