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Thursday, October 02, 2008

I won't say I'm blown away by this photo

Urban historian Mike Davis came to America's Next Top Model last night to devise the photo shoot: Los Angeles-related natural disasters. Tyra's girls had to personify earthquakes, rockslides, tidal waves, heat waves, the Santa Ana winds (hence Nigel's joke that gives this post its title), etc. while wearing 60s-inspired shift dresses and climbing around on a diorama. Fiercely. From Davis's 1992 Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, which starts with a table of the floods, earthquakes, fires, plus the Rodney King riots that took place from 1992-95:
It is still unclear, moreover, whether this vicious circle of disaster is coincidental or eschatological. Could the is merely be what statisticians wave away as the 'Joseph effect of fractal geometry: 'the common clustering of catastrophe'? Could these be the Last Days, as prefigured so often in the genre of Los Angeles disaster fiction and film (from Day of the Locust to Volcano)? Or is nature in Southern California simply waking up after a long nap? Whatever the case, millions of Angelenos have become genuinely terrified of their environment.

Paranoia about nature, of course, distracts attention from the obvious fact that Los Angeles has deliberately put itself in harm's way. For generations, market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire, and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets. In failing to conserve natural ecosystems it has also squandered much of its charm and beauty.

But the social construction of 'natural' disaster is largely hidden from view by way of thinking that simultaneously imposes false expectations on the environment and then explains the inevitable disappointments as proof of a malign and hostile nature. Pseudoscience, in the service of rampant greed, has warped perceptions of the regional landscape. Southern California, in the most profound sense, is suffering a crisis of identity.

I must have mentioned Davis ten times in the past few weeks: when we were talking in my writing class about how fear of the other gets turned into a monster (see Davis's great chapter on the chupacabra and immigration fears in the Southwest in Ecology of Fear. BTW, chupacabra sightings occasionally make the top story in the evening news in ABQ); whether I should give my writing class a chapter from City of Quartz because I remembered liking it so much in college; my nostalgia mixed with mild embarrassment to read my old copy of City of Quartz and see some adorable but uncritical marginalia; how Late Victorian Holocausts should be reprinted every hurricane season (El Nino year or not), and why he doesn't address the Galveston hurricane of 1900 in that book, though it fits into his thesis pretty well; and whether there could actually be tornados in Los Angeles.

Of course it's glib to see Mike Davis's influence on ANTM, but what if this photo shoot could be a great epilogue to a reissue of the book, to see how representations of LA eschatology have moved beyond film and science fiction novels into the very strange world of Tyra Banks's demented modeling schemes?

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