Between Catastrophe and Revolution

ESSAYS IN HONOR OF MIKE DAVIS


Edited by DANIEL BERTRAND MONK and MICHAEL SORKIN


Contributors: Mauro Caraccioli, Bruno Carvalho, Charmaine Chua, William Connolly, Mustafa Dikeç, Jairus Victor Grove, Waleed Hazbun, Andrew Herscher, China Miéville, Don Mitchell, Jacob Mundy, Ana Muñiz, Christian Parenti, Andrew Ross, Rob Wallace, Kenichi Okamoto, Alex Liebman, and Michael Sorkin.


“Some of the essays in this volume patiently argue; some sweep forward in righteous fury. All borrow Mike Davis's grammar of catastrophe to anticipate a revolutionary moment when, at last, humanity pulls the handbrake. Whether they eulogise places and peoples laid waste by violence and war, or report on heating oceans and air and land, these essays are electrifying and urgently necessary.” —Laleh Khalili, author of Sinews of War and Trade


“Over the course of the decades, Mike Davis has mobilized his cool intelligence, breathtaking scholarly creativity, intellectual fearlessness and radical political imagination to illuminate the spatial violence and ecological madness of modern capitalism, as well as ongoing struggles for alternative forms of collective life. In this remarkable volume, several generations of radical thinkers engage with and take inspiration from Davis’s ideas. In so doing, they not only celebrate Davis’s wide-ranging insights, but illustrate their urgent importance for contemporary scholarship on the catastrophes and revolutions of our time.” —Neil Brenner, author of New Urban Spaces



Published in association with Terreform

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About the Book

It is all worse than we think. It is even worse than Mike Davis, for whom “every day is judgment day” (The Nation), could have imagined. The contributions to this volume are explorations of what Davis—in typical wry fashion—once referred to as the field of “disaster studies.” Collectively, they show how our “disaster imaginary” has been rendered inadequate by the existing order’s ability to feed off and coopt our resistance to it.

Contemporary mass protests are now subsumed as instances of an established, profitable politics of rage. Geopolitical conflict poses not as a threat to hegemonic power but rather serves the interests of a global market which capitalizes on lucrative, permanent war. Climate change itself, if it was ever thought to be a universalizing phenomenon, is now treated as an extensive market opportunity by global risk insurance conglomerates and predatory lenders who bet against any rescue of the planet.

Such catastrophic developments resist the language we use to describe and deconstruct them. The contributions to this volume seek to reimagine our understanding of disaster, and, following the example of Davis himself, to refuse outdated models of political transcendence as vigorously as they reject narratives of resignation.

364 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-277-1 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-279-5

 

About the Editors

Daniel Bertrand Monk photo

Daniel Bertrand Monk holds the George R. and Myra T. Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University, where he is professor of Geography and Middle East Studies. He is the author of An Aesthetic Occupation, as well as a number of other studies on the territorial and spatial practices of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Monk is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in International Peace and Security [SSRC-CIPS], as well as a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship [WWICS] for his contributions to research on contemporary conflict.

Michael Sorkin photo

Michael Sorkin was Distinguished Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at the City College of New York. He served as president of Terreform, a nonprofit urban research and advocacy center, publisher and editor of UR Books, and architecture critic for The Nation. Sorkin passed away from Covid-19 on 26 March 2020.

Read an Excerpt

From the Introduction by Daniel Bertrand Monk

The jacket blurbs of any of Mike Davis’s ten monographs present the reader with the image of an activist, former meatcutter, and truck driver who only happens to have won a MacArthur genius award and written some stuff about impending ecological and social doom. And yet, the man that The Nation has described as the “master of disaster prose” is clearly more than that. The disruptions he has caused in the process of examining our shared imagination of disaster actually point to a rigorous and coherent intellectual project that is too easily misrepresented or overlooked. Even sympathetic evaluators seem unable to resist making statements like “judgement day is every day with Mike Davis.” His work is “overlooked” even as it is ubiquitously cited in the sense that Davis’s systematic destruction of our collective destruction imaginary is part of an intellectual trajectory that can only be defined by what it negates…

Davis’s entire oeuvre rehearses a dialectic of catastrophe and revolution—that is, of an apocalyptic Nature that will not be subordinated to normative periodizations that would instrumentalize it as an adjunct to human history, but that, in the course of that refusal, potentiates both the consciousness and possibility of a revolutionary time. This accounts for the contrarieties animating Davis’s early works, in which the problem of collective action—the failures of labor to gain political hegemony in the US—are examined instead as triumphs of collective action, and indeed of class war, waged by “postreformist” interests against both the racialized and indigenized poor in North America and the targets of American imperialism abroad. In Prisoners of the American Dream (1986) and City of Quartz (1990), the “sunbelt Bolshevism” of homeowners’ associations in California’s suburbs and neoliberal boosters in LA pointed to the need for insurgent alliances among members of a global precariat. A commodified Nature and naturalized political economy alike are referenced in these volumes, but chiefly in order to focus on their effects on the production of a grotesque urbanism.

This dialectic of catastrophe and revolution approaches self-conscious expression in The Ecology of Fear (1998), where a “natural” revolution—in the form of capitalism’s encroachments on the Western landscape—meets a revolutionary environment in the form of firestorms that, in turn, reveal Angelinos’ anxieties about an alienated Nature to be synonymous with dread of an imagined “incendiary other.” (This is how the volume makes a sound case for “letting Malibu burn,” for example: as the naturalized “view corridors” of the real estate industry reveal themselves to have always been the fire corridors of an ignored ecology, the return of a repressed Nature is then acknowledged and displaced onto the indigenized poor, who are in turn disproportionately sacrificed to the blaze . . .) The demographic authors of what Davis termed “a magical urbanism” to describe the Latinx remaking of the American metropolis in this way become the denizens of his Dead Cities (2002) instead.

In Davis’s so-called disaster narratives, each inversion of received history necessarily points to the next. The tragic fires and bedraggled mountain lions of Ecology of Fear are synecdoches for a history that has denatured ecological processes of the planet as a whole, just as the forms of land speculation outlined in the book stand in for a mode of production to which we have given quasi-ecological status, along with the hierarchies attending its social Darwinist assumptions. In Late Victorian Holocausts(2001) and Planet of Slums, Davis abandons these metonyms so that the level of analysis is finally systemic and planetary in scale. In Late Victorian Holocausts, global climate patterns and the economy of “long waves” are synchronized with one another via permanent and anticipatory forms of counterrevolution practiced by Great Britain’s viceroys in India, Lord Lytton and Lord Curzon. They have an agentic origin. As Davis puts it, the New Imperialism becomes “the third gear of this catastrophic history.” The policies that made, displaced, and then killed the precariat of the Global South are not incidental to the confluence of economies and ecologies or an attendant “development gap,” but the result of a politics knowingly advanced on utilitarian grounds. The reasons Lord Lytton allowed Indians to starve to death while their grain was exported elsewhere, return or persist in the IMF and the World Bank’s expressions of concern about “dependency syndrome” a century later, when the structural adjustment policies they implemented were, in part, responsible for generating the largest single migration in human history and the ensuing creation of a Planet of Slums (2006).

The global ecological history that Davis inaugurated in the oeuvre outlined here has always refused dogmatic closure in favor of an urgent program of action and thought premised on the negation of the neoliberal order’s given alternatives. This is why it has enjoyed a viral career across a series of disciplines ranging from urban studies to history, geography, political science, and more. It is also why Davis’s work has become a crucial referent for the production of new knowledges by a generation of scholars, artists, and activists represented in the pages of this volume. Beyond their willingness to delve into the catastrophes of the present that hide by not hiding in plain sight, what binds the studies assembled here to one another and to the work of Mike Davis is an appeal to “what is not” in the relentless critique of what is.

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