Table of Contents
Edward W. Soja called Los Angeles ‘the quintessential postmodern metropolis’. This, however, shall not be the premise of my argument in this essay, because of the obvious danger of circularity. Yet I will use postmodern critics and compare my findings to postmodern models of culture, space and society. I will not discuss the term postmodernism itself, simply because the range of this essay does not allow my entering this ongoing debate. The term will be used as denoting both a period, beginning, for my purposes, in the 1960s, and a theory of cultural tendencies in contemporary life. For this essay, I will assume that postmodernism is a fact, a part of everyday reality, and that it differs substantially from modernism.
The main body of this essay will consist of a discussion of the fundamental factors which define Los Angeles as postmodern space. I will focus on particularities that distinguish Los Angeles from other cities, most of all from those which have not yet crossed the threshold of postmodernity. Firstly, I will investigate the geographical instability of the city; the fact that it is threatened to be annihilated by natural forces such as earthquakes and the desert. Secondly, I will address the idea of the city as a desert, its horizontality, its vastness, its lack of centre. Thirdly, the structure on this flat surface will be addressed; the freeways as an arterial network, and the structure of segregating walls, both literal and metaphorical. Finally, I will conclude by investigating the parallels between the idea of instability that underlies all of the factors I discuss, and the notion of the unstable in postmodernism.
Los Angeles as a city is highly unstable, simply because it is under constant threat of being destroyed. First of all, the city lies on a geological fault. As Joan Didion shows, Angelenos live under fear of the Big One, and they are reminded of this condition by daily tremors. The seeming equanimity of Angelenos towards earthquakes confirms rather than denies their awareness of the threat of annihilation.
In fact it is less equanimity than protective detachment, the useful adjustment commonly made in circumstances so unthinkable that psychic survival precludes preparation.
It is no coincidence, then, that one of the two incidents defining Los Angeles as the locus of Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts is an earthquake. Just like the anti-medfly sprays in the opening sequence, the final earthquake unites all the different characters and narratives of the film, because all of them are threatened by these events. This film on everyday life in L.A. thus ends in another everyday event. Los Angeles’ potential for apocalypse, be it through earthquake or fire, has been exploited by several disaster movies. The recent Volcano even let a hitherto unknown volcano erupt in the middle of L.A. (‘The Coast is Toast’ was the movie’s tag line).
The second big threat to Los Angeles is less spectacular, but all the same omnipresent. The city is surrounded by the desert. Its existence depends on its water-supply, provided by the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The consequences of drought and central importance of water for political power are depicted in Roman Polansky’s Chinatown. A powerful man like the John Huston character in the film, which is based on General Otis, can destroy whole economic existence, most of all in agriculture, by simply turning off the water supply - in favour of real estate development, for instance.
This problem is becoming even more immanent as Los Angeles is still growing and spreading into the Mojave Desert and Death Valley (Davis, p.12). The threatening vastness, heat and aridity of the desert is now literally in the backyard of many a homeowner (cf. Robert Morrow’s photograph in Davis, p.13). ‘For the desert is simply that: an ecstatic critique of culture, an ecstatic form of disappearance.’
As I pull onto Sunset I pass the billboard I saw this morning that read ‘Disappear Here’ and I look away and kind of try to get it out of my mind.
Clay, the narrator and main character of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, does not succeed in getting the slogan out of his head. Los Angeles, for him, becomes a Baudrillardian desert, where human beings get lost, disappear.
There is, of course, a geographical basis to this feeling. Los Angeles is actually a city of “limitless horizontality” (Baudrillard, America, p.52). This is why the European exiles did not see Los Angeles as urban in the modernist sense of the term, but rather as a desert.
Amid so much open land there seemed to be no space that met their criteria of ‘civilized urbanity’. ... Los Angeles became increasingly symbolized as an ‘anti-city’, a Gobi of suburbs. (Davis, p. 47)
This process of Los Angeles spreading horizontally has continued in the postmodern era, which has further emphasized its centrifugal character. Edward W. Soja describes this transformation as follows:
a combination of decentralization and recentralization, the peripheralization of the center and the centralization of the periphery, the city simultaneously being turned inside out and outside in. (Soja, p. 131)
That is, distinguishing between central and peripheral areas of the city is now hardly possible. Los Angeles becomes a city of cities, a ‘centrifugal metropolis’ (Baudrillard, America, p. 58), a space of infinite horizontality, like a desert.
The effect of the missing centre is a lack of fixedness, or instability. This fundamentally postmodern phenomenon can be perceived as disorientating, threatening; Clay in Less Than Zero is an example. Baudrillard’s reaction, however, is enthusiastic:
Why is LA, why are the deserts so fascinating? It is because you are delivered from all depth there - a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a challenge to meaning and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture, an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference-points. (America, p. 124)
For Baudrillard, the desert and the desert-city Los Angeles become the postmodern space par excellence.
 Edward W. Soja, ‘Postmodern Urbanization: The Six Restructurings of Los Angeles.’ in Sophie Watson and Katherine Gibson (ed.s), Postmodern Cities and Spaces (Cambridge MA, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), p. 128.
 Joan Didion, After Henry. Henry (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 145.
 cf. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), p. 115.
 Jean Baudrillard, America, transl. Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 1989), p. 5.
 Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (London: Picador, 1986), p. 41.