Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

by Min Hyoung Song
Pub. Date:
Duke University Press Books


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Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

Theorizes race and nation in the cultural aftermath of the LA riots.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822335924
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/10/2005
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Min Hyoung Song is Associate Professor of English at Boston College. He is a coeditor of Asian American Studies: A Reader.

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Strange Future



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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3579-5

Chapter One

Racial Geography of Southern California

On 30 April 1992, a satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began transmitting an image of an unusual heat source emanating from Southern California. This heat source spanned nearly thirty-three square miles and was as hot as the Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 in the Philippines. When researchers processed the image, they realized that what they were looking at was a picture from outer space of the second day of the Los Angeles riots. The heat source was attributed to the fact that "an average of three new fires were started each minute during the three hours preceding the image" (Dousset, Flamen, and Bernstein 1993, 33; quoted in Davis 1998, 421). At the start of the last decade of the twentieth century, technology and urban destruction melded together into an unexpected form of social epistemology. Rather than projecting us outward as it did in the mid-twentieth-century science fiction of writers such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury, technology turned its lenses back upon the Earth. Rather than presenting us with an image of the Earth as a unified globe in a vast emptiness assuccessive missions to the moon made famous from 1969 to 1972, technology recorded with digital accuracy the continuous failures of post-civil-rights government policies to promote social acceptance, equal protection under the law, and common economic prosperity irrespective of race.

What this image suggests is that this failure could well have been planned. The whole of Southern California is not a bright uniform orange; nor do orange spots dot the region in sporadic and random places. Rather, the technological representation of burning buildings records a clearly defined area of containment and spatial segregation across a vast multinucleated metropolitan area. Whatever grief or frustration or justifiable political need sparked these fires, these fires were carefully managed to cluster about a subregional, mostly unincorporated grid-what I will call a negative space-defined by economic poverty, ethnic and racial diversity, and a noticeable separation from the other equally managed, incorporated, wealthier, and more racially homogeneous grids of Southern California. The concentration of these fires, made so vivid by the NOAA satellite image, calls into question the orthodoxy that often dominates awareness of our built-up surroundings. Orthodoxy refers to the sense that what appears to us as random and haphazard, so succinctly captured in the dismissive term suburban sprawl, is actually something that has been carefully organized, that serves specific functions, and that shapes our experiences in a powerful but difficult-to-acknowledge way. It is, to put it simply, common sense that this region should be the way it is. The region's gridlike spatialization seems a natural extension of its geographical peculiarities, almost as if the tract housing, the strip malls, the congested freeways and boulevards, even the economic and racial in-equities, are themselves organic growths on the floor of a Mediterranean-climate basin.

What kind of cultural logic was at work in the making of such common sense? How, in other words, has the accumulation of choices made and opportunities squandered come to appear to us, in retrospect, as somehow inevitable? By logic, I refer to the assumptions we might begin with in attempting to interpret cultural phenomena, how our thoughts and actions are guided by these assumptions, and the ways in which such assumptions are subjected to testing and reworking. With this definition in mind, we might say that the orthodoxy of planned communities, incorporated and unincorporated spaces, racial exclusions, and capital flows are built on assumptions of cultural superiority, human progress, and consumer desire. This orthodoxy of assumptions overlapped and at times were at odds with a second kind of cultural logic guiding the interpretation of spatial change by the region's residents. The latter was primarily concerned with the promises of a future that could dissolve current inequities, the looking back when looking forward became impossible, and the desire to start over either by wiping out what was already there or by moving someplace else. This subjective approach to interpreting cultural phenomena found beautiful expression in three creative works of the postwar era. Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1997 [1946]), Luis Rodriguez's Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (1993), and Cynthia Kadohata's In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) are arguably some of the most significant literary works to interest themselves in the depiction of this region's cultural contours since the Second World War. Side by side, they provide us with a rich cross section of historical changes as they are lived, brooded over, and reshaped into narrative. Together, they tell a startling story of how looking forward, looking backward, and looking to start over can occupy the same gaze through which to regard the incredible changes that Southern California has experienced in the years between the end of the Second World War and the start of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.


For the generation who grew up during the heady days of early space exploration and who have largely moved to the homogeneous community developments that have sprung up throughout the United States since the Second World War, the irony of the reversals captured so vividly by the NOAA satellite must seem unusually acute. During the height of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, advance technology was represented by rocket ships and not the miniaturization of technology, and the future involved manned missions to outer space and not a remote-controlled pixilated abstraction of American residents yet again setting fire to their own cities. In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998), Mike Davis comments on the meaning of the pixilated image transmitted by the NOAA satellite for a person of his generation: "Once upon a time-in the rocket summer of my childhood-it was widely believed that Los Angeles's ultimate suburb would be the planet Mars, not a maximum-security prison in the desert.... If this now seems preposterous, it is only because our imagined futures have worn poorly over the ensuing years. The 1990s in particular have been a funeral decade, interring many of the hopes and fantasies of the earlier twentieth century" (418). As this passage might suggest, Ecology of Fear, much like the other works in Davis's oeuvre, is a radically pessimistic work of cultural criticism where the present is defined by a state that has, like technology, turned inward. This state has become more invested in surveillance, information gathering, and incarceration than in guaranteeing the freedoms associated with the ready availability of employment and plentiful unstructured leisurely activity. This is in sharp contrast with a past when a few were able to enjoy the pleasures of an expansive freedom and could look forward to the future as a continuation of what they already enjoyed.

Ecology of Fear thus occupies an interesting place between the two major genres of literature that primarily concern me in this chapter, science fiction and memoir. Like the former, Davis's book obsesses over a future that has become harder to imagine, and harder still to desire. It seems like a dark place, with little hope, full of biting irony and reversals. At the same time, even this obsession with the future engages in a work of remembrance, as the passage just quoted suggests with its recourse to Davis's own personal memory of his childhood spent dreaming over space exploration. The past is comforting for Davis exactly because it enabled a younger version of himself to look forward to a future that would, unfortunately, never come to pass. To make sense of this duality in another way, Davis's most pessimistic book on Los Angeles engages in its eschatological thinking a surprisingly complex rhetorical trope: nostalgia for an antique future.

According to Svetlana Boym in her remarkable work of cultural criticism, personal memoir, and travelogue, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), "Nostalgia (from nostos-return to home, and algia-longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one's own fantasy" (xiii). When traced to its root words, nostalgia can be defined as a turning backward, a desire for something that may have once existed but does not necessarily have to reflect any recoverable referent. It can also be a yearning for an ideal that brings into sharper clarity through contrast what seems missing in our present moment and place. Nostalgia longs for a home that may not exist except in our fantasies. Indeed, nostalgia is often a fantasy of homecoming that is felt most strongly when home itself lacks clear definition. As such, it can become manifest as a desire to restore what is felt to have been lost or as an occasion to reflect on the conditions of homelessness that give nostalgia its affective sting. "Restorative nostalgia," Boym writes, "puts emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance" (41). For Boym, restorative nostalgia is always problematic because it fails to recognize itself as nostalgia, preferring instead to see itself as squarely rooted in the real world of practical politics engaged in the construction of nation- and state-building as home. In other words, restorative nostalgia (as found in most of the neoconservative writings mentioned in the introduction) mistakes itself for politics geared toward the future and not a politics preoccupied by the past. It is a form of looking back that thinks of itself as looking forward. In contrast, reflective nostalgia is more modern because it recognizes the impossibility of return and satisfies itself with exploring the makeshift nature of existence as a contemporary retelling of the Odyssey without a possible triumphant reconquest of Ithaca. It is a looking back that, in understanding itself as such, acknowledges uncertainty about what lies ahead.

If this is the case, which kind of nostalgia does Davis engage in when he mourns a future that refused to come to pass and that seems now "preposterous" because it is so remote from being actualized? It is the nature of nostalgia to blur attempts to differentiate too sharply between its possible manifestations. This is so because the concept of home upon which nostalgia relies is a feeling that reassures us "that things are in their places and so are you" (Boym 2001, 251). Such feelings have become things to comment upon because the sense of unremarkable ease of being has been more or less permanently disrupted: "In the late twentieth century, millions of people find themselves displaced from their birth-place, living in voluntary or involuntary exile. Their intimate experiences occur in a foreign background" (Boym 2001, 252). The act of looking back in time, intrinsic to our understanding of nostalgia, is predicated on social conditions of rootlessness, exile, and travel that reflect what appear to be the immutable trends of the future.

The future, as it is currently most vividly imagined, is a place defined by the very conditions of relentless mobility and displacement that make preoccupation with a lost home possible. In trying to make ourselves at home in this future, we cannot make a well-defined distinction between the act of restoration, which will render the new lands we occupy places we feel secure in, which provides us with a sense of unremarkable identity, and the act of reflection, which sees in these new lands only the loss of any secure identity, which tries to accept the out-of-reach nature of home as a concept necessarily tainted by a look backward. To make ourselves at home in a place is to engage in the re-creation of something we have already lost. Since we cannot, however, re-create a perfect replica of the places we have left behind, we cannot expect to feel at ease in these new lands. Whatever homes we might engineer will always be haunted by an absence of ease. In trying to occupy a future that is not simply the uninterrupted continuation of the past, we are constantly engaged in the restoration of a past and a reflection on the inadequacy of such restorations. We cannot, therefore, say with any degree of certainty whether Davis's invocation of "suburbs on Mars" engages in a desire for a return (restorative nostalgia) or in a critical examination of social structures that have relegated such dreams to a future awash in a patina of impossibility (reflective nostalgia). Like all nostalgia, regardless of how we might qualify its various manifestations, Davis is engaged in both. Science fiction and memoir, speculation about the future and rumination over the past, are inseparable because both are about distance from an unpleasant present.


When we follow Davis's nostalgia-laden thoughts to their touchstones, we discover this inseparability. When Davis writes, "in the rocket summers of my youth," he is explicitly gesturing toward Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1997 [1946]). The latter book begins: "Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the town, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground" (1). As this passage might suggest, there is already something deeply nostalgic about The Martian Chronicles, a collection of loosely related short stories and vignettes that roughly follows the chronology of the human exploration of Mars, its colonization, and its eventual abandonment as conditions on Earth turn toward nuclear self-destruction. The book's opening lines juxtapose images of an idealized small-town America that has literally become frozen in time with the icons of an emergent Space Age that melt this tableau in favor of state-funded vertical propulsion, escape, and radical transformation. This opening passage evokes the desire to blast o to a faraway place and to start all over again even as it looks back wistfully at what has been left behind.

Space travel becomes in the early part of The Martian Chronicles an unquestioned marker of futurity, a turning point in the linear evolution of human sophistication from prehistory through the division of labor to the colonization of other planets, even when it also becomes a means of critiquing the failures of such progressive modernity to guarantee the freedoms once enjoyed in an anterior (and retrospectively imagined?) moment. The first half of the book is filled with this double-edged romance of exploration, novel technologies, and, most important of all, settlements on Mars, before turning attention more insistently on the problems of overbureaucratization and total war once these settlements take root. What draws Bradbury, and undoubtedly many of his readers, to the romance of space travel and colonization is the sense of freedom that such expansion promised. Breaking away from the bounded spaces of a self-contained, overpopulated, and delimited planet held out the hope of a greater expansiveness of being, the ability to envision new societies that could correct for the failures of the one in which he and his readers found themselves. Breaking away could mean starting over without the material and ideological constraints that often condition the failures of the old world.


Excerpted from Strange Future by MIN HYOUNG SONG Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: When the Strange Erupts in Culture....................1
1 Racial Geography of Southern California....................27
2 The Black Body in Pain: Rodney King and Strange Days....................68
3 Culture of Wounding: The Riots and Twilight....................100
4 Mourning Los Angeles....................134
5 A Diasporic Future? Historical Trauma and Native Speaker....................165
Epilogue: Bearers of Bad News....................199
Works Cited....................257

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Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is much more than a cultural studies consideration of the Los Angeles Uprisings/Riots of 1992, but really a deeper reflection on contemporary US society and culture of which 1992 was the rawest example. Not only wide-ranging in the material that Song engages but also deeply informed by literary criticism and social theory, it is not an overestimation to say that this book is a mark of Song's erudition. And perhaps most importantly, this is one of the most lucid pieces of critical prose that I've read in a long time.