Of those cities will remain what passed
through them, the wind!
– Bertolt Brecht, “Of Poor B. B.”
In two oblique images of the Watts Rebellion made in the years immediately following the uprising, one by a prominent Los Angeles writer and the other by a conceptual artist, fire plays a central if not determining role. In “Los Angeles Notebook,” written between 1965 and 1967, Joan Didion noted that “the city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself … and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.” Coming as it did in the midst of a discussion of the infamous Santa Ana winds, her description transformed the Watts uprising into one more, albeit rather apocalyptic, summer fire seen from the freeway – a doubled form of distancing, we might say, that conjoined the spectatorial mode of the view from the windshield to a mythologizing of social conflict, the riot imagined as a species of monumental natural disaster. Not that such scenarios of devastation were all that far from more pragmatic minds during the riots; the Los Angeles fire chief publicly worried that the fires might be picked up by the winds and lead to a conflagration that would only be stopped when it reached the ocean.
In the same passage, Didion cited Nathanael West’s 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, as another instance of this catastrophic urban imaginary at work, where it was figured both in Tod Hackett’s fictional painting, The Burning of Los Angeles, and in the culminating riot outside a movie theater in Hollywood. Both Hackett’s artwork and the Watts uprising seem to be the reference points of Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, painted between 1965 and 1968, in which we see the new cultural complex – as pristine and unpeopled as an architectural maquette – bursting into flame against a venomously yellow ground. (Specifically, the artist targets the Ahmanson Building, which housed the museum.) While Ruscha had in the previous year explored a similar theme in the artist’s book Various Small Fires and Milk, the Museum on Fire painting and a related work like Burning Gas Station (similarly of 1965-66), with their larger scale and their architectural subjects, depart from the former realm of word-play and conceptual punning; here the address is to a public and, implicitly, political realm, even if he has strenuously denied the connection. Each fantasizes an instance of architectural destruction by fire that is also a destruction of the image: of the paradigmatic institution of art, the museum, and of a corporate typology closely associated with the city’s automotive culture, the service station, respectively.
Neither Didion’s nor Ruscha’s representations can be separated from the broader realm of images of Watts circulating in the summer of 1965. In those days, newspapers and weekly magazines featured numerous photographs, frequently taken from hovering helicopters, of devastated buildings and billowing clouds of smoke; the same pictures appeared on the nation’s television screens. In fact, we could say that the dominant image of the Watts Rebellion, its key signifier in the media’s imaginary, was that of fire, fire as an image, a dangerous and disturbing spectacle seen from afar. Time magazine opened its account of the uprising with a narrative of the burning city viewed from far-off, a kind of visual hieroglyph for the descent of the city into chaos:
Far out at sea, mariners puzzled over a molten glow in the eastern sky. Over the roar of the freeway, motorists heard the unmistakable crack of rifle fire. Above city hall, billowing smoke from 1,000 fires hung like a cerement. From the air, whole sections of the sprawling city looked as if they had been blitzed.
This widely shared vocabulary of catastrophe was only the most recent example of a long-running theme of ambivalent fantasy among the dominant classes of industrial society, what George Steiner aptly called a counter-dream of modernity that had already taken shape during the nineteenth century: “the vision of the city laid waste.” Ambivalent because while it gave vision form to a future end of bourgeois domination, as Steiner noted, it converted that acknowledgement into an unthreatening, even titillating, image to be enjoyed at a safe spectatorial distance.
The Watts Rebellion, in its very violence, summoned a proliferation of such bourgeois fantasy in its ambiguous form of counter-dream. Over six days of rioting, a wide swath of south-central Los Angeles was scarred with burned-out buildings and looted stores, and at its height the police were given orders to shoot to kill; the uprising was put down only after 14,000 National Guard troops, complete with tanks, were sent in to retake the district. In the end, 34 people were killed, and a thousand more injured. In the face of those stark numbers, the narratives of mystified sailors and freeway voyeurs assume a different function, or fulfill a supplemental need: as African-American scholar Houston A. Baker argues, not only do they stage the riot as a “scene,” as something solely to be seen, they thereby de-subjectify and silence those whose actions fall under that stifling gaze. The rioters were “overseen” but not heard, and this distribution of visual power was also a distribution of hermeneutic power and interpretive authority, since the enforced silence of the participants evoked a need for explanation that was largely (though not exclusively) assigned to the dominant, white state apparatuses, from the initial media accounts, to the official government report, to later sociological treatises. There was certainly no shortage of interpretations in the days and months following Watts, interpretations that are striking precisely for their repetitions of the same stock explanations – high unemployment, poor housing stock, inadequate medical care, bad schools, and so on – and for their insistence on the sheer irrationality of the rioters’ response to such living conditions. But what might those fires be trying to communicate? Beyond the bourgeois counter-dream, what might have been articulated in the clouds of smoke that rose above Los Angeles in August 1965?
Guy Debord, writing for the Situationist International, provided one answer when, in the fall of 1965, he re-captioned a photograph that had originally appeared in Time magazine’s coverage of the uprising. There it had been titled “Pillaged furniture store blazing out of control”; when it was republished in the pages of the French group’s journal in his extended essay on the rebellion, “The Decline and Fall of the ‘Spectacular’ Commodity-Economy,” it bore the caption “Critique of city planning.” The arson and looting that even the Left had condemned as irresponsible and criminal, he defended – not simply as a justified response to the conditions particular to the American black population, but as a revolt against consumer society itself. Indeed, Debord downplayed (if not denied outright) the racial character of rebellion, insisting that mass violence was directed against symbols of American power regardless of race; the “pillage” depicted in the photograph demonstrated that this was “a revolt against the commodity, against a world of commodities and of worker-consumers hierarchically subordinated to the measuring-rod of the commodity. … The flames of Watts consumed consumption” (SP, 9, 12, 13). American racism was described as a consequence of a capitalist system in which the commodity – and therefore “the spectacle that structures” it – was manifested as a hierarchical system in which some were admitted to the society of abundance before others. Blacks might have been perceived as “the most backward sector of their society,” but their struggle was not simply to eliminate that gap, to eradicate material discrepancies; in attempting to effect a radical change in their lives, their struggle opened out upon the radical possibility of the obliteration of all hierarchical power, whether white or black (SP, 25-26).
“But who then has defended the rioters of Los Angeles in the terms they deserve? Well, we shall,” Debord had confidently answered (SP, 5). That surprising confidence – expressed by a militant separated by distance and history from the inhabitants of Watts – could be said to have had two sources. The first was the critical tradition of Marxism itself, whose founders had refused to condemn “irresponsible” or “disorderly” acts of working-class revolt; “Far from opposing so-called excesses, instances of popular revenge against hated individuals or public buildings that are associated only with hateful recollections,” Marx and Engels had insisted, “such instances must not only be tolerated but the lead in them must be taken.” The second was the recognition that events, such as riots, do not themselves define interpretive agency, but must be subjected to written interpretation before they can become, in Baker’s words, “fully agential as interpretive protests or negations.” If white society had “overseen” the revolt, the task of a revolutionary movement would be to, in solidarity with the rebels, “overhear” it, to wrest hermeneutic exclusivity from those in power and, in the Debord’s words, “to help supply them with their reasons: to offer a theoretical account of the truth sought implicitly by their practical action” (SP, 6).
Appended to the curt caption, “Critique of city planning,” was an extended series of quotes from an article that had appeared in Le Monde just as Debord was finishing his long essay on Watts. In “Los Angeles After the Riots,” the newspaper revisited the city two months after the fires had been extinguished to search for some of their causes; what the special correspondent found was something like an anti-city. As he described it,
This is not a “neighborhood” in the ordinary sense of the word; rather it is a soul-destroyingly vast, monotonous plain – not Harlem with its high walls and sunless streets, but “single-storey America,” all on one level; the bleakest of American landscapes, with its flat-roofed houses, its stores all selling the same thing, its hamburger stands, its service stations, and everything blighted by poverty and strewn with rubbish. As far as the eye can see along Avalon Boulevard and Central Avenue stretch telephone poles that look like gallows.
Debord quoted much of this passage, and others from the article that described how “in the vast expanses of a city like Los Angeles, with no real center, without so much as a crowd into which to blend, […] whites glimpse their fellow citizens only through their car windshields.” In one sense, this is the city planning being critiqued in fire: the sheer meanness, isolation, and alienating scale of the American city.
The journalist’s language was typical of French accounts of Los Angeles. Another noted how “in this monstrous megalopolis […] the neighborhoods are connected by splendid highways and boulevards that often lack sidewalks. The flat, stretched-out design isolates each district, especially as the transit system is woefully inadequate.” During the riots, Le Monde published a map of the city that depicted it extending over a vast area, the most tentacular of cities – the caption began by noting that “Los Angeles is the largest city in the United States: 60 miles long and 25 wide,” which could only have formed a striking contrast to the image of Paris held by most of the paper’s readers. Instead, it was a city of highways, a city of the automobile. Already two decades earlier, in 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre has described Los Angeles a “a big worm that could be cut into twenty sections without killing it,” and he too had noted an “atrophy” of the sidewalk: walking along La Cienega Boulevard, he observed that “grass has been sown between the facades and the blacktop of this luxury avenue,” so that all that remained of the sidewalk was a narrow, functional path stretching from the street to the entrance of business or home. “For a long time I followed a narrow pathway between the lawns, without meeting a soul, while the cars traveled the road to my right: all the life of the street had taken refuge on the asphalt.”
What we can hear in these passages, in their insistent repetition of the same tropes, is a myth taking shape, but to call this vision of Los Angeles a myth is not necessarily to claim it was simply wrong. In the early 1960s, urban historian Robert M. Fogelson was tracing the development of this cityscape in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writing of the disintegrative force of “the rejection of the metropolis in favor of its suburbs” that had resulted in “the dispersal and decentralization of the landscape” and in the retreatist and privatistic lifestyle characteristic of this city – and, increasingly, of the new American suburbs more generally. For Fogelson, a stress on material acquisitions and “personalism” was compensation for the isolation and loneliness of such a manner of living; however in this he was mistaking, the Situationists might have argued, a cause for an effect. This was the problem with the vision of the city being articulated in the press, which managed at times a reasonable description of this strange new urban form, but could never really grasp its meaning. A groping recognition appeared fitfully, in remarks that the “exceptional wealth” of Los Angeles “only accentuates the difference in black living conditions,” or that, while “the standard of living of blacks is undoubtedly higher in California than in most other states, […] the contrast between their standard of living and that of whites is also more pronounced. The delirious luxury of Hollywood and Beverley Hills only highlights this gap in a manner both caricatural and offensive.” What the bourgeois press could not name was this fact: the landscape of Los Angeles was a rather precise transcription of what Debord called “a society of hierarchically distributed wealth,” whose black members were not simply poor, even in relative terms, but were compelled to “represent poverty” within a culture of material abundance (SP, 18). This was the “urbanism” critiqued in fire.
The Situationists had another name for the world circumscribed by the hierarchy imposed by the commodity: spectacle. In this term we should hear less an anticipation of postmodern plaints against mass media than an updating of Lenin’s famous analysis of the contradiction driving the capitalist production of space under imperialism, namely that between the equalizing tendency of capital, its emancipation from space, and the increased differentiation of space. To those economists who claimed “the rule of finance capital lessens the unevenness and contradictions inherent in world economy,” he had countered that “in reality it increases them.” By the 1950s and ‘60s, with the advance of decolonization, these contradictions were returning to and being heightened within the former colonizers, in a process of internal differentiation. Economic development turned inward, and spectacle is that process whereby it comes to colonize everyday life. Debord grasped this point in the early 1960s, writing that
We have seen across the global economy that the factors of underdevelopment and colonization interact. All indications are that it is the same across the socioeconomic formation, across praxis. Everyday life, mystified by every means and controlled by the police, is a sort of reserve for the noble savages who keep modern society – with the rapid growth of its technological powers and the forced expansion of its market – running, without understanding it.
Henri Lefebvre, in whose immediate orbit Debord first articulated these insights – at a research seminar on everyday life held in Paris in 1961 – took up this notion of the colonization of everyday life: “the double exploitation of producer and consumer,” he wrote, that “carries the colonial experience into the midst of the erstwhile colonizing people.” For both Lefebvre and Debord, this colonization was more than a metaphor; like its imperial predecessor, it entailed occupation, dispossession, and reterritorialization, but now occurring at the level of daily life and through the “mystifying” agency of the commodity, spectacle as a foreign occupier, the “visible empire.”
This colonization had, moreover, an urban component. The new dormitory towns being built outside of older French cities beginning in the mid-1950s, the so-called grands ensembles, were the physical form of those “reserves” Debord had spoken of:
And today’s new towns clearly exemplify the trend toward the totalitarian organization of life by modern capitalism: isolated individuals (generally isolated within the family unit) will see their lives reduced to the pure triviality of the repetitive, combined with the obligatory absorption of an equally repetitive spectacle.
Those critiques that focused on the formal shortcomings of this statist architecture – on the piling up of identical units, on the depressingly regular alignment that resulted from assembly-line prefabrication, on the formless landscaping of the surrounding parkland – missed the function served by this deadening urbanism: it produced a setting in which sociality could be replaced by consumption and the pacifying rhythms of métro-boulot-dodo. With the construction of the new towns and the planned decentralization of Paris in the 1965 Schéma directeur d’aménagement et d’urbanisme – the Gaullist master plan for the Paris region – the French capital was becoming, we could say, more and more like Los Angeles.
Another way of putting this would be to say that the spatial concept of the “city” was being made obsolete, and replaced with the statist abstraction of “territory.” Presented by the French government as a matter of technocratically administering regional entities, and as a veritable de-Haussmannization in its emphasis on the larger Parisian “agglomeration,” territory was seen by the Situationists as the continuation of a bourgeois class strategy of dispersal and isolation of the working classes that had been effective since the nineteenth century. This was Debord’s argument from the early 1960s onward, stated most authoritatively in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle: “Urbanism is the modern way of tackling the ongoing need to safeguard class power by ensuring the atomization of workers dangerously massed together by the conditions of urban production. The unremitting struggle that has had to be waged against the possibility of workers coming together in whatever manner has found a perfect field of action in urbanism.” A central element of that strategy of atomization has been “the suppression of the street,” the elimination of its social density; what was entailed was something like the Americanization of the street. Sartre, in his travels to America, had predicted the future contours of the new towns when he wrote:
The streets here do not possess the same meaning as ours. In Europe, a street is midway between the main road and the enclosed “public place.” It is level with the cafe, as evidenced by the “terraces” that sprout upon the sidewalks on nice days. Moreover it changes in appearance over a hundred times a day, replenished by the crowd that peoples it; in Europe, the street is made up, essentially, of people. The American street is a stretch of highway. It sometimes extends for several miles. It does not encourage walking: ours are circuitous, tortuous, full of turns and secrets, but theirs are straight lines, appearing all at one go. It is without mystery; wherever you stand, you can see from one end of it to another. Besides, in American cities the distances are too great to get around on foot: in most of them trips take place almost exclusively by car, bus, or subway.
The isolation implicit here, formulated by Sartre as an almost elemental distinction between European and American cultures, was historicized by the Situationists as a strategy of class control that was quickly reshaping the urban forms of the Continent itself. Venice and Paris, those exemplary European cities, were becoming museum pieces, simulacra of their own real historical existences, suitable only for touristic consumption; to discover the reality of contemporary urban life, one had to travel on the suburban rail system to the new towns like Sarcelles, where monotony had given rise to the term “sarcellitis,” whose symptoms were casual prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and all the ills associated with the advent of the grands ensembles.
To write that the American street is a stretch of highway, to see the logic of Los Angeles imposing itself on the Parisian region, was also to attest to the new claim that the automobile was making on space. American urban historian Lewis Mumford’s book The City in History was translated into French in 1964, and his critique of what he called “the space eaters” – the highways and parking lots that were destroying “the living tissue of the city” – found a ready audience in France. A newspaper reviewer noted at the time how “automobile traffic has made leisure impossible, as its growth has slowed the back-and-forth movement to work and to rest. The less easily it is able to move, the more space the vehicle eats up. ‘Congestion planners’ who are desperate to find it a place – the foremost – in the city only ruin the habitable by replacing it with the accessible.” Debord had already addressed the problem in his nine theses on traffic, written in 1959; there he had noted that time spent commuting was “surplus labor,” a supplement of work, that reduced the possibility of leisure. Going further, he called the planned provision of freeways in Paris, with their concomitant demolition of scarce housing, a “breaking up of the dialectic of the human milieu in favor of automobiles.” In place of this narrow vision of “circulation” – a usefully polyvalent term in French, meaning both traffic narrowly defined and flow more broadly conceived – Debord proposed “experimenting with terrains for the circulation of people through authentic life.” In this debate around traffic and its spaces in the city, visionary designer Constant’s plans assume their full meaning; it is particularly telling that he titled several of his transparent maquettes of a future city Spatiovores, i.e. space-eaters. For here a temporality of flow and flux is wrested from the logic of capitalist exchange and returned to life itself, life conceived, as Constant wrote, as “an endless journey through a world changing so rapidly that it seems another.” Within this ever-changing labyrinth, shaped by the activities of those inhabiting it, the original meaning of the city would be restored: “co-operation, communication, and communion, meeting, mixture, and mobilization,” as Mumford had explained, all within “a container where a great diversity of activities can simultaneously take place.” In this “space-eater,” the function of the street was restored and became, in a sense, coextensive with the urban form itself.
Utopian models aside, the Situationists saw clearly the intimate links between the suburban new towns, the automobile and its spatial logic, and the colonization of everyday life by the commodity and its cognates. But what is curious is that so many others, far from their political militancy, saw it too. An entirely centrist figure like academic geographer Maurice Le Lannou, could write in France’s newspaper of record:
Advertising and programming are shaping the human personality with such confidence that any true society is broken, and the family fold with the pseudo-comforts it offers is taken for an end rather than a mere point of departure. TV cuts contacts between people and establishes the opposite of universalism. Social cooperation is rendered impossible by forced labor, increased mobility, and obligatory rest. […] “A formless residue of cultural elements,” provided to all suburban areas through radio and television, completes the ruin of those who reside there by cutting all ties with the site of their homes and by separating them – at the heart of a “lonely crowd” – from others.
What distinguished Situationist writings on the contemporary city was less the nature of their diagnosis, then, but their insistence on exploring the means of changing this present order. If urbanism was nothing less than “the organization of participation in something in which it is impossible to participate,” as two of its members wrote in 1961, if as Debord wrote at the same moment, “everyday man is the product of a history over which he has no control,” then the problem became a variant of that posed by Marx, namely that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.”
Watts was one answer to that problem, one response to the conditions of modern urbanism. In the fires of the uprising, Debord overheard a solution to the question he himself asked in the 1965 essay: “How do men make history under circumstances designed to persuade them not to take a hand in it?” (SP, 17, trans. modified). Others groped toward similar conclusions. Even the American academic sociologist <<NAME>>, could note that “the guiding impulse was not integration with American society but an attempt to stake out a sphere of control by moving against that society” most notably in the rejection of “the sacredness of private property, that unconsciously accepted bulwark of our social arrangements,” evident in the widespread looting. This was undoubtedly perceptive, and went against the current of the vast majority of contemporary accounts that comfortably fit Watts into the mold of a “race riot”; so was the same author’s characterization of the uprising as a form of anti-colonial struggle, what he called a “native” uprising, noting that “the gulf between Watts and affluent Los Angeles is disturbingly similar to the cleavage between the lives and interests of ‘natives’ and their colonial masters.” But where he failed was in simply assimilating the riots to a Sartrean/Fanonian model of national liberation.
Watts was indeed in an important sense a form of anti-colonial struggle, but not in any simple way against a white society exerting its colonial domination over the black; rather, as Debord had argued, this was a struggle against the colonization effected by the commodity form itself.
We can hear an echo of Fanon’s defense of violence as an assertion of subjective status in Debord’s vindication of arson: “To destroy commodities is to demonstrate one’s human superiority to commodities,” he wrote, “to free oneself from the arbitrary forms in which the image of one’s need has been dressed” (SP, 13, trans. modified). The Situationists had been particularly attentive to the language of destruction, seeing in the flames of protest “the first appearance of a wave of vandalism against the machines of consumption” that was the later twentieth century’s post-Fordist update on the factory sabotage characteristic of the Industrial Revolution. In the winter of 1961 Neapolitan workers, finding themselves stranded by a walkout of streetcar personnel and unable to return to their homes in the city’s suburbs, responded first by throwing various projectiles at the offices of the tramway company, then by setting part of the station on fire. Repulsed by the police, they poured into the streets, burning buses and attacking shops, breaking windows and illuminated signs. As the S.I. wrote, although sparked by a chance incident, “this revolt then begins to extend to the whole décor (newly covering the traditional pauperism of southern Italy) of consumer society,” and particularly to the shop window and neon sign, its “most symbolic and most fragile” sites. Four years before Watts, the model was in coming into view; the scale differed, but already in Naples one could perceive the spontaneous reaction against the spatial logic of uneven development. It was precisely where the logic of spectacle – “the whole décor […] of consumer society” – stood in greatest contrast to the actual poverty of everyday life, where it revealed its factitiousness, whether in the distinction between Naples and its working-class suburbs or in the proximity of Watts to Beverly Hills and Hollywood, that revolt could most easily erupt. The spectacle, a thin, shiny veneer of glass and neon, was nothing if not flammable.
That seems to be the point of a rather mysterious photograph that illustrated the S.I.’s 1961 essay on the “Critique of City Planning”: a stage set of Classical temples, obelisks, and sphinxes set around a fake harbor. Its caption read:
Décor and its use. Four historians and hundreds of thousands of dollars are said to have been used this year to rebuild part of the city of Alexandria on an English moor, so that Elizabeth Taylor could play Cleopatra there. When the actress fell ill, the film could not be shot, nor could anything else be done with the set. In the end, Alexandria was delivered to the flames.
Indeed, by the end of September 1960 eight and a half acres of ancient Alexandria had been reconstructed for the shooting of Cleopatra at Pinewood Studios, outside London. Designed by John DeCuir and costing around $600,000, the set included palaces and temples along with several ponds and pools, but soon after shooting began Taylor became ill and could not work; in March 1961, with illness preventing her from working in England and production closed down, the sets were scrapped and the whole enterprise moved to Rome. The meanings of this photograph appear to be multiple, referencing both the spectacular waste of resources in contemporary society (in this echoing an image that had appeared in an earlier issue of mothballed military jets in the California desert) and the very fragility of the products of spectacle, which could so easily be put to the torch. From here to the burning furniture store in Watts was only a short step, as suggested by the caption to the Los Angeles photograph in Debord’s 1965 essay – repurposed from the earlier article on the “critique of city planning.”
Flammability seemed to haunt this new world of the commodity taking shape across the developed world. When in 1966 a French developer began construction of a middle-class suburb west of Paris, a modernist new town organized around a shopping center and originally named Paris 2, the newsweekly Nouvel Observateur responded with a headline asking “Is Paris 2 Burning?,” an echo of course of René Clément’s contemporaneous film saga of the 1944 Liberation of Paris but also an expression of that same counter-dream of modernity with which we began. Paris 2 – which was ultimately built as Parly 2 because of the objections of the capital’s municipal council to the appropriation of the city’s name – embodied a unique fusion of French and American visions of the suburban idyll: the escape from the city coupled with every consumer amenity. As Jean Baudrillard, a young protégé of Lefebvre and still close to the theses of the Situationists in these years, described it: “Work, leisure, nature, and culture, all previously dispersed, separate, and more or less irreducible activities that produced anxiety and complexity in our real life, and in our ‘anarchic and archaic’ cities, have finally become mixed, massaged, climate controlled, and domesticated into the simple activity of perpetual shopping.” One can only assume that in 1968 its inhabitants would stand, like Didion had done three years earlier, and watched in puzzlement as smoke rose over the metropolis a few miles away.