PORTRAIT: EDWARD W. SOJA

‘The Aleph?’ I repeated.
‘Yes, the only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending’
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”

So begins “Taking Los Angeles Apart: Towards a Postmodern Geography”, the final chapter in Edward W. Soja’s landmark book Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. The book uses Borges’ short story about the Aleph, a mystical point of universal convergence, to explain the postmodern paradoxes of Los Angeles and the ultimate difficulty of capturing the city’s postfordist landscape through traditional language.

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Soja, an influential political geographer and urban planner at UCLA, has written half a dozen books and countless essays imploring readers to rethink urban spaces and how they function in the political and social sphere. He is the father of “Thirdspace”, in which he says (in a book by the same title) “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history.” Thirdspace is derived from Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre’s notion of heterotopia, and also resemble’s Homi Bahba’s concept of cultural hybridity. Soja’s work employs a trialectics, rather than dialectics, of human geography–emphasizing the equal importance of history, contemporary social relations, and spatial constructs in understanding the urban environments around us.

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A Los Angeles resident, Soja has focused much of his work on his home city, veering from the highly critical and sometimes jaded (think Mike Davis in “City of Quartz”) to the the radically optimistic (a-la-Reyner Banham). Over the years he has collaborated with influential thinkers such as David Harvey, Allen J. Scott, and Frederic Jameson.

In Postmodern Geographies, Soja uses Marxist criticism to outline a new form of spatial awareness before focusing his attention on the capitalist (and postfordist) urban example par excellence: Los Angeles. Yet before dismantling the (arguably) already-dismantled city, Soja assembles it: the chapter that precedes “Taking Los Angeles Apart” is aptly titled “It All Comes Together in Los Angeles”. So for Soja, deconstruction is impossible without its opposite, and precedent, activity. In the book, Soja also introduces a number of interesting concepts, which reoccur in some of his later work:

Flexicity: Deindustrialization has been occurring alongside a potent reindustrialization process built not just on high technology.
Cosmopolis: The primacy of globalization. Globalization of culture, labor and capital. “Re-worlds” the city.
Expolis: The city that no longer conveys the traditional qualities of cityness. No cityness about Los Angeles. Growth of the outer city and city edges. More urban life.
Metropolarities: Increasing social inequalities, widening income gaps, new kinds of social polarization and satisfaction that fit uncomfortably within traditional dualisms based on class or race, as well as conventional. New underclass debate.
Carcereal Archipielagos: A fortified city with bulging prisons (City of Quartz) and increased surveillance.
Simcity: A place where simulations of a presumably real world increasingly capture and activate our urban imaginary and infiltrate everything urban life. An electronic generation of hyper reality.

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These concepts can help us understand Los Angeles, but also the postfordist landscape that L.A. exported to the rest of America and the world. Soja’s theories are incredibly useful in analyzing–and ultimately, as he would have it, deconstructing–suburban wastelands and unplanned urban sprawl all over the globe. Hopefully a new critical, trialectic spatial ontology, as outlined in Postmodern Geographies, can provide real solutions for urban planners and theorists in our young century. And until then we can marvel at the complexity of urban life, as multifaceted as the limitless Aleph.

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