Space and Power: Celebrating the life of Edward Soja (1940-2015)


Edward Soja, the acclaimed urbanist and radical geographer, passed away on November 2nd, 2015. Mustafa Dikec, Professor of Urban Studies at Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris and LATTS, announced his passing on the Critical Geography listserv:

It is with great sadness that I am writing to tell you that Edward Soja passed away last night in Los Angeles after a long battle with illness. Ed was one of the key figures associated with ‘the spatial turn’ in the 1980s, and his writings on space, spatial justice, and cities have inspired many since then. He will be sorely missed by his friends who knew his warm and genereous personality.

To celebrate his life and work, we publish an extract from Soja's classic work Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, in which he discusses the production of space and power in Los Angeles.

Signifying downtown

The downtown core of the City of Los Angeles, which the signs call ‘Central City' is the agglomerative and symbolic nucleus of the Sixty Mile Circle, certainly the oldest but also the newest major node in the region. Given what is contained within the Circle, the physical size and appearance of downtown Los Angeles seem almost modest, even today after a period of enormous expansion. As usual, however, appearances can be deceptive.

Perhaps more than ever before, downtown serves in ways no other place can as a strategic vantage point, an urban panopticon counterposed to the encirclement of watchful military ramparts and defensive outer cities. Like the central well in Bentham's eminently utilitarian design for a circular prison, the original panopticon, downtown can be seen (when visibility permits) by each separate individual, from each territorial cell, within its orbit. Only from the advantageous outlook of the centre, however, can the surveillant eye see everyone collectively, disembedded but interconnected. Not surprisingly, from its origin, the central city has been an aggregation of overseers, a primary locale for social control, political administration, cultural codification, ideological surveillance, and the incumbent regionalization of its adherent hinterland.

Looking down and out from City Hall, the site is especially impressive to the observer. Immediately below and around is the largest concentration of government offices and bureaucracy in the country outside the federal capital district. To the east, over a pedestrian skyway, are City Hall East and City Hall South, relatively new civic additions enclosing a shopping mall, some murals, a children's museum, and the Triforium, a splashy sixty-foot fountain of water, light, and music entertaining the lunchtime masses. Just beyond is the imposing police administration building, Parker Center, hallowing the name of a former police chief of note. Looking further, outside the central well of downtown but within its eastern salient, one can see an area which houses 25 per cent of California's prison population, at least 12,000 inmates held in four jails designed to hold half that number. Included within this carceral wedge are the largest women's prison in the country (Sybil Brand) and the seventh largest men's prison (Men's Central). More enclosures are being insistently planned by the state to meet the rising demand.

On the south, along First Street, are the State Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) with its electronic wall maps monitoring the arterial freeways of the region, the California State Office Building, and the headquarters of the fourth estate, the monumental Times-Mirror building complex, which many have claimed houses the unofficial governing power of Los Angeles, the source of many stories that mirror the times and spaces of the city. Near the spatial sanctum of the Los Angeles Times is also St Vibiana's Cathedral, mother church to one of the largest Catholic archdioceses in the world (nearly four million strong) and controller of another estate of significant proportions. The Pope slept here, across the street from Skid Row missions temporarily closed so that he could not see all his adherents.

Looking westward now, toward the Pacific and the smog-hued sunsets which brilliantly paint the nightfalls of Los Angeles, is first the Criminal Courts Building, then the Hall of Records and Law Library, and next the huge Los Angeles County Courthouse and Hall of Administration, major seats of power for what is by far the country's largest county in total population (now over eight million). Standing across Grand Avenue is the most prominent cultural centre of Los Angeles, described by Unique Media Incorporated in their pictorial booster maps of downtown as ‘the cultural crown of Southern California, reigning over orchestral music, vocal performance, opera, theatre and dance’. They add that the Music Center ‘tops Bunker Hill like a contemporary Acropolis, one which has dominated civil cultural life since it was inaugurated in 19647. Just beyond this cultural crown is the Department of Water and Power (surrounded by usually waterless fountains) and a multi-level extravaganza of freeway interchanges connecting with every corner of the Sixty-Mile Circle, a peak point of accessibility within the regional transportation network. On its edge, one of Japan's greatest architects has designed a Gateway Building to punctuate the teeming sea.

Along the northern flank is the Hall of Justice, the US Federal Courthouse, and the Federal Building, completing the ring of local, city, state and federal government authority which comprises the potent civic centre. Sitting more tranquilly just beyond, cut off by a swathe of freeway, is the preserved remains of the old civic centre, now part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historical Park, additional testimony to the lasting power of the central place. Since the origins of Los Angeles the sites described have served as the political citadel, designed with other citadels to command, protect, socialize and dominate the surrounding urban population.

There is still another segment of the citadel – panopticon which cannot be overlooked. Its form and function may be more specific to the contemporary capitalist city but its mercantile roots entwine historically with the citadels of all urbanized societies. Today, it has become the acknowledged symbol of the urbanity of Los Angeles, the visual evidence of the successful ‘search for a city’ by the surrounding sea of suburbs. This skylined sight contains the bunched castles and cathedrals of corporate power, the gleaming new ‘central business district of the ‘central city', pinned next to its ageing predecessor just to the east. Here too the LA-leph’s unending eyes are kept open and reflective, reaching out to and mirroring global spheres of influence, localizing the world that is within its reach.

Nearly all the landmarks of the new LA CBD have been built over the past fifteen years and flashily signify the consolidation of Los Angeles as a world city. Now more than half the major properties are in part or wholly foreign owned, although much of this landed presence is shielded from view. The most visible wardens are the banks which light up their logos atop the highest towers: Security Pacific (there again), First Interstate, Bank of America (co-owner of the sleek-black Arco Towers before their recent purchase by the Japanese), Crocker, Union, Wells Fargo, Citicorp (billing itself as ‘the newest city in town'). Reading the skyline one sees the usual corporate panorama: large insurance companies (Manulife, Transamerica, Prudential), IBM and major oil companies, the real estate giant Coldwell Banker, the new offices of the Pacific Stock Exchange, all serving as attachment points for silvery webs of financial and commercial transactions extending practically everwhere on earth.

The two poles of the citadel, political and economic, connect physically through the condominium towers of renewed Bunker Hill but “interface' less overtly in the planning apparatus of the local state. Contrary to popular opinion, Los Angeles is a tightly planned and plotted urban environment, especially with regard to the social and spatial divisions of labour necessary to sustain its pre-eminent industrialization and consumerism. Planning choreographs Los Angeles through the fungible movements of the zoning game and the flexible staging of supportive community participation (when there are communities to be found), a dance filled with honourable intent, dedicated expertise, and selective beneficence. It has excelled, however, as an ambivalent but nonetheless enriching pipeline and place-maker to the domestic and foreign developers of Los Angeles, using its influential reach to prepare the groundwork and facilitate the selling of specialized locations and populations to suit the needs of the most powerful organizers of the urban spaceeconomy.”

Although conspiracy and corruption can be easily found, the planned and packaged selling of Los Angeles usually follows a more mundane rhythm played to the legitimizing beat of dull and thumping market forces. In the created spaces which surround the twin citadels of Los Angeles, the beat has drummed with a particularly insistent and mesmerizing effect. Through a historic act of preservation and renewal, there now exists around downtown a deceptively harmonized showcase of ethni-cities and specialized economic enclaves which play key roles, albeit somewhat noisily at times, in the contemporary redevelopment and internationalization of Los Angeles. Primarily responsible for this packaged and planned production of the inner city is the Community Redevelopment Agency, probably the leading public entrepreneur of the Sixty-Mile Circle.”

There is a dazzling array of sites in this compartmentalized corona of the inner city: the Vietnamese shops and Hong Kong housing of a redeveloping Chinatown; the Big Tokyo financed modernization of old Little Tokyo's still resisting remains; the induced pseudo-SoHo of artists’ lofts and galleries hovering near the exhibitions of the ‘Temporary Contemporary” art warehouse; the protected remains of El Pueblo along Calmexified Olvera Street and in the renewed Old Plaza; the strangely anachronistic wholesale markets for produce and flowers and jewellery growing bigger while other downtowns displace their equivalents; the foetid sweatshops and bustling merchandise marts of the booming garment district; the Latino retail festival along pedestrianpacked Broadway (another preserved zone and inch-for-inch probably the most profitable shopping street in the region); the capital site of urban homelessness in the CRA-gilded skid row district; the enormous muralled barrio stretching eastward to the still unincorporated East Los Angeles; the de-industrializing and virtually resident-less wholesaling City of Vernon to the south filled with chickens and pigs awaiting their slaughter; the Central American and Mexican communities of Pico — Union and Alvarado abutting the high-rises on the west; the obtrusive oil wells and aggressive graffiti in the backyards of predominantly immigrant Temple-Beaudry progressively being eaten away by the spread of Central City West (now being called ‘The Left Bank’ of downtown); the intentionally yuppifying South Park redevelopment zone hard by the slightly seedy Convention Center; the revenue-milked towers and fortresses of Bunker Hill; the resplendently gentrified pocket of ‘Victorian' homes in old Angelino Heights overlooking the citadel; the massive new Koreatown pushing out west and south against the edge of Black Los Angeles; the Filipino pockets to the north-west still uncoalesced into a ‘town’ of their own; and so much more: a constellation of Foucauldian heterotopias ‘capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible’ but ‘function in relation to all the space that remains’.

What stands out from a hard look at the inner city seems almost like an obverse (and perverse) reflection of the outer city, an agglomerative complex of dilapidated and overcrowded housing, low technology workshops, relics and residuals of an older urbanization, a sprinkling of niches for recentred professionals and supervisors, and, above all, the largest concentration of cheap, culturally-splintered/occupationallymanipulable Third World immigrant labour to be found so tangibly available in any First World urban region. Here in this colonial corona is another of the crownjewels of Los Angeles, carefully watched over, artfully maintained and reproduced to service the continued development of the manufactured region.

The extent and persistence of agglomerated power and ever-watchful eyes in downtown Los Angeles cannot be ignored by either captive participants or outside observers. The industrialization of the urban periphery may be turning the space economy of the region inside-out, but the old centre is more than holding its own as the pre-eminent political and economic citadel. Peripheral visions are thus not enough when looking at Los Angeles. To conclude this spiralling tour around the powerfilled central city, it may be useful to turn back to Giddens's observations on the structured and structuring landscapes of modern capitalism.

The distinctive structural principle of the class societies of modern capitalism is to be found in the disembedding, yet interconnecting, of state and economic institutions. The tremendous economic power generated by the harnessing of allocative resources to a generic tendency towards technical improvement is matched by an enormous expansion in the administrative ‘reach' of the state. Surveillance – the coding of information relevant to the administration of subject populations, plus the direct supervision by officials and administrators of all sorts – becomes a key mechanism furthering a breaking away of system from social integration. Traditional practices are dispersed (without, of course, disappearing altogether) under the impact of the penetration of dayto-day life by codified administrative procedures. The locales which provide the settings for interaction in situations of co-presence [the basis for social integration] undergo a major set of transmutations. The old city-countryside relation is replaced by a sprawling expansion of a manufactured or ‘created ervironment'. (1984, 183–84)

Here we have another definition of spatial planning, another indication of the instrumentality of space and power, another example of spatialization.


Lateral extensions

Radiating from the specifying nodality of the central city are the hypothesized pathways of traditional urban theory, the transects of eagerly anticipated symmetries and salience which have absorbed so much of the attention of older generations of urban theoreticians and empiricists. Formal models of urban morphology have conventionally begun with the assumption of a structuring central place organizing an adherent landscape into discoverable patterns of hinterland development and regionalization. The deeper sources of this structuring process are usually glossed over and its problematic historical geography is almost universally simplified, but the resultant surfaces of social geometry continue to be visible as geographical expressions of the crude orderliness induced by the effects of nodality. They too are part of the spatialization of social life, the extended specificity of the urban.

The most primitive urban geometry arises from the radial attenuation of land use ‘intensity’ around the centre to an outer edge, a reflection of the Thunian landscape that has become codified most figuratively in the irrepressible Two-Parameter Negative Exponential Population Density Gradient. The TPNEPDG, in part because of its nearly universal and monotonous exemplification, has obsessed urban theorists with its projectable objectivity and apparent explanatory powers. From the Urban Ecologists of the old Chicago School to the New Urban Economists, and including all those who are convinced that geographical analysis naturally begins with the primal explanation of variegated population densities (the most bourgeois of analytical assumptions Marx claimed), the TPNEPDG has been the lodestar for a monocentric understanding of urbanism. And within its own limited bands of confidence, it works efficiently.

Population densities do mound up around the centres of cities, even in the polycentric archipelago of Los Angeles (where there may be several dozen such mounds, although the most pronounced still falls off from the central city). There is also an accompanying concentric residential rhythm associated with the family life cycle and the relative premiums placed on access to the dense peaks versus the availability of living space in the sparseness of the valleys (at least for those who can afford such freedoms of choice). Land values (when they can be accurately calculated) and some job densities also tend to follow in diminishing peaks outwards from the centre, bringing back to mind those tented webs of the urban geography textbooks.

Adding direction to the decadence of distance reduces the Euclidian elegance of concentric gradations, and many of the most mathematical of urban geometricians have accordingly refused to follow this slightly unsettling path. But direction does indeed induce another fit by pointing out the emanation of fortuitous wedges or sectors starting from the centre. The sectoral wedges of Los Angeles are especially pronounced once you leave the inner circle around downtown.

The Wilshire Corridor, for example, extends the citadels of the central city almost twenty miles westwards to the Pacific, picking up several other prominent but smaller downtowns en route (the Miracle Mile that initiated this extension, Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, Brentwood, Santa Monica). Watching above it is an even lengthier wedge of the wealthiest residences, running with almost staggering homogeneities to the Pacific Palisades and the privatized beaches of Malibu, sprinkled with announcements of armed responsiveness and signs which say that ‘trespassers will be shot'. Here are the hearths of the most vocal homeowners movements, arms raised to slow growth and preserve their putative neighbourhoods in the face of the encroaching, view-blocking, street-clogging, and declassé downtowns.

As if in counterbalance, on the other side of the tracks east of downtown is the salient containing the largest Latino barrio in AngloAmerica, where many of those who might be shot are carefully barricaded in poverty. And there is at least one more prominent wedge, stretching southward from downtown to the twin ports of Los Angeles— Long Beach, still reputed to be one of the largest consistently industrial urban sectors in the world. This is the primary axis of Ruhral Los Angeles.

A third ecological order perturbs the geometrical neatness still further, punching holes into the monocentric gradients and wedges as a result of the territorial segregation of races and ethnicities. Segregation is so noisy that it overloads the conventional statistical methods of urban factorial ecology with scores of tiny but ‘significant' eco-components. In Los Angeles, arguably the most segregated city in the country, these components are so numerous that they operate statistically to obscure the spatiality of social class relations deeply embedded in the zones and wedges of the urban landscape, as if they needed to be obscured any further.

These broad social geometries provide an attractive model of the urban geography of Los Angeles, but like most of the inherited overviews of formal urban theory they are seriously diverting and illusory. They mislead not because there is disagreement over their degree of fit – such regular empiricist arguments merely induce a temporary insensibility by forcing debate on to the usually sterile grounds of technical discourse. Instead, they deceive by involuting explanation, by the legerdemain of making the nodality of the urban explain itself through its mere existence, one outcome explaining another. Geographical covariance in the form of empirico-statistical regularity is elevated to causation and frozen into place without a history–and without a human geography which recognizes that the organization of space is a social product filled with politics and ideology, contradiction and struggle, comparable to the making of history. Empirical regularities are there to be found in the surface geometry of any city, including Los Angeles, but they are not explained in the discovery, as is so often assumed. Different routes and different roots must be explored to achieve a practical understanding and critical reading of urban landscapes. The illusions of empirical opaqueness must be shattered, along with the other disciplining effects of Modern Geography.



Back in the centre, shining from its circular turrets of bronzed glass, stands the Bonaventure Hotel, an amazingly storeyed architectural symbol of the splintered labyrinth that stretches sixty miles around it." Like many other Portman-teaus which dot the eyes of urban citadels in New York and San Francisco, Atlanta and Detroit, the Bonaventure has become a concentrated representation of the restructured spatiality of the late capitalist city: fragmented and fragmenting, homogeneous and homogenizing, divertingly packaged yet curiously incomprehensible, seemingly open in presenting itself to view but constantly pressing to enclose, to compartmentalize, to circumscribe, to incarcerate. Everything imaginable appears to be available in this micro-urb but real places are difficult to find, its spaces confuse an effective cognitive mapping, its pastiche of superficial reflections bewilder co-ordination and encourage submission instead. Entry by land is forbidding to those who carelessly walk but entrance is nevertheless encouraged at many different levels, from the truly pedestrian skyways above to the bunkered inlets below. Once inside, however, it becomes daunting to get out again without bureaucratic assistance. In so many ways, its architecture recapitulates and reflects the sprawling manufactured spaces of Los Angeles.

There has been no conspiracy of design behind the building of the Bonaventure or the socially constructed spatiality of the New World Cities. Both designs have been conjunctural, reflecting the specifications and exigencies of time and place, of period and region. The Bonaventure both simulates the restructured landscape of Los Angeles and is simultaneously simulated by it. From this interpretive interplay of microand macro-simulations there emerges an alternative way of looking critically at the human geography of contemporary Los Angeles, of seeing it as a mesocosm of postmodernity.

From the centre to the periphery, in both inner and outer cities, the Sixty-Mile Circle today encloses a shattered metro-sea of fragmented yet homogenized communities, cultures, and economies confusingly arranged into a contingently ordered spatial division of labour and power. As is true for so much of the patterning of twentieth-century urbanization, Los Angeles both sets the historical pace and most vividly epitomizes the extremes of contemporary expression. Municipal boundary making and territorial incorporation, to take one illustrative example, has produced the most extraordinary crazy quilt of opportunism to be found in any metropolitan area. Tiny enclaves of county land and whole cities such as Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Culver City, and Santa Monica pock-mark the Westside' bulk of the incorporated City of Los Angeles, while thin slivers of city land reach out like tentacles to grab on to the key seaside outlets of the port at San Pedro and Los Angeles International Airport.” Nearly half the population of the city, however, lives in the quintessentially suburban San Fernando Valley, one and a half million people who statistically are counted as a part of the central city of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. Few other places make such a definitive mockery of the standard classifications of urban, suburban, and exurban.

Over 130 other municipalities and scores of county-administered areas adhere loosely around the irregular City of Los Angeles in a dazzling, sprawling patchwork mosaic. Some have names which are startlingly self-explanatory. Where else can there be a City of Industry and a City of Commerce, so flagrantly commemorating the fractions of capital which guaranteed their incorporation. In other places, names casually try to recapture a romanticized history (as in the many new communities called Rancho something-or-other) or to ensconce the memory of alternative geographies (as in Venice, Naples, Hawaiian Gardens, Ontario, Manhattan Beach, Westminster). In naming, as in so many other contemporary urban processes, time and space, the “once’ and the ‘there', are being increasingly played with and packaged to serve the needs of the here and the now, making the lived experience of the urban increasingly vicarious, screened through simulacra, those exact copies for which the real originals have been lost.

A recent clipping from the Los Angeles Times (Herbert, 1985) tells of the 433 signs which bestow identity within the hyperspace of the City of Los Angeles, described as ‘A City Divided and Proud of It'. Hollywood, Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile, and the Central City were among the first to get these community signs as part of a ‘city identification program' organized by the Transportation Department. One of the newest signs, for what was proclaimed ‘the city's newest community', recognizes the formation of ‘Harbor Gateway’ in the thin eight-mile long blue-collar area threading south to the harbour, the old Shoestring Strip where many of the 32,000 residents often forgot their ties to the city. One of the founders of the programme pondered its development: ‘At first, in the early 1960s, the Traffic Department took the position that all the communities were part of Los Angeles and we didn't want cities within cities ... but we finally gave in. Philosophically it made sense. Los Angeles is huge. The city had to recognize that there were communities that needed identification.... What we tried to avoid was putting up signs at every intersection that had stores.” Ultimately, the city signs are described as “A Reflection of Pride in the Suburbs’. Where are we then in this nominal and noumenal fantasyland?

For at least fifty years, Los Angeles has been defying conventional categorical description of the urban, of what is city and what is suburb, of what can be identified as community or neighbourhood, of what copresence means in the elastic urban context. It has in effect been deconstructing the urban into a confusing collage of signs which advertise what are often little more than imaginary communities and outlandish representations of urban locality. I do not mean to say that there are no genuine neighbourhoods to be found in Los Angeles. Indeed, finding them through car-voyages of exploration has become a popular local pastime, especially for those who have become so isolated from propinquitous community in the repetitive sprawl of truly ordinary-looking landscapes that make up most of the region. But again the urban experience becomes increasingly vicarious, adding more layers of opaqueness to l'espace vécu.

Underneath this semiotic blanket” there remains an economic order, an instrumental nodal structure, an essentially exploitative spatial division of labour, and this spatially organized urban system has for the past half century been more continuously productive than almost any other in the world. But it has also been increasingly obscured from view, imaginatively mystified in an environment more specialized in the production of encompassing mystifications than practically any other you can name. As has so often been the case in the United States, this conservative deconstruction is accompanied by a numbing depoliticization of fundamental class and gender relations and conflicts. When all that is seen is so fragmented and filled with whimsy and pastiche, the hard edges of the capitalist, racist and patriarchal landscape seem to disappear, melt into air.

With exquisite irony, contemporary Los Angeles has come to resemble more than ever before a gigantic agglomeration of theme parks, a lifespace comprised of Disneyworlds. It is a realm divided into showcases of global village cultures and mimetic American landscapes, allembracing shopping malls and crafty Main Streets, corporationsponsored magic kingdoms, high-technology-based experimental prototype communities of tomorrow, attractively packaged places for rest and recreation all cleverly hiding the buzzing workstations and labour processes which help to keep it together. Like the original ‘Happiest Place on Earth’, the enclosed spaces are subtly but tightly controlled by invisible overseers despite the open appearance of fantastic freedoms of choice. The experience of living here can be extremely diverting and exceptionally enjoyable, especially for those who can afford to remain inside long enough to establish their own modes of transit and places to rest. And, of course, the enterprise has been enormously profitable over the years. After all, it was built on what began as relatively cheap land, has been sustained by a constantly replenishing army of even cheaper imported labour, is filled with the most modern technological gadgetry, enjoys extraordinary levels of protection and surveillance, and runs under the smooth aggression of the most efficient management systems, almost always capable of delivering what is promised just in time to be useful.