I first encountered Mike Davis’s clairvoyant prose during my sophomore year. I don’t have any recollection of this moment, but according to the syllabus of an Urban Studies class I was taking at the time, we were assigned the fourth chapter of his celebrated book City of Quartz (1990), a radical history of contemporary Los Angeles.
On October 25th, at the age of 76, Davis died of esophageal cancer. He was an inimitable journalist, historian, organizer, environmentalist and devoted Marxist—his work challenged the very notion that these pursuits are indeed separable. At the risk of sounding pretentious, he was the embodiment of praxis.
Up until the end of his life, Davis penned sharp and scathing political criticism, rallied the American left, and, amazingly, read 500 pages per day. But above all, he was regarded as an extraordinarily kind, committed, and compassionate spirit. In quote from an interview he gave this past summer, which made the rounds on Twitter following his death, Davis said:
“What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems. It’s what ordinary people have to do. You have to love each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight.”
After Davis’s death this past Tuesday, I was haunted by a vague memory that I had read his work early on in college, so I searched my files for “Mike Davis” to see what would turn up. I found a PDF of my three-year-old notes on City of Quartz, and next to a passage about the surveillance politics of luxury development in L.A., I had written: “what does this even mean?? idk but i like it.”
I also discovered that I had used Davis extensively in my final paper for that class. Evidently, I had figured out what he ‘even meant’ over the course of the semester. In fact, I block-quoted him so extensively that I practically re-issued the book—why bother to paraphrase if he already said it better than I ever could?
I’m embarrassed to admit that after I was first exposed to Davis, he faded from my memory. Maybe I can chalk this up to the fact that his book was assigned in an unbelievably mediocre class. But at the time, his writing clearly had a huge impact on me.
It was not until recently, when news of Davis’s deteriorating health broke, that I came back to his work. His writing in Ecology of Fear (1998) about the class politics of wildfire in California has completely reframed my view of the annual conflagrations which explode across my home state. His frequent dispatches in New Left Review ground me and inspire me.
I confess, I have not read even a quarter of Davis’s oeuvre—this is the project that will begin over winter break, I hope. But his method of thinking, since I encountered it during that sophomore year class, has wholly infiltrated my brain.
Even if Davis as a person slipped from my immediate consciousness for a while, I like to think that he was always there in the back of my mind. I saw in him then what I see in him now: a matter-of-fact writer who laid bare the realities of the world. His materialism was so clear and commonsensical that it just faded into the background, reshaping my worldview in such a way that I didn’t even notice. I can’t wait to continue my excursion through Davis’s writings. It’s a tragedy he is gone, but it’s certainly not too late to see his brilliance.