Catastrophe Field: The LA Quake

As the American scene passes before the telemonic consciousness it is briefly punctuated by the recurrence of another sidereal "event" from the epicenter of what might be called the "catastrophe" zone. No longer the natural event scene such as the Lisbon earthquake that chased God, the ordered universe and the Leibnizian monad, the LA quake turns disaster to fascination into a parody of Voltaire's "Best of All Possible Worlds"; for what could be a better world than that inhabited by the residents of Mullholland Drive?

As the quake hits the media industry instantaneously processes the "event" as real time into "Hard Copy" -- the appropriately named television show replete with shots taken of the mansions of the stars. Studios and actors, in a simulated war zone, "worked" around the clock to recode the quake into the archive of calamitous events. American history is turned into what Kroker and Weinstein1 aptly name Data Trash, measured and transformed in terms of the collateral (dollar) damage. The quake takes its place amongst other sites of the collateral, vaulting ahead of such second rank catastrophes as the Midwest flood, hurricane Andrew or the Gulf War. This is an all too familiar American calculus that evidences little concern with the lives actually lost (or with the fact that even more lives were taken by the Northern cold or might be taken by the freeway) becoming instead a calculus that eclipses the real for the fascinating and in the end becomes a calculus of the archival.

Thus the quake is no longer real disaster (except for those victimized by the sudden appearance of the real) but a catastrophe following the virtual world of mathematics. Here Rene Thom's catastrophe theory suddenly becomes actual. LA's topology is remapped as a virtualized saddle point where aleatory events perturb a system far from equilibrium. The topological sheet is transformed into a field warped by the appearances of cleavages, cuts and fissures created by the stochastic reemergence of the "hidden variable". For the quake punctuates the network with singularities, minor black holes, turning LA into America's foremost sight of disappearance. Each event site signals, following Virilio, the disappearance of a building, a street, a neighborhood, an individual from the field. Not as unexplainable events of Lyotard's "pacific wall", but rather as crash sites where the debris of personal disaster quickly becomes banal and without interest disappearing from the telemonic view.

For the quake becomes an integrated aspect of the telemonic network system that controls everything from traffic movement to the targeting of cruise missiles. The field of LA is reformed immediately, warping itself around the singularities of the black holes and passing to a higher frequency of networking. The collapse of the Santa Monica freeway pushes to escape velocity those who have not yet found the electronic highway. For those of slower velocity life reverts to earlier time/space zones where secondary routes are rediscovered, or the public stages a come-back -- witness the immediate rise in usage of the Metrolink, whose ridership increased 50%. Each stages a brief appearance, in the manner of virtual particles appearing in a vacuum before disappearing.

Even the economy goes recombinant. The "leading indictors" oscillate "predicting" a jump in fourth quarter "economic" growth after the temporary downturn of the second quarter. For what are relief funds other than the sinking of energy in the social vortex of the disaster, the better to appear again as mutant economic growth. Just as the thrust faults of the quake zone "produce a particularly hefty upward punch" to recycle LA in raising the local mountains by a foot or two higher. (NYT Jan. 23, 1994) Or as Senator Mike Dmitrich of Utah says in responding, with quintessential American logic, to the proposal that the debris from the quake be sent to the dump site in his state in East Carbon City: "We've got the hole dug; let's fill it." (NYT Feb. 13, 1994) LA takes another new part on the screen as the energy pump for a recycled America.

LA's role, then, is no longer solely that of the exploding stars, for it has been reversed into the world of imploding space/time. After the quake LA wakes up as a binary system with the new collapsed stars of the "neutron" American screen playing opposite Hollywood. The field is now of pulsars sucking up the energy of LA and spewing out its chief product, that of the fascinating catastrophe. For what is the quake other than the imploding of the grand signifiers surrounding the mansions, buildings, bridges, freeways; a collapse of the media consciousness of fame and stardom, the better to recycle them as a new fascination.

For the quake's emergence occurs by the sliding of signifiers deep in the structure of the American psyche. A schizoid self is created by the quake on the alterity of the spectacle and the violent that marks the catastrophe zone. For it is as a war scene that the spectacular penetrates most effectively to the American home viewer. The state of California, already on disaster alert, turns the quake zone into a third world refugee camp. The fear of violence is met with what has become a trade mark of the rich and famous of LA, as security zones incarcerate the victim/star sites. National Guard troops in full combat gear impose the dawn to dusk curfew. As one of the evacuees says, "The point is if you have a gun, this is what you keep it for." (NYT 23, 1994)

Yet even when incarcerating the "victims" LA prepares for their dispersal into the network of disappearance. While illegal immigrants are given "humanitarian" aid they are denied the prize of being truly American in being allowed to apply for relief funds, forcing them to move on from the city. In an parodic twist the quake even creates a new class of the disadvantaged and homeless, the pets of the evacuees, that roam the city in a mock simulation of their human counterparts.

The alterity of the quake breaks open the fault lines of more than the semiology of LA. The appearance of hidden signifiers defy the logic of predictability, escaping the net of the scientists who fail to find the simulation of the real in a landscape that has never been real. Like its mutant twin in South LA, the violence of the quake is always about to happen but never within the time and space of the controllable. Again similar to the "social" riots, the quake quickly falls below the threshold of the spectacular, becoming, like the violence of the everyday, a series of aftershocks: some 3000 registered since the quake. LA, then, mutates again into the site of the conflation of the aleatory into the normal where the norm becomes the catastrophic. Nowhere is this better expressed than by Bruce Feldman, a senior VP of Marketing, in a comment in the New York Times six days after the event, as he returns to work; "Everybody felt we should have a sense of normalcy". (NYT Jan. 23, 1994)

It is precisely these field transformations that create the virtual world of California stretching from the reserves of third world labor in the South, the mediated catastrophe sites of the geological/virtualized fault lines, and, finally, the seminating of virtuality across the grid of silicon saddle points and high virtual learning nodes. At the center, LA once again defies the "natural" world and becomes what The Economist (Jan. 22-28, 1994) calls the most inspiring city in America. The quake finds its final resting home in Pershing Square, in the recoded yellow buildings, with a tall purple shaft featuring a simulated long earthquake crack. (NYT Feb. 20, 1994) LA becomes, once again, the star of America, as an inspiration to the recycling of violence and fascination in the catastrophe field.

1. Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class (New York: St. Martin's Press: 1994) and (Montreal: New World Perspectives, Fall, 1994).

David Cook teaches at Scarborough College, University of Toronto. He is the co-author of The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper Aesthetics, and the author of Northrop Frye: A Vision of the New World.