Urban Legends: Norman M. Klein’s Tales of the Floating Class

May 2019

Tales of the Floating Class: Writings, 1982–2017, by Norman M. Klein. Valencia, CA: Golden Spike Press, 2019. 303 pages.


Is it possible for critical theory to be anachronistic and prophetic at the same time? Norman M. Klein’s Tales of the Floating Class: Writings, 1982–2017, a compendium recently rereleased by tiny Los Angeles–based publisher Golden Spike Press, compels an affirmative answer, with the ongoing duel—the small initial 2018 printing quickly sold out—between cultural memory and its constant erasure acting as a perpetual catalyst. In other words, the future would be clear enough if we could only render our forgotten histories vividly in the present. In dusting off a quarter century of essays (“mostly unread”) and lectures, Klein stakes his claim on the term “floating class,” taken from the booster history of the American West—a term that anticipates another boom currently unfolding in Los Angeles, judging by the profusion of construction projects clotting the city and the attendant media hype. (“Los Angeles and Its Booming Creative Class Lures New Yorkers,” chirped a 2015 headline in the latter city’s paper of record.)

Klein arrived in Los Angeles as a member of that floating class in 1974, just three years after British architecture critic Reyner Banham wrote his influential book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, in which he defines new terms such as “Autopia” and “plains of id” to make sense of his urban (and “surfurban”) subject in all its vast complexity. Likewise, one should situate Klein in relation to the so-called Los Angeles school of critical geographers and urbanists, including Mike Davis and Edward Soja, who remain two of the most incisive interlocutors of L.A. Klein’s History of Forgetting (1997) remains a key text for unlocking the mysteries of this city—one “that was imagined long before it was built”—and follows closely on the heels of Soja’s Thirdspace (1996) and Davis’s City of Quartz (1990).

A centerpiece of Klein’s anthology, if one was looking for a center, might be “Inside the Consumer-Built City: Sixty Years of Apocalyptic Imagery,” originally included in the catalogue for Paul Schimmel’s generation- and region-defining 1992 exhibition “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. While Schimmel plotted the dark near future of a city, presciently staking out the whole decade’s concerns just two years in, Klein veered deep into the long history of a gradually unfolding apocalypse that continues apace. Even when Klein appears to neglect some of the most urgent upheavals of local spatial politics—for example, protests of art galleries and real-estate speculators encroaching on the working-class Latinx neighborhood of Boyle Heights—he charts the “transformational grammar” of such conflicts in their historical rhythm: “In the coming decades,” he noted nearly thirty years ago, “many poorer communities will be removed, either leveled and rebuilt, or simply ignored while they take on a post-apocalyptic appearance. That has been the pattern for sixty years. . . . L.A. is a city of momentum, not maintenance. It is a city of erasure, and camouflage.”

Where Klein stands apart from his urbanist peer group is in his ongoing obsession with the media landscape and virtual space (his 2004 book, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, marks its apogee) and his close proximity to the art world—which is also to say, to a world with a protracted (and sometimes beleaguered) romance with critical theory. A polymath scholar, Klein came of age in the wake of French poststructuralism, but in contrast to so much “high theory,” his writing is remarkably lucid, heavily researched, and notably jargon-free. Despite his predilection for signature phrases—“electronic Baroque,” “scripted space,” and “floating class” among them—as a theorist, Klein is less about planting flags, and more about drawing the map.

The earliest essay here, “Audience Culture and the Video Screen,” was, in its first iteration (dating to 1983), written for Dara Birnbaum in an early attempt to elucidate a still-nascent medium. He begins, anachronistically enough, by imagining Tocqueville visiting early-1980s America and finding a nation enraptured by the TV screen, and continues by unfurling an expansive discussion of the medium’s history, with an analysis of its repetitive, ingratiating tics—its “syntagms”—which characterize Birnbaum’s early videos. More recent ventures consider Doug Aitken, Simon Denny, and Jon Rafman, all artists working in the media terrain Klein has long explored as a cultural critic and occasionally as a producer: In 2002, Klein authored Bleeding Through—Layers of Los Angeles, 1920–1986, an “archival database novel” first exhibited at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany; the work receives expansive consideration here in his essay “Spaces Between: Traveling, Through Bleeds, Apertures, and Wormholes Inside the Database Novel”.

As that title suggests, Klein’s essaying is reliably digressive yet recombinant and accumulative; his preferred genre is the “docufable,” a mode that embraces categorical instability as well as lessons learned from living in Los Angeles, where truth is scripted and myths are audience-tested. These Tales of the Floating Class are dizzying, but no more so than the polarized political landscape they describe. To his credit, Klein consistently avoids piety—at times, his manic analytic curiosity could almost be read as a simulation of enthusiasm for his ruinous subjects—but he also avoids easy conclusions. Still, one recent amendment (a postscript to the essay on Aitken) provides unexpected encouragement: “For those reading this after the election: feudal oligarchies are often surprisingly weak. They are corrosive on a system. They can be taken down.”


Artforum, May 2019