I am very sad to report that my friend and former thesis advisor Ed Soja has just passed away. Not only was Ed a brilliant and provocative thinker but he was also one of the nicest people you would ever meet. On an even more personal note Ed was probably the single biggest influence on me and indirectly responsible for my turn from Urban Planning to education.
My friendship and mentor relationship was actually quite surprising considering I had never any intention of taking his classes or reading any of his books. In fact I had started out my Masters in Urban Planning with two possible paths in mind. First I entertained the idea of pursuing a Phd in economic development work. Or if that didn’t work out I would continue along my career arc in project management towards larger greener projects and eventually: eco-cities! Nowhere in either of these scenarios did I plan to debate post-modern geographies, or bizzaro abstract conceptions like Third-Space.
I had felt that postmodernism was so cliche a concept, and like many of my generation blamed it’s scholarly popularity for marginalization of the humanities in our larger society. But then I had to take Ed’s course on the history of regional planning. Essentially an intellectual history of economic planning doctrine, and slowly, but surely, all my plans were undone. Soja’s reading list was phenomenal: Gunnar Myrdal, Albert O. Hirschmann, Immanuel Wallerstein, Mikhail Bakunin, Proudhon, Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and of course the devil himself Michael Foucault (who in latter life became an active humanist or not). Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head, there were so many more.
Soja reignited my early fascination with twentieth century polymath humanists like the great Lewis Mumford, whose breadth and erudition and profound insight seem so foreign to today’s world of micro-specialists or inane hacks like David Brooks that pass for public intellectuals today (or even my beloved Malcolm Gladwell whose clever story-telling and gift for the fascinating masks his own often–though not always–lack of depth). Ed and I got along splendidly, or rather we clashed intellectually all semester long. His historical interpretations versus mine. For the first time in a very long time I was completely intellectually engaged. I worked very hard on my research papers that often challenged Soja’s interpretation (although we agreed on more than we disagreed we had some very strong historical disagreements).
Soja’s scholarly work was dedicated to the study of how society produces, organizes and gives meaning to space, and how these spatialities shape society and the relations of production. But he was equally impassioned for social justice. Soja was a true intellectual, which is not the same as a scholar. He was a pretty good scholar, much better than I, but he was a truly great writer with a ferocious intellectual mind. That was where he shined He was a lucid thinker with but his penchant for a good story occasionally led his scholarship astry. It was in his writing, and specifically his conceptual theming of the spaces in our crazy postmodern urban world and the feelings they engender were brilliantly poetic. Despite growing up in New York city, and latter becoming an East African urban expert Soja’s greatest work was always centered on the world’s first truly post-modern city his beloved Los Angeles.
Soja will likely be most famous for his Postmodern Geographies: The Reaassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, which heralded the so-called spatial turn to social theory. However my favorite of his works is Postmetropolis: Critical Studies of Cities and Regions. His analysis of turn of the century Los Angeles is just spectacular and the spaces he so eloquently dissects form the models of our contemporary spaces that are emulated throughout countless cities in the world. However it is in his Thridspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-Imagined Places, where I think he has the potential to be the most influential. In many ways particularly as our world is running full speed ahead into our digital/virtual/assisted reality futures. These developments threaten to turn his trialectics into a very real reality. However, the substantial intellectual prerequisites (Lefebvre, Foucault, etc.) required to understand his nuanced contributions might render it an interesting historical footnote to urban theory. It’s too bad, as our modern digital world also exists in Space and the geographies, real and imagined, of our networked world badly need intellectual guidance.
Soja was an incredibly ethical person with a strong sense of fairness consequently he was always passionate about social justice. Throughout his career he was incredibly inclusive–to both people and diverse ideas–and a model progressive. In his 2010 work Seeking Spatial Justice, he presents a protest against our massive privatization of space through the lens of social justice. Here Soja was a prescient prelude to the global occupy movements later that year.
Through Soja, and then later his colleagues Allen Scott, Susanna Hecht, and Michael Storper, I came to peace with my discomfort over Marxian analysis of space and overcame my earlier distaste for post-modernist discourse. Post modernism is not all sophistry, in fact there are some profound insights when applied correctly, but you must develop an ethical wisdom as guide; otherwise its hyper-subjectivist analytical tools are overly sharp, cutting all they touch. Indirectly, Ed helped me see that.
Through his courses, our numerous conversations, and serving as his Teacher’s Assistant I came to some personal epiphanies. I loved working with students on their own research papers and then latter help grading them. I loved discussing ideas, not just with Ed, but with any active eager mind. This is what I wanted to do. Debate ideas, understand how the world is shaped, and help others figure it out as well. In short I wanted to teach. I thank Ed for this turn of events and I will forever be indebted to him. He is missed.