I touch myself in this space; in that place, I hold others.
My body remembers. It remembers the beer I drank yesterday. It remembers the smell of sweet corn cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen. It remembers walking 70 plus streets from Times Square to Harlem. I often forget how well my body remembers until some event jars me in such a way that my body takes over recollection for me. It is still fairly unclear to most of us here in Baton Rouge--and I imagine, most everywhere else in the country--the extent of destruction and damage to the region and her people dealt by Katrina. It makes me wince more than a little that I can sit here in my air-conditioned living room with a cup of tea while 70 miles away people are being evacuated from their own homes. Several colleagues of mine and their families, while alive and safe, lost their homes and livelihoods in the blink of an eye. I am filled with a host of feelings and sensations none of which I have a clear understanding or grip on yet. And if my body has anything to say about it, I don’t think I ever will.
This morning for some reason, which quickly became clear to me, I picked up my notebook from a class on Haunting that I took last year. While flipping through it my body certainly remembered my experience of that seminar and I started thinking about trauma. Trauma in Greek means “wound.” This immediately locates the site of trauma within the body as a place of piercing or wounding of the flesh. It connotes ruptures, breaks, implosions and explosions, sides collapsing. Trauma becomes abject through the collapse of inside and outside once pierced by the Event. In the case of New Orleans, abject trauma occurs through the collapse of various levees around the city. In my case trauma manifests itself through a collapse of my mind and body. I can taste the dust of my windowsill at 139 Norfolk Street through my nose. I see the white and red trucks streaming through my neighborhood with my ears and my back tightens. The sound of helicopters buzzing overhead is constant now, shuttling the hurt from parishes east to our campus-turned-makeshift-trauma-center. The sirens screaming down Dalrymple street are the sirens echoing in my mind’s ear of a September four years removed. My memory funnels through my body. Through sounds and smells, muscles tightening and releasing, my body remembers over and over again while my mind tries to catch up. But I am always afraid of what would happen if my mind truly caught up with the somatic markers of traumatic memory that I embody. Becoming too intense, indeed.
The media coverage expands the space of trauma indefinitely, infinitely.
I must confess something. For several days, I really did not have much of a clue as to what was going on in the region where Katrina hit. Some vague notion, from hearing bits of information here and there, but no clue. I thought it was just another hurricane season (whatever that means). But, I was oblivious. I have a new baby on my hands, a new school year (fixing to be the most intense one of my life, as I wrap up my doctoral run), a partner whom I barely interact with, and a visiting mother in my home. I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with news and current events, but I’ve been pretty out of the loop. And missing CNN isn’t missing much anyway, right?
Another confession. I am still not watching the news. I’m keeping the whole thing at arm’s length. Last night, part of me really wanted to get sucked in, to turn on the TV and start watching the whole blessed mess, nonstop, to consume the tragedy. But, I’m not doing that.
More confession. I’m OK with not consuming the tragedy. I’m OK with feeling a little disconnected from it.
Confessing, some more. I feel guilty. I feel really guilty. Maybe even ashamed. I feel I should be much more concerned, involved, moved by the whole thing. Even calling it “the whole thing” carries a sense of disconnection.
I saw a video installation about the news coverage of 9/11 that captured the uneasy relation between being sucked into the media machine and the sort of sick and twisted way of being compelled by disaster, and simultaneously being very aware of the problems with voyeurism. I guess I am much more sympathetic to the act of distancing. Or, perhaps more accurately, the act of not participating in making more of a spectacle out of the thousands of suffering humans along the gulf coast.
Much of the coverage is designed (in not very subtle ways) to make this disaster about how people who are not there feel. I caught, for instance, a section of the Today show (but you could insert CNN or FOX or anything else here) on which Faith Hill was being interviewed. For some stupid reason the viewing public is supposed to care about how she is “coping.” I know that she is from Mississippi and that might be a reason for the interview, but it is ridiculous that her “coping” is more important when she doesn’t live there and she is, for goodness sakes, RICH! I swear I want to scream every time an interviewer asks how a reporter, a celebrity, or a person who might have once lived at or even only visited the gulf coast is “coping.” At the end of the day, the effects of Katrina are not about the emotions or feelings of those of us who are not there. It is not about the feelings of folks who want to help but can’t. It is not about how I, for example, feel at all (this is not to say that our feelings are unimportant, I just don’t like it when I see people on the news or run into people at the grocery store who act as if they have a sign that reads, “Look at me! Look at how noble I am for feeling badly for those poor people”).
The media coverage expands the space of trauma indefinitely, infinitely. This both transfers the experience of displacement to the entire viewing audience and contracts the space itself into a fictionalized imaginary crowned with media images. This process of maudlin expansion, or the “Spielburging” of crises, is so machinic (or alternately, soul-deep) to the processes of network and cable “news coverage”—the gestures and postures of drama so intrinsic—that one way to read our reactions and confessions is as a willful and semi-conscious attempt to avoid the alienation of media territorialization. The pleasures of seeing cued by the music-backed montages of tragedy work to create a sense of distance from the Real, precisely what avoiding such framing staves off.
What was heartening to see today, for me, was Senator Mary Landrieu crying and shouting for “less photo ops and more action!” and the president of Jefferson Country breaking down into a heap of sobs, “send help now! Please!” Such despondent cries from officials lacking decorum cut right through the neatly packaged, smug-faced (shit-eating) President feigning understanding while embracing a black lady; cries of “FUCK THIS SHIT! HELP!” do, in a sense, undo the hyperreal machines. Keeping the network media and cable media at “arm’s length” keeps it more real. Thankfully, National Public Radio and other public news organizations have avoided Spielburging their coverage . . . at least for now.
But only white people get to cry or get angry. NBC was quick to respond to Kanye West’s impromptu claim during a telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and his brief media analysis that “If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food.” NBC’s statement read:
Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person’s opinion.I suppose West got a confirmation that he probably didn’t expect: “one person’s opinion” really means “one black man’s opinion.” NBC’s response was scripted before West said what most of us were thinking already (particularly after Bush’s abjectly stupid remarks on the day after the hurricane). It was scripted because NBC is one of Althusser’s dreaded “Ideological State Apparatuses,” one of the multiple nodes that work in relative independence to “overdetermine” the domination of one racial class over another—the way in which the mass media help to "prepare the masses" for domination by lining the contents of consciousness.We might even claim West’s remarks had to be said because they formulate a crucial part of the dialectic of rumor panic: without the truth, there is no room for the fantasy of denial.
***For days I’ve been angrily blogging about the fantasy of the black man as a node of phobogenesis (e.g., the black man as a powerfully sexual and violent creature that exists to rape white women; see Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, or hear Ice-T’s lyrics to “Straight Up Nigga”), and how, in moments of massive crises or collective trauma, there is a general and culturally trained tendency (if not a primitive habit—I don’t out rule anything these days) of fixing on some exogenous phobic object to anchor our maps of meaning. After Nine-eleven, our cultural melancholia turned to mourning through the promulgation of a demonic idiom, whereby phantom “terrorists” were possessed evildoers. We should not be surprised to see the fantasy of the black man “as monstrous primitive” behind news coverage of this crisis either: all so-called Americans participate in the racial fantasies that give each individual subject a meaningful existence. Even Kayne West.
But reckoning with the systemic “nature” of racial fantasy is also profoundly troubling, since it exists “out there in here,” meaning, we bring the fantasy into being by discussing it; such is the profound ambivalence of all forms of cultural resistance. Performativity teaches us that we bring that which we defy and decry into existence by defying and decrying it. Now, whether or not you “buy” this academic cliché, I still think it is important to talk through this, and to raise the specter of racism even though the “Great White Guilt” would have us cry about it in silence (if only for a sense of relief). God Bless Kayne West, and the attention he brought to our current performance-in-crisis, our auto-piloting, our sense of apocalyptic joy and racialized shame.I watched tearfully as two white Louisiana authorities openly wept and criedfor more aid, NOW. Our Commander in Chief is trained to be publicly angry; apparently that’s all he is capable of. Oh yeah, and you can tell he doesn’t really care about black people. There are moments in which race does melt, real moments when pain cannot be packaged (witness the wail of a hungry newborn) and the scripts we live by are loosed . . . when we can all see the truth of this. You bet this is about race. God Bless Kayne West for “going off the script.”
Media fetishism is hard at work, though: I imagine ABC/Disney’s Nightlineis busy packaging segments about the “race” question, and so is CNN and, unquestionably, NBC will now have to devote a week long NBC Dateline hosted by (re)tired Tom Brokaw on “race relations in America.” There are only a few moments of the Real, and then it gets sewn-back up in the doing. Once race is Spielburged, we’re back to performativity-as-cultural-autopilot and whiteness reigns (always already) again. In the key of confession that has been sounded by white people everywhere (except the federal government), I’ve been doing it myself for days.
The situation is even more telling here in Baton Rouge, where, somehow, a lost black family that walks into a store asking for food reaches the ears of the Safe Whites and transforms into gangs of armed black men high on drugs raping white women. People then post this bullshit on list servers, like our departmental one for example, and it becomes “real.” Talk about an apparatus of capture.
I hate academic meetings. I already have a strange relationship with both the academy and our field, and meetings tend to really “bring it out of me.” Like today at a departmental meeting, we learned a new term, and that term is “Katrina Students,” which also go by the pronoun “they.” The university has seen fit to designate Katrina Students with the college/departmental indicator of KTR next to their name on the role sheet. We get to be CMST on the role sheet (or PHYS or PSYC or PHIL); they are from the department of Katrina, KTR, which, as I hear, is a pretty crappy department. THEY have many problems that “we” are going to help them with. But sweet Jesus, don’t call them refugees. THEY will put a burden on us, and that is fine with all of us, because we are “family.” What about the future you say, well, let’s get back to the business of being good academics, that is, let’s get on with studying the OTHER. For example, some professors have made the suggestion, or a challenge as I recall it being labeled, to draw up a panel for next year’s national convention—tentatively titled (by the tentatively entitled) “Tragedy to Triumph,” or some other pithy cable news type of banal and tasteless misnomer (I would suggest, “Performing Abject Terror,” or even something more clever like “Mining Traumatized People: Let the Other-ing Begin!”). This panel, or actually what was suggested was three panels, one from each area, would delve into the new Heart of Darkness that is the home and lives of my best friends. Totally rad, why wait till they finish pulling dead bodies out of the water, we need more vita lines, more I say, so that we might lay in bed at night and count them like a miser counts so many precious coins. Obviously, there was some naysayer in the audience at the meeting today, someone who dares to question the myopic inner logic of doing a panel on Hurricane Katrina, a scholar who asks questions like “who does this benefit?” and “is there in fact an ethical way to approach this?” Call it an impressionistic ethnography. There will be, in the future, an ethical route to talk about the event in a way that does not turn my friends into “subjects” and “characters” and “informants.” That time is not upon us because I’m still busy helping people acquire what they need to get by, keeping their heads above water. I know that there are new hires coming to our department, and we do need to let them know that we keep it real, but do we really need to write up a bragging points memo about what altruistic people we are, how we embody Derridian hospitality, and pass it around our listserves? — no, I think not. Do we need to show possible new employees that we are strong by letting everyone in the national association hear the sound of our brass balls clinking together? No. And we do not need to start drawing up panels on “Tragedy to Triumph” in order to show our fellows that we are still here. You will know that we are still here because we will be performing Louisiana with even greater strength. We will be busting our asses, working hard, drinking hard, cooking hard, and the best one, loving each other harder than ever.
Let’s theorize the ineffable, right now, before someone else does.
Date: Thu, 08 Sep 2005 23:36:27 -0400
Call for Short Papers: New Orleans and Other Urban Calamities
Space and Culture Special Issue
Deadline October 1 2005
While the flooding of New Orleans is supposedly a natural disaster and perhaps a foretaste of the implications of climate change, it is also a disaster made by people, and institutions. Social and infrastructual failures, the almost apparent breakdown of an economic market and social solidarity in favour of survivalism intersect with questions of race, class, the vulnerable, historic cultural identity, risk, technology, media spectacle, governance the state and the attitude to possible, future cities on the site of New Orleans. ‘Events overturn theory’, was one aphorism of Henri Lefebvre. What have we learned? How does New Orleans reveal shortcomings in theoretical positions and in accepted social attitudes and practices? What new questions should be asked?
Space and Culture is seeking immediate, short (1000 word) reactions that advance a specific argument rather than general comment. We also welcome images and photo-essays. Papers will be refereed by the editors of and editorial board of the journal. We aim to publish with the shortest possible delay.
At the end of the day the truly despicable conundrum of the academic gig is that part of our bread and butter is parasitic upon the lives of others. On a good day I would say, “the only way to further knowledge and to learn something is to turn our critical/theoretical gaze upon even the most tragic of events.” Reaction is a form of action, after all. I also believe, however, that the relation of the reaction to that which is its object or event must be an ethical one and I am skeptical of the convention panel as a forum for this type of ethical engagement, particularly given the fact that the idea is circulating before the dead have been recovered and identified from the gulf coast (and also having witnessed many a solipsistic display in the convention panel format). Carpe Vitum! Seize the vita line!
Oh man, is it telling the way that the bureaucracy machine turns on its labeling devices as a mechanism for control and order. KTR, indeed! As if there is any need for another group of “they” or “them” out there to validate “us” or “me.” So I wonder, for instance, how my friend’s sister is responding to being one of “those” KTR’s? Or what it is like for the thousands of school kids who are being turned into freakish displays of victimage and poverty as they enter new and scary schools from their oh so comfy bunks at the Astro Dome.
You know, I just got back from volunteering at the LSU volunteer hotline. It’s about as organized as it can be . . . what, when the Chancellor’s assistant tells the 20 year old Student Government Association (SGA) president to put something that immense together and she probably ran for SGA president just for the resume line, never expecting this was gonna be the year, the year, that the SGA president would be called upon to step up and do something this huge. So, all of these people, students, profs., big fat pregnant gals like me, are calling people to ask them to come down to the fieldhouse and sort piles of clothes or work in our make-shift hospital from midnight - 4 a.m. AND the people who filled out the form usually say “O.K., thanks so much … be there right away …” or “I’m at the fieldhouse right now!” You wouldn’t believe the commitment on a local level. And it’s happening. Everyone is working together, figuring it out, step by step. No committees, no meetings to set up meetings, no hierarchy of evaluation and control.
Oh, the “knights of good conscience” (as Derrida calls them) are ever vigilant. Meanwhile, loved ones in Baton Rouge are finding food for their friends and family. Is there no other way to alleviate the Great White Guilt than to publish an article about responsible conscience? Is there no other way to confess it than by blogging admiration of strong black men?
We certainly all know, experientially and theoretically, that space is fluid, multiple, constitutive, and immediate. However, I bet the felt experience of many (who were affected by Katrina and otherwise) can be summed up as “I’ve lost my space.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “I’ve lost my place.” Space/Place in certain circumstances feels quite static, stable, and singular—almost oppressively so—when it is perceived to be “lost.” Alienation seeps in and engulfs thousands. And alienation fills up other spaces as well, especially those spaces of discourse: blogs, newspapers, conferences, and journals. How does one respond in this black hole that eats space? How does one critique the immediate academic response to the tragedy (i.e., “let’s theorize the ineffable–RIGHT NOW–-before someone else does”).
Also, there is that spectral elephant in the room—experience—haunting our prose . . . a ghost that I suppose could be less transparent. For instance, I, like the rest of the vast numbers of folks who felt they needed to “do something” (which I was torn about because I know that the need is somewhat compelled by the very selfish incentive of “being a part” of a significant event—sort of like the parasitic comment that I made earlier about academe—while simultaneously being motivated by a bodily response towards movement—perhaps the bodily reaction to nomadism is [always] movement). I went to the Columbia Armory, where evacuees (rhetorically constructed as “guests” by the volunteer organizers) from New Orleans were arriving to be bussed to local hotels (not before they were led through the maze of social service tables by a—and I truly kid you not here—“shepherd,” a sort-of-trained volunteer). The sense of being “lost” was palpable among the folks I saw. I was sorting clothing in the children’s room and the folks would enter the room with an absolutely dazed expression on their faces. This was, after all, just another placeless space that they were moving through—the destination, of course, not the issue. I found myself compelled to ask people where they were from. One woman responded, “A small town outside of New Orleans—no one mentions it, no one knows about it.” I told her that I used to live in Baton Rouge and, for a second, the dazed expression cleared and she looked me directly in the eye and said, “La Place, I am from La Place.” I felt ridiculous as I handed her a package of boys socks and she gave me a huge hug and said “Thank you so very much.” For the socks? For the reinstitution of location? For the temporary groundedness of familiarity and of simple recognition?
As forgetful as we can be of the fullness and depth of place as a direct object of consciousness, it nevertheless exerts a constant and indirect force upon us. Better yet, place can be understood somewhat paradoxically as being given in ordinary experience as an “active passivity.” That is, being actively everywhere as both the limit and condition of existence, place remains effectively hidden (i.e., passively present) right under our noses (and under our feet, and all around our ears, eyes, tongues, and skin). Still, there are many situations in which place finds ways to assert itself and to shake us out of the slumber of the natural attitude. Place can exert/assert itself when it becomes lost, for instance. Rarely am I more aware of place than when I am lost in it, that is, when I find myself in an unfamiliar place—out of place so to speak. This is true of places as diverse as buildings, wilderness, towns, discourses, languages, and cultures. Similarly, place can exert itself as lost when it is altered, thereby becoming lost in terms of its own familiarity. This is most often the experience I have had, for example, in the aftermath of natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, and tornados. Here, the familiar becomes strange by nature’s whimsical destruction. For a place itself to tremble, for example, surely results in shaking its inhabitants into immediate place-awareness. For a place to seep and fill with dread and destruction makes the awareness of place overwhelming. The familiar lay of the land becomes immediately alien, and thus, alienating.
Displacement is both a lost place and an exile from place (lost bodies). Consider how much a place attaches to the bodies that inhabit it, how the place travels with the person who is displaced (as the place becomes displaced in-itself). In some notes and manuscripts, Husserl pointed to the relation between body and place in what he called a “phenomenological terrain.” In these sketches, Husserl suggests that place attaches to the body AND that the body attaches to the place, so that the structure of each partly constitutes the other. This means that you are able to “carry” a place with you if you leave a place or become displaced. In his most extreme example of this, he claimed that people would be fundamentally and essentially oriented to the structure of place of Earth even if they were in outer space. A more subtle, but equally complex, version of this happens when considering cultural spaces, homelands, and the experience of exile and diaspora. Nomadism is about movement, but is also about an orientation to space/place that is essentially one of movement: the nomad qua movement IS the place, which is why arrival/destination is irrelevant. This is also why cultures that are more deeply constituted to/with a place have a harder time with displacement (think of the Hmong as a prime example). I fear that it won’t be easy to be out of the Big Easy.
Here’s a specific argument: sometimes the event overruns theory.