Performance of Memory & Conspiracy Theories

Well I’ve put this off for far too long…

As we continue to read our text in class it is very easy to see parallels between the key points we take away from the text and the actions of the characters (performers) in “When the Levees Broke.”

“Echoes in the bone refer to not only to a history of forgetting but to a history of empowering the living through the performance of memory.” —Joseph Roach, “Echoes in the Bone”

Apart from marginally having the best nickname in the film, Harry “Swamp Thing” Cook was the first to talk about the boom, or explosion, that happened in the lower ninth ward during the storm. The noise was never fully explained, but the residence had several theories as to what it was. Some suggested it was a transformer, a barge hitting the levee, a hole in the levee forming into a crack, and most noteworthy intentional dynamiting of the levee. This is the resurrection of the 1927 rumor that the levee was intentionally destroyed in Saint John Parish, and flooded more than a million people out of their homes, to preserve more expensive lake front property.

This was “never proven nor disproven,” however the parallels between the two disasters are incredibly strong and, conspiracy theories are stronger than levees. They can be overwhelmed by facts and not so much as crack. However, it doesn’t seem as if this conspiracy theory has been overwhelmed by facts, on either side of the argument. Professor Doug Brinkely of Tulane University, claims in his book “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast” that the people of New Orleans have had a sensitive on-going history with poor, racially based, treatment while in the face of disaster.

Professor Brinkely’s argument spawns directly from Roach’s key themes of the performance of memory. By performing the memories, the residents of the ninth ward—such as “Swamp Thing” himself—that witnessed the unexplained “boom” felt empowered to understand the present. “People who believed that the levee was dynamited, have a long experience of being ripped off.”

And it’s true, between hurricane Betsy and the 1927 floods the rural/impoverished sections of New Orleans have had a long history of misfortune that is clouded with the suspicion of poor justice. In a Time Magazine article, Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami claims, “Conspiracy theories are for losers.” Professor Uscinski does not mean this is a derogatory way, but in a literal way—people who have lost.

I find this very relatable. When I was a high school cross country runner we lost the federation championship to St. Anthony’s high school, horrifically. We were seeded to win… but we got our asses kicked. After the race settled weeks later a rumor surfaced that the team was using P.E.D’s to win the race. I believed it. I wholeheartedly thought I lost to a bunch of cheaters. But looking back at it, I know this is ridiculous to believe! We were children! I know that now, but now that I have distanced myself from the situation I know I should have known that then too. But I was too preoccupied being a loser.

In our topic of the flood history of New Orleans this is also very applicable. Every person involved had lost, whether it was family, homes, things or mental health. There were no winners. Yet weather or not (pun intended), the levees were intentionally destroyed, it is likely we will never know. There isn’t strong evidence for either side of the argument. But by performing the memories of the past, the citizens of New Orleans will feel more empowered to believe whatever they suspect.

 

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