Author: Aidan Koch

Beer, Civilization, and Hurricanes

There was a portion in When the Levees Broke that really stuck out to me: one of the Katrina survivors was talking about when he was watching as people left to drink soda and beer in an attempt to hydrate themselves; water, the very thing that had brought destruction to New Orleans, was, paradoxically, just as necessary to the survival of its people, but they were unable to attain it. Yet the usage of beer reminded me of a point earlier in the semester when Beth made note of the consumption of beer in the wake of Katrina, which made me stop and think about beer’s presence there.

My first thoughts went to a book that I read in the summer before my sophomore year of high school, A History of the World In 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. In the novel he charts the history of civilization through the lens of beverage, moving chronologically from beer to wine to liquor to coffee to tea to Coke. However, what I honed in on for this topic was beer and it’s presence at the onset of human civilization. According to Standage’s research, beer was one of the first major inventions of ancient civilizations, and it held a role both secular and sacred in society. In Egypt, beer was a salary for the slaves as they built the pyramids, a beverage which provided purification of the Nile’s filthy water as well as nutrition akin to that of bread, and in Mesopotamia it was a drink to be shared at celebration feasts in honor of the gods. In short, beer was an important part of their society, and it was with this in mind that I considered its presence in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

According to Roach, “[an effigy] consist[s] of a set of actions that hold open a place in memory into which many different people may step according to circumstances and occasions. I argue that effigies – those fabricated from human bodies and the associations they evoke – provide communities with a method of perpetuating themselves through specially nominated mediums or surrogates” (36). In the context of human civilization, beer can be seen as an effigy of celebration and happiness, and its presence from society’s inception and continued usage throughout history speaks to its state a a method of perpetuation. People make toasts and share drinks in celebration of major achievements and events, but they also use it as an escape, which is still a method of societal perpetuation; rather than using the beverage to celebrate the achievements of a person and perpetuate society in that way, beer is instead used to omit and forget the failures or troubles of a person, perpetuating the society through omission instead of celebration.

New Orleans has a tradition of perpetuation through celebration in the form of Mardi Gras, and I feel that the opposite, perpetuation through omission of memory, was practiced in the consumption of beer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some residents of New Orleans were in need of an escape to deal with the storm, so they turned to beer to cope. In order to get through the day and begin the rebuilding of the city in the coming days, they omitted the moment they found themselves in through drink, even if only briefly. By escaping the current memories through alcohol, some survivors of Katrina were able to prepare themselves for the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans, a literal perpetuation of their society, and those citizens who drank also communed with the early civilizations history through the effigy of beer, as both groups used the alcoholic beverage to perpetuate their societies, albeit in different ways.

A brief discourse on “effigies”

I had meant to make this post after last Friday’s class, but I was a fool and forgot about it before the weekend began.

The idea of a celebrity as an effigy, a totem or avatar without a deep, intricate personality, is not something revolutionary in our society, as we passively and impartially observe the lives of famous people rise like phoenixes and fall like dominoes; Roach says as much in his novel: “Performers are routinely pressed into service as effigies, their bodies alternately adored and despised but always offered up on the altar of surrogacy” (41). I feel that this schizophrenic state of adoration and alienation is one of the key driving forces in the culture that surrounds the celebrity identity, as they must make sure to be ever-appeasing, lest they incur the wrath of the paparazzi and the general public. I find no better contemporary example of this than the musician, entrepreneur, public figure of Kanye West.

Lampooned by everything from South Park to 30 Rock to Jimmy Fallon, West has built a reputation as a bombastic entertainment figure with a penchant for public fights and outbursts about how great he is as a musical genius; his arrogance is the key to his personality, as even among the rapper community he stands above the rest in that regard. However, West is very personal in his lyricism, as he writes songs lamenting his alienation form his friends, family, and the public in light of his successes, declaring in “Pinocchio Story,” “Do you really have the stamina for everyone who sees you to say, ‘Where’s my camera?’ For everyone who meets you to say, ‘Sign my autograph!’ For everyone who sees you crying to say, ‘You ought a laugh.'” His lyrics also speak to social commentary, opening ‘Jesus Walks’ with the phrase, “We at war. We at war with terrorism, racism, but, most of all, we at war with ourselves.” Yet West is still known primarily for his uncontrolled outbursts of emotion and self-aggrandizement.

Despite his intents, he is not taken as seriously as he should be, and this can best be observed in the now infamous declaration he made while helping to raise money to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. While standing beside Mike Meyers, West spoke personally about his reaction to the news coming out of New Orleans in Katrina’s wake, the portrayal of black citizens just trying to survive as “looters,” and the free reign given to the armed forces to shoot anyone deemed “dangerous,” before avowing, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” In this instance, West is pointing out verifiable issues of status and inequality in American society, but all anyone knows from the event is the soundbite at the end, as West firmly places his foot into his mouth. And for this he has been both adored and despised but the American public, making himself into an effigy of uncontrolled emotion and poor judgement. Not as a man working to bring important issues to light, but simply a petulant fool with poor judgement. Yet in this regard, he is still an effigy, and he is still pressed into that role as a performer, going through the motions to maintain the clout that he does have at this time.