Doing the Best We Can: X-codes and retrospective memory

Several classes ago we discussed, in our small groups, how to interpret the FEMA USR signs that were, and still are, widespread across the wretched landscape of New Orleans. At a glance, these symbols (known as ‘X-codes’) appear to be mere displays of vandalism; however, when deciphered, they represent something much larger. During the primacy of hurricane Katrina, these symbols served as devices that notified the people of government aid and interference. The destruction done by Katrina left thousands of New Orleans citizens stranded and helpless, so even the most inadequate forms of Government assistance were accepted. X-codes were primarily painted on buildings (and sometimes cars) to alert people that the interior has been investigated or scavenged; if people needed help. While serving as symbols of government relief, X-codes also simultaneously represent, through a ‘Roachian’ lens, an agency to the performance of memory.

Roach states that memory is “an alternation between retrospection and anticipation,” and in this case, we should focus on the retrospective memory. It’s been 13 years since Katrina, and during that time most of the symbols have either faded or have been removed by current homeowners, but the memory of devastation and allochthony suffered by the residents of NOLA is still present. The scrubbed and faded symbols (known as ghost-codes) serve as an agency to the performance of memory by providing a narrative that tells of transformative loss and destruction. We are able to trace the outline of these ghost-codes which allows us to focus on the aspects of aid and assistance dealt by the government, as well as the destruction itself (i.e. number of deaths). The traces of ghost-codes left behind act as portal to remember the past, and only through retrospection can any step towards anticipation be taken.

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