An Overdue Clarification

I don’t mean to tread on old ground, but my performance as a blogger demands that I resurface certain memories: In my “violence is the performance of waste” essay, I had carefully attempted to deconstruct Roach’s interpretations of each of the key words in the phrase. He had defined waste as “unproductive expenditure” (40), and claimed that violence, whether  “bloody” or not, always involves expending far more resources than necessary in order to drive home whatever point is being made (41). Thus, “violence is the performance of waste.” I linked this concept to the intent behind When the Levees Broke, claiming the work to be an act of “violence” against the U.S. government and the Corps of Engineers.  By Roachian logic, the film itself is the performance of waste that makes the violence.

In a poor attempt to add to this point,  I had made an offhand remark that stated that “…art [is] inherently unproductive.” In the comments of my essay feedback, Dr. McCoy expressed (understandable) confusion as to what I meant. I’m not one to confront a professor to defend my work, but that particular comment has been nagging at my brain for a while. I had failed to express my thoughts in an eloquent manner and instead came off as rather presumptuous. Now, I suppose, is as good a time as ever to clarify my intentions:

I realize now that there was a misalignment in our interpretations of the vocabulary used. I had made a leap in logic without unpacking further. In Cities of the Dead, Roach makes a point in his discussion of “waste” that just because an expenditure is “unproductive,” it doesn’t mean that it’s purposeless (40). I believe, from this context, that Roach has a very literal definition of “productivity,” allocating it directly to the economic exchange of resources and not including any “human” elements that may arise. A factory is productive and a public park is not, by this logic. However, comparing the values of each is certainly debatable. The happiness created by a park could be substantial, but can’t be measured in a way that would deem it a productive outcome. A factory, on the other hand, is designed for the sole sake of productivity, but is no more purposeful than a park. 

Art, therefore, is “wasteful” because it involves putting money and resources into something and not being granted any tangible resources in return. IMDB estimates that the budget for When the Levees Broke was approximately $2 million. The sole purpose of the film was to send a message, and not to produce any kind of resource. Millions of people saw it, and the creators earned some money from it, but no tangible resource was created by it. So yes, one could consider the expenditure to be “unproductive,” and therefore “wasteful,” despite having a clear and powerful purpose.

It wouldn’t be fair of me to bring up such a topic without linking it to something more relevant. All literature can be considered art, including Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Therefore, the amount of time and energy that Whitehead put into the novel was, by my earlier claim, a waste: unproductive expenditure. But remember, productivity involves the exchange of resources, not ideas. Zone One, without a doubt, is certainly bustling with ideas. Ideas discussing fate, normalcy, death, loneliness, and what it means to be human. Zone One is violence, a violence against the reader and society itself. Colson Whitehead, as all authors do, is expending his waste to drive a point directly to you.

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