Fire and Flood

Before enrolling in ENGL 111 this semester, I viewed violence as simply the intention of using physical force against or harming another person. Halfway through the semester, the concept of violence has reassured me that actions can be violent if the results are harmful to their victim, whether it be a person causing violence or different elements, particularly catastrophic events. This assurance comes from various readings and in-class screenings. I will try to comprehend Joseph Roach’s definition of violence and apply it to other course topics in order to dissect what he says in Cities of the Dead. Roach achieves this through effigies and his examination of violence as a form of entertainment.

Roach says, “to that definition I offer three corollaries: first, that violence is never senseless but always meaningful, because violence in human culture always serves, one way or the other, to make a point; second, that all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to make its point, it must spend things—material objects, blood, environments—in acts of Bataillian “unproductive expenditure” (or Veblenian “conspicuous consumption”); and third, that all violence is performative, for the simple reason that it must have an audience—even if that audience is only the victim, even if that audience is only God”. (Roach 41).It’s a lot to decipher what Roach is trying to say. Roach suggests that violence is only thought of when someone experiences it, so, if the victim of an act of violence does not see the actions of the perpetrator as  violent, the act cannot be considered violent. Thus, “violence is the performance of waste (Roach 41).  In class, we talked about the different types and feelings of violence; how people often get angry and violent, how people can feel stressed or pressured about something, when that happens they can be violent “. I relate this concept to the purpose behind “When the Levees Broke”, arguing that the work is “violence” against the US government.

The idea of waste, which was also covered in class, was very significant. Waste can refer to a variety of things, including bodily excretions, actual trash, or other tangible material. Nevertheless, “waste” can also refer to something that can be spent, such as time or money; it can also refer to something that is rejected or abandoned. We discussed a few instances such as the stepmother of McCoy’s college friend who wanted to simply throw money in the trash because she didn’t know what to do with it after her big casino win. We also discussed how both time and money may be spent, but the difference between the two is that you can always make more money; wasted time, on the other hand, frequently makes us feel unproductive. Finally, we discussed the consequences of using humans as a waste. Based on McCoy’s class notes, “A person may think another person is disposable of (minority) and perform violence towards them because you think this.” (McCoy). 

In the Spike Lee-directed film When the Levees Broke, the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the people of New Orleans are discussed, along with the U.S. government’s response to the storm—or lack thereof. Almost 50 levees failed during Hurricane Katrina; levees are flood banks that, in this case, run parallel to the Mississippi River. Almost the whole city of New Orleans was destroyed by flooding as a result of the levees rupturing. The film is a devastating and moving experience, and the way it was filmed allowed the audience to truly feel what those victims were going through. The film’s chronicling of the immense amount of suffering and agony is heartbreaking, and those people were constructed by the government as waste. Nonetheless, I had a strong connection to this movie because in 2006, a catastrophic snow storm caused me to lose my home in a house fire. Some audience members might realize how truly bad it is only when it impacts them or how people don’t realize other people are violent until it affects them, even if it’s due to the weather. With people losing their homes to weather, I consider this an act of violence even when it isn’t planned. The difference between what happened to my family and those affected by Katrina is that while my community rallied to put us up in hotels for months, provided food, clothing, cars, therapy, and really anything else we needed, those who lost their homes to Katrina were an entire city that was unable to assist one another and required aid from the government and the president at the time, George Bush. The unacceptable delay in response was arrogant. This implies that both individuals and cities may be constructed as “waste”. New Orleans residents were treated with the worst degradation and dehumanization while being left homeless and helpless. FEMA also stopped contributing to the cost of supplies like food, housing, and clothing. People’s faith in the government was damaged. Before the hurricane hit,  in the novel Unfathomable City, “Like many urban infrastructure systems  in the United States, the city waterways  have not been well  maintained. People haven’t been willing to pay up – and  we haven’t  adapted these systems to the problems we’ve had.  Together,   S & S&WB operations account for an estimated  40 percent of the city’s carbon footprint”. (Sonlit 156). Not only did the city delay its response to the hurricane, it also delayed its response when the levees required maintenance. The government is also depicted in the film’s credits and interview subjects; Spike Lee only included those who had experienced the hurricane’s direct effects; he left out policymakers. Every character in the film has been impacted. Either directly through personal experience or indirectly via being shocked by injustice on an individual level.

Life was miserable after the hurricane. Some people passed away in their city, and others returned to nothing and worse than they had ever imagined. An interviewee in the documentary says “The aftermath to me is worse than the actual levees breaking”, referring to having to start their lives over from scratch. This again is where losing all of your family’s dwellings sinks in with the connection to the residents of New Orleans. My family is by no means wealthy, especially considering that 17 years ago we had no house insurance, a sizable amount of cash in the bank, or any form of backup plan. The division of New Orleans’ poverty from the book Unfathomable City was the topic of group discussions in class. We talked about how the poor suffered terribly without any supplies, even if they were able to flee the city. “New Orleans is a city of firm racial divides and enthusiastic racial mixing, a city that contains  both a poverty that can be measured by statistics and  extraordinary wealth of festivity and memory that cannot be quantified” (Solnit 4). The terms “forgetting” and “memory” were two of the course concepts that we discussed. While visitors to New Orleans stroll the streets, gather to party, and celebrate Mardi Gras over the weekend, they forget what happened. Yet, Katrina is something that the residents of New Orleans will never forget and from which they are still suffering; McCoy relates this to Roach in that “violence performance of the return of the forgotten memory” in her lecture notes (McCoy). It is important to remember and not pass over the events of Hurricane Katrina because they could happen again in some areas of the United States and because the city of New Orleans will never be the same. Because everyone is fundamentally impacted by violence by its waste and all of the analyses that implies, the idea that “violence is the performance of waste” is important. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.