The Scale and Consequences of Violence as a Performance of Waste

“Violence is the performance of waste.” This quote comes from Joseph Roach’s book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. In both the book and the quote, there is a lot to unpack. “Violence is the performance of waste” is a quote that can be interpreted in many different ways and applied to many different situations that we see in real life and fiction. However, before looking at the different ways it can be applied it’s important to unpack and define the meanings of each word in “Violence is the performance of waste.”

In order to better understand the quote, we can look at each word individually and find meaning there. Each of the words that make up the quote are important words that we have in our list of course concepts. The first word we see in the sentence is “violence,” a word that conjures brutal imagery. It is a powerful and clear word that gives the reader a lot to unpack. Joseph Roach defines violence in a few ways, the first being that “violence is never senseless but always meaningful” (Roach, 1996). What he’s saying is that the use of violence is always making a point. There is never a time when violence is used where a point is not being made, intentionally or unintentionally. At first, I disagreed with this statement because immediately the term “senseless violence” came to mind. However, after thinking about it, I can’t come up with any good scenarios where violence is not making a point. Even in cases where one might use the phrase “senseless violence” like about war, there can always be an argument to be made that there is a point. Roach goes on to say that “violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to make its point, it must spend things—material objects, blood, environments” (Roach, 1996). This addition to the definition of violence helps to show how broad a term violence can be and how many ways it can be demonstrated. To spend things like blood, materials, and environments implies that violence is not purely human, violence can be enacted on both living and nonliving things. The final way Roach defines violence in reference to this quote is 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, 1996). This means that violence can be inflicted not just on others, but on the world around you when no one is watching, and even on yourself. This also helps to understand why the word performance is used in the sentence.

The next course concept we find in the quote is “performance.” At first, the word “performance” here sounds sort of weird. When someone thinks of performance, they probably think of things like plays, ballets, or orchestras. Further, “violence” and “waste” are two words that make some sense together. They both have negative connotations that follow them. However, after learning about Roach’s definition of violence, the use of performance makes much more sense. Performance involves doing something for an audience, sometimes involving an emulation of something else. It can also be used to note the accomplishment of a task of some kind. (Merriam Webster). Using these meanings of performance, we can find how it connects to “waste” and “violence.”

The final course concept used in “violence is the performance of waste” is waste. Throughout our class time we’ve talked a lot about waste. We have defined waste in a few different ways. One of the most obvious being trash, like garbage. We would call that waste. The other way we look at waste is by defining it through other course concepts like sacrifice, expenditure, and supernumerary. Things that are sacrificed could be considered waste, like the way some cultures might sacrifice animals to God. Those animals become waste. In other words, they were able to be used as expenditure, they were expendable and therefore able to become waste. And supernumerary things often become expendable, in other words waste. In all of these examples, waste is the product of some sort of action or environment. 

After defining each of these concepts the idea of “violence is the performance of waste” becomes much more clear. Now it is very clear to say that the performance of violent acts creates waste. This idea can be seen across the world in many contexts, both in fiction and real life events.

Throughout our time in class, we watched the film The Day After Tomorrow by Roland Emmerich. Roland Emmerich is a director well known for his use of violence, waste, and performance in films. Most of his films involve worldwide disasters that wreak havoc and create waste. In The Day After Tomorrow all three are used constantly in multiple contexts. The first and most obvious is the storm. The main perpetrator of violence in the film is mother earth. After years of humans mistreating and polluting the earth, the other shoe finally dropped and catastrophic consequences ensue. The consequence is a winter storm so massive that it completely covers the northern hemisphere and sends the earth into a new ice age. In this film we can see the storm as the main performance of violence. This performance came in multiple forms. One notable performance was the formation of multiple powerful tornadoes in Los Angeles. These tornadoes almost completely destroy the city. We see the aftermath of the storm as buildings are either completely torn down or cut completely in half. We also see trash, garbage, and rubble covering the streets of Los Angeles until the whole city looks like a landfill. This is the waste that the violent performance of the storm created. The film serves as a criticism of humanity’s role in destroying the earth and uses violence as the performance of waste to illustrate its point. The film also makes some more interesting points about what else becomes waste in violent circumstances. In the film the main area of effect of the storm is in the northern hemisphere, therefore the president orders a mass evacuation of the United States to Mexico. What becomes really intriguing to me is what becomes expendable and/or supernumerary. Because the government reacted to the violence of the storm too late, they could not recommend that people in the northern half of the United States evacuate. Instead, he urged them to stay indoors and keep warm. The entire northern half of the country became expendable at that moment, whether they wanted to admit it or not. It was a complicated issue because even the protagonist of the film, played by Dennis Quaid, admitted that evacuating the north was a lost cause, he still decided to venture north to get to his son, who he did not see as supernumerary or expendable. Even Dennis Quaid’s trek north can be seen as a violent performance that created waste. Against all odds he decided to brave the storm and fight against it. His performance was hiking north to New York City to get to his son. Unfortunately, along the way one of his partners became a waste product of his violent performance when he fell through the ice and could not be saved. Although I did not enjoy The Day After Tomorrow as a film, I can see its value in illustrating violence as the performance of waste. It does a fantastic job illustrating the scale that the quote can work at, which is any. It works when looking at a worldwide phenomenon, and it works when using it in the context of a father’s journey to find his son. 

Some nonfiction texts we looked at this semester were Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedker’s Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. This book is a nonfiction assortment of maps and articles about the city of New Orleans’ history. The maps don’t only cover the physical spaces of New Orleans, they also document cultural, political, and economic factors affecting the people in New Orleans. Spike Lee’s documentary is about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It is a raw and brutal look at the city and its leaders that does not pull any punches. As a city New Orleans is full of examples of violence as a performance of waste. Hurricane Katrina was the performance that laid waste to the city. Corruption has plagued the city and created waste throughout history. This quote from Roach runs deep in New Orleans. In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit was an obvious example of the way violence can be a performance of waste. The violent performance was the storm, and the city and its people were the waste. In the eyes of the government the people were expendable. This can be seen on a federal level when aid came to New Orleans in too little numbers and much too late. The federal government also used the disaster as a way to gain political support by having “George Bush staging a photo-op in Jackson Square.” (Snedecker and Solnit, 2013). This example is given more context in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke when we see George Bush’s address to the United States. We see him standing in front of a lit-up Jackson Square, it looks like the lights are on and there is hope for the city when in reality it was just a performance. There was no electricity or rebuilding happening yet at all. It was just a ploy to make New Orleans seem like it was almost back on its feet and let George Bush take the credit. It can also be seen on a local level as shown in the text. In a map illustrating both the helpful and harmful elements of Katrina’s aftermath, we can see “Matt McDonald is shot in the back by police.” (Snedecker and Solnit, 2013). In the aftermath of Katrina, we see violence go up by a lot, people are vulnerable and afraid. Some of them enacted violence out of necessity, but the police were different. They performed violence and created waste to send a message. They shot Matt McDonald in the back. They wanted people to know that they can and will shoot. This is also shown in Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke when we see a clip of Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana at the time. She says something along the lines of “We are sending in police (or troops) with weapons, and they have my orders to shoot and kill when necessary.” This is a performance of violence in itself. It sends a message of excessive force and lets people know that they are waste, they are supernumerary and expendable. During Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t just the buildings and the city that became waste, it was the people too.

“Violence is the performance of waste” is a quote from Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance that perfectly encapsulates what waste and violence are and how they are connected by performance. We now know that violence is always a performance with a meaning behind it. We also know that violence creates waste. And although it’s possible that some people before thought that violence was purely human, it’s now clear that violence can come in many forms from many sources and on any scale. Although this concept exists very clearly in fiction, as we see in The Day After Tomorrow, it also happens in real life. We saw that during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. This is an important quote because it helps to explain where waste comes from and why violence is used. Hopefully through deeper understanding of this quote people can avoid creating waste and using violence. In every example we see, there are no winners when violence is used, and there is no case where waste is not created. “Violence is the performance of waste” is an interesting quote to consider whenever something disastrous seems to be coming, no matter how big or small the situation is.

Leave a Reply

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