Violence, Performance, and Waste

In Joseph Roach’s book, Cities of the Dead, he states “violence is the performance of waste” (Pg. 41), which initially is somewhat of a confusing quote. What does Roach mean by violence is the performance of waste? Why is waste a performance? especially with violence? This quote is actually quite complex, but it helps us understand the deeper issues of our course and how people view natural disasters as well as those who suffer from those disasters.

 Before we discuss our course concepts we must unpack exactly what Roach’s quote means. The act of violence is a performance in the sense that for it to have any meaning, it must have an audience. This also highlights another aspect of this quote, all violence has meaning. There is a point to be made when an act of violence is performed. Finally, all violence is wasteful because without something being wasted, (whether that be people, resources, energy, or even time) nothing would’ve been sacrificed, meaning nothing would be lost therefore giving it meaning. 

Violence and Meaning

As discussed before, an act of violence has meaning because there is a point to be made. We can see Roach’s idea on waste be fleshed out in the 2004 box office hit, The Day After Tomorrow, a science fiction climate disaster flick starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal. The premise of the movie centers around Dennis Quaid’s character, climatologist Jack Hall, a man so overly dedicated to the pursuit of science that he has overlooked his fatherhood responsibilities. Although Hall has shortcomings as a parent, he is by far one of the brightest minds when it comes to understanding the history of earth’s climate as well as what the future holds. 

Earth’s climate is expected to be a disaster in the upcoming decades (much like our real world counterpart) due to human involvement, especially by industrialization and the use of fossil fuels, meaning that the world will be uninhabitable, spelling certain death for our future generations. Hall warns the United Nations of this very possible future, which is preventable if humanity intervenes early enough, yet he is met with blow back, most vocally by the Vice President. The Vice President scoffs at Hall’s claims, saying that this is many years out and will be a massive blow to the global economy. Hall tell’s off the VP, telling him his shortsightedness will impact the lives of billions, yet this climate shift comes quite early and much more extreme.

The first victim of humanity’s carelessness is Los Angeles, with multiple tornadoes touching down on the City of Angels, laying waste to countless lives and buildings. The Violence we see in Los Angeles is meaningful to the plot of The Day After Tomorrow because it is the tipping point within the movie. Not only are millions of lives lost and the LA metro area in ruins, but this is the point of no return for humankind. Hall’s theory is bitterly correct, with LA and eventually the entire Northern hemisphere being expended due to humankind’s greed.

Violence and Excess

Violence is inherently excessive. Such excessiveness can be seen in the Los Angeles part of The Day After Tomorrow but a perfect example of how excessive violence can be is Hurricane Katrina and Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke. Hurricane Katrina was a devastating Category Five Hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005, with Spike Lee’s four part documentary, When the Levees Broke, covering the story of the natural and manmade disaster of Katrina by covering the stories of those who experienced Katrina first hand. 

Throughout each four parts of the documentary there are countless examples of excessive violence and waste. We can see the excessive waste of Katrina with the destruction of New Orleans. Countless homes are literally washed away with people losing all of their earthly possessions, their family histories gone to waste. But the lives lost from Katrina was the greatest thing wasted from the storm, mostly when the majority of suffering within this documentary was preventable. 

One of the greatest aspects of Lee’s documentary is showing how Hurricane Katrina was a preventable disaster, that the destruction and death could’ve been avoided. The title of the documentary, When the Levees Broke, alludes to these poorly built levees. These levees that were meant to protect the city of New Orleans, which were built by the Army Corps of Engineers, were no match at handling the power of Katrina, not because of the strength of Katrina but rather the poor engineering of the Army. One of the greatest natural disasters in American history was preventable, so why would anyone allow such a violence to occur? 

Another topic that Lee covers is a course concept within our classroom which is the idea of supernumeraries. The people of New Orleans who suffered the most were seen as supernumeraries, in the sense that these people were seen as expendable and sacrificable. These people were people of color, poor, elderly, and disabled. You can see these notions when those who were not affected by the storm said New Orleans was a fish bowl, that it was the residents’ fault for living in an area that is below sea level. A more extreme case is those who saw Katrina as a purifying event that will wash away the “filth” of New Orleans, which are those who were deemed as expendable to the violence of Katrina. 

Violence and Performance 

The final aspect of Roaches quote is the performative aspect of violence. Throughout our course we spoke about how performance is not just a theatrical affair but is present in our society, with the politician being a performer within our everyday lives. One politician’s performance shows the violence within Katrina as well as broader society is that of George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States. 

To say President Bush dropped the ball with Katrina would be an extreme understatement, mostly compared with how his administration handled the Iraq War as well as the September Eleventh attacks. Bush was quite distant from Katrina, especially with how he viewed the destruction. Instead of coming to the city of New Orleans, George Bush views the destruction of Katrina from the comfort of Air Force One which is illustrated in Patrica Smith’s poem “The President Flies Over ”, from Blood Dazzler, “I don’t have to come down. I can stay hood to heaven, dictating this blandness”(Pg. 36), which greatly exhibits how this performance by Bush rubbed Americans the wrong way. How Smith uses the word Heaven and blandness shows how Bush was apathetic to the situation that many New Orealens were suffering through. By being in an Airplane, especially Air Force one, Bush was divorced from those who were stuck in a foot of water, with no power, and in ninety degree heat while he was able to sit comfortably like a god. George Bush was a powerful man, he had the power to do things for New Orleans and for those who were affected by Katrina but he sits up in the clouds looking down upon the destruction. 

Although Bush did not cause Katrina or have a hand in the destruction that came of it, his passiveness in the days following the storm is inherently violent. Kanye West states his frustration with the president by stating, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, and West was not the only one who felt this way. The black population of New Orleans, which is the majority of the city, felt neglected by someone who is supposed to represent them, someone who’s supposed to protect them. 


Overall, Joseph Roach’s quote about violence helps us dissect the violence and the waste that is present in our society when it comes to hurricanes and to broader injustices within our country’s history and current day. Roach’s quotes also help us unpack and understand other course concepts that are present within our class. 

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