All the World’s a Stage: A Hurricane’s Role in “Violence is the Performance of Waste”

In Chapter 2 of Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Roach examines how performances of all kinds are ways of keeping the memories of the dead, whether they are loved ones or strangers, alive.  The city of New Orleans, an important location in circum-Atlantic history because of its role in the slave trade and because of the cultures and communities that have risen there, is a main area of focus for Roach.  The name of the chapter, “Echoes in the Bone” is borrowed from the play An Echo in the Bone by Jamaican playwright Dennis Scott that shows how a ritual the allows spirits of the dead to enter their past homes or even the body of a living person (Roach 34), and that “…the voices of the dead may speak through the bodies of the living” (34).  Performance is so deeply rooted in New Orleans and circum-Atlantic culture that not even the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 could stop it.  This connection of performance and a natural disaster is deepened by Roach’s statement that “violence is the performance of waste” (42) and by the course concepts of memory, performance, sacrifice, and violence.

A performance is not worth the trouble if it is not seen by someone.  Roach further elaborates on his “violence is a performance of waste” statement by writing, “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… “unproductive expenditure”…; 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.  A natural disaster like a hurricane or flood could be counted as a performance in this case, even though scientifically a natural disaster is not sentient no matter how many poems personify them, and they do not have the sense to perform anything meaningful or senseless.  If anything, the meaningfulness in this violent performance of a storm comes from the victims, how through their decision to stay or inability to leave they witnessed the loss of everything they knew.  Going off that, the victims were the firsthand witnesses of this event, along with others watching the broadcasts and getting updates.  The documentary When the Levies Broke directed by Spike Lee contains footage from before, during, and after the storm, as well as many interviews of people ranging from politicians, celebrities, and regular citizens all with different stories to tell.  It gave viewers a look at the destruction Hurricane Katrina caused and what led to it.  It showed what had to be spent as well and what there was an excess of.  1,392 people perished in the hurricane and its aftermath, hundreds of miles of city and neighborhoods were leveled and then flooded when several of the levies around the city broke.  Hurricane Katrina caused a colossal waste of human life and resources, all under the watching eyes of the world.

The course concepts of memory, performance, sacrifice, and violence all come together to form an effigy.  Roach defines an effigy as “a noun meaning a sculpted or pictured likeness.  More particularly it can suggest a crudely fabricated image of a person, commonly one that is destroyed in his or her stead, as in hanging or burning in effigy” (36).  An effigy is often created to destroy through violence, sometimes in front of witnesses as a performance of anger or protest.  The creator of an effigy makes it to remember the person it is of, either after they have passed or to remember the feelings they have associated with that person, and the likeness is sacrificed by the creator to make a statement or to be cathartic.  Roach notes that “Effigy’s similarity to performance should be clear enough: it fills by means of surrogation a vacancy created by absence of an original,” (36) meaning that an effigy takes the role of what it is meant to represent.  I remember in the last part of When the Levies Broke when a group of people were doing a funeral procession for Hurricane Katrina, some men were carrying a coffin that was labeled “Katrina.”  They sang and danced their way down the street while others watched or joined in.  This act was made to represent Hurricane Katrina being dead and about to be buried, no longer a physical threat but still something that lingers in memory.  It feels symbolic to lay Katrina to rest in a way that so many people were after the destruction, at one point in the documentary Spike Lee interviewed a woman whose daughter drowned in the flood waters and was allowed at the funeral.  There was still a procession with singing, but it was very solemn.  Roach elaborates on the connection between effigies and death, writing, “No doubt that is why effigies figure so frequently in the performance of death through mortuary rituals—and why the ambivalence associated with the dead must enter into any discussion of the relationship between memory, performance, and substitution” (36).  A performance is not wasted if it has an audience, but things created through death are waste products of violence.

There are even times when people are treated as waste after an act of violence.  The aforementioned victims of Hurricane Katrina are an obvious example, with people being found in wrecked houses or floating in water alongside other waste, but the living can be seen as waste too.  Many hurricane survivors and victims were scorned for not choosing to leave when the evacuation order came, even though they did not have the means to leave on their own and depended on others for help.  All throughout When the Levies Broke there were claims that the people of New Orleans were forgotten by FEMA and the United States government, as well as statements that the flood waters washed away filth from the city, the filth being people.  Katrina victims were being framed as criminals, looters, and lazy for not waiting for help and for not helping themselves even though they had no means to.  The victims and survivors of Hurricane Katrina were unwillingly made into performers and the people standing by were the audience.  People were treated as statistics, not as a living person that died but as something to be cleared away with the rest of the wreckage.  When a person is treated as waste, it is time to reevaluate the systems that led them to be considered as waste.

Possibly the most recognizable performances that New Orleans puts on is Mardi Gras, a vibrant celebration before the church season of Lent begins.  Street maskers are popular performers there, such as the New Orleans Baby Dolls and Zulu Krewe.  However, an article from 2017 states that 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads were found in a drain after the celebration.  This performance led to 46 tons of waste that took an immense toll on the environment and water systems of the city, an act of violence that was not intended to be so that produced waste.  A hurricane does not intend to perform violence, it is simply formed one day, moves several miles over land and sea, and then dissipates.  While it unintentionally performs violence that results in waste, it is people that can do it intentionally.  Roach’s belief that violence is the performance of waste rings true in the course concepts of performance, memory, violence, and sacrifice and in the actions of humans that we have studied in class.

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. 

Communal Atonement: ancient rituals in modern injustices

Communal Atonement: ancient rituals in modern injustices

          The essayist Joseph Roach writes extensively on his observations regarding “Eurocentrists call memory (‘what’s done is done’) [and this] incites emotions that turn toward the future in aspiration no less than dread (‘God’s will be done’). The choreography of catastrophic closure” (Echoes in the Bone, pg.33).*  Roach builds on this very abstract idea by bridging it to the specific literary work of Rene Girard’s, In Violence and the Sacred, published in 1972.  From Girard’s research this term has been coined: “the monstrous double”. What is this? A communal rite whereas, “ ‘the sacrificial victim must be neither divisive nor trivial neither fully part of the community for fully outside of it; rather, he or she must be distanced by a special identity that specialized isolation while simultaneously allowing a plausible surrogation for a member of the community’ ” (Roach quoting Girand,pg.40).

          Indeed, both Roach and Girard examine the rituals of ancient people groups with particular attention of the actual decided action to make a person a scapegoat. defines scapegoat at this:
a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place. This term epitomizes the outer figure and actual practice of “violence is the performance of waste” (Roach, pg,41). A quick check on presents articles on how chronologically the Hebrew, then Grecian and Roman, and then the accounts of the Christian Gospels, practiced scapegoating. First in the Torah as law for the Hebrews, acted out not on a human being, but on livestock, thus the term “goat”. Then practiced in various rituals for specifics needs in a community with the Greeks and Roman, but not always to the point of death. Finally, a graphic demonstration of capital punishment upon Christ as atonement for humanity. Drawing on this, Roach interjects there must be the presence of three, concrete, observable, results of these ancient practices and philosophies to constitute that a type of scapegoat (noun) or scapegoating (verb) is being carried out indirectly in modern times. They are as followed:

“First, that violence is never senseless but always meaningful, because     violence in human culture always serves one way or the other, to a make a point. Second, that all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to its point, it must spend things-material, objects, blood, environments in acts of Batalillan ‘unproductive expenditure’. Third, that all violence is performative, for the reason that it must have an audience even if the audience is only the victim, even if the audience is only God”   (Roach,pg,41)   

Roach’s three deductions seem to bear out in modern times in the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, and the response of the U.S. Federal Government to not take suitable steps to prevent it, and non-reacting to the hurricane’s destruction on both citizens and property. In particular, as pertaining to citizens and property residing in the New Orleanian lower-ninth ward. The United States does have a history of using its technology and money and federal power to safeguard vulnerable communities from severe weather catastrophes. In Kathryn Miles’s book, Superstorm, she notes that in 1970 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was formed under President Nixon. In his speech outlying the need to streamline weather technology and marry it with government strength he said this, “We face immediate and compelling needs for a better protection of life and property from natural hazards…which will enable us more effective to monitor and predicts its actions” (Miles,pg.22 ). Therefore, a three-decade precedent of federal policy had existed by the time of Hurricane Katrina.

          In Act III of Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke documentary a New Orleans resident makes this statement, “This was a work of humans, not God”. Another statement in the same act, this time a British engineer when referring to the levees erected around the city as “the biggest failure of civil engineering in U.S. history”. Lastly this, “Listen, this a very wealthy country. And in wealthy countries we always find the money. It is a matter of priorities”. The three persons interviewed by Spike Lee and quotes above are a collection of testimonials of one thing: the federal government did not do what it promised in building the levees to protect the most vulnerable people and property of New Orleans. And so, the question must be asked: why did our very wealthy nation of vast means and technology not protect its vulnerable citizens? To help us think about one proposed answer let’s look at the evidence argument number one, of what constitutes as a scapegoat, according to Joseph Roach. “Violence is never senseless, but always meaningful…to make a point”. First we must understand that willful neglect is a form of violence. The laws in our country imprison parents who cause harm to their children through neglect. So, if negligence is violence, then, according to Roach’s definition, it was meaningful, or better stated, calculated loss.

Roach’s evidence argument number two points out scapegoating “violence is excessive…it must spend things in acts of unproductive expenditure”. The excessive non-reacting, non-aide, non-compensation in the wake of Katrina in New Orleans points to excessiveness in loss of human life and property and environment. It was fully demonstrative towards basically, the unwanted and the have-nots. A simpler way to say “unproductive expenditure”. Why were the people of the lower ninth ward considered this? That is very complex and multi-layered answer that this paper could not do justice. What I can do is simply give an excerpt from a favorite book and teacher. The book is titled, Radical: Taking our Faith Back from the American Dream. The author is David Platt. The scene is set of a young Pastor being invited to a home of another well-respected Pastor with several of the church’s deacons present and the young pastor, David Platt, is asked to speak about his ministry work in New Orleans (where he and his wife lived for years and lost their home and possessions to Katrina) and in several other third world countries. Platt spoke enthusiastically about the good being done, about how exciting it is that the people whom he is serving are open and accepting to the teachings of Christ, which he considers as life-giving.  After what he explains as an “awkward pause, the Pastor of whose home I was invited said ‘I was just as soon have God annihilate those people and send them to hell.’ I was shocked speechless” (Platt, pg.63). This incident became one of several catalysts for David Platt writing his book Radical: Taking our Faith Back From the American Dream. The callous materialism of the American Evangelical Church, that is so ignorant of the central teaching of Christ and the New Testament that few even realize how an extreme American influence of racism and wealth obsession goes against the central ancient teachings of Christianity. This book had a profound effect on my personal and thinking life. And this scene I think, in particular, demonstrates a core belief that certain undesirables in society are “unproductive expenditures”.

          This brings us to Roach’s third concrete presence of scapegoating. “All violence is performative…it must have an audience”. So, who was the audience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans? Again, Spike Lee’s careful research and interviews seem to point to one thing: not building the levees correctly, not responding to the disaster, and then not compensating for losses from the insurance companies, set the stage for building corporations to come into the ghost town districts and rebuild without any trace of the old neighborhood. Time and time again, in many scenes of When the Levees Broke, the interviewed natives of New Orleans expressed a feeling, almost pointedly directed from their own government that, “we are not wanted”.

          In closing, I think Rene Girard’s  cultural observations within his work, In Violence and the Sacred, written thirty three years prior to Hurricane Katrina that states “ the sacrificial victim neither fully a part of the community nor fully outside of it…but must be distanced by a special identity that specifies isolation while simultaneously allowing plausible surrogation for a member of the community” fits the bill nicely for the poorest and most disadvantaged and therefore the most unlike those with power, in the very singular city known as New Orleans. The book Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas does a great job explaining to outsiders, outsiders who know nothing about New Orleans besides it being the city of Mardi Gras, what the city is really like. In the first chapter Rebecca Snedeker writes, “New Orleans is set apart from the rest of the country, perhaps the world. Every place has its own place has its own body of knowledge, its own history, its own cultures. But what you find in New Orleans is rich, deep, strange (pg.8). Both authors build on this uniqueness in regards to its physical topography being such a sponge of water and land, that is impossible, in places, to distinguish between the two. Belonging to one element, and belonging to another, thus not belonging anywhere. She likens it to “the organ of the human liver, and its primary function to filter poisons” (pg.2). This is of course a natural consequence of living below sea level; a paradox of living conditions. This paradox of making your dwelling in a location, that by definition is not a dwelling, cycles its way to the very people of the community. Its diversity cannot hope to be explained in simple terms of white or black, rich or poor; it’s too layered.  The author continues with her descriptions: “New Orleans is a city Incognita, unknown city, because even those who live here tend to know our own fragments” (pg.11). This “strange”, “uniqueness”, the “Incognita”, and “fragments” are all perfect conditions for a scapegoat. The not quite like the rest of us, therefore expendable, and undesirable, that are of little consequence for the powerful. This modern injustice, done by those in power, does have an ancient feel to it. The oldest stories almost always revolve the strong taking advantage of the weak. However, another element present in nearly all stories, since the beginning of storytelling, is that of a hero, making things right. I believe Spike Lee, in making this documentary wanted to expose the villain, and root for the hero.

*All quotes citing Roach will draw directly from his Echoes in the Bones essay.

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.

Negligent Expectations Rampant Throughout A Barbarous Storms Influences

Hurricane Katrina was undeniably a devastating torrent the bombarded ubiquitous, inextricable marring and ravaging of the vivacious, prideful communities intimate yet abundant throughout the city of New Orleans. Houses teeming with family history and robust cultural community were thrashed and decimated as if they were conscripted to be nothing more than fleeting effigies of one’s legacy and relation to such a gregarious, socially enriched yet tumultuous city. One could argue that choosing to live in a city whose waterlogged environment is so volatile and prone to betrayal during these ecological havocs is to embrace such a conscription, however for many in New Orleans it is evident the choice has not always been so simple. I found myself enthralled in the heartbreak and immense devastation as we watched Spike Lee’s exquisitely insightful When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The documentary devoted a remarkable portion of time to reaffirming the unflinching, beautiful solidarity evident in the people of New Orleans in spite of agonizingly arduous conditions, which I believe to be an encouraging implementation of an affirming Second Line. However, the need for this Second Line was only present due to the sheer, indiscriminate violence and callous negligence imposed onto the city of New Orleans not just by the belligerent, haphazardly voracious storm, but also by the government and their relegation of New Orleans community as nothing more than supernumeraries, both indicative of a dirge. Lee made it evident that the people were left floundering both during and well after Katrina’s wake, afforded almost no commodities and relief for their strife, expected merely to press on and salvage a new life for themselves, with ostensible equal prospects. Communities were ravaged by a wasteful storm that left a gratuitous level of carnage and erasure in its flippantly harmful wake. A man was forced to relinquish his sick mother to the torrential, all-encompassing influence imposed on New Orleans. A mother is inundated with despair over the loss of her child, feeling utterly powerlessness and a lack of agency that may have helped save her child from compulsion as a sacrifice to this monstrous storm. Yet a disconnected mother of President Bush can observe this carnage and pervasive throttling of New Orleans’ life and legacy and insist that this is ultimately a blessing in disguise for New Orleans, as if being forced to dwell in their own excrement, toppling over wreckage and other bodies is a net improvement to some more impoverished denizens. It was made evident to me that the rest of society had largely remained largely oblivious to the plight and sacrifice these people had been forced to forfeit. This gratuitous geological and negligent violence imposed on New Orleans reminded me about themes reinforced in Joseph Roach’s “Echoes in the Bone”, an intimate look into the turbulent yet beautiful intricacies of the circum-Atlantic diaspora. Joseph Roach delves considerably into a notion that “violence is the performance of waste” (Roach 41). Through this essay, I intend to further explain how violence as a performance of waste serves to accentuate the notion that disasters often instigate egregious, compelled sacrifice and wounded memories, leading to a larger society to conscript those exploited during the disaster and tragedy to perform as supernumeraries left to mend on their own, without aid.

            One of the three primary corollaries Roach posits in his discussion over violence as a performance of waste is 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” (41). Here, Roach is alluding to the notion that violence demands and forcefully elicits sacrifice in order to fulfill its own performance of sorts, even if said performance is only to wreak extravagant catastrophe on an environment. He suggests that carnage often imposes a far more abundant negative output as opposed to its input, hence why said bombastic, rampant torrents of natural disasters are often cited as “unproductive expenditure.” I find this quote to be so fascinating since it can be contextualized as a confrontation of, or at the very least a prompt for discussion on, the notion that natural disaster can be a time for cleansing. While this outcome after a disaster is entirely plausible, even admirable it invests excessive eager sentiment and investment into a cathartic Second-Line while ignoring the ramifications and colossal wounds found present in the sharp vestiges whirling around the Dirge. This idea is reaffirmed in a poem from Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, dubbed “Back Home”, that features a narrator gazing upon the pervasively pungent and atrocious state of what her life and environment was thrived off of in New Orleans. The speaker is thrusted into an overwhelmed despair upon witnessing the state of her home following the aftermath of a barbarous Katrina, mentioning that the vermin and water-ravaged home also harbors “funk, churning moss dripping from its arms, arms open wide to take in my damp body” (Smith 65). Here, Smith employs grotesque and derelict imagery to convey the irreparable contortion of the woman’s home and the material resources she worked to accrue and sustain through her life in New Orleans. I believe specifically that the implementation of “churning moss” clinging to and ravaging and slathering the house still with “arms wide” in an attempt to be richly expressive in just how emotional the sacrifice of one’s material environment can be for someone. The use of personification in describing the house despite its colossally warped and enfeebled state only further highlights the anguish the speaker is likely feeling upon witnessing all material components of her identity and legacy in shambles. The house is treated like an affectionate friend eager to comfort and protect the speaker in spite of being burdened with decay, as seen in its offer to wrap the narrator in its derelict body. The end of the poem finds the speaker further lamenting the unsalvageable state of her past life, now a devastated amalgam of grotesque wither and a nest for a contorted, new tarnished ecosystem of its own: “closing tied eyes against my home’s languid rhythms of rot, begging my new history to hold still” (65). This elegiac imagery conveyed by Smith reaffirms the emotional toll and marring the decomposed, derelict house has inflicted onto the speaker. The “languid rhythms of rot” further accentuates the notion that the house is a breathing, active entity within New Orleans legacy and ecology, similar to the speaker herself, making it all the more heart wrenching that it is in a state of inextricable disrepair. I believe the speaker “begging” her new history to remain stagnant shows how she is utterly unequipped and emotionally ravaged herself to be able to carry on with her life unfettered. Her home in New Orleans meant a tremendous deal to her, and she is far from ready to part with it for the sake of his torrential hurricane’s performance. Such a brutally callous discarding of one’s material and ecological identity in New Orleans shows how tremendously oppressive it can be for one to rebuild and commence a ‘cleansing’ process when forced to perform as a sacrifice for the spectacle and scope of these natural disasters. Instead of being empowered from Katrina’s carnage by a sense of renewal, I believe the speaker, as well as other individuals grappling with a similar deprivation and destruction of material and environmental familiarities. Such a flagrantly savage squandering of goods for a frivolous geological performance seamlessly encapsulates Roach’s concept that violence is intrinsically “excessive” and demands unprompted, unconsented sacrifice to embolden its own magnitude, diametrically “unproductive” in nature. The prospect of disasters yielding opportunity for new beginnings is rendered worthless if those unwillingly exposed to said disaster were so fervently entrenched in the value of what the material and ecological goods surrounding them. The speaker has clearly been affixed to a conscripted performance of her own because of this egregious violence and carnage, a societal supernumerary left to toil in the demolished remnants of her past life and expected reassemble them on her own to form a new one. 

            Another of Roach’s corollaries asserts that “all violence is performative, for the simple reason that it must have an audience– even if that audience is the only victim” (41). Roach is suggesting to readers that the waste of violence isn’t dictated necessarily by the scale of the catastrophe it inflicts, but by the capacity of waste, harm, and gratuity it imposes on those exposed to the performance. I personally find the amorphous nature of this assertion to be rather intriguing due to the vast plasticity behind one can be deemed an audience. The flexibility of who the audience is crucial since the audience will normally be the one to determine whether an act of violence is truly wasteful and worth acting on due to its scale, severity, and significance, making the negligent aid extended to New Orleans following Katrina more glaring. Providing an audience opportunity to disconnect from oneself can ultimately precipitate and exacerbate further waste and excessive destruction left by said performance of violence. This creates a notion of a vortex of violence and needless discord on a societal front, as hostile sentiments can fuel animosity and aggression among those who deem themselves an active victim of the violence audience when confronting the inaction of a disconnected audience. The notion of flexible accountability in an audience not immediately affected by said violence is evident throughout the Bush administration’s dispassionately indolent conscription of the people of New Orleans into those of a separated supernumerary from the rest of the country’s priorities. Patricia Smith does a fantastic job articulating this sentiment in her poem “The President Flies Over”, relaying Bush’s potentially unsympathetic and callous emotions as he flew over the carnage exacted by Katrina onto New Orleans, referring to the city as “that other country” and remarking how had heard “somewhere it has rained” (Smith 36). Smith chooses to convey the president’s abhorrently negligent disassociation and untethering of himself to the plight of New Orleans. I believe his reference to the city as “that other country” to be a prime example of conscripting New Orleans to a role of a disconnected supernumerary, a land that is excess and no longer apart of the United States due to the hefty commodities that would have to be extended to truly, vehemently rejuvenate the vigor of the extravagant, bountifully diverse city. Chalking the hurricane up as nothing more than trivial rain also is an instance of Smith conveying how a disconnected audience of violence can contort and conscript the narrative of the magnitude of said violence to ignore the ecological waste and emotional havoc brimming just outside their apathetic peripherals. As Roach suggests, violence as a performance of waste can be equally potent and devastating to those involved even if the supposed affected audience is one individual. Are they not worth extending aid to? Are they merely designated as a supernumerary entity, unworthy of exerting resources over to help mend the fierce wounds imposed on by said violence? Roach’s declaration of violence as a performance of waste yields ample capacity for scrutiny and reflection on the gratuitous and barbarous nature disaster can impose onto those exposed, as well as the penchant for disconnected audiences to conscript those directly impacted by said violence as a supernumerary to dismiss aid.

Violence and it’s Relation to Performance

Chapter two of Joseph Roach’s book Cities of the Dead Circum Atlantic Performance is entitled “Echoes in the Bone”. In this chapter, he writes that “…violence is the performance of waste.” (Roach, page 41) Our class (ENGL 111/468) spent many days evaluating this quote and finding its relation to our multitude of course concepts. In this essay, I will be talking about many of our course concepts including violence, death, memory/forgetting and beginnings, and how they relate not only to Joseph Roach’s quote, but to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. 

More often than not, when we see the word violence, we associate it with being caused by a human or a group of them. Violence by itself can be defined as an act used to intentionally cause harm to someone or something. This act of violence doesn’t have to be the act of a human, though. When Joseph Roach describes violence as the “performance of waste”, I interpret the waste as being a symbol of negativity (along with negative emotions) or destruction. Hurricane Katrina was destructive not only to people’s mental health, but their physical health as well. In class, we watched a film entitled When the Levees Broke. This film was split up into four acts, and each act showed multiple Katrina survivors as they shared their personal experiences and traumas. Hundreds of individuals waited for multiple days without any sources of clean water, food, clean clothes, or even a place to use the bathroom. Every day they were told that help was arriving and was around the corner, and every day that help seemed to be prolonged. This caused many people to become sick due to the unsanitary conditions. Those in poor conditions health wise prior to Katrina only worsened over time. Many individuals died, which brings me to our first course concept: death. 

Death, although it can be traumatizing, is inevitable. Whenever you hear about a death, even if it’s someone you don’t know, it takes a toll on you. It makes you think about your life in more depth, who you could have been spending more time with and so on. When these people lost their families during hurricane Katrina, it took a tremendous amount of courage to keep going and fighting for their own lives in the midst of their suffering. Also shown in the film When the Levees Broke was numerous dead bodies that were left out in the open and covered by blankets.  Their families had no choice but to leave them behind and move forward to save their own lives. The worst part was the fact that it took days, and sometimes even weeks for these bodies to be taken away. Their family members are left with this everlasting image of their love one left behind for everyone to see. This concept of death, and anger followed by death also relates to Joseph Roaches quote that “…violence is the performance of waste.” (Roach, page 41). Many people were angry about the fact that, after many days, their loved ones still weren’t being properly taken care of, or removed from public view. After the storm was over, the town was in shambles as there was waste everywhere and destruction in every sight. It wasn’t fair to those left behind, because they are now being viewed as part of the waste and destruction of the disaster, even though their life was so valued by so many people. 

Being a part of such a disaster is surely something that is hard to forget, which is why memory/forgetting is one of the many important course concepts we have discussed in class. No matter how hard you try to forget the bad things that have happened to you, your mind always finds a way to come back to it. For those that suffered such catastrophic events, these memories can sometimes lead to severe anxiety, and in many cases PTSD. Around the time of Katrina, racism was still prominent in New Orleans, specifically targeting Black Americans and those of African American descent. The film When the Levees Broke did an excellent job at illustrating how these people were, in a way, forgotten about when it came to getting help after the hurricane struck. Many people described feeling as though they weren’t cared about, which oftentimes left them feeling hopeless. Feeling hopeless in a time of struggle is something that nobody should have to experience, especially when you are seeing others get the help that you need as well. In class, we read a text entitled Blood Dazzler, written by Patricia Smith. This is a book of poems that were written to try to provide a better understanding of some of the personal thoughts and experiences of those that had suffered through Katrina. In the poem entitled “Ethel’s Sestina”, the author writes, “We wait. Ain’t no white men or buses come, but look–see that there? Get me out of this chair, help me stand on up.” (Smith, page 46) These words spoke to me louder than any others, because it showed that these people were waiting patiently for help for so long while watching others get the help they also needed and deserved. Using Joseph Roach’s “violence is the performance of waste.” quote, the performance in this case is the open suffering of these people whilst others are getting help. The film When the Levees Broke also illustrated how many people began to steal items such as food, water, and clothing from stores that were nearby in order to help them and others around them survive. This “looting” as some people called it was viewed as doing the wrong thing, however, the people needed to do what they thought was right in the moment to help themselves. This relates to our course concept of memory/forgetting because the people of New Orleans will never forget the extremes that they had to go through to make it through this disaster.  

Beginnings is another one of the main course concepts that we have been working with this semester, and the last one I will be talking about in this essay. Little did the people of New Orleans know, Hurricane Katrina was going to be the hardest of new beginnings they’ve ever had to endure. In class, we read multiple pages of Unfathomable City written by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker. On page 133, an excerpt entitled The Beginning of This Road was written by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. In relation to beginning, she states, “But the water betrayed them: 15-foot-high pilings didn’t prevent an unfathomable sea from sweeping their homes away like wet leaves from a porch. Still, after an ending there is life. Or so it is said.” (Ruffin, page 133) Ruffin refers to life after death as a new beginning, or as hope for a new beginning. After the people of New Orleans got to safety on the buses, they were transported to new places and distanced from their families. As described in the ending credits of When the Levees Broke, most of the survivors of hurricane Katrina were born and raised in New Orleans. Of these people, a majority of them have never traveled outside of New Orleans, either. To them, having to leave their homes was the first chapter in their new beginnings. Many of the people that were being interviewed in the film reported being scared and distraught due to the separation from their families and what they thought was their forever home. Hurricane Katrina changed the lives of so many people, and especially changed the way that people spoke and felt about New Orleans. 

When Joseph Roach wrote that “… violence is the performance of waste.”, it is assumed that many people will have multiple different interpretations of these words. So why does my interpretation and analysis matter? As a student that is enrolled in ENGL 111 with professor Beth McCoy, I have gained background knowledge of the personal experiences that people faced through Hurricane Katrina. I used the information and course concepts that I’ve learned in this class thus far to interpret my understanding of Joseph Roach’s words. Like I said before, not all violence has to be human related violence, although that is what we mostly think of violence to be. The survivors of Katrina have firsthand knowledge of this, too. They know that the violence in their case was caused by the breakage of the levees, and by the destruction of the hurricane itself. Using my personal experience of being in a hurricane was helpful in this understanding of his quote, too. In 2013, my family and I traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a family vacation. While we were there, there was a severe hurricane warning. I remember feeling terrified every time I felt the house shake from the wind. The thunder in the sky cracked so loudly, and the lightning lit up the entire house without leaving a single speck of darkness anywhere. This storm only lasted a few hours, and luckily everybody was okay and safe. Having my own experience of being in a hurricane, even if it wasn’t as corrupt as Katrina, truly helped me to understand and sympathize with the fear and anxiety that these people experienced, and why my analysis of Joseph Roach’s words truly do matter.

Violence is the Performance of Waste

The topic of violence is one that is complex and hard to understand but yet is always pertinent. In his novel Cities of the Dead: Circum Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach defines violence as “the performance of waste.” By this Roach implies that violence is just the action of creating waste with purpose to it. Roach further expands upon his definition by providing 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.” Although Roach’s work is from 1996, his definition of violence is still relevant today and especially so to the topics covered in class as each of Roach’s three corollaries can be applied to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.

In the context of Katrina, the failure of the United States government can ultimately be considered as an act of violence upon the people of New Orleans. During the events of Katrina, the levees of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a predominantly poor and black district, broke causing massive flooding and catastrophic damage. The United States government viewed the people of the Ninth Ward as expendable and because of this, they did very little to protect this group from the destructive power of a hurricane. As outlined in the Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, the United States Corp of Engineers conducted an investigation post Katrina and found that the levees that they had constructed were not sufficient to handle the kind of destructive force of a hurricane as powerful as Katrina. In the novel Unfathomable City, A New Orleans Atlas, authors Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker relay in a powerful quote how if the levees were constructed properly, much of the destruction of New Orleans could have been avoided altogether: “Imagine that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had built adequate levees: Katrina would have just been a powerful hurricane that missed New Orleans…” In addition, the United States government completely blundered the response in the aftermath of Katrina, taking far too long to respond to the crisis. New Orleans had to fend for itself in the aftermath of the storm with little support as reflected in another quote from Solnit and Snedeker: “Imagine that even though the levees failed and people were left behind, everyone in a position of power had responded with urgent empathy so that no one was left to die on a roof or in an attic…” In this case, the people of New Orleans, more specifically the people of the Ninth Ward, are considered as waste by the United States government and thus, violence was acted upon them.

In Roach’s first corollary, he mentions how violence is never senseless but rather always has a point. In the case of Katrina, the point of the violence acted upon the people of New Orleans by the United States government was as punishment for the actions of the people or rather their “sins.” It is no secret that the United States government held many prejudices against the people of New Orleans, believing the city to be prideful, dirty, and unclean. Thus, the government only initiated an evacuation of the city at the last possible moment, providing little to no resources in the aid of the evacuation. Spike Lee highlights in his film how the government relayed that they were not going to help anyone who stayed during the hurricane, doing little to help in the process of evacuating the city. Solnit and Snedeker also highlight this idea in the quote “Imagine that the evacuation order had not been a demand that people without cars and money do the impossible but an expression of social commitment that no one would be left behind. The U.S. government did the bare minimum to say that the people of New Orleans were warned and punished greatly those who had no choice but to stay in the city. If the people of New Orleans were going to be disobedient, the government would not help them in their time of need. An obvious analogy can be made to the biblical story of Noah in which God used a storm to flood the Earth and purge the wicked so that the Earth can be reborn. In this case, the government played the role of God, using the storm to purge the city of its sin and wickedness so that it too could be reborn. Many believed that this worked and was a benefit to those who had survived the ordeal. As highlighted in the collection of poems Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith, one such example was past first lady Barbara Bush who in a tasteless quote stated: “What I’m hearing is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone here is overwhelmed by the hospitality… And so many people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this-this [chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.”

In Roach’s second corollary, he mentions how violence must be used excessively if a point is to be made and Hurricane Katrina is no exception to this rule. The sheer destruction of New Orleans is captured expertly in Spike Lee’s documentary which gives the audience a visual indication of what the hurricane did as well as how the hurricane affected those who were caught in the storm on an interpersonal level. Hundreds died during the storm and those who survived lost their families, homes, or both. One poignant example from the documentary is a case in which a man who worked his entire life to pay off his home, broke down crying after seeing what the storm had done to the home he spent decades paying for. The excessiveness of the violence is also demonstrated expertly through Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. There are many poems that demonstrate the excessiveness of the violence. A notable example is the poem Buried in which a father must bury his own son who passed away during Katrina because the government stopped giving funds to help bury the victims of Katrina. This poem does an amazing job at not only demonstrating violence caused by the storm, but also how the government abandoned New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, causing even more violence as a result.

In Roach’s third corollary, he mentions how violence is performative in nature and because of this, there must be an audience for the violence to be performed for. In this case, the audience is the entire world, who saw the complete destruction of New Orleans by Katrina. The U.S. government used New Orleans as an example of what happens to cities which sin or disobey orders given to them. The residents of New Orleans, especially those from predominantly poor and black districts were treated as criminals or sinners. Anyone who tried to get food from grocery stores were labeled as looters, further contributing to the idea that New Orleans is an unjust city that needs punishment. The people of New Orleans were treated as savages by the public and were not given the help they desperately needed. As outlined in Spike Lee’s documentary, those who tried to leave the city were met with people with guns who attempted to keep people in New Orleans. Rumors ran rampant about the residents of New Orleans with one of the biggest perpetrators being New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass. In the collection of poems Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith in the poem Dream Lover highlights the actions of the police chief with the quote “We had babies in there. Little babies getting raped” in reference to how the police chief stated that residents were trying to rape babies in the dome arena during the aftermath of the storm. This claim was completely nonfactual and only further served to justify the destruction of New Orleans. Violence was used by the government so that the world would see the absolute worst in the people of New Orleans in order to justify the violence that was committed upon the city of New Orleans.       

It is important to understand Roach’s definition of violence as it allows us to better understand why violence occurs in the first place, allowing us as a society to avoid such acts of violence in the future. The violence acted upon the city of New Orleans was not an act of God but rather an act of man that could have been avoided altogether. Yet, the people of New Orleans were considered to be waste by the government and thus violence was perpetrated onto the city through the inaction and lack of support from the government. If we are to avoid such acts of violence in the future, we must first define violence and then understand the means in which violence is committed.

Violence is the Failure of Our Government

Violence. A force that is intended to damage or destroy someone or something. Synonyms of violence include, but are not limited to, roughness, brutality, ferocity, severity, and so on. Maybe not all of these terms resonate the same way when we picture violence, as each person holds their own perception of what violence truly is. I believe that violence is a feeling. I believe that violence is not the action itself, but the aftermath and the looming effects it has on us. Author and historian Joseph Roach provides the quote, “…violence is the performance of waste” (Roach, 1996) in his book titled Cities of the Dead. Roach’s work relates back to many of our course concepts, developed from both the readings and in-class screenings, in a multitude of ways that I am intending to delve into momentarily. 

Roach has three interesting concepts of the term violence that I will tackle individually. His first concept states that “violence is never senseless but meaningful, because violence in human culture always serves, one way or the other, to make a point…” (Roach,1996). Without delay, this reminded me of a concept from our in-class screening of When The Levees Broke, a documentary directed by Spike Lee, about the aftermath of New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina. In the documentary, we saw many first-hand experiences of the surviving victims from the vicious hurricane. New Orleans was flooded from the hurricane because of the breaking of the levees that were supposed to keep the city safe from flooding in the instance of a natural disaster. These levees were, said by Louisiana state’s politicians in the film, very poorly constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. To worsen the matter, the multitude of victims that were interviewed in the documentary stated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was absolutely useless when the people of New Orleans were in dire need of support. People were dying, starving, injured, and desperate with nowhere to go after their homes and belongings were destroyed. Families were torn apart, the streets were trashed, and nobody came to help for months. This left the people without food, clean water, electricity, money, or shelter for what felt to them like an eternity. When FEMA search teams finally came to search houses and account for dead bodies, they lied about checking houses and cleared those houses as having “no deaths”. Dead bodies were, in fact, later found inside by family members of the home that was supposedly already cleared. Now as we relate back to what Joseph Roach said about violence proving a point, the point proven here is clear as day to me. The United States Government savagely proved to these innocent people that they were not important enough to be helped in any sort of a timely manner. This violence performed by the government, which was fully aware of the disparity of the surviving residents of New Orleans, reveals the true flaws within our country. 

Roach’s second concept of violence that he offered in Cities of the Dead is that “all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to make its points, it must spend things–material objects, blood, environments–in acts of Bataillian ‘unproductive expenditure’…” (Roach, 1996). I interpreted this quote as the idea that with violence, comes sacrifice. Sacrifice of things that are important and/or valuable to us. I believe that if something wasn’t valuable, then losing it would not be looked upon as being a sacrifice. The way I see it, in order to sacrifice, we have to possess something worth sacrificing. In one of our course novels, Unfathomable City, one of the two authors speaks about her personal experience of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She says; “What’s normal here? Looking everyone you pass on the sidewalk in the eye and nodding, at the very least! Rolling thunder on summer afternoons, masked men on horses in parades, living your whole life here. (Before Katrina, we had the highest rate of nativity–the percentage of residents living in the same town where they were born–in the United States.) Guests visit and tell us that the city is different from other American cities…These people say we’re friendly, yet we’ll talk behind your back; they say we celebrate life, yet we’re killing our own; they think it’s easy to get by, but most everyone I know is working hard to make ends meet, and since Katrina, the cost of groceries and insurance has skyrocketed. The opposite of everything you can say about this place is true, too” (Snedeker, 2013). This moving excerpt from the book identifies the sacrifice (that Roach previously mentioned) as the heart and soul of the city. People’s spirits were crushed. Any sense of hope was lost. The city of New Orleans was permanently changed in a way that could never be fully undone. 

Joseph Roach’s claim that violence spends things also connects to the aforementioned When The Levees Broke documentary. We saw evidence of countless homes that were torn apart, carried away with the flood, or nonexistent whatsoever. The hurricane “spent” these citizens’ homes, their sacred belongings, and devastatingly, many of their loved ones. This is what they had to sacrifice in order to start over– their city mostly wiped clean of the possessions they owned before the hurricane hit and the levees broke. And although they never consented to sacrificing these things, it was sacrificed for them, against their will. The remains, or lack thereof, are the streets of New Orleans left trashed and unrecognizable for months on end, the loss of so many lives, washed away memories, and no hope left in our government. 

Roach’s third and last conspiracy of violence 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 statement specifically stood out to me because I believe that, in a cruel way, the United States Government– being FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and all of the political leaders who were bystanders in this devastating tragedy– were the audience, as Roach would say, watching uselessly as the violence unfolded over the city of New Orleans. The Katrina victims were suffering as the government watched them cry for help and did nothing to aid them. They viewed everything that was washed away in the flood as waste, not memories or keepsakes or peoples lives turned upside down. Through this course I now realize the significance that this storm truly held. That the ruins of Hurricane Katrina were not “waste”. They held the stories and the heart of New Orleans, and all of its beloved people. 

Two overwhelmingly important key concepts that Professor McCoy taught in class are the words memory and forgetting, inspired by Joseph Roach’s quote from Chapter 2, Echoes in the Bone, of Cities of the Dead– “Echoes in the bone refer not only to a history of forgetting but to a strategy of empowering the living through the performance of memory” (Roach 34). Memory and forgetting are so important because it teaches us, as human beings, a very important lesson. I interpret memory as meaning to honor, to talk about, and to always remember. Memory is so crucial so that we don’t end up forgetting. Without memory, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes time and time again. Forgetting is what happens when we don’t remember, we don’t honor, and we don’t actively work towards change. Forgetting is so important in the way that we must not do it. That is how “Violence is the performance of waste” resonates with me.

Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Relationship Between Violence & Me

In Roach’s “Echos in the Bone”, from his book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, he writes heavily on the subject matter of forgetting and remembering the deceased, as well as portions of our lives. Roach’s writing suggests that these two work hand in hand with the ideas of performance and memory within our society.  Upon reading the chapter, Roach brings forth many interesting claims about how these ideas play into one another.  Yet none are as striking as when Roach makes the claim that “violence is the performance of waste”.  Looking further into Roach’s exploration of violence as a performance of waste, he includes three corollaries to provide a more rigid definition and understanding of how violence, performance, and waste are defined within his own words. 

 Specifically, I will be drawing attention to the third corollary in which Roach suggests, “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”. What makes this corollary so complex is the lack of the inclusion of one’s self.  While it can be inferred that those that do not believe in a divine being can interpret the latter solely as self reflection or that a person may be a victim of their own violence, Roach’s lack of reference to the performer indicates that one can not perform violence as an act solely for themselves.  Roach’s emphasis on performance forces the reader to question why he would not include this in his corollary.  His writing is, as he would say, a performance, similar to how he, “argue[s] that performed effigies —those fabricated from human bodies and the associations they evoke—provide communities with a method of perpetuating themselves through specially nominated mediums or surrogates: among them, actors, dancers, priests, street maskers,states-men, celebrities, freaks, children, and especially, by virtue of an intense but unsurprising paradox, corpses”. His goal was to evoke the absence of one’s self in this corollary. But his reasoning/rationale for doing so is a bit more difficult to grasp. To have forgotten such a crucial part of the violence cycle after discussing at great lengths the importance of remembering and forgetting seems unlikely. Initially, the thought dawned upon me that Roach disregarded this claim in hopes of avoiding the idea of his work unintentionally leading people to blame themselves for the violence enacted on them. However, this would also suggest that his quote would lead people to believe all forms of violence are bad.  Roach instead says that violence, except in the case of self defense, which he believes to be rare, is a form of cultural expression.  Ultimately, through Roach’s understanding of violence a person’s impact on themselves, others, the environment, and everything in between would result in one being an an audience to the performance of waste at one’s own hands.

Having established the typical interpretations of Roach’s ideas, we can now use them to analyze Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke”.  Lee’s documentary focuses on the violence that befell New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina and how it impacted the citizens as well as the entire country. One of the most primal examples of violence comes at the heart of any storm. The film shows the loss that flooded the city, whether it be the rubble of buildings as well as bodies washed away with the storm.  These images follow the idea of the storm performing waste in a very literal sense. The city was transformed from a celebration of Creole history, as well as a celebration of the melting pot mentality of America, into nothingness. 

The documentary shows different perspectives of multiple New Orleans natives to share their reactions to how President Bush, their state legislature, and FEMA handled the care for the city after Katrina. These people were the audience to the political performance that came from major corporations, as well as their representatives as they pleaded for their homes back, but no help was offered. Months passed and the government quickly began to show their true nature and their own side of violence, with a lack of action.  The United States Military was preoccupied with Bush’s war with Iraq and therefore was unavailable to come and help with the rebuilding of New Orleans. There appeared to be no rush to try and get some form of assemblage of people into the city to help move forward.  Instead the city continued to live in the dirge.  This violence, the second major act that fell onto the New Orleanians in 2005, begins to delve more into the symbolic root of waste. What more was there to waste after the storm? How could there be any more loss? The spirit and time of New Orleanians was washed away due to the lack of action.  Lack of care.  They were victims of a government that would not prioritize them, until they remembered that the New Orleans area is beneficial to the United States’ economy.  It wasn’t until the oil on the Louisiana coast began to go missing from the economic system that the government really began to try and rebuild New Orleans.  

While these acts shower over the disaster that occurred throughout the year, the question remains as to what part the people of New Orleans played in the violence enacted on them.  While not everyone was capable of leaving, due to a lack of transportation, resources, or secondary location, there was an evacuation put in place for the people of New Orleans to leave the area before the hurricane hit.  While it was not the case for everyone, the film shows multiple people standing firm in their belief that they “were born in New Orleans and would die in New Orleans” .  This thought process led to many natives staying, not believing the storm would be as dangerous as it was.  Many of the older New Orleanians referenced surviving Hurricane Betsey, not forgetting the violence that hurricane brought with it, but rather remembering the strength of their community as they rebuilt from the destruction that occurred.  The stance on staying was initially founded in the performance of memory of the struggles that hurricane brought to the entire city and the exaggeration of the storm’s power. This was an unintentional act of violence on themselves that would lead them to stay and fight through the violence performed by the storm and continue to live with the news surrounding the lack of action from the government.  Spike Lee’s interviews throughout the documentary clearly show the fusion between performer and audience as these people were witnessing their own actions first hand, waiting for others to act, to help, and yet being forced to continue pushing beyond what they could do solely for survival.  

The pride and heart that lives in New Orleans is not, and will never be a bad thing.  New Orleans is what it is solely because of the people that live there.  The determination and pride in the land to stay through devastation, while violent, is certainly not bad, but rather a cultural expression.  This expression of love and happiness and memory made Hurricane Katrina just that much more devastating.  But New Orleans lived on and the violence of the storm, of the divine, of the government, of other Americans, and of themselves will never be what New Orleans is known for. It is a culmination of so much more. 

Looking at the city from an outsider’s perspective, it is best known for its celebration of Mardi Gras, where the city is crowded with tourists to celebrate the holiday, celebrate the history, and partake in the festivities.  Mardi Gras is well known by multiple symbols, but none as prominent as Mardi Gras beads.  They are worn by many throughout the day and are even thrown from the floats throughout the parade.  However, in a Nola article from 2018 written by Beau Evans the impact thetis celebration had on the city afterwards was brought to light.  According to Evans “46 Tons of Mardi Gras Beads Found in Clogged Catch Basins”, there were “crews working under a $7 million emergency contract have flushed out 15,000 clogged catch basins – nearly one-fourth of the city’s full roster of about 68,000”.  Through the celebration, a fundamental symbol being disregarded in the streets yearly clogs their drains.  The parade is not an act of violence at first glance, but looking at the effect it has on both the community and the environment, the performance of waste becomes more clear over time.  The article focuses primarily on the environmental and economic impact that the draining of Mardi Gras beads has had, however, it chooses not to focus on the impact the draining issues had, and continue to have, on the residents of New Orleans.  This act of violence first and foremost affects them. Not bringing them into the discussion of the impact of these beads is very apparent.  They are not only not given the opportunity to take accountability for the issues with the parade, but also become a part of the solution.  Without their account, similar to Roach, the idea of acts of violence affecting oneself is missing.  

Overall, Roach’s connection between violence, performance, and waste raises more questions than it answers.  However, this connection allows for us to look back and reconsider the definition of violence and how it may impact individuals as well as corporations.  If violence is a cultural expression, then it should and does continuously change with time and the performance of waste that follows will continue to develop along with it.  Therefore, looking at Roach’s quote through the lens of a single person’s impact on themselves will continue to create the further development of this timeless philosophy.

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.