Environmental Violence in New Orleans: Finding Culpability in Forgetting

In January 2018, Beau Evans released an article entitled “46 tons of Mardi Gras beads found in clogged catch basins,” detailing the efforts and struggles of city officials and communities of New Orleans in cleaning up the waste in the city’s pivotal if ineffectual storm drainage system. The act of mass littering, much like the creation and maintenance of unsustainable architecture, is a form of environmental violence. Environmental violence encompasses everything from ecologically-damaging policies and practices, to humanity’s effects on climate change, and even to the human impacts felt as a result of environmental degradation. Interestingly, environmental violence is defined as a one-way street: it concerns the human impact on the environment, the world, and even on themselves or other humans. Despite the churning destructive wrath that hurricanes and other natural disasters bring upon the world and its biomes, it is we, humans, who are the perpetrators of environmental violence. 

When considering the City of New Orleans, evidence of environmental violence lies not just in the beads clogging the catch basins, but also in the spiked lead levels in the soil. It can be found in the levies that buckled and tipped from the force of Hurricane Katrina, the public service announcements that promised the levees would hold, and the private meetings in which engineers admitted they wouldn’t. Award-winning Director Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke chronicled the events of Hurricane Katrina. Lee collected testimonials, interviews, and footage of the devastation, aftermath, and strength of the survivors, compiling them into a narrative (or series of narratives) to tell a story both affective and effective. In the documentary, we see a damning indictment of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who confess that the levees could not withstand even a Category 3 hurricane. The Corps likewise lied to residents by telling them to rest assured that the levees would be rebuilt to pre-Katrina condition, a condition that while supposedly strong, tipped over and broke unleashing immeasurable damage and catastrophe (Lee). New Orleans, the land, remembered what the Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly fails to, that New Orleans is a land of water. 

Surrounded by water on all sides, built atop wetlands and swamps, New Orleans is marvelously solid though thoroughly unsustainable. According to Rebecca Snedeker, one of the writers and activists behind Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, the numerous pumps, pipelines, and canals lauded by some as feats of life-supporting infrastructure have proved to be life-draining in practice, sinking the city deeper down, thus rendering the city more prone to flooding, oxidizing the soil, and requiring complex maintenance (that often goes awry); Snedecker likens New Orleans to a “cement lily pad” borrowing the name from Monique Verdin, a Houma photographer (Snedeker 156). A sustainable future for New Orleans, with open canal streets, mindful reforestation of the swamplands, and an end to excessive groundwater pumping would conversely keep the city afloat (Snedeker 158). Such a future would acknowledge the City’s nature and attempts to work within it, as opposed to against it. We must not forget that only by remembering the land and what sustains it can we hope to forge a sustainable future. 

In “Echoes in the Bone”, the second chapter of the book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach discusses how memory, when performed, can empower the living; Roach also argues that “violence is the performance of waste” (Roach 41). To get to the heart of what Roach means by this and why these observations and definitions matter, we must start by breaking down the internal components of these claims. 

Violence is a poison, introducing toxins, producing waste byproducts, and expending limited resources in what Roach calls, borrowing from Bataille, “catastrophic expenditure” (Roach 41). Violence and superfluous expenditure (i.e. wasteful spending) are interlocked. To return to the tons of Mardi Gras beads clogging the catch basins, the violence is starkly evident. The beads, at one point carried by the tourists who flocked to the historic city for an unforgettable time, are themselves discarded and forgotten. Discarded but not disappeared, these beads piled up in critical areas, threatening lives and livelihoods not to mention the city’s coffers and infrastructure. The beads themselves, symbols of celebration and disposability, are cheap and plastic, often distributed at no or low costs. They are easily, without hesitation, tossed aside when their brittle nature betrays them, or the sun comes up, or the hangover hits. The tourists leave New Orleans but the beads remain. Ultimately, it is the City of New Orleans and its peoples that are forced to reckon with the memory, the tonnage of beads, and the millions of dollars their removal will cost. So powerful are the desires of tourists for consumable, forgettable, and disposable culture, and so effective the violent performance, that nowhere in Evans’ article does he mention a burden on tourists to consider the waste they leave behind. Instead, the burden falls on New Orleans residents who must “step up” to clear their own neighborhoods of catch basin debris (Evans). Many local residents spearhead litter collection operations, often as part of charitable and/or sustainability missions, however the tourists have left by then. As part of Roach’s own breakdown of his quote, that “violence is the performance of waste” Roach describes violence as a performance due to the existence of an audience to witness or even receive the violence (Roach 41). Violence requires a victim (or victims), and its existence draws attention to itself. Whether it’s the Army Corps of Engineers maintaining and defending their ineffectual levees or tourists disregarding their bead debris, or any other act of violence for that matter, there is always an audience to witness the violence and the waste resulting. If memory can be performed to “empower the living” as Roach states, the case of the discarded colorful beads proves that the opposite is also true. The performance of forgetting and ignorance serves to disempower and even enact violence upon the living. 

To return to Roach’s statement about the performance of memory potentially being empowering, it’s important to keep in mind that memory is not set in stone. Memory is intangible, yet realer than real. Both fixed and fluid. When we invoke memory in ways that move, challenge, encourage, or propel us we often make use of effigies. An effigy can be anything or anyone, it is a surrogate (i.e. the replacement of something/someone) that stands in for the original.  They may be physical representations of disliked politicians, or could be immaterial like the insistence that something is in accordance with what a respected departed community member would have wanted. The dead make powerful surrogates and effigies, but they are not the only group or individuals who can be conscripted into serving some purpose according to Roach (Roach 36). We are also not the sole possessors of memory, for within nature itself memories are embedded. 

Memory is quite empowering, environmentally-speaking. Climate change, long debated among politicians but accepted as scientific fact, profoundly affects our realities in many ways that are getting increasingly difficult to ignore or forget. Even blockbuster thriller films from nearly 20 years ago such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) reckon with the West’s willingness to forget or ignore climate catastrophes and the role that governments, institutions, and individuals play in creating and mismanaging them. The same goes for the ecologically-damaging extraction of oil and other resources, not to mention the tangible long-known and injurious effects of disposing industrial waste improperly. Green sustainable policy and movements are still being stonewalled in the halls of power; despite a majority consensus among US adults that climate change is real and will affect US citizens in the next 10 years, 59% already believing the effects are currently being felt, (Yale Climate Opinions Map 2021), remarkably little is achieved when it comes to curtailing the root causes of human-driven climate change. Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the strength that today’s climate movements find in the memory, veneration, and critique of the contributions of past activists. Denial of climate change is not only unpopular nationally, but inevitably serves violent ends, obfuscating blame from the culpable actors and institutions, preventing both introspection and retrospection, in addition to reliably ensuring that natural catastrophes will not be properly prepared for.  

While the discarded beads may represent forgetting on the part of individuals, or even tourist culture as a whole, Rebecca Solnit, the other writer behind Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, points out that the lies and forgetting done by those with power is “another thing altogether” (Solnit 147). These lies, obfuscations of fact and justice, result in lasting legacies. Environmentally-speaking, Solnit discusses how the scientists who were studying connections between lead (the heavy metal) and human health lied regarding the health risks of lead contaminants (Solnit 150). Because using lead in gasoline and paint was deemed useful and profitable, the health risks were hidden from the public and disregarded. In the saturated city of New Orleans the lead easily infiltrated the water supply in certain areas, making testing a regular requirement for children, who are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of lead poisoning (Solnit 150). The scientists and those raking in profits weren’t affected personally by the lead runoff, so they forgot or ignored the problem, so long as it wasn’t their problem. When those people and institutions with power and influence forget something, don’t report on it, or misrepresent reality (i.e. the levees will be strong and at pre-Katrina strength) the lasting legacies are grievous and violent. 

Violence and its Aftermath

The act of violence ultimately ends up with some sort of waste. That waste can be in the form of money, energy, people, and even time. The quote “…violence is the performance of waste” (Roach, 1996, 41), can be articulated in so many different ways and from multiple different perspectives. This quote derived from Joseph Roach’s, Cities of the Dead Circum Atlantic Performance “Echoes in the Bone”. Although this book is meant for other drama and performance scholars, and not college students, the chapter “Echoes in the Bone” connects to many of our classes’ course concepts, media, and readings. Some of these concepts include memory, forgetting, performance, expenditure, and many more. 

Roach looks at “…violence is the performance of waste” in three different ways. He begins to discuss that violence is never senseless but always meaningful because violence in human culture always serves one way or another, to make a point (Roach, 1996, 41). This alludes to the idea that behind every act of violence, there is a purpose. He then proceeds to explain 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” (Roach, 1996, 41). More often than not, violence in some way exceeds the idea of expenditure. Expenditure refers to the act of spending. You typically aren’t able to perform violence without experiencing some type of expenditure whether that be physical money or even blood. Moving along with his third point, he discusses 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, 41). Violence of any kind has an audience. That audience witnesses the act of violence and the waste that is produced.

The idea of sports connects to the quote “…violence is the performance of waste” because athletes are essentially performing violence against one another which ultimately ends up with waste. They play the game and perform violence for a few different reasons: they love the game, they make a living off of it, they are able to support themselves and family, and/or they play because they have talent. Many people would argue that playing sports is unquestionably “unproductive expenditure”. In this case, waste refers to energy, resources, broken bones, and possibly lifelong physical impairments. This act of violence is performed in front of a fan base. Sports make an unbelievable amount of money off their audience, which is another form of expenditure. Therefore, by athletes performing violence, they are ultimately weakening their body and their audience is losing money alluding to waste. Violence is a waste of time and energy but when you perform violence you are remembering what you forgot.

Roaches third definition of “…violence is the performance of waste”, directly relates to hurricanes, a focus in this class. Hurricanes are defined as a tropical storm with winds that have reached a constant speed of 74 miles per hour or more. Hurricanes are a natural form of violence that produce enormous amounts of waste. The act of hurricanes typically affects numerous amounts of people and places.

 In this class, we read excerpts from Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas shows many ways in which “…violence is the performance of waste” through the actions of Hurricane Katrina. “…Unfathomable City plumbs the depths of this major tourist destination, pivotal scene of American history and culture and, most recently, site of monumental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill” (Solnit, 2013).  We also watched When the Levees Broke. When the Levees Broke is a documentary film that was directed by Spike Lee about the devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana following the failure of the leeves during Hurricane Katrina. Throughout the film, residents of New Orleans discuss how they were impacted by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. They also discuss how New Orleans is rising from the ashes after such a tragedy. Unfathomable City and When the Levees Broke both emphasize on our course concepts of memory and forgetting. Memory, referring to the idea of taking in information, storing it, and later recalling that information. Forgetting is the idea of failing to remember something or someone. “New Orleans has always had hurricanes, but what happened on August 29, 2005, and in the two weeks of chaos, rumor, betrayal, and social splintering afterward cannot be blamed on nature. 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…” (Solnit, 2013, 127). The violence that struck New Orleans was not just from Hurricane Katrina but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that didn’t take the time to properly mantel the levees. Because of this carelessness, the waste produced in New Orleans was “unfathomable”. The people that survived Katrina were left with dreadful and unforgettable memories. Referring back to “Echoes in the Bone”, the audience of Katrina was not only the people of New Orleans, but the world as a whole. Katrina, as expressed in When the Levees Broke, was talked about on almost every new channel. This devastating event caught the attention of so many people nationwide. Solnit states that the media also upheld power. The newspapers and televisions stations were spreading rumors that those stranded people were ravening hordes, that mass rape and murder were rife in the Superdome and the convention center. The media spread rumors that people were shooting rescue helicopters and that residents were engaged in disaster-time activities referring to looting (Solnit, 2013, 130-131). All of these rumors were due to the violence of Hurricane Katrina and the break of the levees. Not only was the media wasting people’s time who read about and listened to those rumors, but the media was wasting their own time when they could have been actively helping the people of New Orleans in multiple different ways.

Most of the residents that were part of the documentary, expressed the feeling towards the fact that if the levees were made and installed properly, most of the damage done on New Orleans could’ve been avoided. “Some roofs would have blown off in New Orleans, some trees would have fallen, and the city would have picked itself up and gotten back to being 66 percent African American city in decline which many described as poor, but some knew was also uniquely rich in music, in ritual, in memory and tradition, in conviviality and social ties and roots, and in certain kinds of enjoyment” (Solnit, 2013, 130). The residents of New Orleans felt very passionately that the U.S government wasn’t doing much to help in the first few days and weeks. “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 one was left to die on the roof of the attic, and the dehydrated elders, the hungry children, the stranded population of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods were rescued and protected” (Solnit, 2013, 130). The waste left by Hurricane Katrina was something not many people have seen before. People lost time through days, weeks, and months of not having anywhere to go, not having a job, and were left helpless on the streets. New Orleans residents lost their homes and all the belongings and memories that went with it. They lost energy; they fought and fought, and FEMA did not uphold all they could have within those first few days. And the most unfortunate “waste” of all was the 1,400 people that lost their lives to this devastating hurricane. The people of New Orleans will hold onto their memories of Hurricane Katrina and the awful aftermath forever. They will never be able to forget the days they went without food. The dead bodies they saw all over the streets. And the terrifying unknown of what was going to happen day after day.

The idea of “violence is the performance of waste” matters because everyone is essentially affected by violence through its waste. Money, time, energy, resources, and people are all different forms of waste. A quote that really resonated with me is, “The city was profoundly changed, physically, psychically, economically, and democratically by the storm, and the nation was rocked” (Solnit, 2013, 127). Roach insinuates that violence is excessive and endeavors “unproductive expenditure”. The city of New Orleans will never be the same after Hurricane Katrina hit. The violence and waste that that hurricane produced has forever changed the great city of New Orleans.

Violence, Performance, and Waste – ENGL 111

In the book Cities of The Dead, Roach states, “a stark definition emerges from Bataille’s meditations on “catastrophic expenditure”: violence is the performance of waste”. Oftentimes when people are violent, they are getting rid of their angry emotions and try to take it out on something or someone else. People may have a build up of wrathfulness, rage, and frustration and feel the need to release it. This then results in an expenditure and waste of negative energy.  Moreover, in class we talked about how an individual being violent may expend their negative energy with a purpose towards someone they don’t like, or even towards people they like or love. This is as a person may think another person is disposable, and therefore perform violence towards them. In regard to violence is the performance of waste Roach asserts, “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”. In this essay I will demonstrate how Roach’s violence is the performance of waste and the three outcomes he suggests provide insight on the course’s core issues and questions thus far.

Roach states, “Girard’s idea that sacrificial violence operates as a kind of expenditure through which society prolongs its sense of coherence in face of a threat of divisive substitutions owes its understanding of excess to him” (pg 40). In class we highlighted Roach’s emphasis on the terms “sacrificial violence,” “expenditure,” both “productive” and “catastrophic”, and “pressure” on page 40 and 41.  These phrases were then added to our course concepts list. In our class discussion on the course concept expenditure, we discussed many examples of ways things can be expended such as money, time, people, and resources. An example of time being expended and wasted if you sleep your time away. Continuing, during class McCoy told a story in terms of expenditure and violence and performance and waste. In McCoy’s first year in graduate school she was a TA making six thousand dollars a year and went to visit one of her college roommates. Her roommate’s step mother, who was wealthy, had just returned from the casinos in Atlantic city. The stepmother had a pile of cash she won at the casino and stated, “I don’t even know what to do with all of this money, I should just throw it away”! McCoy emphasized to our class the fury that she felt in that moment and that she wanted to leap across the table and throttle her, although she didn’t. This is because her roommate’s step mother did not appreciate what she had, and may have intentionally made a mockery of McCoy. In regards to expenditure and violence of the performance of waste, this story demonstrates the stepmother saying she plans on expending and wasting her money, therefore leading McCoy to violence and wanting to throttle her.

During class, we discussed that human beings can be constructed as waste. An example of human beings being constructed as waste that we talked about during class is how a lot of cities bring their waste to more rural areas. Another example of human beings being constructed as waste is in regard to the film When the Levees Broke. Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke depicts the havoc that Hurricane Katrina’s breaking of the levees caused in New Orleans, Louisiana. In the film, Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans that were in need of help expressed their frustration that president George Bush originally stayed on holiday and was extremely delayed in helping them. The fact that President Bush did not take responsibility until nearly three weeks into the aftermath of Katrina while so many people were suffering is alarming. In the book Unfathomable City Solnit and Snedeker stated, “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, and the dehydrated elders, the hungry children, the stranded population of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods were rescued and protected”. This further demonstrates that human beings being constructed as waste as President Bush and those in positions of power did not prioritize helping individuals in New Orleans. Moreover, an individual from the film When the Levees Broke stated, “they are not doing anything for the katrina victims, and the aftermath to me is worse than the actual levees breaking”.  This demonstrates that both human beings and cities can be constructed as waste. Another example in the film, When the Levees Broke, demonstrated how people were treated like animals when Hurricane Katrina hit in New Orleans. A woman in the movie stated how victims could not brush their teeth, change their clothes, or take a bath, and for days people did not eat. In the book Unfathomable City Solnit and Snedeker stated, “the bitterness of Katrina in New Orleans was not only that people in that city (out of 1,836 total casualties throughout the Gulf Coast) died and didn’t have to, but also that many thousands more felt as though they had been treated as outcasts by their society”. In other words, thousands thought they were treated as “waste” by their society. These examples from the film, When the Levees Broke and the reading Unfathomable City indicate that people and cities, like the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina victims, can be and were constructed as “waste”.

 In class, we talked about several kinds of “waste”. It is common for waste to lead to disposal; for instance, if you have a “supernumerary” amount of something, it can go to waste.  Continuing, waste can manifest in a variety of ways, especially that memory and forgetting are factors in.  An example of this is the massive inflatable slide of the Titanic that we were shown in class in the beginning of the semester. In Echoes in the Bone Roach states, “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” (pg 34). In class, we connected this line from Echoes in the Bone to the tot-tanic and unpacked how the tot-tanic is a approach of empowering the living through memory performance. Despite the fact that children may not be aware of what happened to the Titanic and all of the lives lost, people allow their children to play in this bouncy house in the present, forgetting about the tragedy of the Titanic. Therefore, children use this insanely disrespectful bouncy house as entertainment by performance of fun. The tot-tanic constructed the Titanic and those that died on it as “waste” given the incredible amount of disrespect in making a Titanic bouncy house that children play on for entertainment. 

Throughout this essay, I demonstrate how Roach’s violence is the performance of waste and the three outcomes he suggests provide insight on the course’s core issues and questions thus far. I did this by thinking through class material and connecting to Roach’s violence is the performance of waste. Connecting our class material to Roach’s Cities of The Dead  furthered my analysis and understanding of Roach’s violence is the performance of waste. My analysis matters as it connects Roach’s violence is the performance of waste to important course topics such as “expenditure”. The course concept “expenditure” furthered my thinking on the many ways things can be expended, and how expenditure can also lead to violence. Continuing, my analysis connects Roach’s violence is the performance of waste to how human beings and cities can be constructed as waste. It is extremely important to recognize how horrible it is for human beings, such as New Orleans Hurricane Katrina victims, to feel themselves and their city are treated and looked at as “waste”.  My analysis also lead me to think about several kinds of “waste” and the many ways that “waste” can manifest that memory and forgetting are components in.