A Practice of Personal Recollection and Forgetting

With a major theme of this class being the human relationship with memory and the role of the final essay as one of self-reflection, I wanted to use this final blog post as a means to look back and process the past 15 weeks in this class. I plan to look back at my impressions going into the class and think about how those impressions have been proven, problematized, and evolved during my time in this class.

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The Memory of a Tempest

When I was in my sophomore year of high school, my English class read The Tempest. Initially, I had never heard of the play, and I told my father about it one night, to which he responded with great praise for the play, especially the final relinquishment of power by Prospero at the play’s conclusion. Having heard this about the play, I then went back into the class with renewed vigor, and found myself definitely enjoying the play, but not to the extent that my father seemed to. As the years went by, I found myself growing fonder of the play, and when I saw we would be reading the play for this class, I was excited. I wanted to see how my views on the play had evolved over the past six years, and I was intent on doing a blog post about those changes. But then, as i was thinking more about the play, I had a different idea: talk to my father, and find out what he recalls about the play and how it exists within the confines of his own memories, both remembered and forgotten.

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Milan’s “True” Duke

The class discussion about the events which precede the events of The Tempest, brought about an idea that I had not considered the last time I read the through the play: who the “real” Duke of Milan was. Naturally, I had always thought of Prospero as the one true Duke, but when i began thinking more about it, I found my resolve shaken. Nominally, of course, Prospero was the Duke, but in truth, he was nothing like what a Duke should be. Rather than work to expand his kingdom or serve his subjects, he eschewed courtly affairs to indulge himself in the matters of philosophy and magic, and he passed the actual work onto his brother, Antonio. This fact problematizes the label of “Duke” in my eyes, and I intend to examine this dilemma to answer my own questions about what that label means.

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The Hawaiian Memory of Rainstorms

The focus of my group blog post was the 1992 Hurricane Iniki, which devastated the Hawaiian island of Kauai, slamming the island with until-then record rainfall, which in turn resulted in landslides, mudslides, and floods. The impact of the hurricane cannot be overstated, as six residents were killed, 1/3 were left homeless, and $3.1 billion worth of damage was done to the island. In the conclusion of our blog post, we talked about the storm, and the governmental ineptitude that came with it, as a harbinger of the true destruction that would come to pass with Hurricane Katrina 13 years later, but we were also sure to talk about how the people of Kauai used the natural disaster to galvanize their reconstruction and preparations for future storms. Interestingly enough, I came across an article on NPR about recent flooding in Kauai a couple of days ago, and I wanted to take this opportunity to examine how this communal memory of Hurricane Iniki figures into the ongoing relationship between Kauai and the storms that strike it.

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In Memory of the Cakewalk

During Dr. Defrantz’s discussion of dance, I took a concerted interest in the historical discussion of the quadrille and its parodic descendant, the cakewalk. The discussion of the two dances was one of cultural preservation through the performance of memory, and the ways in which this performance evolved over the past 150 years was a great point of interest. The idea that a dance was able to start as a parody of an upper class performance, but then attain enough cultural capital to become an accepted form of performance by the people who were originally lampooned by the dance.  It has me thinking about how memories and can evolve as they move further and further away, temporally, from their point of inception.

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The Paradox of American Culture

During our discussion in class on Friday the 30th, I was struck by Matt’s remark about the significance of Louisiana’s largest prison, Angola, having a common nickname that is taken from the slave plantation that formerly existed upon the current grounds of the prison. As Matt pointed out, the naming of the prison after a plantation already speaks to a connection with the institution of slavery in pre-Civil War America and the horrors that were committed in the practice of it, but, in addition to that, the name also calls back to the African nation of Angola, the homeland of many slaves and their ancestors. A commonality that I find exists between these two connections is an apparent lack of awareness of or apathy towards what the origins of that nickname mean for the use of it in the cultural dialogue, and in this sense is the  waste of the cultural and historical context of those names. Continue reading “The Paradox of American Culture”

The Human Habit of Moving On

Over spring break, I had the privilege of working in Guatemala on a philanthropic project. For a week, I worked in the town of Santiago Atitlan in Central Guatemala, and I was working with an organization, called ADISA, which is an education and work organization to help those with mental and physical disabilities to live better lives. One part of ADISA is an artisan workshop, where some people with disabilities work with recycled newspaper to make jewelry and pottery to be sold at the local market, and it is ran by a man name Jose.

Jose is 45 and has been wheelchair-bound since he was 16 years old. During a protest against the military presence in Santiago Atitlan in the early 90s, 12 people were gunned down by the armed soldiers and many more were wounded, Jose amongst them. Jose then found himself waiting 15+ hours before he was finally in an operating room with a surgeon saving his life, and shortly afterward Jose was informed that the bullet had clipped his spinal cord and that he would never walk again.  However, Jose has not let this one event define and control his life. He has found himself employment in the workshop, he wakes up each day with a smile on his face, and, in his words, “while he may not be able to walk with his legs, he is able to walk with his mind.” Simply put, he did not let this act of a violence, a momentary performance of waste, dictate whether or not he would waste the rest of his life over it.

The story of Jose is but one of the many that came out of Santiago Atitlan in the wake of the shooting, and many of them are much like Jose’s in that they did not let the shooting stop them in their mission. In the months that came after the shooting, the people of the town rallied together and petitioned the government to keep the military out of their town, and an agreement was reached. Since 1992, the military has not been allowed within the limits of the town, and they have been able to bounce back from the oppression that they were subjected to by the soldiers previously stationed there.

I cannot help but find many similarities to the ways in which the people of New Orleans have been able to recover in the years following Katrina. While there was much suffering in each situation, the people of the town did not let the tragedy dictate their actions after it, and each community has worked together to overcome the event. In both Santiago Atitlan and New Orleans, members of the community came together to form support groups, open their homes to those who needed help, and aid the physical recovery of other members of the community.  They were each tenacious in their drive to build themselves back up, and I find that this commonality speaks to a certain fact about human nature.

We find ourselves unable to abide by the card we are dealt, and within each of us is a desire to better ourselves and our communities. Naturally, there are exceptions to this, but, by and large, it is a human desire to be better off, and it is that drive that can allow us to make sure that past or present performances of waste cannot waste future performances.

Beer, Civilization, and Hurricanes

There was a portion in When the Levees Broke that really stuck out to me: one of the Katrina survivors was talking about when he was watching as people left to drink soda and beer in an attempt to hydrate themselves; water, the very thing that had brought destruction to New Orleans, was, paradoxically, just as necessary to the survival of its people, but they were unable to attain it. Yet the usage of beer reminded me of a point earlier in the semester when Beth made note of the consumption of beer in the wake of Katrina, which made me stop and think about beer’s presence there.

My first thoughts went to a book that I read in the summer before my sophomore year of high school, A History of the World In 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. In the novel he charts the history of civilization through the lens of beverage, moving chronologically from beer to wine to liquor to coffee to tea to Coke. However, what I honed in on for this topic was beer and it’s presence at the onset of human civilization. According to Standage’s research, beer was one of the first major inventions of ancient civilizations, and it held a role both secular and sacred in society. In Egypt, beer was a salary for the slaves as they built the pyramids, a beverage which provided purification of the Nile’s filthy water as well as nutrition akin to that of bread, and in Mesopotamia it was a drink to be shared at celebration feasts in honor of the gods. In short, beer was an important part of their society, and it was with this in mind that I considered its presence in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

According to Roach, “[an effigy] consist[s] of a set of actions that hold open a place in memory into which many different people may step according to circumstances and occasions. I argue that 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” (36). In the context of human civilization, beer can be seen as an effigy of celebration and happiness, and its presence from society’s inception and continued usage throughout history speaks to its state a a method of perpetuation. People make toasts and share drinks in celebration of major achievements and events, but they also use it as an escape, which is still a method of societal perpetuation; rather than using the beverage to celebrate the achievements of a person and perpetuate society in that way, beer is instead used to omit and forget the failures or troubles of a person, perpetuating the society through omission instead of celebration.

New Orleans has a tradition of perpetuation through celebration in the form of Mardi Gras, and I feel that the opposite, perpetuation through omission of memory, was practiced in the consumption of beer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Some residents of New Orleans were in need of an escape to deal with the storm, so they turned to beer to cope. In order to get through the day and begin the rebuilding of the city in the coming days, they omitted the moment they found themselves in through drink, even if only briefly. By escaping the current memories through alcohol, some survivors of Katrina were able to prepare themselves for the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans, a literal perpetuation of their society, and those citizens who drank also communed with the early civilizations history through the effigy of beer, as both groups used the alcoholic beverage to perpetuate their societies, albeit in different ways.

A brief discourse on “effigies”

I had meant to make this post after last Friday’s class, but I was a fool and forgot about it before the weekend began.

The idea of a celebrity as an effigy, a totem or avatar without a deep, intricate personality, is not something revolutionary in our society, as we passively and impartially observe the lives of famous people rise like phoenixes and fall like dominoes; Roach says as much in his novel: “Performers are routinely pressed into service as effigies, their bodies alternately adored and despised but always offered up on the altar of surrogacy” (41). I feel that this schizophrenic state of adoration and alienation is one of the key driving forces in the culture that surrounds the celebrity identity, as they must make sure to be ever-appeasing, lest they incur the wrath of the paparazzi and the general public. I find no better contemporary example of this than the musician, entrepreneur, public figure of Kanye West.

Lampooned by everything from South Park to 30 Rock to Jimmy Fallon, West has built a reputation as a bombastic entertainment figure with a penchant for public fights and outbursts about how great he is as a musical genius; his arrogance is the key to his personality, as even among the rapper community he stands above the rest in that regard. However, West is very personal in his lyricism, as he writes songs lamenting his alienation form his friends, family, and the public in light of his successes, declaring in “Pinocchio Story,” “Do you really have the stamina for everyone who sees you to say, ‘Where’s my camera?’ For everyone who meets you to say, ‘Sign my autograph!’ For everyone who sees you crying to say, ‘You ought a laugh.'” His lyrics also speak to social commentary, opening ‘Jesus Walks’ with the phrase, “We at war. We at war with terrorism, racism, but, most of all, we at war with ourselves.” Yet West is still known primarily for his uncontrolled outbursts of emotion and self-aggrandizement.

Despite his intents, he is not taken as seriously as he should be, and this can best be observed in the now infamous declaration he made while helping to raise money to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. While standing beside Mike Meyers, West spoke personally about his reaction to the news coming out of New Orleans in Katrina’s wake, the portrayal of black citizens just trying to survive as “looters,” and the free reign given to the armed forces to shoot anyone deemed “dangerous,” before avowing, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” In this instance, West is pointing out verifiable issues of status and inequality in American society, but all anyone knows from the event is the soundbite at the end, as West firmly places his foot into his mouth. And for this he has been both adored and despised but the American public, making himself into an effigy of uncontrolled emotion and poor judgement. Not as a man working to bring important issues to light, but simply a petulant fool with poor judgement. Yet in this regard, he is still an effigy, and he is still pressed into that role as a performer, going through the motions to maintain the clout that he does have at this time.