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.

Collaboration using Dante and Morrison

The novel Paradise by Toni Morrison is the tale of the town of Ruby once thought of as a safe haven for its citizens but now facing a generational divide.  This novel, like many of Morrison’s works, draws heavily from Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, in particular the cantos from “Paradiso”.  One important part of “Paradiso” is the eagle of divine justice, which Dante meets in the nineteenth canto.  The eagle is described as being made up of souls “like a ruby”, an obvious connection to the name of the town.  Many other group members noticed this connection as well, though there are deeper connections to be made about the eagle.  One of these connections has to do with what the eagle really stands for, that being divine justice.  It makes the readers of Paradise wonder if the citizens of Ruby enacted their own version of divine justice when they decided the fates of the women living in the convent outside town.

Another important part of the symbolism of Paradise is the brick oven that stands in the middle of Ruby.  It was originally built in the town of Haven, where it was often used for cooking.  After Haven died out, the oven was moved brick by brick to Ruby.  The oven is meant to be a symbol of how the men of Ruby are willing to let go of the past.  An inscription on the oven was mostly lost in the move but a few words remain: “the Furrow of His Brow”.  The elders of Ruby believe it read “Beware the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that humans should be fearful of God.  The youth of the town believe it to read “Be the Furrow of His Brow”, meaning that they are acting as God’s instruments on Earth.  One group member pointed out that this divide goes further than just generational because of how the men of the town are obsessed with the oven while the women “see it most literally as a large object that isn’t needed anymore”.  Morrison could have crafted the phrase “the Furrow of His Brow” from the eagle of divine justice because of how the brow of the eagle is made up of stars representing great past rulers.  The night that the men of Ruby kill the women of the convent the oven begins to slide off its foundation, showing how Ruby is falling apart because of their actions and how divine justice is crumbling.

This interpretation of the text on the oven’s lip seems to drive the town farther apart.  The elders claim that the youth do not understand their interpretation because they weren’t there when Ruby was first built, just as the eagle of divine justice claims that humanity will never understand what divine justice truly is.  Another important part of this interpretation is that one person in Ruby thinks about the oven reading “the Furrow of Her Brow”, especially when the oven is defaced with an image of a black fist with red fingernails.  Women in this story seem to get the short end of the stick, with men running Ruby and deciding to keep the oven and eventually the women of the convent being shot.

The oven’s readers have a difficult time using collaboration to reconcile their differences in their interpretations of the oven.  When a meeting is called to settle this matter, the elders talk over the youth and preach about holding onto tradition and rejecting change to their way of life.  An important part of collaboration is listening to other ideas as well as stating your own, but the people of Ruby aren’t considering the other side’s interpretation in favor of their own interpretation being right.

Paradise’s appropriation of Paradiso tells us a lot about the both/and of interpretation and collaboration.  Both/and is used when comparing two different views of the same thing, like how the citizens of Ruby were quarreling over the meaning of the words on the oven.  Both groups had good meanings for their interpretations, the elders believing it has to do with where Ruby came from, while the youth believe it means that they are the only ones that can control their lives.  The elders claim that the youth will never understand their interpretation and how Ruby came to be, just like how the eagle of divine justice tells Dante that humanity would never understand God’s justice; though the eagle is made up of “soul[s] like a ruby”.

In a way this essay is like Morrison’s appropriation of Paradiso, taking parts of the story and putting it into our own work, albeit with permission.  When I was presented with the fact that we would be writing collaborative essays in this class, I was a bit skeptical because I wasn’t sure how multiple people could write one essay.  It turned out to be not as difficult as I thought.  I enjoyed hearing what others thought of a point that I was struggling to understand.  It helped knowing that I wasn’t doing this essay completely alone. 

Even though the collaboration in Paradise ended in murder, ours didn’t.