The Dichotomy of Care and Violence

One of the main course concepts thus far of Professor McCoy’s Hurricane Stories has been the concept of violence. Throughout this course we have seen many forms of violence and have at length discussed the author Joseph Roach’s definition of violence in a previous discussion post. To summarize here, Roach argues that there are three main aspects of violence: it is always purposeful, it must be excessive in order to demonstrate its purpose, and it must have an audience to receive its message. The scholar Saidiya Hartman proposed the idea that the antidote to such violence is care. There is more than one definition of the term care, however, I find the most relevant definition to be Oxford’s definition as to “feel concern or interest.” Past Geneseo graduate Davina Ward disagrees with the idea that care is the antidote to violence, stating that “Violence can exist as care.” This dichotomy of this discussion represents a gray area when it comes to the concept of violence which gives the term much more nuance that brings up an interesting discussion. Both points are in a way correct, yet neither alone correctly describes the full picture of both care and violence. Only together can these points make a cohesive description of the dichotomy of care and violence.

I find the usage of the term “antidote” to be striking and deserving of a discussion on its own as it applies to my own background in both medicine and biology. In the medical sense, the National Institute of Health defines an antidote as a drug class which “negate[s] the effect of a poison or toxin.” If Hartman was correct in discerning that care is the antidote to violence, we then can consider violence to be like a poison which falls in line with Roach’s definition of violence. Many animals that are poisonous, such as pufferfish for example, will use this poison to protect themselves from predators as eating such animals will lead to the absorption of the poison, causing the predator to ultimately perish. In this way, the poison is purposeful as it protects animals from being eaten by predators, it is excessive as the predators who attempt to eat the poisonous animals will perish, and it is demonstrative as predators will avoid eating this certain type of animal as a result of the poison. Thus, the concept of care in this case would act as antidote, counteracting the effects of the poison, or violence. For the most part, this logic is sound; however, there is one glaring flaw with this train of thought.

The term antidote brings with it a certain context that it negates all effects of a poison. This is misleading as even when an antidote is administered, it does not guarantee that the effects of the poison will be negated and one may still perish. When many think of the fields of biology and medicine, they tend to think in absolutes, however, this could not be further from the truth. There are many exceptions to most principles of biology as biology is a field of “should-bes.” One major example is Darwin’s idea of “survival of fittest” which can be more accurately described as “survival of what works.” This same logic can be applied to care as well. Even if there is care, it does not mean that this care will negate the effects of violence and in some cases, it may make the violence worse. A great example of this is demonstrated in the case of New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass as described in the documentary When the Levees Broke and the collection of poems Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith.

Eddie Compass was the police chief of the city of New Orleans during the events of Hurricane Katrina who on live television made unfound claims about the people taking refuge in the Superdome, even stating that “We had babies in there. Little babies getting raped.” This villainized the survivors of Katrina and led to more violence toward them. Although saying this was an act of violence, it came from a place of care. Compass had family members that were in the dome and he was worried for their safety during a tense time. Thus, Compass used his platform and these extreme claims in an attempt to gain more help for his struggling city and people. Unfortunately, these claims were unfounded and only seemed to worsen the situation. Chief Compass may have cared greatly, but this care would ultimately only spew more violence. I believe the word treatment would be far more accurate in describing the complexity of the term care. A good analogy would be that violence is like a cancer, infecting the body whilst care is like chemotherapy which may be effective for some but may also only cause harm to others.

After establishing that treatment is a far better description of care than antidote, we can now better tackle the dichotomy of care and violence. There are many examples in this course of how care helps to alleviate the symptoms of violence. One such example during the events of Hurricane Katrina was how the local communities of New Orleans worked together to help reduce the effects of the violence created by the storm. As portrayed in When the Levees Broke, many inhabitants of the lower ninth ward created makeshift rescue teams to help as many people as they possibly could. In this case, the care of the inhabitants for their community led to an alleviation of some of the violence created by the storm. We have also seen in this course how a lack of care during violence only creates more violence through both the compilation of works Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Throughout many sections of Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, it is made abundantly clear that many of the authors believe that a lack of care by the government ultimately led to the effects of Hurricane Katrina being much worse than they needed to be. One section of the collection that highlights this well is the section Snakes and Ladders: What Rose Up, What Fell Down During Hurricane Katrina by Rebecca Solnit. Solnit makes many claims about how authority in New Orleans lacked care saying how “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had [not] built adequate levees” and that the police had “gone berserk.” Solnit highlights best this idea of a lack of care by authority leading to violence in the quote “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.” It is evident from Solnit’s work that care can ultimately limit the effects of violence.

The Tempest expertly crafts a narrative on how violence can lead to even more violence when there is a lack of care through the plotline involving Sebastian and Antonio’s attempt to usurp King Alonso’s throne after their group is involved in a shipwreck. After experiencing the violence of a shipwreck, it is evident that none of the members of the group care about the violence that just took place as they make banter, wordplay, and jokes about the situation in which they have found themselves in. After the rest of their groups falls asleep, two members of the group, Sebastian and Antonio, who especially lack empathy attempt to use more violence to take advantage of the already present violence to better themselves off. In Act II scene I, the two discuss the possibility of usurping the throne, even mentioning how Antonio “did supplant [his] brother Prospero.” Both works expertly demonstrate how in the absence of care, violence will continue to grow like tumor a plaguing a body. This further supports the idea care is like a treatment for the cancer that can be violence.

There are far less examples in this course of violence being used as a form of care but they do exist. As mentioned early, Chief Compass committed an act of violence due to his care for his family and his city during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another example is found in the book Zone One by Colson Whitehead which takes place in New York City during the events of a zombie apocalypse. Throughout the novel, the main character nicknamed Mark Spitz performs many acts of violence upon both types of zombies in the novel, killing them. However, the reason for these acts of violence is care for his fellow man as these “skels” and “stragglers” provide a threat to humanity. During the climax of the novel, one of Mark Spitz’s acquittances Fabio is in a situation in which “four blood-streaked hands snatched him into the vortex” and he is going to be torn apart by zombies without any way out. Instead of letting Fabio die brutally, Mark Spitz instead performs an act of violence, putting “three rounds into Fabio’s chest [terminating] the man’s screams.” Because of Spitz’s care for Fabio, he kills Fabio quickly rather than letting him die slowly. Although this is a very extreme example that is hard to apply to the real world, it demonstrates excellently how violence can be used as a form of care.

It may seem that this is a shut case that Ward is correct then. Violence can exist as a form of care and thus Haiyman was incorrect that care is the antidote to violence. However, just because Ward is correct that violence can exist as a form of care, that does not mean that care is not a treatment to violence. Rather violence as care can be used to treat other forms of violence. For example, if Spitz were to let Fabio die brutally and painfully, this would be another form of violence and a lack of care. However, when Spitz kills Fabio quickly, he is performing both care and violence which creates a better outcome. A medical analogy would be a doctor performing surgery on a patient to remove a tumor that is growing within them. In this case, violence would be used as a form of treatment; however, only due to the threat of further violence towards their patient. A doctor would not perform a surgery on a patient that did not need it but only those with whom a greater violence is already present.

The idea of care being used as a treatment of violence is one that I find especially relevant to my own life now as throughout the semester, I have been attempting to increase my own level of care, both in and out of class. One of my major struggles in this class has been my dominating approach to working in groups which can often be interpreted as an act of violence. This dominating approach is often one which is reinforced in the field of STEM as those who are most dominant tend to receive the greatest number of resources. However, this dominating approach conflicts with many of the core principles which I believe a future physician should have, most notably equity. Thus, I have been working to integrate the criticisms of Dr. McCoy, attempting to care more about the opinions of my peers and to decrease my violent approach of domination. I believe that I have ultimately improved myself because of this new found care which can be displayed in my group’s collaboration on Typhoon Tembin.

Although care can come in the form of violence, if I have learned anything in this class, it is that care is the ultimate treatment to violence. This has been demonstrated both through course content and my personal journey and struggles through this course. In this case, the approaches of both Hartman and Ward weave together to create a full picture on the true nature of the dichotomy of violence and care.

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.