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The Floating Corpse of New Orleans

Floating corpses, dehydrated babies, fires, National Guard soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders. This is a state of emergency. It is this the state of exception that, according to Giorgio Agamben, characterizes our current political order.

Tomasz Kitlinski, Joe Lockard and Stephane Symons

Floating corpses, dehydrated babies, fires, National Guard soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders. This is a state of emergency. It is this the state of exception that, according to Giorgio Agamben, characterizes our current political order.

The state of exception has become the rule not only in far-off lands and isolated prisons, but even in the center of the American heartland. New Orleans has become a locale where law and human rights are not applicable anymore: the outside has penetrated to the heart of the inside. The Superdome and the Convention Center, with their anarchic interiors, absence of assistance, predatory gang violence, overflowing toilets, and piles of dead bodies, exemplified the materialization of a state of exception.

Planned as temporary refuge from the hurricane and flood waters, they became sites of official neglect. As Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, stated on CNN on Thursday, September 1, “The federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today.” Every CNN viewer knew of them, though. As political spaces, these sites were filled with people of color living in abject misery; they were a model of much of the world outside the United States, now recreated within the national domestic boundaries. The linkage of social disentitlement and poverty was clearly manifested, and the US public was disturbed and shocked at its own civil self-portrait in the wake of disaster. That public is in the midst of discovering that the artifice of the war on terror has swallowed so much money that the US lacks the means to secure itself against the reality and imminence of natural threats, as has become clear from continuing reports of budget cuts directed against the city’s protective infrastructure.

But there is more, the way in which people in New Orleans have been reduced to bare life, stranded in the flooded streets, not only having lost their belongings but also their communal identity, provides one of the most dreadful illustrations of a banalisation of the concept of life. The people sitting lost in the streets of New Orleans are homines sacri, those who can be left to die or killed with impuity; they have been stripped of any content or quality, their lives have been reduced to mere biological instance. This banalisation of life itself is an irreducible characteristic of the Bush administration insofar as, appropriating the name of Christianity, it has made a theologically predetermined concept of ‘life’ itself into an object of politics. Yet those same politics, whether through neglect or direct animosity, strip poor people first of life’s meaning and then of life itself. The thousands of homeless black people crowding the Riverwalk join the thousands of homeless black, brown and white people crowding the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles. Now they have no more than their lives and a need to fill them with meaning.

Misnamed ‘right to life’ politics more often than not ends in thanatopolitics, the politics of death: they make life itself into an object of politics and lives become the subject of political clearances and permanent displacement. These are the people who will not be returning to the new New Orleans, the re-developed and sanitized New Orleans. Their collective identity is at an end: the human warehouse that the city’s back-quarters provided has been emptied out. The poor, the disabled, the aged and feeble - these are the classes that tourists partying in the French Quarter did not see, and who will now be transported not only to safety but out of the city’s social picture. Their state of exception is being made permanent as they climb onto the buses: they have no important identities, no real identities, and for many this is their final transport out of a city they labored to create and sustain. The systemic racism that ensured that a majority of the thousands of victims were both poor and of color, will similarly attempt to ensure that ‘natural’ principles of capitalist economics removes those survivors that nature did not remove.

This is not only a natural disaster; it is a spreading social disaster, most likely with major and reverberating national and international economic effects. The unsafe, unhealthy environment of the Superdome is spreading, a physical process - witness the overcrowded Astrodome in Houston - as much as a political metaphor. In its face, good domestic leadership is as absent as much as bad foreign policy leadership is present. “Where is George Bush?” one victim cries out. The Gulf and the Gulf Coast have become joined. The presidential rhetoric is similar: “We started rallying choppers”, Bush says.

Yet the Empire cannot strike back at Katrina. This is the true presidential silence over the disaster.

New Orleans and the New World Order

New Orleans “feels unloved and unhelped” (BBC World). La Nouvelle-Orleans est morte. Contaminated water, toxic chemicals, fire, stench, decomposing bodies, and drenched darkness spread through the city. An African American congressional representative, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, said simply “I’m ashamed of America.” That shame is merited, but it began long ago.

This New Orleans catastrophe brutally exposed the nature of a society where class and race count, where the white and rich are safe. Manic security, patriotic ideologues, and Wall Street protect their bodies and capital. It exposed the militant Christian evangelical extremists who interpret the world through the twin lenses of imminent apocalypse and human sin. In the pages of the American Family Association’s Agape Press, Rev. Bill Shanks of the New Covenant Fellowship in New Orleans, stated that with the flood “New Orleans is now abortion free. New Orleans is now Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence [the annual city-sponsored gay pride event] and the sodomites, witchcraft workers, false religion.” For millions of Shanks’ fellow citizens of similar persuasion, the hurricane and flood were God’s wrathful tools to extinguish an American Sodom.

New Orleans is - or was - a hub of cultural diversity with a touch of morbid decadence. Its early residents suffered from floods and yellow fever, as well as a bilious intolerance continually tested by the racial and sexual diversity of a semi-tropical port city. Against such a background Creoles and Cajuns, the banished, exiled, outcasts, French and German colonists, intermingled. The city benefited enormously from but refused historic equality to Africanism that wove itself so thoroughly through New Orleans culture. New Orleans has been the most African city of North America.

It is a city that wrote out its cultural problems and antagonisms in literature. Kate Chopin depicted Louisiana’s Creoles and Cajuns: her novel The Awakening featured the city New Orleans with Edna’s unsuccessful marriage. She finds a lover by the sea, in Grand Isle, a sun-drenched Creole resort, then walks into the sea. The novel sparked scandal for its supposed “indecency.” George Washington Cable, the great forgotten realist novelist whose Old Creole Days came to define an earlier and romantic New Orleans, was erased from public memory largely because he insisted on confronting white racial prejudices. Cable was run out of town to live in Massachusetts. In Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams analyzed the lurid demise of a mansion, a family and Blanche du Bois, contrasted with a Polack, Stanley Kowalsky. New Orleans came to represent old-school pretensions of class and their explosion by immigrants. Born and bred in New Orleans, Anne Rice made New Orleans the favorite haunt of her homosocial, or rather homoerotic vampires Lestat, Louis and Armand. She explored the Free Color People of New Orleans, “neither black nor white, but caught between the two, free and yet not free.” Anne Rice paints New Orleans as “the shabby grandeur of the old city, faces of all nations, ragged trees, the ever-drifting clouds.” For the cultural memory industry, New Orleans has been spooky, uncanny, doom-laden.

Have the forebodings come true? Susan Sontag comments on Roman Vishniac’s photographs of the Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe as tinged with the ill omen of the Shoah. Yesterday we watched the dark environs of New Orleans on CNN’s continuing; today we write on the (im)potence of not forgetting. People are still stranded, lost, marooned, unsafe, unhealthy, dead and undead. A white silence hangs over the disaster; a white silence characterizes responses to the disaster. The disaster remains incommunicado, blank, empty: as media viewers, we seek to fill the lacunae of New Orleans, cognizant of the form but not the voiced intensity of the disaster. In front of our screens, the tight, emotion-laded voices of the survivors hit us. Our own emotions, once as uncomprehending and slow as the delivery of relief supplies, fill with a foreboding as large as the events on the screen.

This is our global citizenship in the New World Order, one built on a contradictory, simultaneous, and constant linking and unlinking of faraway lives from our own, and on the discovery of our own relative privilege through the abjection of others. We read distant visual signs to discover our own lives. The televised dead and undead of New Orleans are signs of a global order.

We understand that blacks and poor people come last, or are excluded from social rescue. They are the proletariat; they are either the enemy within, or the discards. We understand that the macabre and the politically canny flow together: the Berlin canal carrying the corpse of Rosa Luxemburg flows into Canal Street in New Orleans, with its sewage, filth, odor, wreckage, and bursting bladder-bodies. Whodunit? We understand blood-thirsty neo-capitalism, neo-conservatism that leaves underclasses to die, and the demand for human sacrifices to feed state violence. As New Orleans is rubbished, traumatized, and animalized, the imagery of abandonment, dying and grief conditions our futures.

But as with Condoleeza Rice’s denials of race in creating such strikingly disparate victimization, or Barbara Bush's public sneer at poverty, we encounter constant attempts to render race and class into oblivion. The neo-liberal order foregrounds one central memory: devaluation and repression of the Other. This is an abuse of memory, one that must not be allowed to expand into generalized amnesia of social justice.

Tomasz Kitlinski is a lecturer in philosophy at Marie Curie University in Lublin. Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University. Stephane Symons was a Fulbright scholar at the New School University and is a research fellow at the University of Leuven.

Copyright © 2005 by Tomasz Kitlinski, Joe Lockard and Stephane Symons . All rights reserved.