Mondes nord-américains

New Orleans: A Guide for the Inauthentic, 1 : “The Dead Gods of New Orleans”

Cet essai est le premier extrait de son livre, New Orleans: A Guide for the Inauthentic.  Une traduction française sera publiée ultérieurement.

 “The Dead Gods of New Orleans”

From a purely instrumental point of view, trains and buses perform the exact same function, and can be considered interchangeable. You wait at the stop, check the schedule, get in, pay your fare, continue on to your destination and then get off…whether in a bus or in a streetcar. Such was the logic behind the New Orleans City Council’s decision, in 1964, to tear up the extensive streetcar network that had been laid a hundred years before (a network that would today be the envy of any American city) in order to replace it with buses, associated with progress. (I am not a Marxist and I dislike facile Marxist analyses. That said, I see no explanation for this crime other than the naked greed of the automobile industry and what can only be called the false consciousness of the people who allowed it to happen.) Despite the apparent utilitarian equivalence of buses and streetcars, it is clear to anyone who has ever taken public transportation that they are not the same. While it is tempting to ground this difference in the intangible “poetic” qualities of streetcar travel – the gentle rocking motion, the wooden seats, the seductive aura of nostalgic desuetude – to do so would be to miss the point completely. No, what truly distinguishes streetcars from buses is the fact that they cut a permanent line in the city, make an inscription in the city in a way a bus network does not – an inscription that then begins to act on the city itself.

In 1990, Larry Harvey and 80 of his friends decided that they wanted to start something new, a sort of temporary alternative community in the desert. After planning the event for years, they finally got everything together and drove out to the chosen spot in the Nevada hinterlands. Larry Harvey found a stick, drew a long line in the sand and said, to everyone present, that when they crossed that line…everything would be different. And when they stepped over that line…everything really was different. The Burning Man Festival was born. Now, I have no particular interest in Burning Man or the flawed liberation ideology behind it. Nonetheless, this story illustrates something absolutely primordial in man: the centrality of the line in organizing human consciousness and human society.

The feedback loop that train tracks set in motion can be readily observed through the fact that streetcar lines always precipitate around themselves a flurry of commercial activity, a certain urbanistic permanence that is the direct reflection of their tangible thereness. Streetcar stops generate corner stores where people can buy Cheetos to consume as they wait for the streetcar; corner stores generate neighborhoods; neighborhoods generate streetcar stops. Once tracks have been laid, streetcar and city begin to merge with each other in a process of interpenetration that can be qualified as symbiotic. Buses, on the other hand, do not set in motion such a feedback loop for a very simple and very stupid reason: the dialectical relationship between the two interdependent terms, train and city, inscription and ground, one and zero, needs some concrete and visibly permanent support in order to exist, in order to feel real for such visually-oriented animals as humans. In the absence of a hard, visible, mineral line guaranteeing its permanence, a bus network does not manage to set in motion the dialectical process by which cities are constituted and maintained.

What happens, then, when the line that inaugurates the urban dialectic is simply ripped out of the ground? What happens to the metropolitan accretions that had until then concentrated around the now-missing line like barnacles? If the soul consists essentially of such inscriptions, would not removing them amount to tearing out part of the very soul of a city?

When a star dies, it continues to exert a material influence on the world in the form of an invisible gravitational void that bends space around itself and can only be identified via the distortions it generates in its immediate surroundings. When a person dies he too turns into a sort of black hole whose continued existence is appreciable only in the form of the mourning he inspires in his entourage, a mourning which then ripples outwards imperceptibly in a process of affective contagion.

In other words, when a man dies, he becomes a ghost. Like black holes, ghosts are phenomenologically real in that their actions can be felt and measured as distortions in the system, despite the fact that we cannot see them. Not long after my grandfather died, my grandmother lost a favorite gold earring. A few days later, she found it while going through some cardboard boxes that had not been opened for months. According to her, there was simply no way the earring could have found its way there, and she ended up attributing this mystery to the intervention, beyond the grave, of my deceased grandfather. Superficially, this would appear to be a classic case of Freudian wish-fulfillment: my grandmother’s unconscious had constructed a clever mise-en-scene that would allow her to believe, on some level, that my grandfather was not really dead. Although common sense obviously privileges this interpretation over my grandmother’s appeal to the supernatural, the real insight lies rather in the speculative identity of these two apparently incompatible positions. Instead of considering my grandmother’s interpretation “just” an unconscious defense mechanism against loss and grief, could not the autonomy with which this shard of her psyche acted through her be considered the mode of appearance of what might as well be called my grandfather’s ghost? In a sense, my grandfather had become a sort of undead, parasitic presence whose existence could only be described as real, since it produced ripples of real effects in and around my grandmother. (To call such unconscious manifestations ghosts serves a precise heuristic function as well, that of giving the radical otherness of the unconscious its full weight.) Despite the protests of my family, my grandmother was entirely correct to attribute the misplaced earring to my grandfather’s ghost: not some ectoluminescent horror-movie specter, but the real action of a discrete agency that happened to operate through her body.

Generalizing this phenomenon, all neurotic symptoms could be qualified as hauntings, since both are essentially typified by a sort of mysterious undead persistence. Symptoms can be described as undead messages that parasitize their hosts in search of discursive exorcism, while ghosts haunt the living in the hopes of securing a proper burial that would reinscribe them in the community of men. Most of all, both seek an answer to the enigma of their being: who am I? What do I want? What do I signify? (Of course, everyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows that there is strictly no answer capable of satisfying a ghost this side of a proton pack. This should tell us something about hysterics.)

In this sense, New Orleans really is as haunted as the voodoo brochures one finds trampled into the sludge on Bourbon Street claim. In the case of the streetcar, of the dead streetcar tracks, the entire architectural and urbanistic landscape that they precipitated continues to lead an existence comparable to that of an old woman haunted by the ghost of her dead husband. Although they have been cut off at the root, the forms and rhythms that once existed in dialectical continuity with the streetcar tracks continue to exert a sort of stubborn, undead, eczemic influence on the flesh of New Orleans.

This metaphor, that of the poltergeist trolleys that haunt New Orleans, can be extended to the entire city. In a sense, what we call New Orleans today is rather the symptom-formation precipitated by the very death of New Orleans, of the real New Orleans that existed until it was executed by the arrival of the manifold new urban forms championed by Le Corbusier & Co: not only the destruction of the streetcar tracks but also the cutting down of the N. Claiborne oaks, the birth of Metairie and with it the gradual displacement of New Orleans’ center, the destruction of the Basin Street train station, the death of Canal Street and its shabby reincarnation as Lakeside Mall, the arrival of the tourists, the razing of the grand Lee Circle library to make way for the interstate…to list only a few of the major amputations. In the civic sphere, the acquisition of civil rights for blacks is of course what marked the passing of the old New Orleans, a New Orleans that here could be personified as a sort of Napoleon, a cruel, pitiless ruler about whom it cannot be said that he was good or fair…only that he was great, that he was powerful. (Upon surveying a battlefield full of thousands of dead and maimed French soldiers, Napoleon is said to have waved his hand dismissively and exclaimed, “one night in Paris will replace all these men!”) And just as France has retained Napoleon’s baroque bureaucratic categories as a sort of obscure, unconscious homage to the man who arrived like a firestorm and left his traumatic mark on the country, New Orleans continues to worship, in an unconscious way, the nameless cruel god who scarified the land and the people with his violent hieroglyph before being put to death by the inexorable march of history.

Like a heliotrope turned in permanent expectation towards the last spot the sun occupied before burning out, New Orleans remains frozen in anticipation of a metaphorical streetcar that will never come but might as well, since its ghost continues to pass. And just as this phenomenological phantom train continues to roll up and down Royal Street, haunting the architectural space, the ghosts of New Orleanians past likewise haunt the very bodies of New Orleanians present.

I once read a “review” of New Orleans written by a disappointed visitor from somewhere in the Midwest. “I thought New Orleans was supposed to be a cultured place. All I found was vulgarity and stupidity. I will never come back.” Such was the essence of the complaint. Although from a certain naïve point of view this attitude is entirely justified, the person who emitted it nonetheless missed the point completely. Yes, New Orleans is a city full of both bland and stupid people, and anyone expecting to find and army of cultivated, romantic, elegant old-world citizens will certainly leave disappointed. No, these people do not exist anymore, at least not in any important concentrations. Their ghosts, however, live on as undead forms that continue to propagate themselves through the social body, through the disappointing, uncultivated individual bodies of 21st century New Orleanians. These memes that refuse to die and continue to organize social space no longer have any link with material, historical necessity, and their nature is comparable to that of a mysterious prayer addressed to a dead God in a forgotten language that nonetheless continues to be passed from generation to generation and chanted every night.

I used to like to go to Jackson Square and drink or read on the benches in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Over time I began to recognize a number of the Jackson Square regulars, most of whom were indigents and drunks. One man caught my eye: he was a slightly built, middle-aged white with greasy, thinning hair and a sallow complexion who could be found sitting on the steps of the Presbytere with his back against a column reading and smoking almost every afternoon. He always wore the same clothes: a poorly-fitting white button-up shirt and worn-out black pleated trousers. Obviously he worked as a waiter in one of the expensive restaurants in the French Quarter. He struck me as a sort of deadbeat melancholic, a solitary “beautiful loser” in the Leonard Cohen mode. What impressed me so much about this old-fashioned French Quarter lowlife was the startling unconscious elegance with which he leaned against the column, held his book, and smoked his cigarettes. I say that this elegance was unconscious because every other external detail of his being seemed to indicate not old-world sophistication but rather new-world desublimation. Somehow, this man’s body had become the vehicle through which the ghosts of (elegant, etc.) French Quarter residents past expressed themselves silently. From whom could he have inherited these gestures that belonged to another era? His father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather? Somehow this impossible meme belonging to the 19th century had survived the gauntlet of the 20th to end up sprawled out in mint condition in the 21st on the steps of the Presbytere.

The body of New Orleans emerges here as a sort of palimpsest upon which are inscribed a series of outdated forms and memes the existence of which once corresponded to some external historical or material necessity but which no longer exist as anything but unanswered appeals to a dead God. New Orleans is not unique in this regard; the inexorable progress of history submits all places to this implacable logic of death, mourning, liquidation and rebirth. What distinguishes New Orleans here is rather the piety with which it continues to mourn the loss of the old gods whose presence could once miraculously be felt in the very growth and evolution of the city, just as this presence can today be felt in those places where new forms are being born. New Orleans continues to love its old gods, not in some fuzzy, feel-good, agape way, but rather the way an abused dog loves its master, which is to say in direct proportion to the force and frequency of his kicks. Who is to say that this is not the zero form of true love? New Orleans loves the old gods unconsciously. And although this master has been dead for some time now, New Orleans steadfastly refuses to move on, to give up its vigil at the bier of the old patriarch like Houston or Atlanta have by embracing the new forms that have come to them from elsewhere.

And so the disappointed Midwesterner had everything wrong: the elegant, cultivated New Orleanians that he could not seem to locate were indeed present just under the surface, in the ghostly form of the undead tics and memes that propagated themselves through the various uneducated lowlifes and everyday people who make up New Orleans today. Logically, these memes worthy of Paul Morphy or Louis Moreau Gottschalk can only be hosted by people like my waiter, people who remain ignorant of the authenticity that parasitizes them, because otherwise this authenticity would immediately transform into inauthenticity under the official public gaze whose internalization generally constitutes “being educated”. Seen in this light, it is precisely because New Orleans is populated with so many people considered uncultivated by outside standards that the ghosts of cultivated people past can continue to survive in the form of unconscious symptoms that would otherwise find themselves exorcised through education.

Where could such an exotic meme have originated? Like an ordinary dress whose cut gradually seems weirder and weirder as it is handed down through the generations, my reader’s poses must once have been common gestural currency. There must once have been a time when such a gesture had a clearly-defined social meaning, one that was recorded in the anonymous public gaze of the era. Like a hologram projection in which each piece of the image also contains the image in its entirety, any individual meme or symptom contains, in germ, the entire life-world in which it was embedded. Symptoms and the gaze in which they are inscribed cannot exist without each other: like smoke and fire they constitute the two modes of appearance of one single phenomenon.

New Orleans thus continues to exist not simply as the place of inscription of fossilized tics and symptoms from a forgotten world but more importantly as the place of inscription of the banished gaze for which these symptoms were once performed. Anyone with a passing interest in numismatics knows how to recognize a silver quarter from a normal quarter without having to look at the date: the clink, hue and heft are all slightly different. Banks too know how to recognize silver quarters, and they cull them out of circulation immediately. Since the late 1980’s I have inspected every single quarter that has passed through my hands, and in that roughly twenty-year time period I have found exactly seven silver quarters, which of necessity had not passed through a bank since before 1965. The bank here performs a function strictly identical to that of the transcendental central gaze of society: it regularizes the flow of capital by methodically eliminating those elements no longer compatible with the regular functioning of the principle of exchange, just as the social gaze regularizes the flow of symbolic capital by submitting outdated elements to more or less explicit opprobrium and social re-education. Following this conceit, New Orleans here appears as a sphere in which older memes circulate among themselves without constantly being filtered through the outside gaze whose function is to format society.

The mysterious, “poetic” moments that irrupt with such regularity in New Orleans, moments such as catching a glimpse of my Presbytere reader, are poetic and mysterious because they briefly reawaken the banished god whose ruined kingdom continues to exist in the interstices of everyday life. Just as the Catholic mass acts as a machine for summoning the Holy Ghost, a machine whose basic mechanism consists in a ritualized series of gestures (kneeling, praying, singing), the undead symptoms that traverse the social body of New Orleans serve a similar incantatory function, that of summoning the gaze of a forgotten local god, a cruel but intense god, an Old Testament God whose love was not ethical but proprietary, primitive, and violently pleasurable. Here lies another possible explanation for why New Orleans seems so much older than it actually is: in New Orleans, one can literally feel the gaze of this more primordial God in a way that is no longer possible in much of Europe, for example, where the ancient gaze that held up the ancient system has been liquidated and neutered, leaving the old monuments as testaments not to the old world but only to its absolute destruction. Hitler wanted to destroy every synagogue in Germany but one, to be left as a sort of mocking monument to a vanquished people. In a sense, a city like Paris has, today, the same fundamental reality as Berlin’s Ryke Street synagogue: a mute monument to a vanquished race, a monument no longer capable of gazing or speaking to anybody because its eyes and tongue have been cut out.

It could be argued that this older gaze that persists in New Orleans, this gaze that can regularly be felt issuing from between the cracks and joints of the city itself, has nothing truly ancient and primeval about it, considering that it comes to us not from Giza or Tenochtitlan but from the relatively prosaic 19th century, by which point the old gods, the real gods, had already been dead for a long time. How then could this 150-year-old gaze, flash-frozen at New Orleans’ historical zenith and fundamentally comparable to our own (1), come to embody the violent primordial gaze of Uranus himself? For surely 19th century life was not bathed in the dreamy unreality that this gaze occasionally summons into existence in New Orleans.

After studying the strange similarities between human embryos and animal embryos, the great 19th century biologist Haeckel was forced to the famous conclusion that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. In other words, the development of the individual contains, in germ, the evolutionary development of the species, which occurs in accelerated motion during gestation. At X weeks a human fetus is more or less indistinguishable from that of a fish (gills included), at Y months that of a rat, at Z months that of a pig, etc.

Things are no different in the domain at hand, that of the gaze that has always-already organized human subjectivity, the gaze that creates us by effectuating a first cut separating us from ourselves. Over the course of his development, the individual passes through a number of ontological spheres, each of which is implicitly organized around a different kind of divine gaze. Early childhood could be defined as that period of time during which the real, physical gaze of a transcendental presence, the gaze of the ancient gods, can still be felt naturally. This is the famous “enchanted world” of the child, a world in which monsters and fairies exist, really exist, exist in the form of the murderous gaze coming from the dark closet or the reassuring benevolent gaze of elves in the woods. This gaze can be said to really exist in that it manifests itself as a corporal phenomenon (fright, joy, anxiety) and not in the form of an abstract principle: “Santa Claus is watching you!” Actually, Santa Claus already represents an intermediate stage between the raw childhood gaze and the ethical, neutral, dead gaze of the adult world. The gaze of Santa Claus is gradually intellectualized, theorized, and dressed up in ethics until there is no longer any need for a fat man in a red suit to bridge the gap between the physical world of chimneys and skim milk and the noumenal world of abstract ideals such as naughty and nice. In this sense, Santa Claus could be seen here to metaphorize, ontogenetically, the human being’s phylogenetic passage from an enchanted world in which magical and reality exist side by side to a rational world governed by an abstract deistic God who has vanished behind the laws he has left us (2). The process of becoming an adult is the process of draining this traumatic primordial gaze of its immanence, of its suffocating, corporeal immediacy, and transforming it into the anonymous gaze of the public, which behaves more like a code, an algorithm, or an ideal than a real God. More, this anonymous public gaze which appears in the form of laws, codes, and fashion cycles is precisely that which intercepts, transforms, and neutralizes the dangerous, invasive, violent (and violently pleasurable) primordial gaze of Cronos.

The price that we as modern human beings integrated into society pay in order to escape the suffocating presence of the living God is a heavy one: the loss of the possibility of ever rejoining the divine body and feeling God everywhere, all over, all the time in a sort of permanent fusional union. No, God has been cut from our bodies and replaced with a wagonload of of abstractions. But our loss is not absolute. Occasionally we can still catch a fleeting glimpse of the gods of early human history, the gods of our childhoods, and this perhaps more regularly in New Orleans than in other places. In primitive societies, ancestry can be traced to the animal totems that represent the different clans, a system which guarantees that the older someone is, the closer he is to the animal ur-ancestor. In this way the gulf between animal and human is speculatively filled in: somewhere between ancestor X and the totem animal a missing link must have existed. The concrete ancestors that are still alive thus stand in for this missing link, which itself stands in for the totem. In the same way, the occasionally perceptible 19th century public gaze that is summoned by the forgotten silver quarter memes that still flourish in New Orleans triangulates towards the impossible gaze of the original gods, a gaze that it momentarily stands in for, telescopes into, just as the ancestor telescopes into the god-totem itself. The magic inherent to New Orleans, that indescribable tingling feeling that can so easily be procured there, appears here as a sort of perspective illusion. The 19th-century gaze that occasionally emanates from within the body of the city, the gaze that my waiter crystallized with his presence, opens a small chink in the wall of everyday life and in so doing undercuts the mortifying authority of the modern world and its silent dictates, the welter of rules governing our being from clothes to words to thoughts. This chink is like the opening of a dark mineshaft whose bottom cannot be distinguished: although intellectually we know that it must end somewhere, somewhere not very far, we cannot help but wonder if it goes straight down, not just to the center of the earth but all the way down to that primordial, foreclosed, mythical space where the dwarves and devils live.


(1) It seems that every city is stamped with a date or series of dates that separate the past from the future. When I went to East Berlin in 2006, I found myself invigorated by the new forms that seemed to be emerging everywhere around me: here was History, with a real capital H! When I went to West Berlin a few days later, however, I was shocked to see that everything remained frozen in 1989. The signs, the fonts, the color schemes, the architecture, even the fashions seemed stuck in time, as if in the absence of the Geist that had absquatulated to the other side of the Brandenburg Gate when the wall fell, West Berlin simply could not move forward. Like jilted lovers, entire cities remain fixed to the traumatic moment when History left its mark before moving on. For New Orleans there would seem to be at least two of these moments: 1860, the year that marked the beginning of New Orleans’ long, unfinished decline, as well as 1960, its peak population year, just before integration and the generalization of consumer culture began to massively transform the city.

(2) Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai represents the moment in human history when the dead God of the Law first appeared to challenge the living God that had until then ruled everyone absolutely, offering them much shuddering ecstasy but little breathing room in which to come to be as individuals.