Mondes nord-américains

New Orleans: A Guide for the Inauthentic, 2 : “Hurricane Katrina, or The Death Drive of New Orleans”

Cet essai est le deuxième extrait du livre de Timothy Lachin, New Orleans: A Guide for the Inauthentic. Une traduction française sera publiée ultérieurement.

“Hurricane Katrina, or The Death Drive of New Orleans”


In my Introduction, I briefly suggested that all cities were organized around some absent center, some permanently lacking element whose absence opened up a space for circulation.  Just as all of a man’s actions can be interpreted as bearing indirect witness to some fundamental lack or imbalance, the life of a city can be understood as following the same logic on a macroscopic scale.  Behind the circulation of bodies and memes a more fundamental circulation can be deduced, that of a mercurial empty space that secretly leads the dance, in the same way that the empty space opened up by our vertiginous production of waste determines our capacity to produce wealth.  No missing element, no circulation: in such a case there could be nothing but infinitely dense inert plenitude.

This book, too, is organized around a central hole, a conspicuously missing element which nonetheless remains the final referent of everything I have written so far: Hurricane Katrina.  For it is no longer possible to talk about New Orleans without talking about Hurricane Katrina.  As of this writing (early 2008), it is no longer possible to talk about anything in New Orleans without talking about Hurricane Katrina.  Even the most banal, everyday conversation between New Orleanians continues obliquely to pay a pound of flesh to the hurricane, which now saturates all negative conversational space and forms its very ground.

All speech, all communication depends on such a ground for its continued functioning.  For to say nothing is always to say something, and this nothing has to possess a certain shared consistency for the positive statements that are erected upon it to have a stable meaning.  Imagine a meeting between three strangers who are in line at the DMV.  Without knowing anything about each other, they have one of those banal conversations that take place in long lines.

Man 1: “Nice day, huh?”

Man 2: “Yeah…I love this weather.”

Man 3: “It was sure hot yesterday.”

But the “real” hidden meaning of any of these comments changes radically depending on who speaks them.  “Real” goes in quotation marks since there is no way for anyone, least of all the speaker, to objectively establish anything like a final, exhaustive interpretation of the words in question.  There are, rather, an infinite number of subjective “translations” of any given statement.  Some of these possible “hidden meanings” include:

“I just got into Harvard.”

“I can’t wait to get a tan.”

“This hot weather reminds me of summer camp…Debbie…the crackling of the bug zapper…”

“I grew up in Minnesota.  I will never go back there.”

“I can finally get all the Vitamin D that I need.  (I am a hypochondriac.)”

“The kid was sweating like a pig as I cut him up yesterday.”

“Love me.”

Since it is logically impossible for two people to lead identical lives, and since it follows from this that the same words can never mean exactly the same thing by virtue of the irreducibly singular position from which they are spoken, the question then becomes: are these people communicating or not?

Regardless of whether or not they are “really” communicating anything resembling subjective experience, by maintaining appearances they prop up a shared set of presuppositions (“we are all regular citizens waiting in line at the DMV”) that effectively allows them to engage in the fantasy of having communicated with each other.  The ground of the conversation – the anonymous public gaze which confers shared meaning on their words and silences – appears here as essentially a sort of shared hallucination, since none of them hear the “true” meaning of the words spoken by the others.  Even more crucially, they cannot even hear the “true” meaning of the unconscious signification of their very own words, for again, there is no way to ever exhaust signification, reduce it to its final, bedrock meaning (Kurt Godel illustrated this in the most virtuosic fashion imaginable, by taking the ultimate rock-solid, univocal discourse, Russel and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, and “finding” a coherent, higher-level “unconscious” discourse hidden in its symbols).  The most central dimension of our subjectivity, the (empty) core of our being, permanently escapes reduction to the register of shared meaning.

Mutatis mutandis, the same small-talk conversation that occurs ten times a second across America takes on a radically different meaning if it is spoken by two New Orleanians who may or may not have recently lost everything in the storm.  Whereas in most places the unspoken, fantasized framework guaranteeing meaning between the lines has a more or less banal character (“we are all normal, middle-class citizens”, or whatever), in New Orleans this framework has a rather different content: “we all got screwed” (supplemented with: “because we are special”).  And this pathos-filled signification is front and center even (especially) if the two speakers do not ornament their enunciations with visible, phatic clues regarding the presumably shared subjective experience that they simultaneously mask and communicate through their everyday words.  There is no need for any demonstrative pregnant sighs: these too are already built in to the frame of reference itself, the silent ground of the conversation itself, and this is why any “real” pregnant sighs can only appear as vulgar simulacra of the perfect, transcendent, immanent unperformed sigh that silently performs itself.

No, when two New Orleanians talk to each other today, three years after the storm, their words effectively amount to no more and no less than empty vessels for pure silence, mute fingers pointed towards the shared fantasy that their incommensurable subjective experience can somehow be communicated.  And is that a tear in your eye, or is it just inflammation from all the mold? 

So, if Hurricane Katrina now forms the shared, unspoken ground upon which New Orleanians support their speech, what constituted this ground before?  What unspoken fantasy united New Orleanians and allowed them to engage in the shared hallucination of life there?

As I suggested in my Introduction, the shared fantasy that provided the framework for speech and communication in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina was nothing other than…Hurricane Katrina, the eventual certainty of a Hurricane Katrina.  If the shared, presupposed post-K frame of reference could be approximated as “we all got screwed (because we’re special)”, its pre-K avatar appears rather as “we’re all going to get screwed one day (because we’re special)”.  Everyone knew that it was not a question of if but of when.  And not only did everyone know, but everyone knew that everyone else knew.  Everyone knew that sooner or later the game would be up, that New Orleans was living on borrowed time, that the whole ship would be going down some day soon…and we’re all going to die with it!  Now, this is a special kind of knowledge, because although such things can be known intellectually, they cannot be conceived of, cannot really be imagined: to know them is simply to know that somewhere an absolute limit to thought exists.  Everything that concerns the end participates in this logic.  Rather than referring to some actual mental content, the words death, the end, catastrophe, etc. refer simply to their own unthinkability.  This impossible knowledge, which is radically incompatible with thought, must be repressed if thought is to take place at all.  Upon seeing an ugly woman carefully applying makeup to her face, I presume that everyone thinks more or less the same thing (with or without sympathy): “What’s the point?  Doesn’t she realize it’s hopeless?”  Such a woman must effectively repress 90% of the truth of her appearance in order to be able to find something about herself beautiful, for otherwise she would have no choice but to just give up.  Crucially, this marvelous operation can be universalized to all of humanity (even the very beautiful; especially the very beautiful): the only way any of us manage to get by at all is by repressing our knowledge that not only are even the most beautiful of us essentially bags of meat and rotting food, but one day these bags will cross a magical line beyond which all bets are off, from the other side of which no bag has ever returned.  In other words, one day we will die. 

And here a curious thing happens: this banished beyond of thought – death – then reappears unconsciously, in the form of symptoms whose existence bears witness to this unknown knowledge that can never be subjectivized.  What happens here would seem to constitute, on some level, the essence of the human animal: this collective knowledge that the end is coming – for the end is always coming – begins to operate on its own, behind the scenes, surreptitiously organizing the world around itself and preparing a space for its eventual expression.  “Ca parle”.  In the late Roman Empire, deliquescence, decadence and decline seemed to operate acephalically and irreversibly through a social body that was nonetheless on some level aware of exactly what was going on, effectively opening up a space for the eventual barbarian invasion that retroactively appears as a historical necessity. Looked at a certain way, a mysterious, parasitic agency seems to have been operating through the impotent Roman populace, a headless agency bent on nothing short of collective suicide.  Just as “we” think through our neurons (which if asked would probably suggest that free will determined their firing patterns), the city of Rome thought, not to say yearned, through its citizens.  Even though everyone was well aware of what was going on, nothing could be done to stop it.  It was as if Rome (and not individual Romans) wanted to fall.  Put otherwise, this line, this limit to thought beyond which lies death and catastrophe, seemed simply to suck Rome towards itself.

Why?  Because, as Freud gradually discovered after the Great War, nothing attracts man as powerfully as the call of the other side, the end, that which lies behind the primordially foreclosed door.  Ultimately, the black central point of man’s unconscious consists in nothing but this voracious urge to push the button, to open the door, to liquidate it all: an end, above all, to the permanent circulation around a permanently empty center that is man’s lot.  Yes: to be human is to want what is on the other side of the line with whose inscription consciousness is born.

If anything has surprised me over the course of my reflections, it is the persistence with which I have been forced to resort to the category of the impossible to describe in life in New Orleans.  This impossible manifests itself at every level, and each chapter of this book concerns itself with a different kind of impossibility: the impossibility of racial reconciliation, the impossibility of an architectural reconciliation of form and function, the impossible identity of Uptown and Downtown, the impossible reconciliation of gaze and object, the impossible bohemian project of living without norms, the impossibility of writing about New Orleans, etc.  And although all of human existence is permanently haunted with the impossibility that forms its horizon in the form of sexual difference and death, it occupies a special place in New Orleans, exerts a massive gravitational pull by virtue of its massive presence on every level.

The unconscious knowledge that one day a hurricane was going to wipe everything out could be seen as standing in for all these arrayed impossibilities, absorbing them and displacing them into the future.  The more patently impossible life became on the ground, the more this unconscious yearning for a final solution grew in strength.  For the hypothetical hurricane represented, first and foremost, the impossible fantasy of the liquidation and resorption of so many accumulated imbalances, the impossible final Aufhebung of the irreducible difference that is the ground of the world.  The hurricane functioned like a sort of lottery fantasy that only becomes proportionately more vivid as the gambler sinks ever further into debt.  Or, more precisely, the degree of debt and the delirious vividness of the fantasy are indissociable from each other, the latter swelling as it absorbs the accumulated contradictions of the former.

Is there not a crucial difference here, however?  The gambler’s fantasy of the big win is the fantasy of an unlikely happy ending, whereas the destruction of New Orleans is not a “fantasy” at all.  Superficially these two fantasies have nothing in common; contrary to the first fantasy, the second fantasy appears rather as something terrible that no one wants to come to pass.

It is nevertheless the first fantasy, the debtor’s fantasy of the big win, that hides the true nature of fantasy and not vice versa.   Everyone knows what happens when gamblers win big: they keep gambling until they lose everything, and this time they no longer have a lottery-winning fantasy to protect them from the true (unconscious) suicidal meaning of their actions, to protect them from the paralyzing attraction of the void, into which they are immediately precipitated.  (I think here also of a colleague of mine who threw herself out of a window the day after finally turning in the doctoral thesis that she had been working on obsessively for years.  With no fantasy screen left, she could only be sucked into the void beyond it.)  The unconscious content of the fantasy of the big win reveals itself rather to be the fantasy of subsequently losing it all, the pure voluptuous pleasure of seeing everything go down the tubes before going down after it.  Every gambler knows this vertiginous moment that Stefan Zweig isolates in the climax of his novella “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman”.  No, the final truth of all fantasy is precisely this: the fantasy of finally crossing the last line and abolishing the incessant Sisyphian burden of existence once and for all.  Behind every fantasy is another more extreme fantasy, another more mortifying fantasy, until there is nothing left but a body no longer moored to any stable symbolic system…until the only line left is that separating life from death.  Here is the reason why all cults and extreme political or religious movements ultimately devolve into terrorism or suicide: at no point does the prayed-for final overcoming, the final, orgasmic reconciliation of the unbearable contradictions and impossibilities promised by the leader/movement take place.  The Revolution is never complete; God never deigns to finally reveal himself.  True Reality refuses obstinately to show its face.  And the further one advances, alternately traversing fantasy and disillusionment, the more impossible the situation becomes, for each torn veil reveals not some higher synthesis but only another sucking void.  And as the fantasies fall, so does the reality that they propped up in the first place.  Sooner or later there is nothing left but bodies, meaningless bodies, inert matter that cannot be surpassed, cannot be exchanged, traversed, or overcome, and the only option that remains is liquidation.  Timothy McVeigh, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Al-Qaeda, Heaven’s Gate (to draw only from recent history): all advance by this double-or-nothing logic.  On a more everyday scale the gradual transformation of the American 60’s protest movement into a series of autistic body practices (drugs, meditation, yoga) bears witness to the same implacable principle.  The unhappy destinies reserved for those who advance too close to the sun seem to leave no room for appeal concerning the impossibility of ever happily collapsing fantasy and reality into each other.  For rather than reality giving rise to “useless” fantasy, the truth consists rather in the contrary proposition: fantasy guarantees reality, keeps reality from appearing in its final indifferent essence, and to lose fantasy is thus to lose reality itself.          

My friend Brendan’s suicide followed this logic.  In the months that preceded the act, his vague plans for the future began to appear increasingly baroque and artificial.  First he wanted to move to California in the hopes of founding a life with a girl he barely knew who had kissed him once; when that predictably failed, he started telling people that he was going to move to Sweden, a country he knew almost nothing about, because of its leftist social democracy; finally, in the last weeks preceding his death, he began to tell me that he had been working on starting his life over in the US Virgin Islands.  Why?  Because he was a virgin…this desperate last attempt to hang on to the power of artifice, of the signifier, to furnish some sort of response, any response, can only mark total subjective catastrophe.  As difficulty shoots asymptotically towards impossibility, solutions move from improbable to McGyveresque to impossible.  Brendan’s fantasies could not keep pace with the massive psychological sucking wounds that absorbed them at an ever-increasing pace, until eventually there were no possible fantasies left, no logically possible imaginary solutions to a situation that finally revealed itself as without appeal, in the same way that the condemned man only truly abandons all hope of survival when the bullet actually cuts through his heart.

This is why it can be said that Hurricane Katrina represented the fundamental fantasy of pre-K New Orleans.  This collective unconscious urging towards the final line separating life and death constituted the only possible fantasmatic solution to the impossibility of reconciling all of the structuring antinomies that I have tried to explore in this book.  (And this is the final nature of the unconscious, the reason why it exists in the first place: the impossibility of ever being able to subjectivize what was expelled across this ur-line with the birth of consciousness.)  This drive to cross the last barrier manifested itself in New Orleans in the manifold self-destructive acts wrought upon the city by itself every day.  Although each of the individual causes of New Orleans’ decline – crime, the collapse of a real economy, racial strife, crack, blight, moral decay – can be more or less adequately explained by appealing to strict historical causality, their mysterious, transcendent persistence and intractability can only be explained by a sort of collective unconscious push to realize this fantasy of total liquidation in order finally to be finished with it all and start over.  Once again, there are two incompatible levels of causality at play.  To attempt to justify the shocking murder rate by appealing to the “scourge of crack”, for example, only amounts to ducking the real question.  I have smoked crack and there is nothing supernaturally addictive about it: I felt dizzy and uncomfortable for half an hour, during which time I could not stop rubbing my head, and afterwards I felt like crap.  I was not seized by an overpowering physical need to smoke it again.  No, what characterized my crack experience was not its mythical intensity but rather its synesthetic poverty.  Crack amounts to a gigantic alibi, a highly effective modern vector for something that has been with us forever and will never go away: the desire to kill, to die, to be done with it all.  The crack trade and the impressive matrix of destruction and violence it generates at every level serve a very precise function: that of furnishing a pretext to satisfy the fundamental human urge to destroy that is linked with the impossibility of life in general and the exaggerated impossibility of life in New Orleans in particular.  This is the secret of C-Murder’s “real”, as in “shit’s real down here”, which could be considered the ideological heart of gangsta rap.  Although what immediately strikes an outsider about the gangsta lifestyle is the extent to which its canons are entirely ritualized, contingent-seeming, and artificial (or at least no less artificial than any system of social organization, which is again to say entirely artificial), the mysterious, stupid persistence of this abject artificiality is nothing but the mode of appearance of the properly real enigma of the death drive.

And so a third clause must be added to the unconscious fantasy that animated New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina: “We’re all going to get screwed (because we’re special) ((and we can’t wait))”.