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Preface: What Is a Disaster?

Author(s): Curtis Marez

Source: American Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3, In the Wake of Katrina: New Paradigms and
Social Visions (Sep., 2009), pp. ix-xi
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Accessed: 17-12-2016 00:49 UTC

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What Is a Disaster? I ix

What Is a Disaster?

One of my favorite moments in this volume occurs when Johari Jabir

turns to Mahalia Jacksons performance in the film Imitation of Life
(1959). Near the end of Douglas Sirk's famous Technicolor melo
drama, Jackson, a New Orleans native, performs the old spiritual "Trouble
of the World" in a way that refuses subordination within the film's central
narrative. In Jabir s account, Jackson succeeded in evoking Black New Orleans
funeral rites in the face of a film industry that was aggressively indifferent to
African American life and death. "When Mahalia enters the film with her
New Orleans dirge interpretation of'Troubles of the World/" he argues, "we
are reminded that at any moment, centuries of historically repressed crying,
weeping and wailing buried deep in the souls of black folk, could erupt and
consume all the elements . . . [of] whiteness, wealth, and status" otherwise
celebrated in the film. In the wake of Katrina, when a virtual "commemoration
industry" has arisen to remember New Orleans and reconstruct its cultural
heritage, Jabir invites us to "take another listen" to the way "Mahalia Jackson
made it part of her art to tell the truth about the 'troubles of the world.'"
For a number of reasons this moment is an apt overture for "In the Wake
of Hurricane Katrina: New Paradigms and Social Visions," a special issue of
American Quarterly. To engage in American studies after Katrina means to think
about how the hurricane s aftermath and the complicated problems it has come
to name may have transformed what we thought we knew about a wide range
of pressing issues and topics. While many of the essays in the volume analyze
Katrina in terms of the relatively recent past, others raise questions about what
Katrina helps make visible in earlier periods in the twentieth, nineteenth, and
eighteenth centuries. One way to read the title of this issue, in other words, is
as a call to think critically about historical and cultural memories in the wake
of Katrina, which means not only historicizing the immediate aftermath of
the hurricane but also analyzing the longer historical preconditions for the
contemporary disasterscape as well as alternatives to it.
At the most basic level, the contributors to this special issue ask: what is
a disaster? To what extent is disaster "exceptional" and to what extent is it

?2009 The American Studies Association

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x I American Quarterly

the norm? Does the term refer only to the moment when the levees broke,
or does it also signify the political-economic context that preceded the hur
ricane and the government response afterward, as local activist Shana Griffin
argues? Drawing upon the ideas of Orlando Patterson ("social death"), Giorgio
Agamben ("bare life"), and Achilles Mbembe ("necro-politics") among others,
scholars in and around American studies have recently focused on economies
of death and the ways in which particular bodies and populations are made
disposable. How might scholars of American studies and related disciplines
approach the problem of disposable people in Katrinas wake?
The special issue contributes to such a discussion by isolating and analyzing
various forms of disposability as modes of structural violence. Vital statistics,
historical genealogies, community organizations, legal proceedings, schools,
churches, housing, literary texts, musical performances, storytelling, and
tourism become critical means for representing deeply sedimented forms of
systemic disposability. As these essays indicate, diverse peoples in the Gulf
region, including Black diasporans, as well as Asian- and Latin-American im
migrants, have been drawn into matrixes of disposability that are organized not
only in terms of race and class, but also gender and sexuality. While such issues
have been ignored in mainstream accounts of Katrina, this volume reveals how
disaster is gendered and sexed and how representations of supposedly deviant
forms of Black sexuality and intimacy helped to naturalize disposability.
At the same time, this special issue suggests that such forms of structural
violence both shape and are shaped by cultural and political struggles over
the production of disposable people. Whereas the dominant political culture
of what Clyde Woods calls the ruling "Bourbon bloc" in Louisiana strives to
hide or naturalize Black disposability, and while the mainstream news media
and tourist industries often capitalize on it, many of the writers, musicians,
activists, poets, and organic intellectuals represented here bring disposability
into razor-sharp critical relief. These struggles over disposability as structural
violence also indicate the importance of understanding the recent housing
foreclosure crisis and global financial meltdown, not to mention the critical
turn to political economy in American studies, in the wake of Katrina.
Many people working together have made this issue possible, starting with
its guest editor, Clyde Woods, whose keen and generous intellect shaped the
project from start to finish. I would also like to thank the members of the
^IQmanaging editorial board who read and commented on the final group of
essays, including William Deverell, Kara Keeling, Josh Kun, Tara McPherson,
and Daniel Widener. AQs excellent managing editor, Jeb Middlebrook, has

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What Is a Disaster? I xi

been indispensable to the issue, as have editorial assistants Mary Anderson and
Jamie Hirami. Stacey Lynn and Harrison Shaffer copyedited the volume with
great care and skill and William Longhauser designed the beautiful cover.
We are also grateful to the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity,
the College of Arts and Science, the Critical Studies Department, and the
School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, whose
support enabled us to complete this project. Finally, we would like to thank
the Arts Council of New Orleans and Ned Sublette for giving us permission
to reproduce their photos on the cover.
Curtis Marez
Leucadia, California, June 25, 2009

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