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  • What Is a Disaster?
  • Curtis Marez

One of my favorite moments in this volume occurs when Johari Jabir turns to Mahalia Jackson’s performance in the film Imitation of Life (1959). Near the end of Douglas Sirk’s famous Technicolor melodrama, 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 [End Page ix] 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 hurricane 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 Katrina’s 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 immigrants, 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...


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pp. ix-xi
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