- New Orleans Brings It All Together
Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana have been subject to an outpouring of scholarly work, popular reporting, and cultural fascination. The skyrocketing academic and cultural interest in the city and the region seems, prima facie, natural. The failure of federally maintained levees on August 29 and 30, 2005, combined with bungled federal, state, and local governmental responses, trained the national and international gaze on the city. Within weeks, the federal response, or rather, lack of response, was being cited across the political spectrum as the constitutive moment in broader public opinion’s decisive shift against the administration of George W. Bush. As the New York Times columnist Frank Rich put it, “The true Katrina narrative was just too powerful to be papered over by the White House.”1 As recovery began and continued in fits and starts over the ensuing months and years, scholars, [End Page 245] reporters, and cultural producers entered the fray of New Orleans to parse the meanings of what has (falsely) become known as America’s worst natural disaster and its effects on a city with a greater cultural and historic valence than its population would indicate.2
To be sure, the criminal tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath deserves the attention given to it, and more. Yet there is something else at work here. Insofar as there existed a body of work on August 28, 2005, that could be loosely understood as “New Orleans studies,” it was, with some important exceptions, a scholarly backwater in both the traditional disciplines and American studies.3 Unlike New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles as well as Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, and Atlanta, broader field-defining works have rarely been physically set in New Orleans. New Orleans’s supposed historical and cultural exceptionalism provides the obvious reason for this relative absence of the city from larger scholarly canons. As the geographer Richard Campanella has aptly put it in regard to the city’s unique Creole background, “New Orleans is the only American city that can reasonably claim to have rendered its own ethnicity.”4 Its French, Spanish, and Creole history, its existence as the nation’s only city worth speaking of in the predominately agrarian states of the former Confederacy well into the twentieth century, and its supposedly peculiar and distinct cultural traditions have proved to be barriers to scholars wishing to make larger regional, national, and international arguments based in and around New Orleans. Furthermore, for much of its history, commentators have generally rendered the city as economically and politically backward, a bastion of corruption, premodernism, inefficiency, and hedonism anathema to a broader American experience grounded in Puritan and Yankee values of thrift, hard work, progress, and self-denial. Since well before writers like George Washington Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, and Grace King made a whole genre out of New Orleans’s supposed exceptionalism after the defeat of Reconstruction, American culture had imbibed an image of the city as antithetical to either the progress or sterility of bourgeois, market-centered modernity, depending on who was writing.
Moving back to New Orleans in 2009 after a seven-year hiatus, I was quickly struck by how the city had become something of a laboratory. It seemed that almost everywhere I went there was an anthropologist...