- Creaturely, Throwaway Life after KatrinaSalvage the Bones and Beasts of the Southern Wild
Rereading Patricia Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am struck (again) by her contention that in southern culture, “the foundation or basis for this world is made out of repudiated, throwaway bodies that mire the earth … the disposable bodies denied by white culture” (15). The throwaway bodies of the South were horrifyingly present in Katrina’s floodwaters as the failed levee systems of New Orleans, and the precarious infrastructure of the Gulf, buckled. As has been widely documented, bodies (mainly black) were left for dead, simply abandoned in the storm’s wake. Seen as throwaway, the South’s largely black inhabitants were revealed, by Katrina and its aft ermath, to be as discardable as in the region’s past. Black southern life in the wake of the storm, as in memory, was precarious and vulnerable.
This article will explore a number of ways that we can understand this southern corporeality as it is registered and represented in contemporary culture. More particularly, I will explore two texts that foreground not only human but also nonhuman animal life aft er Katrina: Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones (2011) and Benh Zeitlin’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). In Ward’s novel, a poor African American family reside in a Mississippi woodland clearing called “The Pit.” As Katrina approaches, the characters struggle to survive. Intimately connected to the natural world around them and the pit bulls that the protagonist’s brother keeps for fighting, Ward’s southerners are deeply connected to other [End Page 246] forms of life in the South even while their own are rendered precarious. In Zeitlin’s film, a young black girl lives in the bayous of Louisiana with her neglectful father; there, they survive in homes cobbled together from trash, foraging food from the surrounding environment. When a Katrina-like flood wipes out much of their world, the protagonists struggle against a watery landscape, all the while stalked by historical creatures called the Aurochs. It is a southern world filled with human and nonhuman beasts.
Mary Ruth Marotte and Glenn Jellenik suggest that post-Katrina texts mainly fall into two categories: “texts that focus on testimony and deal with processing the storm and its traumatic and cultural effects” and “texts that center on the identity politics activated and complicated by Katrina” (x). I align Ward’s novel with the former, and—in its mythical form—Zeitlin’s with the latter. More importantly, both texts “give voice to the experiences of those wounded and displaced by the storm, underscoring the need to better comprehend the ways our nation failed to provide for its citizens” (Marotte and Jellenik ix).1 I contend that focusing on displaced or disposable bodies after Katrina can illuminate the multitudinous ways in which southern life is regulated by historically racialized forces: what I call the South’s corporeal legacies. The events were, in Henry Giroux’s words, “the consequence of a systemic form of social engineering” that “marginalized [people] by race and class” (11), rendering them disposable. I have elsewhere discussed the ways in which we can see Katrina as revealing the persistence of southern history, arguing the storm’s effects on black southerners recollected the historical legacy of denigrating African Americans to a form of “bare life.”2 Those who were marginalized before the storm’s arrival—through entrenched poverty and structural racism—were further marginalized after it.
A useful way of framing the concept of the throwaway can be found in Judith Butler’s work on “precarious life.”3 Butler argues that “each of us is constituted politically in part by virtue of the social vulnerability of our bodies” (20), pointing to the ways in which we are biopoliticized. As “socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence” (Butler 20), we can see those southerners abandoned in the wake of Katrina as socially, and corporeally, precarious. While in Butler’s rendering we are all in this delicate relational web, the inhabitants of the Gulf South...