Images from the television screen seared in my mind. Images hard to describe, leaving me struggling to comprehend.
A man, happens to be black, dark skin, about 30, average height, wiry yet muscular build, short dreds, a red basketball style jersey, looks directly through the camera lens into my living room. He’s angry, part of the crowd standing, sitting, or lying just outside the Louisiana Superdome a few days after Hurricane Katrina. He gestures toward an area behind a row of seated mostly elderly, mostly black individuals: “See these dead people over here? (I/we actually don’t – though I/we know they’re there.) “This is all your fault.”
Shot of one of the world trade twin towers while it was still standing (though actually it’s not – this is footage endlessly repeated after the towers have already fallen on September 11, 2001). I sit mesmerized as small specks keep falling across the screen in front of the tower. It takes many minutes before I realize – and more still before I accept – that these are people.
Images from the air of New Orleans, some places I recognize, most I do not, but with nearly all of the city submerged, they call to mind another scene: someplace around the Indian Ocean – Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, I’m not sure. The camera (and I/we) look down a road coming up a steep hill, palm trees lining each side of it. Loud screams of fear from persons not visible come from both sides of the road further down the hill as water surges up from below.
A middle aged black woman, one of the thousands of people camped out in the Astrodome in Houston after being evacuated there from New Orleans. A voice over narrative speaks (for her), “She’s lost everything: her home, her possessions, her husband. But she still has hope.” (“How could she?” I yell. She looks utterly dejected.) The microphone of the unseen interviewer is thrust toward her. She’s about to speak. Cut to another resident of the Astrodome and another voice over of “hope.”
Thinking of these images brings to my mind an earlier cataclysm. Though not televised and open to “teleparticipation” (to use Argentine-Mexican anthropologist Néstor García Canclini’s term), the Aztec empire fell in another world changing cataclysm, the capital city of Tenochtitlan reduced to rubble, smallpox, measles, or some other European disease raging through the remnants – the first of many epidemics that over the course of a few generations would lead to an over 90% reduction in Mexico’s population, a reduction from 25 million people to 5 million in a single generation. How did this happen? How did a small group of Spanish conquistadores conquer the mighty Aztec empire? There are, of course, many factors to consider, but one key component was that Emperor Motecuzoma thought that Cortes might have been the god Quetzalcoatl, prophesied to return to Mexico from the east in the year “One Reed”, with Cortes arriving from the east and in the appropriate year. As a result, at least during early stages of the conquest, Motecuzoma acted tentatively, not wanting to anger someone who might be Quetzalcoatl, allowing Cortes to gain a foothold.
Except that this didn’t happen.
Motecuzoma did act somewhat tentatively at first. As Tzvetan Todorov argues, the conquest of Mexico was not just a physical conquest but a semiotic conquest. Motecuzoma’s cultural premises, inscribed within a highly cyclical cosmology where no significant event was without prior analogues and prophecies, didn’t offer any guidance for dealing with unprecedented strangers like the Spanish. He didn’t think Cortes was Quetzalcoatl, though. Mesoamerica scholars now think that the Quetzalcoatl narrative was invented shortly after the conquest by native Nahuatl scholars to explain what they could not otherwise explain. If there had been a prophecy foretelling a return of the god, and if Motecuzoma could have mistaken Cortes for the god, then it all made sense in hindsight.
What is culture? And how does it relate to practice? Anthropologists have often focused on symbols as that which makes humans unique and as the fundamental building block of culture, though this doesn’t explain how culturally important symbols are related to one another nor how they relate to practice. C. S. Peirce’s definition and discussion of the argument as a type of symbol is useful in pushing the discussion further. The argument, as Peirce defines it, “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the argument is a sign of reason, building upon propositions to enact overarching logical systems (which is to say that argument involves theorization broadly understood) and is always composed of simpler symbols (specifically rhematic and dicent symbols).
Culture, I would argue, is not just the learned and shared lifeways of minimalist definitions of culture, but also an all encompassing mesh of symbols, premises, and arguments. The argument, for human culture, is akin to what Sherry Ortner calls key scenarios or cultural schemas. She defines these “as preorganized schemes of action, symbolic programs for the staging and playing out of standard interactions in a particular culture. In her own analysis of Sherpa Buddhism in Nepal, she identifies such a cultural schema (Rivalry, Acquisition of a Protector, Defeat of the Enemy, Departure of the Loser) which recurs in Sherpa myth and ritual and which provides a prototype for culturally typical interaction situations – which is to say that (using Clifford Geertz’s terminology) cultural schemas or arguments provide both “models of” and “models for” cultural action.
Arguments make sense of what we normally perceive and provide guidance for our actions. This is so even in the case of “incidents” or “events,” occurrences which are unusual but not so unusual as to be unprecedented or unpatterned in their occurrence: If anything cultural schemas or arguments are most important for dealing with the unusual or intermittent. In my ethnographic fieldwork along the U.S. – Mexican border at El Paso / Juarez, I found that unusual (but not so unusual) incidents, such as fist fights, were often a source of preoccupation, but where understandings of such incidents were easily provided in pre-existing schemas and where those same schemas provided not so much a rigid template as a loose guide for action in such cases, such that people generally knew what to do in unusual situations and how to comprehend them after the fact.
But what do we do when our premises and arguments offer us nothing? What do we do when the world ends? (By which I mean what do we do when our worlds, socially constructed of our cultural premises and arguments offer us not just the dire possibility of death but no guidance at all?) For those who survive, or those experiencing indirectly through teleparticipation, how do we conceptualize catastrophic situations that present us with not just physical but semiotic crisis?
Certainly, we can perceive but be ultimately unable to comprehend, unable to arrange a narrative or argument that makes sense of things. Part of what haunts me so about the images of people falling past the world trade center on 9/11 is not simply the gruesomeness or the death (most other images and/or discussion of gruesome death don’t stick in my mind so), but a nagging question: “What were they thinking?” I find it almost literally impossible to imagine, much less comprehend, a situation where one moment things are fine at work, the next one’s choices are reduced to jumping to one’s death or something apparently worse.
In other cases, we can impose a narrative or schematic order on the situation (whether it really fits or not), like the Quetzalcoatl narrative. On occasion, cultural schemas or arguments might change (that is, the world changes) in response to catastrophe, e.g. the current world of unilateral military action after 9/11, a sort of action guided by different premises than operated in practice before.
Our experience of the catastrophic is always anecdotal, in part because of the scope of that which is “catastrophic” which makes it incomprehensible, in part also nowadays because of the edited and filtered nature of the medium of television and/or other mass media technologies through which most of us experience such occurrences. The ordered arguments imposed on such situations are multiple, of course.
I won’t even mention the claims made by some that New Orleans was devastated by Katrina because of the presence of abortion (Why New Orleans? Was it an especial hot bed of abortion?) or because of a decadent acceptance of homosexuality (echoed by some Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. and Al Qaeda in Iraq). Other examples of invocations of the divine: A reporter on 9/11 asking a survivor from the towers, “Did you feel like God was watching over you?” Or in a case of clear desire for miracle in the face of catastrophe, persistent reports (ultimately false) from the same day of an individual who had been in the world trade center when it collapsed and survived.
Rampant rumors: Given the uncertainty and state of flux during catastrophe and the necessarily anecdotal perspective of any given individual, rumors abound. Again, the survivor from the world trade tower. Rumors spread by word of mouth and battery powered radio in Pensacola, Florida in the days after Hurricane Ivan that 20, 50, or even 100 were dead in the Grand Lagoon neighborhood, and that this was being covered up by the sheriff’s department, as did other rumors that a local hospital had been hit or even destroyed by a tornado during the storm.
“Triumph of the Human Will” Narratives (a staple of the science fiction literary genre, but also imposed on catastrophes): One man, jumping from the world trade center executed a perfect swan dive on the way down as a final aesthetic gesture. It’s not clear that he even necessarily existed, but the story was repeated and still crops up from time to time, such as in a recent editorial in The Nation where I encountered it. “Let’s Roll,” and the re-takeover by passengers of the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania – if that’s what happened (my point here being not so much to contribute to conspiracy theorizing but to point up the even more uncertain nature of knowledge than normal in times of semiotic crisis). The woman in the Astrodome “still had hope,” even if she didn’t look the part and wasn’t allowed to speak for herself. After Hurricane Ivan in Pensacola and after Katrina along the Gulf Coast, narratives abounded of people “pulling together” and helping neighbors.
The importance of race as an element in ordering the immediate post-Katrina reality: Black people “looting,” and white people “finding things.” People along the Gulf Coast “pull together,” but primarily in Mississippi with mostly white people shown on television (in a state that’s majority black), while in New Orleans people began to form “tribes” to help one another out, in those instances when chaos wasn’t stressed. But this racializing also became part of the narrative, one of those rare moments in American civil society when generally unstated race based premises themselves became grist for substantive discussion.
With Katrina, understanding about the event is not completely (even if nearly so) enmeshed within standard premises and arguments. Alongside the accounts of people pulling together and being full of hope, there is also a calling into question of clearly insufficient relief efforts, something normally missing and/or verboten from news coverage of hurricanes, but perhaps something so visible that it can’t be ignored or denied in this case. The man in the red basketball jersey plays a similar role with his clear and understood desire to assign blame. There is something highly stereotypical about the scene, almost scripted even, as if it could have come straight out of a yet to be made Spike Lee film about the disaster (Note that this post was originally written as a draft for a presentation to an annual meeting of the Semiotic Society of America before When the Levee Breaks was made). But there was something utterly sincere about the man and his anger as well. Something unclear, too. Who was the “you” in “This is all your fault” with the man looking straight at the camera? Was I the one whose fault it all was? In any case, I was jolted from one sort of watching, perceiving the unfolding coverage of devastation in passive shock and denial, to another, both very aware and uncomfortable with the voyeaurism of teleparticipation and trying to come to grips with how to comprehend chaos and catastrophe.
This text is an icon, or at least attempts to be. It is a “messy text”, and intentionally so (it may be unintentionally so, as well, from the difficulty I found in trying to convey what I wanted to convey). It is a messy text and icon in attempting to present a sense of the disruption of normal comprehension and practice by catastrophe, the ensuing physical and semiotic crisis and the interruption of unfolding experience of such through imposed schemas or narratives (such as this or other interjected thoughts or comments).
Since it is common to frame catastrophe in terms of budding hope, I’ll end by seeing hope in a situation of hopelessness, but also a situation of irreducibility to the simplicity of another’s imposed narrative – including my own. I keep returning in my mind to the woman “interviewed” at the Astrodome. I’d like to hear and say what she had to say, but I can’t say. I can only say that even without her words, she presented a visually messy text: the silencing of her with a neat and tidy narrative in order to understand her plight in simple terms, faced with her appearance as anything but hopeful and her being obviously cut off, proved unsuccessful, with her image irreducible to such premises as a triumphal will or hope springing eternal, leaving instead a perception of her presence and the struggle to comprehend.