The Natural History of Memory: New Orleans and water

I was meant to be going to Ghent University today to participate in a symposium titled The Natural History of Memory. This will be a fascinating meeting of scholars across a large spectrum of disciplines, all engaged in some way in memory studies, who want to say something about memory’s relationship to environmental agency – or rather the way in which environmental agency might shape/ interrupt memory. To be honest I can’t quite get my head round what ‘the natural history of memory’ actually is or might mean, which is part of what makes the title of the gathering for me so provocative and compelling. Unfortunately due to industrial action on Belgium railways I’m not going to be able to make it to Ghent. So I thought I’d post my paper here instead.

A preface to this piece: my work is really only tangential to memory studies, but increasingly my research on post-Katrina New Orleans has become about temporality: the intersection between what I am thinking of as an ‘American time’ (the time of an ‘American Century’ that seems to have run its course), ‘Katrina time’ (a term used after Katrina to describe the fate of many pre-charge detainees held in New Orleans prisons who were literally ‘lost’ in the system, which I am appropriating and expanding in my work as a way of describing not only mass incarceration but also its larger context, the time of a neoliberal capitalism that has no vision of a future, or indeed the past; a collapsed temporality that challenges the narrative of progress and optimism intrinsic to ‘American time’) and what I am trying to formulate as ‘New Orleans time’, a time that resists both the fantasy of ‘American time’ and the nightmare of ‘Katrina time’. This particular event gave me the opportunity to think about the place of water in New Orleans’ cultural memory – part of the city’s ‘natural’ history that I think is central to what I am calling ‘New Orleans time’.

Published under a Creative Commons licence

Published under a Creative Commons licence

Unfathomable City: Excavating Urban Ecologies after Katrina

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a number of populist slogans emerged in New Orleans to express dissatisfaction with the disastrous government response to the storm and the subsequent flooding of 80% of the city. One of these slogans was ‘make levees not war’. While some felt that the government’s disinclination to protect its own citizens resulted from benevolent adventures abroad, too much time ‘helping’ those in Afghanistan and Iraq while the home front suffered, for most this slogan was indicative of a more thorough-going critique of the war in Iraq and the response to Katrina on the part of a hollowed out neoliberal security state. What’s left unsaid is the physical and discursive violence inflicted by the levees themselves, structures that have literally and imaginatively waged war on water.

This paper suggests that the city’s water management policies mean that disasters like Katrina are over-determined by a discourse of trauma, which in turn conceals the ‘slow violence’[1] of long-term environmental degradation and coastal erosion. And yet the city’s curious amnesia in relation to its watery foundations is offset by other cultural spaces that powerfully bear witness to New Orleans’ deeply precarious project of urbanization. These spaces register an environmental agency that profoundly shapes understandings of temporality and the formation of public memory in the city. 

Water as trauma

Despite the fact that it was obvious from the perspective of engineers, urban planners and environmentalists that it was only a matter of time before a Katrina-like catastrophe occurred, it was politically expedient for government representatives to cling to the idea that the storm was an unanticipated rupture. They could get away with this largely because most New Orleanians experienced the storm, and in particular the failure of the levee system, as a profound trauma, and hoped only to be delivered back into a state of normalcy. This perception of normalcy is in large part based on a policy decision made in the early twentieth century, which in turn evolved from attitudes towards Southeast Louisiana forged by the early colonial settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

On discovery of the mouth of the Mississippi River, European explorers realized that the settlement of the area that became New Orleans was environmentally hazardous but economically indispensable. As a city that had been in decline for decades prior to Katrina, it’s easy to forget that New Orleans was once one of the world’s great ports, described by one nineteenth century observer as ‘the most important commercial point on the face of the earth.’[2] According to geographer Pierce Lewis New Orleans is the “impossible but inevitable city.” And as Craig Colten writes in An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (2005), ‘keeping the city dry, or separating the human-made environment from its natural endowment, has been the perpetual battle for New Orleans’.[3] Consequently the city’s historic core is huddled along the natural levee that lines the Mississippi River. As New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella explains, while states were increasingly granted federal powers to build levees and drain swamps from the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that the city committed to a ‘levees only’ approach, pushed by military engineers and challenged by civilian engineers who argued that it was dangerous to make no concessions to ‘nature’.[4]

The ‘levees only’ approach coincided with the development of pumping technologies that enabled the city’s vast backswamps to be cleared for development that sprawled towards the lake on reclaimed land. Already a flood-risk due to its low-lying topography, this land, along with the rest of the levee-bound city, is sinking at an alarming rate. This is due to the fact that the levees themselves deprive the land of the natural sediment carried in water that builds more land. And so the levees are repeatedly raised as New Orleans descends into a giant bowl, vulnerable not only to storm surges but to the enormous volume of rain dumped on it by increasingly frequent hurricanes, requiring massive pumping stations to prevent the city returning to the swamp-like conditions from which it has gradually emerged during the course of the last hundred years.

As Richard Campanella argues, short-sighted approaches to water management means that the region’s repressed waters are ‘waiting to create a mega-catastrophe every 50 years rather than small disasters every couple of years.’[5] This policy ensures that Katrina-like catastrophes are experienced as trauma, a category so easily appropriated by ahistorical and short-termist authorities eager to conceal their ongoing role in courting disaster. ‘Trauma’ wielded as ideology is a rupture that anticipates recovery, a spectacular interruption into the everyday as opposed to part of that everyday.  Where after 9/11 the ideology of trauma secured a simplistic binary of victim versus perpetrator, after Katrina the myth of disaster exceptionalism eclipsed the myriad ‘ordinary crises’ that the storm temporarily illuminated.

According to Lauren Berlant, ‘“trauma” has become the primary genre of the last eighty years for describing the historical present as the scene of exception that has just shattered some ongoing, uneventful ordinary life that was supposed to just keep on going and with respect to which people felt solid and confident.’ But ‘the extraordinary always turns out to be an amplification of something in the works, a labile boundary at best, not a slammed-door departure.’[6] It is the very slammed-door departure represented by the levees themselves that so magnifies the effects of flooding and creates the slammed-door effect of trauma.  This slammed-door not only confined the discussion of the social disaster revealed by Katrina to a few news cycles at best, but also blinds us to the environmental catastrophe facing the Louisiana wetlands. The fastest depleting landmass on earth, water reclaims marshy land at the rate of about one football field every hour. A large proportion of this damage can be attributed to the vast system of oil and gas infrastructure that has turned wetland into open water. As New Orleans sinks, its natural flood protection in the form of barrier islands disappear. This is the slow, non-spectacular and human-engineered violence walled out by levees and a discursive context wedded to a false sense of security punctuated by violent and sometimes catastrophic interruptions. 

Water as culture 

New Orleans’ roads are dotted with potholes, the sidewalks buckled by tree roots and often impassable. Tripping up on roads in the affluent Garden District can add to its gothic appeal; in poorer neighbourhoods this simply contributes to the atmosphere of neglect. While roads are more rapidly fixed and paved over in wealthier and more touristy neighbourhoods, the city’s concrete and asphalt surfaces all over the city betray the persistent existence of water that won’t be tamed. As one planner puts it, ‘we’re living on the isle of denial, and we’re living in denial, because we don’t accept this condition of wateriness.’[7]

In an essay titled ‘The Cement Lily Pad’, Rebecca Snedeker asks us to

Imagine New Orleans as an emerald green lily pad, a healthy circulatory system with the vitality and structure that comes with hydration. A floating city, with skin that breathes, within a delta coast. Let us saturate ourselves with wonder, let us embrace and fathom the water in the city. Or prepare to visit this place with a snorkel.[8]

This essay is part of a collection of maps and essays curated by Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit, that attempt to capture a host of circulatory systems and trace their intersections within New Orleans’ complex urban landscape. Many of the maps place one vector in relation to another, often creating unexpected juxtapositions. What is striking is that water runs through and often defines most of these ecologies. Founding and draining the city, coastal erosion and its effect on Native peoples, the racial and economic spatialization of the city which is in turn profoundly shaped by topography; the issue of human burial, an enormous challenge in a location and climate that often collude to turn graveyards into swimming pools; the transatlantic slave trade and its cultures of resistance; when oil displaces water, as it did during the BP oil spill or following those other, unnoticed accidents that occur in the Gulf every day; the strategies of containment inherent to both levees and mass incarceration; the cultural significance of proximity to mud; seafood and sex. These watery maps with fluid boundaries excavate a city that has already in part opened the metaphorical floodgates to water, which inevitably shapes much of the city’s DNA, in spite of the fact that for much of the city’s history, the Mississippi River – New Orleans’ raison d’être – has largely been obscured from view.

From multiple perspectives these maps explore the specificities of a culture that has evolved from a city residing ‘at the bottom of a big river’. In his commentary on a map about the journeys made by human remains, Nathaniel Rich suggests that the city, known in the nineteenth century as the ‘Wet Grave’, is peculiarly determined by this ‘other city’ of the dead; one that breaks through the film of what is usually a culture’s unconscious to manifest itself in distinct ways in New Orleans. It is clear to any tourist visiting the city that this is a place engaged in the sale of death; from its famed above-ground cemeteries to its zombie tours, the city’s ghoulish imagination is fuelled by something that runs deeper than merely commercial interests, and can be traced back to inordinately moist soil that refuses to bury the dead. As Rich writes, ‘New Orleans may be subsiding, but its corpses continue to rise.’[9]

The way these aqueous conditions preserve human remains is mirrored back into an urban culture often named as the nation’s ‘premier city of collective memory’,[10] an antidote to national amnesia that reigns elsewhere in relation to the not so distant slave and imperial pasts – that are captured in contemporary New Orleans in all their shades of grey and in a violence that still warps the landscape. In spite of the clichés about New Orleans that often reduce it to a national pleasure zone, it should also be considered a national sacrifice zone. As Lydia Pelot-Hobbs explains, elites in New Orleans ‘have crafted systems of containment to address their fears – most notably, fear of the destruction wrought by flooding of the Mississippi River and fear of the threats to their power posed by the rebellions of black people against the dehumanizing violence of racism and white supremacy.’ New Orleans is ‘the most incarcerated city, in the most incarcerated state, in the most incarcerated nation in the world.’ Slave labour constructed some of the city’s earliest levees, and following the catastrophic flood in 1927, during which the city leaders intentionally flooded a working class parish to save the city for business, ‘black sharecroppers and imprisoned people were forced at gunpoint to work during downpours to sandbag the levees, and at times to actually lie down on the levees, using their bodies to increase the height of the structures.’[11]

Where mass incarceration does not really target crime but rather warehouses people deemed disposable by a neoliberal economy, the use of levees provide walls behind which unregulated and deeply irresponsible development can draw residents into increasingly unsafe spaces to live. Prison and levee walls provide a veneer of security while storing up social and environmental time bombs. But knowledge of this is not entirely absent from the archive: as the founder of New Orleans’ Ashe Cultural Arts Center Carol Bebelle told me in an interview, this a city in which people walk around with the memory of boats floating over their heads.[12]

New Orleans’ deeply precarious location, the levels of environmental risk and social despair that its histories have incubated, lead many commentators to question the sanity of choosing the Crescent City as a place to live. Billy Sothern’s map of the city’s ‘revelations’ contemplates New Orleans’ many cultural compensations: he suggests that concern for these larger issues fade ‘when you sit on your porch and watch the world’s most amazing theater of people talking, yelling, dancing, eating, set against our amazing vernacular buildings and among our magnolias, crepe myrtles, swamp lilies, and Louisiana irises.’ Sothern evokes a culture that meets despair ‘with a constant call to the immediacy of the present.’[13] This call manifests itself in the city’s myriad parading traditions which routinely bring large parts of the city to a standstill. Mardi Gras is only the most prominent example in a cultural context that provides a powerful riposte to the national Protestant work ethic.

The New Orleans tradition that most clearly disrupts conventional notions of temporality, and calls us to the present moment in all its pleasure and pain, is the jazz funeral. As Tom Piazza writes:

Most funeral traditions in our society are there to remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In New Orleans the funerals remind us that Life is bigger than any individual life, and it will roll on, and for the short time that your individual life joins the big stream of Life, cut some decent steps, for God’s sake … This isn’t escapism, or denial of grief; it is acceptance of the facts of life, the map of a profound relationship to the grief that is a part of life.[14]

This acceptance of death in life is part of a larger appreciation of what Piazza calls ‘thereness’ or, in other words, a present that is accentuated by an acute awareness of finitude. The jazz funeral is a remarkable example of the proximity between pleasure and plain at work in the African American blues tradition, expressing an ecstatic grief that might be compared to forms of jouissance, that joy that exists ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ and which Jacques Lacan associated with the death drive. The jazz funeral is part of a raft of parading and performance traditions in New Orleans that recognize and celebrate finitude in ways that not only contradict a national culture fixated on the future, but which also attest to the city’s irrepressible foundations in a fluid that both represents life and holds out the possibility of drowning. These are urban cultures that are often described as having ‘bubbled up’ from the streets, those buckled sidewalks that gesture to a city visibly labouring under – and dancing to the tune of – myriad social and environmental stresses.


In their introduction to the New Orleans Atlas, Solnit and Snedeker point out, as do so many introductions to volumes on the Crescent City, that while New Orleans may be ‘drenched in the past’ it is geologically one of the youngest places in the United States, ‘a region of soft alluvial soil that turns to mud, melts away, and erodes into the surrounding waters’. Their introduction places the city under the sign of annihilation: it is ‘imperiled, and may disappear altogether’; though its place in the cultural memory of the US, they suggest, is assured. Yet their cartographic interventions tell a different story. The city may be one of ‘amorphous boundaries’, but their maps represent the human endeavour to carve out pictures, to draw straight lines that do not really exist.[15]

For this reason the ecologies they map resist not only the kind of poststructuralist rendering as exemplified by someone like Timothy Morton, whose work criticizes deep ecology while echoing its mystificatory conception of ‘nature’ via a new name.[16] It also resists the courting of the death drive so central to New Orleans culture, the tendency to focus on the material present at the expense of imagining the future. A love of life that often harbours a disturbing fatalism. As one contributor asks, ‘how do you turn being muddy into a positive?’[17] (120) – without, we might add, losing the critical negativity that so defines this place in collective memory. This is the challenge Unfathomable City sets itself.

After Katrina so many planners sought to re-map New Orleans, some powerful interests advocating the very footprint reduction evoked by Rebecca Snedeker in Unfathomable City, by which vast tracts of low-lying land would be conceded to water. Unsurprisingly these were sites inhabited by some of the city’s poorest and largely African American residents, many of whom have since become familiar with an environmentalism that sacrifices people, as well as another kind that emphasizes justice. It seems to me that the work that needs to be done to counteract memory loss in relation to environmental agency needs to work simultaneously to track human agency; a fallacious distinction perhaps but also a strategic necessity. Maps are imperious constructions – they attempt to fathom that which is unfathomable – but we are lost without them.

[1] I am thinking of Rob Nixon’s elaboration of this term in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[2] Quoted in Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008), 91.

[3] Craig E. Colten, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans From Nature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 2.

[4] Richard Campanella, ‘Disaster as Educator: Responses and Lessons in New Orleans, 1722-2012’, presented as a keynote talk at After Katrina: Transnational Perspectives on the Futures of the Gulf South, Tulane University, New Orleans, November 2013.

[5] Campanella, ‘Disaster as Educator’.

[6] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 9-10.

[7] David Waggonner quoted in Rebecca Snedeker, ‘The Cement Lily Pad’ in Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker (eds), Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 154-158 (157).

[8] Snedeker, ‘The Cement Lily Pad’, 158.

[9] Nathaniel Rich, ‘Bodies,’ Unfathomable City, 34-36 (35).

[10] Shirley Elizabeth Thompson, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) 7-8.

[11] Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, ‘Lockdown Louisiana’, Unfathomable City, 55-61 (55; 58; 59).

[12] Carol Bebelle, interview with the author, Ashe Cultural Arts Center, New Orleans, 4 December 2013.

[13] Billy Sothern, ‘On a Strange Island’, Unfathomable City, 37-47 (37).

[14] Tom Piazza, Why New Orleans Matters (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 31-32.

[15] Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, ‘Sinking in and Reaching Out’, Unfathomable City, 1-12.

[16] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[17] George Porter Jr., ‘The Floating Cushion’, Unfathomable City, 116-120 (120).


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