Archive for October, 2009

On the Anthropology of Levees

Posted in First Encounters, Research, Technologies with tags , , , on October 24, 2009 by lexis2praxis

I’ve been struggling with how to talk about my research, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to post questions that people ask me, and respond to them here.  One of the most common ones I get is, “But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

This usually follows the question, “What are you doing in New Orleans?”  I answer something like, “I’m studying the reconstruction of the levees.  I’m looking at the history of the flood protection system, what’s involved in building levees, and the politics around all of that.”

“But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

An anthropology 101 lesson would introduce the fact that there are four main subfields in anthropology: biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural or sociocultural anthropology.  After that, it’s easy to say that anthropologists are really able to study just about anything.  But that doesn’t answer the question very well.  Once I establish that I’m in the social science part of things, it remains to be explained why I’m interested in levees.

Recently I told a friend, “Levees are social.  They seem like passive, benign, even benevolent mounds of earth.  But like anything else, they are shaped by histories, and by controversy, and are political.  When they break, or when people argue about them, they become social.”  And then I said something about how that’s all related to larger themes like the local, and maybe the American, relationship between people, technology, and the environment or what’s called “natural”.

So my friend said, “Does that mean you’re comparing how people used to build levees with how they’re building them now?”  I’m not sure where that came from; maybe he thought anthropologists always focus on the past.  I’m not sure.  I tried to explain that I’m basically living in New Orleans, recording how levees are important and social by doing archival research, reading the news, talking with people, and so on, and how all of this is revealing a lot about what the competing ideas are about the city, what the city should be, whether it should be protected from floods, what protection means, and so on.  I must have gotten somewhere with him because then he asked, “How is what you’re doing different from sociology?”

There’s debate about whether there are any real differences between sociology and anthropology at this point.  Anthropology these days is usually less location-based and more topic-based, and there is some movements toward such things as experimental ethnographies, multi-sited ethnographies, and so forth.  But I still think that anthropology is in some ways unique, at least historically, although this doesn’t mean that sociologists can’t be more anthropological and vice versa.  I think that we’re more likely to use a particular methodological strategy, that is ethnography, and rely more heavily on qualitative research, while quantitative and survey-based approaches are more common in sociology.  This is a very blurry distinction, and it is certainly possible to use all kinds of methodologies in either field, but I think it’s still an important one.  Anthropologists often talk about things a little differently than sociologists do, and so we tend to get at different aspects of things in different ways.

What that means for me is that as an anthropologist, I’m always working.  Every time I go out to a coffee shop, or a club, or buy groceries, I’m participating and observing and “generating data” — to borrow a phrase from Professor Charles Harrington, who likes to emphasize that since all “data” are products of an interaction between the ethnographer and the ethnographed, we actually “generate” data rather than “gather” them, meaning that the data weren’t exactly sitting around waiting for the taking before the ethnographer got there.

My ears perk up especially when I hear something about levees, or floodwalls, or engineering, or Katrina, or “events”, and various other “keywords”, and in daily life here, learning about the city and viewing its art and movies and so on, I record notes about values and practices that are expressed on a daily basis in this engineered and waterlogged landscape.  Of course, I interview people and read books and look at the archives and such, but so much can be learned just by living here.  Anthropologists have made a profession out of the richness of everyday life, where an event like Katrina — and the breaking of the levees — continues to live long after the deluge itself.

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Cultural Wetlands

Posted in Art with tags , , , , on October 17, 2009 by lexis2praxis

New Orleans used to be known for her music.  Is she still?  According to some people interviewed in New Orleans Music Renaissance, the local music scene is trying hard but struggling.  Many of the musicians who used to live here are in diaspora, or simply disappeared, and no one has tried to find out where they are or if they will come back, or if they need help to come back.  This should be a national priority, says David Freeman, because New Orleans is the “cultural wetlands … of the country.”

Wetlands.  Diverse, complex, vital to a dense web of relationships.  Harboring stores of well-preserved history, bones and shells and things.  Often overlooked.  Exceedingly fragile.

One of the people participating in my research, who asked me to call him Tad when I write about him, took me on a tour through the Central Business District, pointing out where the old jazz clubs used to be.  They’re dry.  The Ninth Ward: dry.

The bird’s foot delta bridges the United States with the Carribbean, a cultural wetlands indeed, for it’s a geographic link for automatic travel, communication, and trade.  Its songs are now wildly dispersed, a performer or two perhaps trumpeting or tapping away in some Boise bar or Hollywood street.  The young musicians here are now thrilled and burdened by their new, Katrina-induced roles as the best players in the city.  But some of them think things can only get better.  Irvin Mayfield says, “We have to think about what we’re going to be,” because, “it’s not going to be what it was.”

Homes Without Walls

Posted in Art, Technologies with tags , , , , , on October 16, 2009 by lexis2praxis

“What do you do when the walls are gone?  You still need something to call home.”

This is a quote from one of the powerful documentaries shown at the New Orleans Film Festival, A Village Called Versaille.  Versaille is a Vietnamese neighborhood in New Orleans East that was severely flooded during Hurricane Katrina.  Yet it is known as one of the first neighborhoods to return, despite the fact that Versaille was often “off the map” — that is, literally unmarked, knocked off the edge of political maps.  One of the fascinating messages of the film is that in the post-K landscape, when politicians were moving forward with urban planning that ignored the existence of Versaille altogether, members of the community — old and young — came together for the first time and announced their presence at town hall and land use meetings.  Furthermore, they mobilized against a landfill made for Katrina trash.  Although this landfill was built despite their wishes, Versaille community members pursued their case in the courts and, when that didn’t work, stormed the landfill itself, blocking the trash trucks with their bodies.

Back to that quote: “What do you do when the walls are gone?  You still need something to call home.”  This, I think, could be something voiced by the majority of New Orleanians.  It was, after all, walls that fell.  That is, the walls that defined where the water stops and where the city begins.  But underneath the many feet of flood water, home still remained, from one end to the other.  Versaille’s social peninsula status on the Easternmost margin didn’t make it any less real; the failure of its walls did not render it uninhabitable, nor uninhabited.  People are living there now.

That is one thing that struck me about the film: there wasn’t much talk about the levees that protect (?) or reduce the risk to (?) Versaille.  There are lots of things being built, and rebuilt, in Versaille; four years post-K, it is densely populated and widely described as thriving with business, everyday life, and celebration.  The people there are engaging in local community gardening cooperatives, striving to rebuild schools, and announcing to everyone that they are not foreigners, but Americans.  But I wondered about the levees surrounding New Orleans East.  Although the ones around the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge have been repaired, and are due to be raised, they have not been raised yet.  Where is New Orleans East on the priority list?  Are the people there living where there are no walls?

Which also begs the question: is it realistic to argue that people should simply move to higher ground, as many would suggest?  Versaille would undoubtedly have to move, according to certain scenarios dealing with the future of New Orleans.  Such a future may not include New Orleans East at all.  But Versaille is home right where it is, walls or not.  So what about those walls?

To be continued …

The New Orleans Film Festival

Posted in Art with tags , , , on October 12, 2009 by lexis2praxis

I’ve been attending the 20th Annual New Orleans Film Festival, which started on Friday and goes until Thursday of this week.  So far I’ve seen a series of dark and funny animation shorts, the new Werner Herzog film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (though you’d be right to find the trailer somewhat uninspiring), and three documentaries today: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (awesome website); A Village Called Versaille (did you know there is a large population of Vietnamese people in New Orleans East, Catholic transplants who fled South Vietnam?); and New Orleans Music Renaissance.

I’ll post more about these later, but right now I just want to write down a few quick notes about the festival itself.  Having come most recently from New York City, where I first started attending film festivals, it is nice to participate in one that is much more financially accessible.  In New York, the prices of films at the major annual festival are extremely prohibitive.  Here, it’s best to join the New Orleans Film Society as a member.  Membership prices are scaled, so you pay what you can afford.  Once you are a member, prices of tickets are reduced, so I ended up paying only $5 per film, and the savings are quickly adding up to make up for the price of membership.

One interesting thing is that you can’t buy tickets in advance.  Everyone has to line up at the door to buy tickets half an hour before the screening.  There’s a members line and a non-members line.  So far, screenings have been chronically late, because letting in all the members before non-members can even buy tickets is a very time-consuming process.  Also, people who have been waiting in line the longest can get shut out of the most popular films.  This, I think, is a major drawback.  The plus side is that, as a member, you’re pretty much guaranteed entry.

The scheduling is sometimes a bit wonky.  Films are shown at venues all over the city, at least one of them constantly devoid of free parking, so it can be difficult to get from one film to another on time to do all the standing in line and buying of tickets business.  Also, films are scheduled concurrently and most of them aren’t repeated.  Some of this is unavoidable at any festival, but there could probably be more careful scheduling and repetition of popular films that clash with one another.  That being said, I have a lot of respect for the difficulty of the task.

I have to say, I do love the fact that screenings are shown at several venues.  It has given me a chance to become more acquainted with the various theaters and community/art centers in the city; plus, since walking is often the best means of getting around, I always run into other interesting things I didn’t know about, like the can sculptures at Canal Place.  More on that later.