Previous Events, 2006

Disasters and the Nation-State: Changing Strategies and Interpretations
February 22, 2006

Wende Elizabeth Marshall, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Discussant

H.L. Seneviratne, Professor of Anthropology
A year after the tsunami, and despite a massive out pouring of help and goodwill, the large majority of the victims in Sri Lanka are still in tents and in other ways destitute. My comments are on this paradox. The reasons for this are bureaucratic obstacles and politicization. The broad cultural context of the problem is a general decay in the social fabric which has prevented the formation, crucial to nationhood, of the idea of a national interest and a consensus to achieve and maintain it. I examine the media coverage of the tsunami as an aspect and reflection of this national failure.

George Mentore, Associate Professor of Anthropology
“The Delinquent Father: State Power in the Time of Disasters”

I have a very simple assumption. Hopefully it will be able (1) to explain the ways in which the modern state prepares and responds to “natural” disasters and (2) identify the cultural template guiding such genres of administrative agency. My case takes as its test the disastrous flooding of the Guyana coastland from heavy rains immediately after the tsunami of 2005. I would like to discuss the postulate of the modern state imagining itself as a rational protective masculine power. That in its filial caring role it has sought to replace or subordinate the “irrational” and “natural” relations of kinship issuing forth from within the family. To achieve this replacement or effect of power it has preoccupied itself with the modernist project of instilling in its citizens a sense of autonomous individualism. While I would agree with the obvious view that in many respects the modern state has not succeeded in completely defeating familial loyalties, it certainly has worked aggressively — and some would say succeeded — in subordinating them to those of nation-ness. Yet in this success of subordination, it has equally failed to replace the kinds of substantive procedures and quality of care traditionally identified with the family. In crisis situations, like the disastrous floods in Guyana, the principal mode of expressive response from surviving victims may not have been so much the grief and suffering from the facts of death and sickness, but rather the total bewilderment at the lack of support from the fictive father.
Suggested Readings : Go on line to the “Guyana Chronicle” or any of its national newspapers for the dates on and subsequent to January 17th 2005

Josh Yates,Fellow for Global Studies at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture
“Affronted by Disaster: The Meaninglessness of Suffering in the Western Social Imaginary”

My current research focuses on that galaxy of international humanitarian institutions that now encompass the world and who have become the primary institutional vehicles for how the so-called international community organizes its moral concern for the victims of misfortune. Throughout this research I’ve discerned a marked change in the how those most responsible for managing disaster understand and engage (or, if you prefer, construct) human suffering. To put it simply, once the occasion for heated debates about theodicy, today the world’s response to disaster is confined (without question) to the immanent–to empty, synchronous, “world” time. Human suffering itself has been emptied of any inherent or redemptive meaning. It is an assault to human dignity and in most cases avoidable if only political will or distributive justice could prevail. I’d like to highlight certain aspects of this changing understanding of suffering by contrasting elite accounts of the 1759 Lisbon tsunami that rocked the Atlantic world and last year’s Indian Ocean tsunami. It needs to be emphasized that this would be a highly exploratory conversation.
Suggested Readings:
Susan Neiman’s article in the New York Times, “The Moral Cataclysm,”(January 16, 2005); Hendrik Hertzberg’s Comment, “Flood Tide,” in the New
Yorker’s Talk of the Town (January 14th, 2005); and Ignacio Ramonet’s “The World Turned Upside Down,” in Le Monde Diplomatique (January 2005).

SherriLynn Colby-Bottel, Graduate Student, Department of Anthropology
“New Orleans Roots-Music Communities and Recovery Pre/Post-Katrina”

In post-Katrina New Orleans , roots-music communities find them selves in a precarious position. Of course, their position was not unprecarious before the storm. Roots-music communities exist “in between,” that is, in socially mediating and/or marginal positions: they engage both publicly consumed and privately maintained practices; they are at an intersection of Black and white culture in New Orleans where Creole is still a meaningful racial category; and they are cultural icons of the city’s tourism industry although many of their practices are socially marginalized or racially stigmatized.
There are several styles of roots-music played in New Orleans which claim a musical and social heritage “rooted” in the civil war era including early jazz, Brass Bands, and Mardi Gras Indian music. The communities invested in these musics take an active role in the preservation and continuation of their “traditional” musical and social practices. In the private realm, these communities engage music as part of daily life; they perform and parade for their own communities and neighborhood events. They live in a creative, subaltern, improvisational, and often socially subversive space. There is community pride in cultural wealth despite conditions of racialized poverty. In the public realm, early jazz is iconic of New Orleans claimed cultural contribution to American music and as such is fairly well supported by the tourism industry. The Brass Bands and Mardi Gras Indians are also held high as proof of New Orleans cultural uniqueness and their musical and social practices are presented for the tourists’ gaze doubly-articulated as both exotically interesting and dangerous.
Such “in betweens” are clearly not new, nor are the racialized and exoticized positions of Black culture workers in the scope of New Orleans ‘ largely white tourist audience. But the social fallout of Hurricane Katrina has brought these circumstances to sharper focus. New Orleans is struggling with long-standing racialized poverty as it debates how to rebuild and who to rebuild. I am interested in considering how the telos of American progress and social betterment will be articulated in the post-Katrina social landscape of New Orleans roots-music communities. And, to see how their precarious position of “in between” will be improvised and played out in the remaking, rebuilding, and the “bringing back” of New Orleans.
Suggested Readings : See the website of New Orleans’ newspaper, the Times Picayune at for information regarding the activities of these communities. Search for any of the music communities listed above; see also the section on Mardi Gras activities and commentary, Mayor Nagin’s “Bring Back New Orleans Commission,” and editorials by Lolis Eric Elie. For further information go to which is the web site for the New Orleans private radio station which focuses on roots-music and community events.

Project Presentations by the 2006 Undergraduate Distinguished Majors in Anthropology
April 21, 2006

This entry was posted in Previous Events. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.