On Wednesday Jan. 25, English professor Beth McCoy gave the fifth lecture in Sigma Tau Delta's "Celebrating Literature" lecture series: "The Writing on the Wall: Reading FEMA Signs in Post-Katrina New Orleans."
McCoy's lecture was a preliminary draft of a talk she will give at Rice University later this semester and an article she is currently writing. The content came from years of researching and teaching a course titled "Hurricane Stories" which centers around the experience of Hurricane Katrina "and its manmade aftermath," especially in New Orleans, La.
"I really can't describe how it is that this got to be written," McCoy said. "I know I did the work, but how it all got put together was really a kind of magic."
Indeed, magic was a central topic in McCoy's lecture, which examined the uncanny intersection between vodoun vévé symbols and the symbols used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to mark houses searched by its agents and volunteers, as well as the cultural magic of sacrifice and cover-up.
McCoy opened the talk by summarizing Joseph Roach's book, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, which has been central to her research on New Orleans, Katrina and vodoun. Two concepts central to Roach's book are the idea that "what is socially peripheral is often symbolically central" and the concept of "violence as the performance of waste."
McCoy made use of the first concept in talking about vodoun and the vévé symbols. Even as vodoun – being mapped as chaotic and wholly opposed to "western" methodology – remains socially peripheral, McCoy argued, it remains symbolically central to our culture, as demonstrated by the myriad of instances when it "magically" appears in places like New York Times columns about Zombie banks and the derogatory term "Voodoo ACORNomics."
While she did not and said she didn't intend to assert that the resemblance of the FEMA signs to vévé symbols is necessarily intentional, McCoy did argue that the intersection of vodoun symbols and western methodologies is indicative of the "magical" or mystical mechanisms of the culture conditions that contributed to mass human suffering prompted by Katrina and its aftermath.
McCoy alluded to Shakespeare's "The Tempest" in describing the way in which the law works. Similar to Prospero's books – his source of power – the law is often invoked as that which is cited but rarely sighted, and so it works as a kind of sleight of hand. Again, in an uncanny intersection, the Creole word for law, lois, is also the word for deity or spirit.
McCoy also returned to Roach's description of violence as the performance of waste – and the language of performance in general – to discuss Katrina's aftermath. According to McCoy, the government response to Katrina was a successful performance "masquerading as incompetency."
Essentially, the conservative wish that the government fail to be able to do its job effectively was fulfilled through this successful performance. In this performance, though, waste became both subject and object, and since much of white discourse has historically mapped Africans as waste, when Katrina hit, the primarily African American population in New Orleans was sacrificed as part of the performance indicated by the FEMA signs.
In her conclusion, McCoy connected her reading of the FEMA signs to the Housing Crisis of 2008. "As New Orleans was drowning, the housing bubble itself had just popped," she said.