Hurricane Katrina and the Hyperreality of the Image

Post-Katrina School Bus

Image by laffy4k via Flickr

Katrina y la hiperrealidad de la imagen (Spanish)

Hurricane Katrina and the Hyperreality of the Image

by Jorge Majfud

Translated by Bruce Campbell

September 2, 2005

In the 16th century, the Dominican brother Bartolomé de las Casas wrote an empassioned chronicle about the brutal conquest by the Spanish Empire of the new world. The denunciation by this Christian convert (which is to say, “of impure blood”) in behalf of a universal humanism, resulted in the Juntas de Valladolid (1550) in which he faced off, before the public and the king, with Ginés de Sepúlveda. Using a biblical quotation taken from Proverbs, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and his partisans defended the right of the Empire to enslave indigenous peoples, not only because they did it in the name of the “true faith” but, above all, because the Bible said that the intelligent man must subjugate the idiot. We will not go into who were the intelligent men. What matters now is knowing that over the centuries, a debate resulted among the “chroniclers” (the only literary genre permitted by the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas). As always, only a minority promoted a new ethics based on ethical “principles.” In this case the humanists and defenders of the “natural right” of the indigenous peoples. One had to wait until the 19th century for these “principles” to become reality by the force of “necessity.” In other words, the Industrial Revolution needed wage laborers, not free labor that competed with standardized production and that, besides, had no consumption power. From that point on, as always, “necessity” quickly universalized the “principles,” so that today we all consider ourselves “anti-slavery,” based on ethical “principles” and not by “necessity.”* I have explained this elsewhere, but what is important to me now is to briefly analyze the power of the written text and, beyond this, the power of dialectical (and sometimes sophistic) analysis.

Using the denunciations of father Bartolomé de las Casas, a nascent empire (the British) quickly found writers to create the “black legend” of Spain’s colonial enterprise. Then, like any new empire, it presumed an advanced morality: it presented itself as the champion of the anti-slavery struggle (which – what a coincidence – only became a reality when its industries developed in the 19th century) and pretended to give moral lessons without the necessary authority, which was denied by its own history of brutal oppression, equally as brutal as that of the old Spanish empire.

Shortly after the De las Casas-Supúlveda controversy and following the approval of the New Laws governing treatment of the indians as a consequence (although the laws weren’t worth the paper they were printed on), Guamán Poma Ayala denounced a similar history of rapes, torture and mass murder. But he did it, in contrast, with a collection of drawings, which at the time was a form of chronicle as valid as the written word. These drawing can be studied in detail today, but we would have to say that there impact and interest was minimal in their own time, despite the starkness of the images. In those days, just as during the Middle Ages, images had a special usefulness because the majority of the population did not know how to read. Nevertheless, and for that very reason, it is easy to explain why Guamán Poma’s chronicle was of no great consequence: because the “masses,” the population, didn’t matter as an agent of change. Or it simply didn’t matter. Rebellion might be headed by a cacique, like Tupac Amaru, but the population was not a protagonist of its own story.

Now here’s where I’m going with this: this process has been reversed today. The “masses” are no longer “masses” and have begun to matter: citing Ortega y Gasset, we might say that we had a “rebellion of the masses” but now can longer speak of “masses” but of a population composed of individuals that have started to question, to make demands, and to rebel. Nonetheless, the struggle is rooted on this front: as the masses (now subjects in rebellion) matter in the generation of the story, those who still belong to the old order seek to dominate them with their own language: the image. And often they succeed to perfection. Let’s take a look.

Our Western popular culture is based (at times trapped) in visual codes and a visual sensibility. We know that the culture of the ruling (or dominant) classes continues to be based on the complexities of the written text. Even the experts on images base their studies and theories on the written word. If in Latin America public opinion and sensibility are strongly conditioned by an ideological tradition (formed from the time of the Conquest, in the 16th century, and exploited by opposing political groups in the 20th century), here, in the United States, the relationship with the past is less conflict-oriented, and hence the lack of historical memory can, in some cases, facilitate the work of the proselytizers. We will not get into that issue here. Suffice it to say that the United States is a complex and contradictory country, and therefore any judgement about “Americanness” is as arbitrary and unfair as speaking of “Latinamericanness” without recognizing the great diversity that exists within that mythological construct. We must not forget that all ideology (of the left or of the right, liberal or conservative) sustains itself via a strategic simplification of the reality it analyzes or creates.

I understand that these factors should be taken into account when we want to understand why the image is a basic “text” for capitalist societies: its “consumption” is quick, disposable, and therefore “comfortable.” The problem arises when this image (the sign, the text) ceases to be comfortable and pleasant. When this happens the public reacts, becomes aware. That is to say, the understanding, the awareness, enters through the eyes: a photograph of a girl fleeing the napalm bombs in Viet Nam, for example. For the same reason it was “recommended” to not show the public images of the war in Iraq that included children torn apart by bombs (see the daily papers of the rest of the world in 2003), the coffins of American soldiers returning home, etc. By contrast, the Terri Schiavo case occupied the time and concern of the American public for many weeks, day after day, hour after hour; the president and governor Bush of Florida signed “exceptions” that were rejected by the judiciary, until the poor woman died to rest in peace from so many obscene images of which she was the unknowing and unwilling victim. Despite it all, during thos same weeks hundreds of Iraqis, as well as American soldiers, continued to die and they didn’t even make the news, beyond the publication of the daily statistic. Why? Because they aren’t persons, they are numbers for a sensibility that is only moved by images. And this was proved by the photographs of Abu Graib and with a video that showed an American soldier shooting a wounded man. Those were the only two moments in which the American public reacted with indignation. But we should ask ourselves, does anyone really believe that these things don’t happen in war? Does anyone still believe in that postmodern story about hygienic wars, where there are “special effects” but no blood, death and pain? Yes. Many people do. Lamentably, a majority. And it’s not due to lack of intelligence but to lack of interest.

We can analyze the same process at work with the recent problem of New Orleans. The catastrophe was not grasped when the meteorologists warned of the scale of the tragedy, several days before. Nor was there broad awareness of the problem when reports spoke of tens of dead. Four days after, we knew that the number of dead could rise into the hundreds. Possibly thousands, if we consider those wuo will die for lack of dialysis, lack of insulin and other emergency medicines. But television did not show a single dead person. Anyone can search the pages of the principal daily newspapers of the United States and they will not find an “offensive” image, one of those photographs that we can view in daily papers from other parts of the world: bodies floating, children dying “like in Africa,” violence, rapes, etc. Because if there is one thing in abundance it is digital cameras; but there is even more “modesty.” I am no advocate of morbid gratuitousness, nor of showing blood over and over again unnecessarily: I am an advocate of showing everything. As a U.S. citizen said with reference to the war, “if we were capable of doing it we should be capable of seeing it.”

A natural tragedy like this one (or like the tsunami in Asia) is a disgrace for which we cannot hold anyone responsible. (Let’s set aside, for a moment, the share of responsibility that societies have in the global warming of the oceans.) Nonetheless, the tragedy of New Orleans demonstrates that a superpower like the United States can mobilize tens of thousands of soldiers, the most advanced technology in the world, the most effective machinery of assault in human history in order to remove a foreign president (or dictator), but prove incapable of reaching thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina, in a city within its own country. In New Orleans, there were acts of vandalism and violence, rapes and general chaos while victims complained that there were no policemen or soldiers to help them, in an area that found itself under martial law. This complaint was made in front of the cameras, and so we can believe that at least the journalists were able to gain access to those places. Some loot because they are opportunists, others out of desperation, as they begin to experience a situation of struggle for survival previously not seen in the most powerful country in the world. On September 1 president G.W. Bush appealed for private aid and on September 2 he said it was not sufficient. There is no lack of resources, of course (the war in Iraq cost more than three hundred billion dollars, ten times more than all the damages produced by the hurricane in this tragedy); the Congress voted for economic aid of ten billion dollars for the victims. But the latter continued to die, trapped in stadiums, on bridges, without shelter, offering up a jarring image for a country whose poor suffer from problems of overeating, where beggars are fined a thousand dollars for asking for things they don’t need (since the State supposedly provides them everything necessary to survive without desperation in case they can’t do so by their own means). Undocumented Hispanics suffer a double tragedy: they will not receive compensation like their neighbors, but rest assured that they will be the first to take up the task of reconstruction. Who else? What other social group in this country has the physical, moral and spiritual toughness to work under conditions of survival and hopelessness? Or do we still believe in fairy tales?

The people of the United States will become aware of the objectives and priorities of this government when they compare its efficiency or inefficiency in different places and moments. But for that to happen they must “see it” on their television sets, in the English-language news media on the Internet, to which they turn out of habit. Because it is of little or no use for them to read it in written texts, since the critical analyses of the New York Times are seemingly useless – a paper that, with a large number of brilliant analysts noting one by one the contradictions of this government, took sides publicly against the the reelection of G. W. Bush. Now, when there is a “fatigue” in public opinion, the majority of the country’s population understands that the intervention in Iraq was a mistake. Of course, as my grandfather used to say, you chirped too late.

U.S. public opinion will become aware of what is happening in New Orleans (and of what is happening beyond the natural phenomenon) when people can see images; a part of what the victims see and tell orally to a public that listens but is unmoved by a dialectical analysis that doesn’t appeal to images or biblical metaphors. The U.S. public will realize what is happening when its sees “raw” images, as long as they don’t confuse those images with the chaos of some underdeveloped country.

The brilliant Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, exiled by the dictatorship of his country “out of ignorance,” published in 1971 The Pedagogy of the Oppressed with a publishing house in Montevideo, Uruguay. He mentioned there the pedagogical experience of a colleague. The teacher had shown to a student an alley of New York City filled with garbage and asked him what he saw. The boy said that he saw a street in Africa or Latin America. “And why not a street in New York City?” observed the teacher. A short timearlier, in the 1950s, Roland Barthes had done an interesting analysis of a photograph in which a black soldier saluted “patriotically” the flag of the empire that oppressed Africa (the French empire), and concluded, among other things, that the image was conditioned by the (written) text that accompanies it and that it is the latter that confers on the image (ideological) meaning. We might think that the semantic (or semiotic) problem is a bit more complex than this, and arises from other unwritten “texts,” other images, other (hegemonic) discourses, etc. But the “raw” image also has a revelatory, or at least critical, function. What do I mean by “raw”? “Raw” images are precisely those images censored (or repressed, to use a psychoanalytic term) by the dominant discourse. For this reason those of us who use dialectics and analysis related historically to thought and language must recognize, at the same time, the power of those others who control visual language. To dominate or to liberate, to hide or to reveal.

Once, in an African village, a Macua man told me how a sorceress had transformed a sack of sand into a sack of sugar, and how another sorcerer had come flying down from the sky. I asked him if he remembered any strange, recent dream. The Macua man told me he had dreamed that he saw his village from an airplane. “Have you ever flown in a plane?” I asked. Obviously not. He hadn’t even been close to one of those machines. “But you say that you saw it,” I observed. “Yes, but it was a dream,” he told me. Spirits in the bodies of lions, flying men, sand turned into sugar aren’t dreams. Stories like these can be read in the chronicles of the Spaniards who conquered Latin America in the 16th century. We can also see them today in many regions of Central America. My response to my Macua friend was the same as I would give to the more “evolved” U.S. public: we must always be aware that not everything we see is true, nor is can everything true be seen.

*This same principal that I call “necessity” was identified in the 19th century by Bautista Alberdi, when he recognized that laicism in the Rio de la Plata was (and had to be) a consequence of the great diversity of religions, a product of immigration. It was not possible to expel or engage in “ethnic cleansing,” as Spain did in the 15th century, since in Alberdi’s time we were in a different arena of history, and of the concept of “necessary resources.”

Translated by Bruce Campbell

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