Hurricane Katrina II: fighting for immune systems


In last week’s blog, I made a case for applying Peter Sloterdijk’s ideas on immune systems to the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, which hit the American gulf coast in 2005. In this week’s blog, I draw on examples from the fictional HBO TV-series Treme (Simon & Overmyer, 2010-11), a documentary of two prankster activists The Yes Men Fix the World (Bichlbaum, Bonanno and Engfehr, 2009) and Spike Lee’s second Katrina documentary If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (Lee, 2010) to show how this could be a way of examining practical politics.

City immune systems

The immune system of the city as a whole is targeted by a character of the first season of the popular HBO TV-series Treme: Creighton Bernette (John Goodman). Bernette is a writer with writer’s block, and a professor of literature at a local university. Befitting his societal status, his wooden house with a gigantic porch was built on higher grounds and was left untouched. His notion of space is the entire city, and its protection again future storms. He spends most of his non-writing time giving furious interviews to different kinds of journalists. Most of them concern the US Army Corps of Engineers, which were, and are responsible for the levees that need to be higher to maintain the city’s immune system. He only finds the proper medium to suit his voice when discovering YouTube. In one of his videos, he rants that ‘a bunch of idiot planners are busy running around putting green dots on maps deciding which neighbourhoods they think should return to cypress swampland’ (see last week’s blog for en explanation of the green dots). Bernette tries to accommodate to the space of the new city, taking part in mardi gras and community life, but cannot cope. His own living space is increasingly small: he withdraws to a dark room in the garden house and ends up sleeping on the porch. At the end of season one, he commits suicide, in the wide open of the Mississippi river, jumping off the ferry.

Neighbourhood immune systems

Another character, “big chief” Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), also “acts on” the green dots, but in an entirely different manner. He is not concerned with maps or the internet, but with the fenced off housing projects that he sees close to his own house, which was ruined in the storm. His politics concerns the issue of people not being able to come home. Unlike Bernette’s city-focus, he is concerned with the immune system of the space that used to house communities that are now dispersed across the land. With the aid of friends, he cuts through a fence and squats one of the sealed off houses. By breaking the “isolation” of the fence, he changes the ontological status of the housing project. In a single unitary space within a fence, he unveils the lot of micro-spaces that used to be people’s homes. By occupying such a house, he transforms it into a living space. His example is followed by others. Before long, the police remove him with disproportional force, in front of a large public of bystanders and TV cameras.

The two activists that call themselves the Yes Men perform a similar disclosure of green-dotted neighbourhoods. With one of them pretending to be a representative of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), they stage a hoax at a prestigious conference. Speaking after then-mayor Nagin, he announces that HUD is aware of its mistakes, and that he is proud to present that all the fenced-off housing projects will be ceremonially opened that afternoon. On top of that, Shell and Exxon will fund the renewal of the wetlands. The hoax is discovered, but not before they manage to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at one of the projects. Media try to make them look bad by arguing that they played a cruel joke on all the people who were “not allowed to come home”. Interestingly, by such statements, media actually take over the activists’ slogans. Interviews with attending citizens, however, show the opposite. The Yes Men’s hoaxes usually meet wide support of the disadvantaged. Rebuilding an immune system, in this case, required creating the hope of a community. A small public was formed by “two guys in cheap suits”, as they describe themselves, but it will take more to “fix the world”. The documentary was a worldwide success.

House immune systems

When neighbourhoods are rebuilt, it is often through the introduction of “mixed housing”. This pushes up rents to such levels that the original inhabitants can no longer afford to live there. In this respect, the action of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right project, as described in Spike Lee’s documentary, is highly interesting. Even though it targets green dotted neighbourhoods, the focus is on the immune systems of family houses. In sharp contrast with government- or market-driven building projects, the project constructs affordable, environmentally sustainable and storm-resistant houses. This extends beyond building houses on poles, capturing a holistic immune system’s view. Features included: green roofs, rainwater harvesting, pervious concrete, raingardens, tree-planting & protection (for water absorption) and porous streetscape. They are not over-isolated: all of them have escape hatches to the roof. From the point of view of micro-space immune systems, it is interesting that the project is criticised for being no more than ‘a few individual houses in a sea of empty lots, there are no sidewalks, schools or shops’. We are back to Sloterdijk’s islands. Perhaps they lack co-isolation.

Individual immune systems

For the individual level, we leave the green dots and return to the Yes Men. They crash another conference, this time dedicated to technologies for flood-victims. To their surprise, the tools offered would be more suitable for surviving heavy warfare than a storm. This brings them to stage their own (fake) technology, the SurvivaBall. The concept seems to draw on Sloterdijk’s work almost literally. The title of their presentation is “What Noah knew”, explaining that by creating the space of the ark, Noah effectively became ruler of all animals. The ball represents a one-man ark. Sloterdijk uses arks as an example of completely isolated islands. On top of that, the Yes Men show in their presentation that the balls can even connect to form a larger, co-isolated, foam-like organism that can float across a sea, like an actual island. To their surprise, their presentation is received with great approval by the audience.

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