Homepage: Tremé Second Line on North Derbigny 1958 © Ralston Crawford, Ralston Crawford Collection, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University
TELLING THE STORY of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast has, understandably, taken some time. After the raw immediacy of the event and the unmediated pain captured in news reports, trauma sets in. Trauma requires distance if we are to understand it as more than a wound, if we are to see the possibility for meaningful reflection. The renewal of HBO’s Treme, set in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, testifies to the lingering impression of the storm and the flooding of New Orleans on the cultural imagination. The process of transforming the experience and memories of these ruinous events into aesthetic products shows us how our culture meditates on trauma.
I’m particularly motivated to understand the aesthetic afterlife of Katrina because I grew up in the greater New Orleans area and didn’t leave Louisiana until I was 25. Just a few days after the storm, my father died outside of Lake Charles, where my mother had taken him after the evacuation of their Mississippi Gulf Coast retirement home. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, I couldn’t stand to see news reports about the tragedy. In fact, as I watched the news from my home in Ohio and then with family in Lake Charles, I found myself frequently turning away, unable to witness the devastation, abandonment, and loss. Even now, it’s taken me five years to watch Spike Lee’s documentaries about Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans; I needed the distance, even though I was there at the time, and saw the city once we were allowed back into what was left of our homes. I could be there, but I couldn’t watch it mediated, produced for mass consumption on HBO.
It’s one thing to experience a personal, social, cultural, and political trauma of that magnitude and another to see it inevitably transformed for the screen. I think some filmmakers have waited to narrate Katrina out of respect for those so adversely affected by the storm. The waiting allows the trauma to eventually be deployed for other ends — some salutary and healing, others more ambiguous in their intentions and effects, perhaps even potentially self-serving. And indeed, the aftermath of Katrina consists of a complex set of competing narratives about the response to the storm and the history of insufficient preparation for its arrival.
HBO’s Treme premieres its third season on September 23, 2012, and the visual media inspired by Katrina, particularly Treme and Spike Lee’s documentaries, have been especially difficult to grapple with. I can read Jesmyn's Ward’s National Book Award-winning Salvage of the Bones or Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun with relative ease, even some dispassion, but seeing the city devastated has been harder for me to face. I’m unsure this difficulty has anything to do with the much vaunted greater impact of the visual, or if it exemplifies how the circulation of traumatic images in media over time allows us to trace how those images become re-mediated to reflect less on the trauma itself and more on the production of culture about trauma. After the event...read more