a kaddish for new orleans

The meetings. New Orleans. Again.

Our session this time was ‘On the Circulation of Trance: Trance in 21st century globalized society’ or something like that. One of those times when every paper led seamlessly into the next, each amplifying the concerns of the previous. Each of us, in our own way, questioning the problems of authenticity, as trance and trance rituals become things of the past worth either retrieving or letting go. A fitting topic for New Orleans.

New Orleans, after all, specializes in entrancement. And here were 5,000 or more anthropologists hitting the Big Easy over the last week, each one of them it seems having a pretty hard time staying focused on the meetings when the city itself beckons so seductively.

Something happened while we were there, that might strike you as not terribly important in the scheme of things, given Katrina and the the BP oil spill in the Gulf. But I think it was indicative of more of the same to come.

It was a little thing. The water went out.

Can you say that? Meaning it the same way you might say ‘the power went out’?

You go to brush your teeth or wash your face, or flush a toilet, and there just isn’t any water. At all. Just like that. And you think, okay, there’s something wrong in my room. But no. It’s the whole town. With no water. And no warning.

And then the warnings come on the phone, the papers, banners on the bottom of your television screen: When the water returns, don’t drink the water. Don’t wash your face with it. Don’t let it on your skin. Boil all your water. Or use bottled water.

Until we figure this one out.

And it makes me think just how incredibly fast a city can go down. That infrastructure in any community — from a major city to a tiny oasis in the Sahara — is a miraculous but fragile thing. We build it over very long periods of time. Build it up from scratch and watch it take shape, and grow, and provide more services. And come to depend on those services. We talk about the provision of schools, medical care, protection from fire or crime. Electricity.

But before that, and maybe first of all, comes the expectation — the necessity — of good clean, safe water.

In the Sahara we carried our own water. And we had maps that showed every well across the desert. Without knowledge of where those wells might be, one does not venture out across the Sahara. We rationed carefully. But we also knew where those wells were. And if one was dry, we knew where to expect the next one, and the next, in close enough proximity to survive. And in the Sahara, it’s very clear when travelers have been mistaken in this regard. The remains of bone and metal litter the panorama, picked dry by birds and bandits in equal measure.

So, I’m used to this from the places that I’ve lived or traveled. Abroad. The power, if there is power, goes out. The water is rationed. You improvise. You share. You help your neighbors, or nobody survives. I’ve taken this for granted when I’m over there. The Middle East. North Africa. West Africa. Central. East. Systems on the edge of no system at all.

America, however, presents itself as immune to collapse of systems. Butall systems eventually fail, do they not?

New Orleans has been giving us a lot to think about in this regard. We’ve been seeing one system failure after another, each one a little bit different. Each breach very possibly having no real, durable, long term solution at all.

In New Orleans, if anything, one expects too much water rather than none at all, right? But this week there was a drop in the water pressure on the east bank of Orleans Parish. And nobody’s quite sure yet why. The Sewerage and Water Board power plant just failed. One report stated that apart from this the NOLA water system is leaking more than 70% of its water at present. I mean, that’s worse than Damascus, isn’t it?

Okay. So, I’m not talking here about how much I love New Orleans. How great the music is, everywhere you turn. How each person you meet is ready to talk your head off for hours at a time, just for the pleasure of the conversation. How walking the narrow lanes of the French Quarter makes my own town, San Francisco, seem downright boring, banal and tame. I’m not telling you anything about my visits with a voodon priest and meeting the newest young, sweet pythons in his brood. Or my tears over the loss of Jolie and Eugene, the elder pythons I remember. Nothing about the distinct flavors of ‘Slap Ya Mama’ spices, Alligator jerky, Swamp Fire Seafood Boil, or hot Cajun eggs. Not saying a word about New Orleans pride: the Bud Light ‘Here We Geaux!’ signs, the ‘Geaux Saints’ flags flying proud. Not a word about all that music. And not a word about Marie Laveau, the St. Louis cemeteries, and John T. Nothing about being called ‘baby’ or ‘darlin’ in that lyrical lilt every other sentence. Nothing ’bout just how very much I’ve loved New Orleans from the first time I set eyes on it about 25 years ago.

No. This is me, thinking infrastructure.

Thinking ’bout the Sewerage and Water Board proposing increased taxes to pay for projects to fix ‘it’ all — once they figure out what on earth the problem might actually be. This is me thinking about Mayor Landrieu saying, no, no way. No more taxes.

Thinking about how saying no to taxes is saying no to infrastructure.

A.F.C. Wallace reminds us, in case we have forgotten, that revitalization is not inevitable. The only thing that is inevitable is that the Steady State will fail.

And New Orleans seems to be our canary-in-the-coal mine in this regard. Our early warning system, that systems are going down. And we don’t want to fix them. No, it’s just so much easier to blame politicians for the failures and vote them out of office. And vote folks in who’ll make sure nothing long term ever gets repaired again.

No taxes? Sure, we can do that. No water. There are, after all, consequences. Guess we don’t want to think about that one when we call for smaller government.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a plea to fix New Orleans.

It might be a plea to think about la longue duree. The long term consequences of our actions.

Or maybe not that either. Maybe, as good little anthropologists, we just take notes and watch it all fall. Watch cities fail, one at a time. Maybe we move in time to save ourselves. Maybe we choose to go down with the ship. Maybe we say science can cure all this, if we just put our minds to it. Maybe we say, it’s signs from the heavens. Maybe we change our habits. And maybe there are no habits that need changing. And maybe this isn’t any problem that needs fixing.

Cities rise. Cities fall. That’s just the way it is.

Well, for that matter, planets form. Planets die. No big deal.

Maybe we don’t think large enough. Think geological time. Astronomical time. It’s just a question of scale. In la long duree none of this really matters at all, does it?

Okay, so this sounds just like another bummer post from another bummer pessimist. But that’s not what I intend here. The cosmic view might really be a thing of beauty. We step back and watch the choreography and ballet of it all.

I mean, what else is there to do with our gift of human consciousness?

And the insight of 5,000 anthropologists, (or however many there might have been), that we collectively might have on every human problem in every corner of the world, does not really help us when the water’s going down.

The wisdom of New Orleans is a very matter-of-fact, “I just deal with it. Baby.”

So, yeah. New Orleans entranced me. Again. And what all did I do with it? Well, what do you think I did with it? I took notes. After all, I’m just an anthropologist. Baby.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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