Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction

Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction

Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction

Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction


Roberto E. Barrios presents an ethnographic study of the aftermaths of four natural disasters: southern Honduras after Hurricane Mitch; New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina; Chiapas, Mexico, after the Grijalva River landslide; and southern Illinois following the Mississippi River flood. Focusing on the role of affect, Barrios examines the ways in which people who live through disasters use emotions as a means of assessing the relevance of governmentally sanctioned recovery plans, judging the effectiveness of such programs, and reflecting on the risk of living in areas that have been deemed prone to disaster. Emotions such as terror, disgust, or sentimental attachment to place all shape the meanings we assign to disasters as well as our political responses to them.

The ethnographic cases in Governing Affect highlight how reconstruction programs, government agencies, and recovery experts often view postdisaster contexts as opportune moments to transform disaster-affected communities through principles and practices of modernist and neoliberal development. Governing Affect brings policy and politics into dialogue with human emotion to provide researchers and practitioners with an analytical toolkit for apprehending and addressing issues of difference, voice, and inequity in the aftermath of catastrophes.


On a hot and humid summer day in 2009, Ward “Mack” McClendon agreed to sit with me outside of a large green warehouse located in the Lower Ninth Ward—a part of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina’s floods—to talk about his assessment of the area’s recovery. Before the storm, Mack dedicated himself to restoring old cars and driving a tow truck, bringing in a comfortable income. the disaster and the way local and federal government agencies handled the area’s reconstruction, however, resulted in the partial disappearance of what he had come to take for granted in the preceding years: his friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives, as well as their particular ways of speaking, behaving, socializing, sharing food, and everyday ways of being that generated a sense of comfort and wellness for Mack.

In 2009 only 15 percent of the area’s pre-Katrina households actively received mail, a proxy measure demographers used to estimate the rate of population return after the hurricane. By 2015 this number had increased to 37 percent, while the citywide figure had risen to 90 percent (Allen 2015; Plyer and Mack 2015). the absence of familiar faces and embodied ways of being struck Mack in what social scientists would label an affective way. Mack felt this absence; the feeling he experienced was an uneasy sense of loss that drove him to do things he never considered doing before the catastrophe. Mack reflected:

Believe it or not, before Katrina, I was a very private person, okay,
but my community is hurting so bad, I can never be the same person
I was before. After embracing the problems that we have, you got to
change, and it’s a good way. It’s not a bad way; it makes you start
caring about people. (structured interview transcription 2009)

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