Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Hand of God: Capitalism, Inequality, and Moral Geographies in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Hand of God: Capitalism, Inequality, and Moral Geographies in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina

Article excerpt


Within the United States, Mississippi often represents all that the country is not. However, within the state, the cultural geography is more complex and the area most affected by Hurricane Katrina is seen as least like the state as a whole. After Katrina, the state symbolically reincorporated the coast while aligning itself with the values of the nation. Ironically, it was the destruction of the space/time of modernity characterizing the country that made this possible. As reconstruction progresses, differences within communities by class and between regions have been reconstituted along with the market and the space of modernity. [Keywords: place, modernity, Hurricane Katrina, narrative, Mississippi]

The metonymic quality of our everyday concept of place has parallels in the characterization of place in myth. In mythical thought, necessary connections link events and their locations, and the subjective and objective are weakly differentiated. Places take on the meanings of events and objects that occur there, and their descriptions are fused with human goals, values, and intentions. Places and their contents are seen as wholes. (Entrikin 1991:11)

Place is lived through myths (cf. Hirsch 2006:151) that naturalize particular understandings of space, time, and identity or community. If, as Entrikin suggests, there is a necessary link between the stories we tell of a place and the events that occur in it, what happens when a place is destroyed? What "goals, values, and intentions" are reconstructed when the contents of a place are gone? How do understandings of space and time inform the experience of place destroyed? This essay begins to address these questions with reference to the narrative that emerged after Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. There is a growing body of work on the aftermath of this storm, however it has largely focused on the case of New Orleans, with relatively little attention directed to the state of Mississippi. The work that has been done has also paid more attention to social structures, such as race and poverty, and representations of these in the media than to the underlying narratives of the nation and place (with the exception of some work on the distinctiveness of New Orleans) that shaped the representations themselves or the narratives mobilized by the people in the affected areas.

Anthropological insight suggests that cultural myths represent core truths of societies, truths that may be at least partially or potentially independent of objectively verifiable truth. What I have in mind here is what Rappaport called "ultimate sacred postulates" (1999:287-290), those things that represent core truths of a culture that are not objectively verifiable or falsifiable. Christ's divinity would be an example of an ultimate sacred postulate in Christianity. However, it is not only in religion that we can have sacred postulates. I would suggest that the beliefs in maximizing individualism and progress might be thought of as fundamental postulates of capitalism and the US social order. In other words, I am interested in narratives, which I am calling "myths" here not to imply that they are objectively false, but because they convey core values. It would make sense then that places destroyed would be rebuilt in the image of the myths that motivate the societies that create them and that control the reconstruction. In the case of the United States, this involves attention to the myths that give meaning to the understandings of capitalism and the United States as a nation. These narratives of belonging, place, space, and time are part of what is understood by modernity and are integral to what it means to be a part of this country.

In this paper, I begin to trace some of the discourses mobilized by Mississippians to give meaning to the lived space and time of the Mississippi Coast, paying particular attention to the ways in which the time-space of capitalism and United States nationalism informed representations and expectations of events after Hurricane Katrina. …

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