Denaturalizing "Natural Disaster"

New Orleans as La Ville Panique

Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, Michael Degener, trans., London: Continuum, 2005
Paul Virilio, City of Panic, Julie Rose, trans., Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005

We must therefore get it out of our heads that the military rushes to the aid of civilians, sets up emergency medical units and encampments for disaster victims, runs airlifts and clearing operations on the site of great natural or man-made cataclysms out of pure philanthropy. Ecological catastrophes are only terrifying for civilians. For the military, they are but a simulation of chaos and consequently a subject of study and an opportunity for large-scale maneuvers in open terrain. Even better; in the state of undeclared war in which we live, this study is not only useful but indispensable.[1]

-- Paul Virilio, Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles, 1978

Over the course of the year leading up to the Hurricane Katrina event, a multiplicity of so-called "natural disasters" swept East Asia and South Asia. Each of these disasters appeared almost instantaneously in popular culture as stabilized meaning-events: the 100,000 dead from the Southeast Asian Tsunami, the 35,000 dead from the Pakistan Earthquake and then, in the North American context, the nearly 500,000 displaced from Hurricane Katrina, emerged not so much as the objectified subjects of an instrumental political structure concerned primarily with abstract figures and statistics so as to render its governability intelligible, but rather as merely "unfortunate" bodies who found themselves in "the wrong place at the wrong time". Such reckless naturalizations of what are in fact "nature-cultures" (Latour) are also for that very reason wholly political disasters (the considerable effects of which could have been massively reduced). They obfuscate the way in which the technobureaucratic logic of the late modern epoch has grafted itself onto nearly every remaining pretense of "democracy" in the early 21st century, particularly that of "citizenship".[2] Indeed, in the increasingly biopolitical moment in which we live, it is more and more as if the concept of freedom itself has become synonymous with that of emergency as its necessary correlate, just as being a "citizen" no longer signifies "participation" but rather "subjectification." In such a political environment, the "natural disaster" actually becomes crucial to the survival of a state wracked by a constantly deepening crisis of legitimacy. Is this not precisely the subtextual foundation of the ubiquitous American bumpersticker that interpellates the nation's highway populations with the slogan "Freedom Is Not Free"? In moments such as these, the post-9/11 reorganization of American cultural memory negates not only Muslims and Arabs who have been unofficially declared enemies of the state, but extends this dichotomization to the thousands of black bodies in New Orleans left to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, while legitimizing the securitization of "life as such" for the foreseeable future.

Of course, it's certainly understandable that such events are so widely understood as "acts of nature" that are necessarily difficult to mitigate, particularly given that they are in many ways the result of complex weather patterns that are often highly unpredictable. But there is another dimension that is often overlooked when one refuses to take a step back from the "natural attitude" (Husserl): the French urbanist Paul Virilio has discerned this with some lucidity, suggesting that the "accident" is most often the result of an instrumental culture in which only the positive dimension of technological design is rendered visible, while the negative is more typically censored. It is in this way, then, that one should interpret his theory of the relationship between "substance" and "accident": "with the invention of the train one necessarily also invents the trainwreck." That is, the siting of a major city within a geography that is well-known to be prone to hurricanes radically disturbs the assumed "naturality" of the event, revealing that decision as a political one.[3] This is one reason why the signified of "Hurricane Katrina" cannot really be understood without also considering the planned obsolescence that is so basic to the functioning of a highly technological consumer society. It is no longer merely the automobile or the computer that is designed such that costly repairs will be periodically required, but even that of entire ecosystems and national populations, which are being set up within the frame of an "aesthetics of disappearance." Here, the possibility of repair that was at least available for the machine doesn't even show up for the living body, which has been rendered evermore superfluous. In such a political environment, what we call "citizens" truly are the "living dead" as they become enlisted as the standing-reserve (Heidegger) of the modern state, which, just in order to function, must continually produce new emergencies that facilitate the absoluteness of their spatial and temporal control. As Hubert Dreyfus reminds us, it is only in the case of "breakdown" that the equipmentality of being-in-the-world becomes perceptible.[4]

Virilio's recently translated book, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, provides a particularly outstanding gloss on the biopolitical dimension of such catastrophic events. It elucidates the hierarchy of perception in the late modern period and the instrumental reorganization of the "political body" that it effects within an enframing of speed and power. Briefly, the argument is that, while for much of human history, the lived experience of the sense of vision was ultimately relative, with the rise of planetary technology what emerges is a situation in which ocularity becomes subordinated to the order of speeds, a governmentality in which the singularity of one's own speed is suddenly of radically diminished importance. The body, in other words becomes enlisted into a governmentalization of sensation. This is why Virilio suggests that his primary task for the book is that of "perceiving the world in reverse", such that what he calls the antiform, or "the void", might reclaim its precedence in a new form, thus rehorizontalizing what has become the hierarchy of perception.[5] For Virilio, the primacy of vision in late modernity does not make "everything illuminated", but much to the contrary, creates a world in which there is actually much less to be seen, since what is made "visible" is little more than an assemblage of clich├ęs; in the terms of Jacques Ranciere, what is presented before us is only what has already been distributed as sensible.[6] The effects of this could be seen for instance in typical administrative practices of taxonomy, recordkeeping and listmaking, all of which reduce bodies down to "masses" to be governed, while perfectly interlocking with the abstraction of time from lived experience to that of "clock time". Indeed, this is what Virilio's key concept of dromoscopy signifies; the world as it shows up at speed, and the considerable political effects that are thereby unleashed, which more than anything else involve the replacement of "democracy" (the rule of people) with dromocracy (the rule of speed). As though it were itself intended as an example of the "antiform", each chapter of the book touches on a different aspect of the Negative Horizon, in a manner that does not so much progress linearly towards a culminating synthesis, as it does assemble a decentered montage of images that could be perceived in any order, jumping without hesitation for instance, from the political anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies to the aesthetics of late modern painting.

While the event of 9/11 and its aftermath already confirmed many of (what had often been dismissed as) Virilio's "alarmist" arguments about the "formatting" of perception and the "dromocratization" of politics over the past several decades, I would like to suggest that the clearly unnatural disaster of Hurricane Katrina does so even more radically, in a way that reveals the event as cultural and political. In keeping with the concept of the antiform, we might begin our reading then, not by proceeding in a straight line through each chapter of Negative Horizon, but rather by skipping to the relevant section in the middle of the work, where Virilio considers the cultural significance of the stadium: as a lens through which we might remagnify the New Orleans Superdome, a space in which 20,000 primarily black and impoverished bodies were forced to take "shelter". In this key chapter, Virilio interrogates the politics of disappearance wrought by the hierarchy of speeds by considering the figure of the modern citizen-subject, which he argues has become largely superfluous to the functioning of an increasingly national security state, such that what were previously categorized as "citizens with inalienable rights" become redeployed now as "foreigners within." This is a process that he suggests had already become the case throughout Latin America in the last century. Whether one thinks of the disappeared of Argentina, in which the state declared as legally dead anyone who did not appear before the authorities within three months, or those detained in the stadium-camps of Pinochet's Chile, a biopolitics of "population" undeniably came to the fore in an unprecedented way, given that often it was not only the living that were of most concern, but the "living-dead" also and therefore, the inalienable power of the sovereign to declare the "citizen" who is not a citizen:

Site of a morphological overexposure, the sporting arena is therefore, not only a "crater" for the popular irruption, it is also a type of census. In this inventory, the form is the ground that rises again to the surface. Surveillance becomes the last quarter of the eclipse of the community, the high-security quarter of the eclipse of the logistical delocalization of power. It is logical, thus, to see the national stadium of Santiago, Chile, transformed into a concentration camp, since the enterprise of political appearances gives way to the aesthetic of military disappearance. A reduced model of an abolished civic space, the stadium is without doubt the end of the morphological illusion of the State, the ultimate "stadium" of the city and, therefore, indirectly, of legitimate citizenship.[7]

It is therefore not only in the glare of the panopticon that the criminal is interpellated as a legitimate subject of the penal apparatus. It is also the case in what might, in the case of New Orleans, be called the "detention stadium", that the modern citizen-subject appears as an object of governance, whilst simultaneously losing all pretense of being "essential" to the functioning of the modern state -- particularly when it becomes primarily concerned with the generalized administration of life. While this may have been hard to discern prior to the event, one need only recall the widely publicized use of facial-recognition software to which 72,000 attendees at the 2001 Superbowl in Tampa were unknowingly exposed in the name of preventative terrorism. In the stadiums of Tampa and New Orleans, we see the Latin American "endocolonization", that form of colonialism in which, rather than an external land or people, the state's own population becomes the object of administrative interest, moving northwards into the American political space, illustrating the famous "thirdworldization" warning by critics of globalization. While the ancient agora of Athens was a place in which the sharing of decision occurred, the modern stadium is in many ways its very inversion: the centerpiece becomes the racing track, an emblem of the dromocratization of "democracy". As Virilio elucidates, "there is an upper area, the levels on which the spectators are seated, and a lower area, the track where the actors file out. Within this theater of mobile performances, those present have the view of the gods, while those who pass through are dominated by the insatiable curiosity of the crowd of voyeurs. We are far from the ideal platitude of the equals of the agora, nothing like that, instead there is only the spectral analysis of a population exposed to the disclosure of an elite of movement".[8]

It is predictable then, that the politically ineligible bodies that constituted "the city" of New Orleans would be removed from the open space of the neighborhood, where they might well organize themselves in much the same way as did the victims of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. This would have immediately deepened the crisis of legitimacy; the exodus to the closed-off military netherworld of the Superdome revealed this in a way that many found shocking (as it was broadcast across every screen in the national territory). But what is even more interesting is that in the midst of the state of emergency, which was all the more dramatic because it was not immediately declared, "the track" was filled not with the vectors of rapid movement, but rather with the spectacle of demobilized bodies, which in the case of the modern sporting event, would have been in precisely the reverse situation.[9] The paradoxicality of the situation is immense, given that over 200,000 automobiles were abandoned in their parking spaces and 350 public buses were left in the hangar,[10] meaning that thousands who could have been spared either suffered tremendous indignities as a result of displacement, or simply perished. It is in this way, then, that we can begin to discern the "Negative Horizon" in New Orleans in the Virilian description as the subordination of real space to real time, a procedure in which the hierarchy of speeds that is the foundation of the contemporary political dispensation became radically visible through the mass media to the entire world. For those who read the event as a text in which meaning was not merely received but also produced, the form/ground dichotomy was temporarily broken, such that the "antiform" was able to unconceal the everydayness of the hierarchy of perception (in particular, the formatting of vision). In Virilio's terms, what this very peculiar moment made sensible was late modern stratification works at the speed of light: the dromocratic "obligation to stasis" in the New Orleans Superdome contrasted markedly with the "obligation to movement" on the highways, those smooth surfaces and high speeds that enable the sensation of "the nation".

[Associated Press, August 31, 2005]

It is precisely in this contrast however, at the threshold of lifeworlds, that Virilio's pessimistic conception of celerity becomes problematic. What appeared was the incredible attempt to escape the impending disaster by some of those who would otherwise have been unable to do so, in particular by becoming what Gilles Deleuze called "the master of one's speeds". The most exemplary case in which this appeared was the famous Associated Press photo from August 31, 2005 in which several black men are depicted with their hands behind their heads, laying prone on the side of the highway in front of a US Mail truck, while three white officers wielding semi-automatic rifles attempt to subdue them. The words "Texas Game Warden" are shown emblazoned on an overweight white officer's back, who is pointing a semiautomatic rifle towards the assembled bodies, the white ones appearing disproportionately large in comparison to the black ones. Through this juxtaposition, the viewer is left with the implication that, by commandeering federal property in order to take a line of flight, that is, by trying to become the master of their own speeds (as nearly everyone else was apparently enabled to do), the black detainees evacuated the status of "humanity" and entered that of "animality": as "game" they are declared "open-season", so as to be placed back into the hierarchy, thus enabling their disappearance once again into the hierarchy of perception. William Connolly and Patrick Crogan have suggested, contra Virilio's somewhat unidimensional techno-ontology, that there is not only "one" speed but rather a multiplicity of speeds, some of which are overcoded with a teleology of domination, others of which (such as what Deleuze calls "infinite speed"), are specifically inclined toward one of emancipation. Following this, I would posit that given what was captured in this image, the critique is of considerable relevance in spite of the eventual outcome of containment.

Somewhat more apt -- and more applicable to the world that has emerged in its wake -- is City of Panic, in which we read Virilio's reflections on the connection between the postwar "geopolitics" and the emergent "metropolitics" after the 9/11-event.[11] An entirely new sense of urban space has emerged, he argues, in which the concentration of population itself becomes the "substance" of the "accident", while the "mental map" through which the animal body oriented itself in space becomes subordinated to the "tabula rasa" that is the order of time. Of course, his tone throughout is as pessimistic as ever (even referred to by Julie Rose, the translator, as his "blackest book to date"), but the description accords particularly well with the situation as it appeared six months after the disaster. In the wake of the rounding up of the displaced into militarized encampments throughout the South, the Mardis Gras "celebrations" merely affirmed the triumph of the dromocratic revolution, announced by the throngs of white bodies flowing through the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. The Ward had suddenly become the number one tourist attraction for those intent on seeing the "real thing" which had so shocked their senses only a few months prior. As the 49-year old African-American mechanic Darrel Jackson exclaimed, clearly suffering from the "tabula rasa" phenomena while helping to salvage his old neighbor's devastated dwelling: "you're giving a Mardi Gras and people don't even have homes to stay in."[12] Can one bear witness to such assaults on such basic human elements as the "mental map" without recalling Virilio's suggestion in City of Panic that in the postwar / post-9/11 period, cities themselves have become the real targets of warfare? That is, that the "renewal" of New Orleans -- which, we should not forget, came complete with the occupation of the National Guard for over one year[13] -- was little more than "a simulation of chaos and consequently a subject of study and an opportunity for large-scale maneuvers in open terrain"?[14] As Jackson's lament implies, while certain areas of the city were immediately repaired, particularly those in which tourists might venture, the poorer and blacker sections have yet to receive anywhere near the kind of assistance that would be required to make them inhabitable at affordable rents. Indeed, the number of tourists who passed through during the revelry surpassed that of those able to actually live there by well over two to one, while the impoverished black majority of the original population continued to languish in emergency living arrangements elsewhere. When Time Magazine refers to the remnants of the City of New Orleans as "The Big Blank Canvass" as though the "tabula rasa" were inevitable, and possibly even a positive development, Virilio's suggestion that modern art as a whole is overinflected by the political horrors of the twentieth century seems particularly apt. This is so, despite the controversy such assertions have generated, as his reflection that while even the destruction wrought by the Second World War could not displace his bodily comportment in the familiar city of Nantes, "only reconstruction could really disorient me by demolishing the constructions of my memory."[15]

Thus, what is perhaps most clear in the wake of the Katrina-event and the concomitant publishing of these two important books, is that the 9/11-event considered through the question of the "urban" in City of Panic only ideologically bridged the stratifications that ultimately constitute the figure of the American citizen-subject, while leaving fully intact the underlying relations of power and authority (as suggested in the concept of the "citizen" as the "living dead" in Negative Horizon).[16] For the more discerning eye, one attuned to the formatting of perception that Virilio's "perceiving in reverse" negates, the Katrina-event meant that the complexity of the ways in which it is distributed also became apparent: not only through the relative lack or abundance of wealth on the one hand or racial integration or "uplift" on the other, but also through the distribution of acceleration, the hierarchy of speeds that is one of the primary bases of sovereign power. And as Virilio argues, by considering the question of speed through a genealogy of domestication, one discovers furthermore that it is as deeply intertwined with the distribution of gender-power as it is with race-power or class-power:

Woman is the first means of transportation for the species, its very first vehicle, the second would be the horse with the enigma of the coupling of dissimilar bodies fitted out for the migration, the common the origin of domestication, woman preceded the raised and bred animal, the first form of economy, even before slavery and husbandry. She begins this movement that will lead to the pastoral societies, patriarchal societies organized for war, beyond the primordial hunt...from the animal hunt for the purpose of immediate subsistence, we pass on to the hunt for woman in passing on to the hunt for man. But this hunt is already more than a slaughter, an execution; it is a capture, the capture of female livestock...patriarchy arose with the capture of women and then established and perfected itself through the husbandry of livestock. In this economy of violence that signaled the pastoral age, beauty preceded the beast, it is the coexistence of this twofold livestock that favored the establishment of the dominant sex.[17]

Virilio's argument, then, that the Mayans were conquered by the Spanish despite their numeric superiority because they still used women as the primary "transport vector" -- whereas the latter were already involved in processes of animal husbandry (particularly that of horses, which afforded incomparably greater speed) -- thus speaks volumes about the situation that unfolded at the New Orleans Superdome. The practices of the conquistadors in the first moments of exocolonization, we might say, laid the foundation for the emergence of endocolonization throughout the Americas, from Santiago to New Orleans. What is most perplexing, then, about this realization, is that it has been a long-standing tradition amongst the indigenous peoples of the region around New Orleans to not develop the area, given that it was well-known to be a dangerous location.[18] While Deleuze, Connolly and Crogan may have a point, then, that there is not only one but multiple speeds, some which contribute to further circumscription, others of which enable the opposite, it is also probably worth considering Virilio's claims about the roads not taken in the history of celerity: such as those cultural practices that consider the "slowness" of forethought rather than the "speed" of technology worthy of engagement. To really engage in "pure affirmation" of the kind the former suggests, one must have some idea about what is being promoted, of what "natural disasters" are being tacitly accepted. While the 9/11-event and the Katrina-event are certainly elements of the present, so too are the continuing practices of those whose lifeworlds have long suggested a very different relationship to "planning" and "administration" than that with which we have been forcibly made familiar.


[1] Paul Virilio, Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles, Mark Polizzotti, trans., New York: Semiotexte 1978. p. 66.

[2] Which is not even to mention the "telescopic" view embraced by environmentalists, in which increasingly powerful weather disturbances are interconnected with a diminished ozone layer -- or the "microscopic", through which the poorly-constructed levees in residential, black and impoverished neighborhoods failed consistently, compared with the relative resiliency of those in industrial, white and upper-income locales.

[3] Indeed, there have been several hurricanes that have hit the region in the past (not to mention a long-standing tradition amongst local tribes not to develop in the area, as we learn below), which means that there was plenty of time and information in which better urban planning could have been facilitated. Indeed, the reason New Orleans is not the capital of Louisiana is that it was destroyed by a massive hurricane four years after its founding in 1717.

[4] H.L. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991. p. 70. I am indebted to James Weir for pointing these quotes out to me: "if the doorknob sticks, we find ourselves deliberately trying to turn the doorknob, desiring that it turn, expecting the door to open, etc....with disturbance, a new way of Daseining comes into being". Also see p. 99, "the world, i.e., the interlocking practices, equipment, and skills for using them, which provides the basis for using specific items of equipment, is hidden. It is not disguised, but it is undiscovered. So, like the available, the world has to be revealed by a special technique. Since we ineluctably dwell in the world, we can get at the world only by shifting our attention to it while at the same time staying involved in it....the discovery that a piece of equipment is missing, on Heidegger's account, reveals the workshop as a mode of the world. The disturbance makes us aware of the function of equipment and the way it fits into a practical context".

[5] Indeed, in his discussion of his own painting practices, Virilio emphasizes his attempt to escape this binary structure even within the domain of visual representation, asking: "why persist in the belief that the dichotomy of form/ground has always existed?" Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, Michael Degener, trans., London: Verso, 2005. p. 35.

[6] Gilles Deleuze makes a very similar argument with regard to sensation in his work on Francis Bacon, when he suggests that the canvas is never empty but is always already filled with preconceived notions and conceptions. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Daniel Smith, trans., London: Continuum, 2003.

[7] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, p. 177. Virilio refers here to the internment in the stadium of the opponents of Pinochet, including the folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands were cut off before his guitar was thrown at him, amidst orders to play. When he responded by singing a song in opposition to the Pinochet coup, soldiers opened fire.

[8] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, p. 177.

[9] As argued in Mike Shapiro's reading of the Steve James documentary film Hoop Dreams (1994), the late modern political order is not one in which a uniformity of speeds coexist in some kind of harmonious spatiotemporality; what is more often the case is the hierarchy of speeds, in which sporting events code black bodies with the need to move quickly on the courts and fields (while white bodies lounge with beer and hotdogs in the bleachers). Mike Shapiro, Cinematic Political Thought, New York: NYU Press, 1999.

[10] This figure becomes even more disturbing when one considers that there were around 134,000 residents who did not own a car, which means that each person could have traveled completely alone with no additional passengers in the vehicle.

[11] "The metropolitics of globalization will take over from the geopolitics of nations, just as the latter once took over from the city-state of the antique origins of politics". Paul Virilio, City of Panic, Julie Rose, trans., Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005. p. 13.

[12] J. Jones, "Mardis Gras Shows the Contrast of New Orleans". Alternet, February 26, 2006.

[13] Virilio notes the increasing indistinction between metropolitical and geopolitical space in a similar gloss on the movement of US Army troops recently returned from the first Iraq War to the southern Californian metropoles during the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. Paul Virilio, City of Panic, p. 107.

[14] Paul Virilio, Popular Defense and Ecological Struggles, p. 66.

[15] Paul Virilio, City of Panic, p. 7. Also see Richard Lacayo, "The Big Blank Canvas", Time Magazine, Sunday, February 26, 2006, Available online at:,9171,1167748,00.html.

[16] Shortly after the event, The New York Times featured a photo of three black youths in Harlem smiling and conversing with white NYPD officers, accompanied by a caption that suggested that where once there was tension between them, after September 11 a new feeling of commonality had emerged.

[17] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, p. 40.

[18] Jodi Byrd, professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, provided me with this information.

Jason Adams is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, Hawaii, and in Media and Communication at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.