Shaun Treat, University of North Texas
AbstractThis article demonstrates the remarkable persistence of the "pathetic fallacy" in mass media entertainment. The Crescent City plays a role akin to that of Thomas Hardy's "inanimate actor" in prime time presentation. It also shows that Redfield's concept of the stereotypical American ideal of place is alive and well in our electronic literature.
“FROM THE MOTIVATIONAL POINT OF VIEW, there is implicit in the quality of a scene the quality of the action that is to take place within it. This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene…. The logic of the scene-agent ratio has often served as an embarrassment to the naturalistic novelist. He may choose to "indict" some scene (such as bad working conditions under capitalism) by showing that it has a "brutalizing" effect upon the people who are indigenous to this scene. But the scene-agent ratio, if strictly observed here, would require that the "brutalizing" situation contain "brutalized" characters as its dialectical counterpart. And thereby, in his humanitarian zeal to save mankind, the novelist portrays characters which, in being as brutal as their scene, are not worth saving.” (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 6-9)
In this introductory passage, Burke points to the inherent Dramatistic limitations of the tragic scene for attempts to posit heroic agents or action. And it is hard to imagine a scene more tragic than the one televised in the hours and weeks (and now even years) following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans. We all well recall the nightmarish if not apocalyptic images televised from The Big Easy, from stranded victims being airlifted from their rooftop islands to the desperate restless faces that flooded the Superdome and even ambiguous footage of “looters” wading through corpse-tainted waters. Barely two months after the 2005 release of George Romero’s Land of the Dead, victims and observers frequently invoked zombies to describe the devastation and traumatizing impact of one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history. “They reminded me of zombies -- no expressions on their faces,” a Mississippi woman recalls of the aftermath at a local shelter, “It still hurts to recollect some of the post-storm images.”1 “The guys they choppered in from the roofs of their houses looked like zombies,” concurred an eye witness in a BBC report, “Their faces were so scared, it was terrible to thing that someone had to go through all that, spending hours stranded in such a dire situation.”2 “We are walking around like zombies when we ought to be fixing this place up," opined a Louisianan of the New Orleans political landscape one year after the storm.3 Steven Welles with The Guardian finds: “There were zombies everywhere in 2005… Metaphorical, allegorical, philosophical, political and pharmaceutical zombies ran rampant. There were even zombies in the latest Harry Potter book… During Hurricane Katrina, the news looked uncannily like a zombie movie set. People hunkered down on rooftops with ammo and hoarded water. Deserted streets, looters, abandoned corpses, gangs of vigilantes.”4 Countless personal accounts in the media and on internet blogs seemed to instinctively connect the media images of post-Katrina chaos with cinematic scenes of zombie apocalypse. “People have apocalypse on the brain right now,” observes Max Brooks, author of the successful Zombie Survival Guide, “It's from terrorism, the war, natural disasters like Katrina.”5 A monstrous scene, it seems clear, Dramatistically invites (if not begets) monstrous subjectivities and agents since: “It is a principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene” (Burke, Grammar 3)
Even before its premiere on FOX on September 17 of 2007, the buddy cop drama K-VILLE was attracting interest and attention because it was set in post-Katrina New Orleans (hence its titular renaming of The Big Easy as “Katrina-ville”). The creative team behind the TV series, veterans of the USA network’s gritty award-winning cop drama The Shield, eagerly promoted the show’s intentions to celebrate the city and actively contribute to its recovery. “(We want) to bring back a sense of hope to the community,” lead actor Anthony Anderson told reporters during a stop at the TV critics press tour; “We want to bring back jobs and revenue, and help in that rebuilding process.” The article continues, however, by ambivalently noting: “The pilot episode made available to critics is an awkward mix of gritty social realism and the kind of glossy, over-the-top action sequences you’d find in a lighthearted buddy-cop film.”6 New Orleanians, long familiar with how media tend to reductively stereotype their bayou culture as year-round Mardi Gras hedonism from Girls Gone Wild infamy, were understandably leery about how their city and citizens would be portrayed. “The show's opening scenes of the rescues and chaos in the levee breaches' immediate aftermath sent me reeling,” confessed Times Picayune writer Chris Rose: “Its wild visual ride from heartbreaking scenes of physical and emotional wreckage to uplifting images of jazz fundraisers and neighborhood ‘gumbo parties’ left me searching, reeling, remembering.”7 Other locals on blogs and The Times Picayune’s message boards, however, were far less charitable in assessing the predictable clichés, cultural misrepresentations, and badly butchered accents that punctuated violent shoot-outs and car-chases which often defied logic. Entertainment Weekly (#936, 01 June 2007) recognized K-Ville as one of its “Most Promising” shows of the Fall season but, despite decent ratings and a last-minute campaign by Louisiana loyalists to save the show, FOX did not renew K-VILLE after its abbreviated introductory season when the Writer’s Strike ended in February of 2008.
As a 12-year resident of Louisiana who witnessed first-hand the socio-political and media spectacle of Katrina’s aftermath, I am particularly interested from a Burkean perspective how the lofty ambitions of K-VILLE were Dramatistically doomed virtually from the start. That is, as suggested earlier, the post-Katrina Scene of New Orleans had already been shaped within the Popular Imaginary by media coverage as both tragic and apocalyptic. This essay argues that the buddy-cop melodrama and its heroic individualism functioned as a “trained incapacity” in negotiating Scene-Agent ratios caught within the paradoxes of heroic action while simultaneously victimized by a tragic deterministic Scene. Consistent with conflicting media portrayals blaming government failures and incompetence at the National and State level, whilst also scapegoating “looting” residents and the bayou culture as “not worth saving,” K-VILLE ultimately proves unable to navigate the paradoxes of substance and muster a perspective by incongruity that might transcend our collective un-ease with the tragic disasters both natural and man-made that befell The Big Easy. Part one begins by extrapolating Burkean Dramatism and the tragic limitations of the Scene-Agent ratio to the melodramatic orientation of K-VILLE. Part two then posits the heroic individualism within this buddy-cop melodrama as a “trained incapacity” unable to transcend the tragic fate of New Orleans’ scenic circumference. This essay concludes by reflecting upon these Dramatistic limitations of Scene-Agent orientations, and ponders its failure of a comic corrective that might transcend our Big (un)Easy with the local, national, and perhaps spiritual “dis-ease” which lingers still from Hurricane Katrina.
I. Circumference of Tragic Determinism within a Scene-Agent ratio
In A Rhetoric of Motives (1969b), Kenneth Burke advances “identification” as the central term distinguishing his rhetorical perspective from a tradition characterized by “persuasion,” and thus focuses on understanding suasive processes beyond explicit, consciously intentional acts directed towards a specific, known audience. Ontologically positing humans as symbol-using (symbol-misusing and symbol-used) animals, Burke finds the rhetorical use of language “as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). The rhetorical need for identification and consubstantiality arises from the brute realities of biologically separate beings and hierarchical estrangements from social structures, class, and linguistic negation itself. “Identification is compensatory to division,” Burke explains; “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for a rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22). Burke assumes not only that humans seek to overcome these natural experiences of separateness through communication and symbol-use, but are goaded also by the spirit of hierarchy and order to feel guilt about differences between ourselves and others who occupy different positions in the social hierarchy. “Mystery arises at the point where different kinds of beings are in communication,” Burke observes, when there “is strangeness but also the possibility of communion” (115). Burke notes “a speaker persuades and audience by the use of stylistic identifications; his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify with the speaker’s interests” (46). To overcome division and guilt, we look for ways our interests, attitudes, values, experiences, or perceptions are shared with others or appear to overlap to make us rhetorically “consubtantial” with one another. “When we use symbols for things, such symbols are not merely reflections of the things symbolized, or signs for them,” says Burke, “they are to a degree a transcending of the things symbolized” (192).
Within Burke’s system of Dramatism, life is drama and conflict as human beings impose their desire for order via systems of perfection. Burke identifies our symbolic power to invent negations and hierarchy in pursuit of perfection as a continuous cycle of perfection, guilt, and redemptive victimage he calls the “Iron Law of History” (Burke, 1970). Because humans can use symbols to create, negate, dream, idealize and fantasize about that which is lacking, our desire for perfection generates guilt when we inevitably fall short and thus necessitates some symbolic means for redemption (4-5). For Burke, language itself articulates modes for symbolic action so he developed Dramatism as a method for understanding human motives and symbolic choices as derived from our narratized understandings of scene, agents, acts, agency and purpose. Burke’s Pentad seeks to trace the interplay and ratios of these five dramatic elements as a “grammar” for exposing “rhetorics” of identification, division, and redemption within human affairs. Examining the interplay and dialectic between rations of these Pentadic elements, Burke insists, can reveal where the dramatic conflicts and narrative tensions lie, which in turn indicates what kinds of resulting rhetoric can be expected in the situation and what corrective symbolic action within language could be deployed in positing potential solutions.
Particularly important to this analysis, Burke (1970) notes that the guilt from failures of perfection symbolically necessitates a sacrifice or purging of this guilt on some level, theorizing that this rhetorically functions through either victimage or mortification (5). Victimage requires a sacrificial “scapegoat,” for either the social hierarchy of a factional group or the supernatural hierarchy for universal humanity, who is blamed for the social imperfection and symbolically punished or purged as evil because they violate social norms or categories (Burke, 1984, p.188). Mortification, rather than projecting the causes and solutions for ‘evil’ imperfection outward upon some Other, instead purges guilt through either punishment of self or some transformative self-sacrifice in order to symbolically atone for sinful imperfection resulting from hierarchy (1970, p.207). Although these rhetorical functions can be expected, the symbolic forms in which they manifest can vary significantly depending upon what Pentadic ratios are operating or assumed. When contemplating the types or kinds of actions being rhetorically proposed, for example, we should immediately consider “what kind of scene calls for such an act” (1969a, p.12).
The dramatic interdependence of scene, agents, acts, agency and purpose requires an attentiveness to which of these elements dominate or guide the dramatic narrative portrayed, and this essay is particularly interested in the orientations that result from tragic and comic frames. Burke’s notion of “circumference of scene” in Grammar of Motives observes that a “choice of circumference of the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself” (1969a, 77). With such shifts in circumference, “there is the reduction of one terminology to another,” Burke notes: “One reduces this to that by discussing this in terms of that” (96). “The contracting and expanding of scene is rooted in the very nature of linguistic placement,” Burke continues, and “a selection of circumference from among this range is in itself an act… with the definition or interpretation of the act taking shape accordingly” (84). As Tonn, Endress, and Diamond (1993) extrapolate:
“Arguments dominated by ‘scene,’ Burke claims, reflect a perspective that is committed to viewing the world as relatively permanent and deterministic. Persons functioning within the scene are regarded as seriously constrained by scenic elements. Immutable factors in the natural or social landscape limit their ability to act on their own volition: free will is supplanted largely by fate, thereby reducing action to motion.” (166)For Burke, the consequences of such scenic circumference is most readily understood when comparing Tragic and Comic frames. Tragedy adheres to the cycle of perfection and victimage, and relies upon strict binaries for right and wrong where good triumphs and evil is punished via scapegoating or mortification. Burke’s “Comic corrective” considers how these restrictive binaries and polemical positions can be de-emphasized in a story of mishaps and confusion where characters may learn from mistakes. “It promotes the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation,” Burke observes (1984, p.166-67). Whereas Tragic frames of heroism and triumph promote the idea of winners and losers, Comedic frames enable the foolish to grow wiser as their experiences are used dialectically for the betterment of all via “an integrative social knowledge” (Ruekert, 1994, p.188). A comic perspective allows people “to be observers of themselves, while acting” and thus promotes a reflexivity with “maximum consciousness” (171). A Tragic perspective, by contrast, tends towards scapegoating others rather than self-reflexive correctives via mortification.
As one orientation is selected to frame perceptions of reality as tragic or comic, however, other orientations are inherently rejected and thus a “trained incapacity” to operate outside of one’s Dramatistic orientation inevitably results. Burke (1984) identifies trained incapacity as “that state of affairs whereby one’s very abilities can function as blindnesses,” using the term as a way to discuss “matters of orientation” rather than simplistically assuming that illogical behaviors from differences in perspective “refuse to face reality” due to some convenient “escape mechanism” or intentional avoidance (7-10). Instead, Burke (1966) finds our orientations of perspective are both reflected and unconsciously conditioned by the terministic screens of language, since:
“…even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must also function as a deflection of reality” (45).Scenic circumference and resulting trained incapacities thus occasionally result in “faulty means selecting” (Burke, 1984, p.17). Yet these Dramatistic sites of contradiction and conflict can also provide opportunities for exploiting “perspective by incongruity” to rhetorically facilitate transcendence of perspective and orientation. Shifts in circumference can exploit “paradoxes of substance” to strategically deploy identifications and divisions as a part of some shared history yet also apart from “the agon of the unending conversation of history” (Terrill, 2000). As Burke (1969a) reminds us, “by the logic of the scene-agent ratio, if the scene is supernatural in quality, the agent contained by this scene will partake of the same supernatural quality… contents of a divine container will synecdochically share in its divinity” (8). And elsewhere Burke (1973) wryly notes that the savvy Dramatist rhetor “knows when to ‘spiritualize’ a material issue and when to ‘materialize’ a spiritual one” (216). Failing to make such a savvy distinction, we must assume, would also portend the kind of rhetorical failure being considered in this essay.
Because rhetors not only draw attention to particular terms (and away from others), and characterize those terms within strategic representations of Dramatistic ratios, they also imply terministic relationships suggestive of how scenes relate (or should be perceived as relating) to acts, agents, agencies, purposes, and attitudes. As Burke (1969a) emphasizes, analysis of the interactions between Pentadic terms should attend to “the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (xviii). This is particularly true when charting larger Dramatisitic trajectories seeking to account for popular understandings of events such as Hurricane Katrina, which requires attentiveness to how media representations emerge and become perpetuated through recurring news reports as well as popular entertainments. As Burke (1969b) reminds us:
“…often we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill.” (26)
A television program such as K-VILLE thus presents us with an opportunity to examine the Dramatistic narrativizations that have become distilled within the popular imaginary, and consider how rhetorical potentialities for both understanding and action might be promoted or stymied as a result of the lived dramas being portrayed.
II. Melodramatic Individualism in K-VILLE as Trained Incapacity
“From writer and executive producer Jonathan Lisco (“NYPD Blue,” “The District”) comes K-VILLE, a heroic police drama set – and filmed – in New Orleans. Two years after Katrina, parts of the city are still in chaos, but hope has emerged. Battling an upsurge of violence, understaffing of police forces and a lack of crime labs and other facilities, the cops who remain in the New Orleans Police Department have courage to burn and a passion to reclaim and rebuild their city.
MARLIN BOULET (Anthony Anderson) is a brash, wry, in-your-face veteran of the NOPD’s Felony Action Squad, the specialized unit that targets the most-wanted criminals. Even when his partner deserted him during the storm, Boulet held his post, spending days in the water saving lives and keeping order. Now, two years later, he’s unapologetic about bending the rules when it comes to collaring bad guys. The stakes are too high, and the city too fragile, for him to do things by the book.
Boulet’s new partner, TREVOR COBB (Cole Hauser), was a soldier in Afghanistan before joining the NOPD. He’s tough and committed; but if he’s less than comfortable with Boulet’s methods, it’s because he’s harboring a dark secret. Cobb has come to New Orleans seeking redemption, but redemption can be dangerous.” FOX Broadcasting Company: K-VILLE (www.fox.com/kville)
The FOX network’s promotional tease for K-VILLE offers a telling description of the dramatic orientation of the story being told: a tragic scene that stymies the hopeful and heroic if troubled cops in their quest for personal and communal redemption. The pilot episode introduces us to Marlin Boulet in his “beat cop” dress blues as he struggles amidst the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help the traumatized wailing mobs as they stumble out of the flood waters, only to be deserted when Boulet’s panicked partner Charlie flees in their squad car. After this flashback, Boulet in present time is established as a troubled cop on the edge of a breakdown who is prone to explosive outbursts, drinking on duty, belligerent defiance of orders, and a penchant for using an almost feral brutality in policing his city. Boulet is distrustful and suspicious of the new partner assigned to him, an Afghanistan veteran named Trevor Cobb, who protests the constant attention that Boulet’s rogue actions inevitably attract. By the end of the show, we learn that Cobb’s “dark secret” is that he was a New Orleans petty convict who escaped jail during the flooding with only 3 months left on his sentence, but since criminal records were lost during the storm Cobb has now assumed a new identity to redeem himself. If this is a “buddy cop” genre drama, it is decidedly one in which both protagonists are profoundly troubled and flawed: Cobb is a convicted petty criminal who is guilt-ridden and seemingly “scared straight” because he was forced to drown his cellmate during the escape, while several co-workers imply that the always angry Boulet “has issues” related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from the storm and his family’s impending abandonment of New Orleans.
The pilot episode “Gumbo” follows a series of charity fund-raisers being terrorized by gunmen who are out to presumably disturb the community rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, led by the socialite daughter of wealthy casino mogul. Killed during one of the raids is one of Boulet’s few remaining neighbors, a jazz singer who unapologetically scammed FEMA for money to purchase a new sportscar. It turns out much of Boulet’s devastated Ninth Ward neighborhood is either leaving, stealing, or shamelessly working the system. As Boulet and Cobb investigate, with the unwanted help from Boulet’s remorseful ex-partner Charlie who is trying to rejoin the force and mend relations, they begin to suspect the wealthy casino owner of hiring “Dark River” (Blackwater) mercenaries to further depress real estate values so property can be bought cheaply. As it turns out, it is the socialite daughter of Rex the casino owner who is behind the property buyouts and the violent sabotage of her own charity, revenge as it turns out for the death of her brother some years earlier in a Ninth Ward carjacking. Thus, one of the main proponents for New Orleans redevelopment is revealed to be the pilot episode’s vindictive villain, a corrupt elite out to advance gentrification and profit. By the program’s conclusion, Boulet and Cobb have forged an uneasy alliance within a tragic scene that seems to overwhelm all agents and agency.
Particularly striking about most of the main characters in K-VILLE is their status as melodramatic antiheroes rather than optimistically empowered and overcoming dramatic heroes. That is, as numerous critics of the show have pointed out, the formulaic melodrama of these flawed protagonists was too often guilty of promoting rather than subverting cultural stereotypes, clichés, and painfully predictable plot twists. Within this heightened moralizing melodrama of good versus evil, most if not all of the characters introduced in the pilot episode seem tragically unsympathetic victims rather than the defiantly redeeming heroes intended: The jazz singer who is killed is defrauding FEMA, Boulet’s former partner Charlie is a pathetic coward who fled his duties, Boulet is himself a near-alcoholic brute teetering on a violent nervous breakdown, Cobb is an escaped convict now wearing a badge, neighborhood youths are “looters” of their own neighbors, and those who are not petty criminals seem pathetically fearful in abandoning their city… much to the frustration of our defiant protagonist Boulet. It is difficult to discern just who audiences are supposed to identify with, and for what reasons, which may explain the profound ambivalence of the show’s audiences both nationally and locally. This ambivalence is captured eloquently by the New Orleans Times Picayune media critic Chris Rose in his review of the pilot:
“The star, the cop -- Marlin Boulet -- is our everyman, the true believer, the guy who bleeds New Orleans. He's angry that his neighbors are moving away and he's angry that his partner deserted during the storm and he's angry that the kids he knows are reduced to petty crime (I have a feeling that stealing cypress trees won't be the worst thing kids do on this show) and, more than anything else, he's angry that his wife wants to live somewhere else.
She says: "I'm not having the conversation for the 82nd time."
He says: "What's so great about Atlanta?"
She says: "Nothing. But at least it isn't here."
Sound familiar? She says their child gets terrified just when it rains now and he says: "There's weather in Atlanta."
I have heard this conversation myself 82 times. It falls around me like rain, in coffee shops, schoolyards and grocery stores.”8
Caught within the tensions of creating a potentially cathartic melodramatic fantasy based upon terribly tragic real world events, the creators of the program seemed unable to catch their narrative stride and dramatic tone in the delicate balancing act. Rose, a sympathetic New Orleanians reviewer, again captures the unevenness of this fictional account of a still emotionally raw subject:
“Admittedly, I watched Monday's premiere episode twice and still don't really have any idea what the connection was between the evil socialite real estate baron and the casino security mercenaries but I was chilled to the bone when Rex's daughter said this:
"We're supposed to rebuild their neighborhood? Rebuild their pathetic schools and their crappy homes? Why? So we can bring home all these people who have no value for human life? The storm wasn't a disaster; it was a cleansing."
Only on fictional TV can someone utter aloud a despicable sentiment that so many silently hold true.”9
If art is indeed a lie that tells the truth, then K-VILLE valiantly attempts to package social commentary and a hopeful message within their dramatic caricature of New Orleans. “We want to create entertainment,” explained Creator Jonathan Lisco: “At the same time, we want to be socially relevant to the extent possible.”10 One cannot help but wonder about the extent to which these goals may be Dramatistically counter-purposive.
Yet it seems the nigh-cartoonish reduction of complex social and historical causes and consequences for New Orleans’ predicament seem misguidedly displaced upon the not-quite-heroic agents of K-VILLE, despite the best of intentions. As suggested earlier, the Dramatistic mistake may have been in rhetorical decisions when to “materialize” and/or “spiritualize” the tragic scene and heroic agents, to heighten the localized victimage and redemption at the expense of the more universal mortification of the nation. Burke (1969a) notes such shifts in scenic circumference as key Dramatistic moments:
“When '’defining by location', one may place the object of one's definition in contexts of varying scope. And our remarks on the scene-act ratio, for instance, suggest that the choice of circumference for the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself. Similarly, the logic of the scene-agent ratio will figure in our definition of the individual, insofar as principles of dramatic consistency are maintained” (77, emphasis mine).With such shifts in circumference, “there is the reduction of one terminology to another,” Burke observes, “One reduces this to that by discussing this in terms of that” (96). USA TODAY’s article, “Tasteless K-VILLE is the big sleazy” by Robert Bianco, is brutally unforgiving in its withering review of such failed reductions:
“Make no mistake: K-Ville, a buddy-cop throwback set in present-day New Orleans, would be terrible no matter where it was set or when it aired. But to do the show now, to take the suffering of this great American city and turn it — not into art, as The Wire does for Baltimore — but into cheap pulp fiction, is to move beyond bad to wildly offensive…. it's hard to see what public good is served by turning New Orleans into some high-octane Deadwood on the Mississippi…. A badly acted, clumsily constructed Starsky & Hutch/Miami Vice revival that imposes fictional clichés on top of harsh realities.” (9/18/2007)The New Orleans fan base for the program, feeling that something is better than nothing when it comes to keeping post-Katrina plight alive within America’s mediated cultural imaginary, remains equally ambivalent about this Faustian bargain for Dramatistic representation.
Conclusion: Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy
“Dramatism is always on the edge of this vexing problem, that comes to a culmination in the song of the scapegoat.” ~Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Religion (1970, 54)The song of the Southern Scapegoat since Reconstruction, for those versed in its tone and tenor, offers a familiar refrain within K-VILLE. In the wake of September 11th and the Bush administration’s heroically framed “Global War on Terror” against evil jihadists, it is probably unsurprising that the “blame-game” for post-Katrina failures deteriorated into the scapegoating finger-pointing of government officials and agencies. As media pundits and everyday citizens continue to debate the causes for failures of rescue and recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast, K-VILLE offers a Dramatistic understanding of this story every bit as conflicted and ambivalent as those debated in any New Orleans’ coffee shop. “The maxim ‘terrain determines tactics’ is a strict localization of the scene-act ratio, with ‘terrain’ as the casuistic equivalent for ‘scene’ in a military calculus of motives, and ‘tactics’ as the corresponding ‘act’…” (Burke 1969a, p. 12). The sheer scope and overwhelming scenic circumference of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the most devastating natural and man-made disaster in the history of the United States, seems almost inevitable in tilting toward tragic victimization on such an epic scale as to preclude heroic redemption much less self-instructive mortification. While media depictions of this epic tragedy teetered at moments on reflective mortification regarding the national race and institutional class issues exposed by the receding floodwaters, it is probably unsurprising that the scapegoating of incompetent government agents (like Michael Brown and President Bush or Gov. Blanco and Gov. Nagin) or impotent federal agencies (such as FEMA or the Dept. of Homeland Security) would prove far more attractive than protracted introspection. Most Americans seem profoundly uncomfortable with navel-gazing regarding the persistent racial and economic inequities perpetuated by every American’s complicity in federal funding for infrastructure amidst selfish concerns over taxes and the systemic exclusions of emergency measures providing for the poorest Americans among us. That every American is somehow complicit in the humanitarian disaster following Hurricane Katrina is an uncomfortable idea deflected on several fronts via Capitalism’s numerous trained incapacities for addressing issues of race and class. Elsewhere, Burke (1973) follows Marx and Veblen to urge that examinations of trained incapacity must consider the “material interests” of both “private and class structure,” since such interests are a part of fluctuating “contexts of situation” which shape action by giving rise to paradoxes, and such unstable contexts are “opportunities to get ahead [and] are also opportunities to fall behind” (111, 247).
This essay has suggested that the Dramatistic effort of Fox’s K-VILLE “falls behind” precisely because it attempts to posit melodramatic individualism as the scapegoating solution for a systemic, Scenic catastrophe which should instead invite reflective national mortification. Despite the conscious choices of the creative team to attempt some narrative intervention on behalf of New Orleans, the ideological and largely unconscious consequences of melodramatic conventions seemed to have Dramatistically undermined such rhetorical aspirations. By positing the problems and solutions of post-Katrina New Orleans as primarily dependent upon agents, both villainous and antiheroic, national responsibility and collective accountability is seemingly circumvented, avoided, and displaced. This analysis thus suggests that Dramatistic criticism of politics within popular culture should heed Burke’s Freudian attentiveness to the unconscious consequences of Pentadic formulations, which either promote or stymie attempted comic correctives to ideologically-charged social problems (Biesecker, 1997; Gunn and Treat, 2005). Ensuing debates over racial and economic inequities within our American system, evidenced within media coverage of the Jena 6 and even the racial (and gendered) ideological undertones of 2008’s Democratic presidential contenders, may suggest there is much individuated mortification yet to be contemplated and addressed.
*Shaun Treat is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Texas. Correspondence to: University of North Texas, GAB 320A, Denton, TX 76203-5268. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “One small Katrina voice, many forever-changed lives.” USA Today, 12 June 2006: p. 12A.
- "Someone died in front of me.” BBC News blog, 2 September 2005. Last accessed Sept. 27, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4208092.stm
- “A 20 ring political circus; Strange crew populates New Orleans mayoral race.” The Washington Post, 20 April 2006: p. C01.
- Steven Welles, “G2: Shortcuts: Zombies come back from the dead.” The Guardian, 2 January 2006: p. 2.
- Warren St. John, “Market for zombies? It’s undead (Aaahhh!)” The New York Times, 26 March 2006: section 9, p. 1.
- Chuck Barney, “FOX drama K-Ville set in New Orleans,” Contra Costa Times, 25 July 2007. http://www.popmatters.com/pm/news/article/46350/fox-drama-k-ville-set-in-new-orleans/ , last accessed 3/18/2008.
- Chris Rose, “K-Ville gets it,” The Times-Picayune, 18 September 2007. http://www.nola.com/living/t-p/index.ssf?/base/living-9/1190096056259130.xml&coll=1 , last accessed 3/18/2008. Ibid, “K-Ville gets it,” The Times-Picayune.
- Ibid, “K-Ville gets it,” The Times-Picayune.
- Ibid, “FOX drama K-Ville set in New Orleans,” Contra Costa Times.
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"Scapegoating the Big (Un)Easy: Melodramatic Individualism as Trained Incapacity in K-VILLE; by Shaun Treat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.