Monday, October 16, 2006

Review: Stormy Weather

[Henry A. Giroux. Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.]

Anything which has the potential to intervene in the consciousnesses of human beings can be understood as an exercise in pedagogy -- not just what happens in classrooms, but also what happens down at the plant you work at and out on the street and in your bedroom and on television.

Media in particular is often quite deliberately a pedagogical intervention. This is true of all media, but often more overtly true of alternative, independent, progressive, and radical media of various sorts. Giroux, a well-known scholar of critical pedagogy, writes, "Changing consciousness is not the same as altering the institutional basis of oppression; at the same time, institiutional reform cannot take place without a change in consciousness capable of recognizing not only injustice but also the very possibility for reform -- and of reinventing the conditions and practices that make a more just future possible."

I believe that Stormy Weather is intended to be just such an intervention. I'm not sure how successful it is, unfortunately, but it is an interesting book nonentheless.

The focus of the book is Hurricane Katrina. It briefly describes the events surrounding the destruction of New Orleans by a combination of an extreme weather event and a particular pattern of social relations. More importantly, it puts these events in a social, political, and historical context. Part of what is interesting about this book as a pedagogical and political intervention is that it is very short and relatively easy to read, but it also is not shy about including ideas drawn from theory.

A central theoretical notion that is put to work in the book is the idea of "biopolitics". Giroux draws on various theorizations of this phenomenon elaborated by Michel Foucault, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Giorgio Agamben. Despite Giroux's effort to avoid making the text too theoretically dense, I still remain somewhat fuzzy about exactly how "biopolitics" is as crucial or original an idea as he portrays it to be, but his very simplistic generalization that it is "an attempt to think through the convergence of life and politics" is helpful.

Using that framework, as well as relating the analysis to his background in critical pedagogy and the notion of public pedagogy as a way to foster social change, Giroux aims the book to

...offer a reading of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy that contradicts conventional accounts of the disaster, even those critical of the Bush administration. The events surrounding Katrina are about more than incompetence, lack of compassion, and ignorance; they are the consequences of a systemic, violent form of social engineering in which those populations in the United States marginalized by race and class are now considered disposable -- that is, simply collateral damage in the construction of a neoliberal order.

While much of the zingy detail provided about the hurricane itself and about the despicable functioning of state and productive relations in turning a disaster into a tragedy are things you will be familiar with if you read progressive media about Katrina at the time -- from the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency being told he was doing "a heck of a job" by Bush, to Bush's mother opining that the people who were shipped to Houston and warehoused in the Astrodome "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them" -- the concise inclusion of all of that detail in one source is useful.

Beyond the use of ideas of biopolitics and pedagogy, I was particularly struck by his use of the notion of disposability. He argues that poor and working-class people of colour in the United States no longer serve just as a super-exploitable/exploited reserve army of the unemployed and, via white supremacy, a tool for dividing the working class and driving wages down. Rather, except for extreme situations (like about the first week after Katrina hit) they are pretty much entirely written out of the national narrative in the United States and to a significant degree their continued survival is considered to be irrelevant to the functioning of ruling regimes and both owning- and middle-class white Americans. Some would argue that this is nothing new and they would not be wrong, exactly, but he is convincing that there are shifts in what's going on here even if I am not quite able to articulate it. The shift is subtle but real, and it is vital in seeing the new directions in which ruling relations are evolving in the twenty-first century. Their analyses have many differences, but it made me think of Stan Goff's analysis of Katrina in terms of "exterminism" (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

At the same time, I'm not sure how well this book succeeds, at least if its aim is to combine concrete political engagement with accessible yet innovative intellectual work. I am particularly keen to learn from how it attempts to do these things, because it is a combination which interests me for my own future productive activities. For one thing, I think it could have used a sounder grounding in history. There were times when things were described as being new and different but it was not at all clear to me how new and different they actually were.

More importantly, its attempts to connect shifts in consciousness among readers to action by readers feel hazy and elusive. A few pages seemed to be addressed specifically to professionals who are part of educational relations, but most of the time the target audience seemed to be the elusive progressive "we" of U.S. political discourse, which is given a guided tour of events and political trends while flying above them followed by "shoulds" and advice that are absolutely true but sufficiently disconnected from actual subject positions that it is hard to connect to how you and I and we as actual people might operationalize them. In saying that, I'm not advocating that every political book be turned into a how-to guide to organizing a movement -- the shifts I would seek are harder to define than that, and I'm not sure I would have any confidence in my own ability to implement them if I was sitting down to the same writing project Giroux started with. And in any case, it's by no means impossible to read this book in a way that is relevant to's just not easy.

[For a complete list of book reviews published on this site, click here.]


Spartacus O'Neal said...

Few activists--let alone media moguls--understand or engage in the science of teaching (pedagogy). Most apply various tools of psychological warfare (including propaganda) with widely varying degrees of competence or consciousness or knowledge of the subject. A current example is the fad of framing.

The applicability of pedagogy for marginalized peoples was best explored by Paulo Freire. His thesis was that oppressed minorities cannot free their minds or themselves unless they develop a pedagogical system for themselves.

This theory has been born out by the success of such organizations as the African National Congress, the Zapatistas, and Sinn Fein, and is the foundation of the world indigenous movement. The Mississippi Freedom Schools of forty years ago are another good example.

Scott said...

Yes, I agree that activists have a very poor understanding of pedagogy, particularly since such a big part of what we do, even when our tools are things like direct action, are about shifting people's consciousness. I should have reflected that in my introduction to this piece.

However, I think Giroux's broader notion of pedagogy is also sense is that he begins from notions of "hidden curriculum" in classrooms -- which are central to how dominant educational institutions function as a component of the oppression of racialized people, queer people, working people and others -- and expands that to society as a whole. He would therefore argue that neoliberalism, for example, along with all sorts of material impacts, also has impacts that are pedagogical in that sense, i.e. in the sense of shaping consciousness. Certainly, those impacts are weapon-like rather than pedagogical in the sense that true teachers like Freire and his followers (of whom, incidentally, Giroux is one, though the transposition to a privileged North American academic context is more complex than usually given credit for, I think) would apply the term, but I think there is still opportunity for insight in using the idea of pedagogy as a broader analytical tool for getting at how human consciousness is shaped. In a way, I suppose, it can be used to understand hegemony in a way that is less monolithic and able to recognize the participation of active subjects than the original Gramscian articulation of hegemony.

And as for the debate about "framing" among Democrats -- yuck. Completely misses the point of everything..."Let's figure out how we can fool 'em better than the Republicans! Yeah, let's do that!"

Scott said...

Sorry...that should be "less monolithic and more able to recognize the participation of active subjects"! :)

BlueBerry Pick'n said...

Fantastic POST.

love it, may have to get the book...

"George Bush don't like Black People"...

Toxic Art of New Orleans...

thank you!

Spread Love!

BlueBerry Pick'n
can be found @
"Silent Freedom is Freedom Silenced"