Is debunking our obsession with what’s hip about New Orleans just the latest way to seem hip?

Tourism and New Orleans'  indigenous culture collide as the Black Men of Labor take to the streets.

Karen Gadbois

Tourism and New Orleans' indigenous culture collide as the Black Men of Labor social club takes to the streets.

I was a very interested guest at a recent Tulane University conference entitled, “New Orleans as Subject: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity.” I attended the keynote lecture in the Lavin-Bernick Center (formerly known as the “UC”) and panel discussions in the equally opulent Goldring-Woldenberg Hall.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the days when I was often on Tulane campus, as a local high school student drinking in The Rat (the old UC’s dark basement bar) and partying on the Newcomb Quad at the now legendary “TGIF” parties that were thrown every Friday in the 1980s. Thirty years later, I still felt somewhat like a townie crashing the quad, even though the purpose of the conference was ostensibly to study my hometown.

The very concept of “New Orleans as Subject” presents an interesting problem for us natives. New Orleans has been the subject of intense, often critical scrutiny for hundreds of years. This poses challenges and opportunities for the locals. W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote of African-Americans that they have a “double consciousness.” They see themselves through the eyes of their own communities as well as through the eyes of an often critical national (i.e. white) consciousness. New Orleanians, especially after Katrina, have faced a similar dilemma.

But the conference didn’t much concern itself with distinguishing the ways in which natives, transplants, visitors, and non-native scholars interpret the city. The main gripe of the conference organizers was how myths of New Orleans exceptionalism and authenticity can serve to mask real social and economic problems.

An over-emphasis on distinctive cultural forms — and, especially, how these cultural features are marketed in a tourist economy (music, cuisine, etc.) — can blind local as well as national observers to deep inequalities and human suffering, they reasoned. Adding insult to injury, the musicians, artists and restaurant workers who create that authenticity (or the illusion of it) get short shrift themselves when it comes to compensation.

So goes the theory, but I’m not sure that either the exceptionalism myth or the authenticity myth contributes to creating, or even masking, the social problems the Tulane scholars tried to connect them to. I guess I just don’t see how “moving beyond” deeply rooted New Orleanian myths like exceptionalism and authenticity would result in the desired social improvements, i.e. a more economically just society.

Let me take my analysis a step further: I came away from the conference convinced that its assault on New Orleans’ sense of being exceptionally authentic is just the latest style in which this yearning for authenticity dresses itself.

I’ve always heartily agreed that New Orleans exceptionalism and authenticity are “myths,” or, if you prefer, “ideologies.” But I just don’t see how excising such myths and ideologies would leave the patient better off. I also think my reluctance to jettison this ideological heritage has a lot to do with my being a native son.

In other words, when I observe New Orleans, I do so as both observer and subject. I have a sentimental stake in how people think about New Orleans. Such sentimentalism may indeed undermine what the 19th-century historian Charles Gayarré called “the scrutinizing, unimpassioned, and austere judgment of the historian,” but I don’t have enough faith in the “science” of culture to feel that disposing of my native sentimentality would yield fruitful results.

The other concept to be transcended, according to the conference title, is New Orleans’ concern with “authenticity.”

Authenticity as a category of value has been on the outs for decades among scholars of culture. As a colleague of mine recently put it, “I’m an English PhD, I don’t believe in authenticity.” Neither do I, if authenticity requires a kind of unselfconscious innocence or naivete that somehow exists outside the pressures of consumer culture and capitalist hype.

New Orleanian identity, in particular, brings with it lots of symbolic baggage — vulgar signifiers, that are passed off as badges of local cred: knowing that Frenchmen is hipper than Bourbon Street, for example, or that Krewe du Vieux is cooler than Rex. The ideological game of locating the “real” New Orleans is largely precipitated by the tsunami of tourist hype that’s been building for over a century.

New Orleanian “double consciousness” in the face these profit-motivated representations confuses the issue further. African-American cultural authenticity is equally contentious, and what about gay authenticity? Is the very queenish, Quentin Crisp-like gay man no longer authentic because straights assumed falsely for years that every gay man was like that?

In the words of Tulane conference organizer Matt Sakakeeny: “Our aim is to go beyond the caricature of New Orleans, as one friend put it, as if everyone in this city was a Mardi Gras Indian second-lining down the street, po-boy in hand, on the way to Jazz Fest.”

So the point is that not all New Orleanians engage in the culturally distinctive practices that are thought of as uniquely New Orleanian. But didn’t everybody already know that? And how is Sakakeeny’s call to move beyond such blatant stereotypes any different than the usual quest for the “real” New Orleans, the New Orleans “the tourists never see,” the hankering for authenticity that gained special urgency (and hype) after Hurricane Katrina?

Like many such critiques of local folkways, the implication of the “New Orleans as Subject” conference was that distinctive features of New Orleans culture are the problem, and that if we could just de-emphasize our much-ballyhooed cultural difference then we could be … Miami? Houston? Newark? But of course these cities have all the problems of social injustice that our narcissistic infatuation with our own culture is allegedly causing, or “masking.”

Like all the other entries in the old “City that Forgot to Care” cliché, the “masking” idea suggests that New Orleanians do not already vigorously debate the very real inequities that plague the city. But with two local newspapers and sites like The Lens (media that include but do not limit themselves to cultural analysis), that’s also a dubious premise. As I’ve pointed out on this site before, New Orleanians have often sought to ameliorate our city’s savage inequalities with progressive policies, only to be blocked at the state level.

As Sakakeeny’s caricature suggests, images associated with tourism are particularly toxic to any notion of a truly “authentic” New Orleans. Tulane scholar Kevin Fox Gotham’s persuasive notion of “touristic culture,” as a barnacle attached to local identity by the ever-expanding tourist industry, clearly seems to have caught on in the thinking of many contemporary scholars. The problem is that the way local people adopt  touristic strategies to frame their own identities is basically just an idiomatic expression of what’s happened to the vast majority of identities in the post-modern era.

In his seminal essay, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,”  the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall noted that people imbibe images and ideas from popular culture, but then re-fashion them for their own needs. So, yes, tourists as well as many locals celebrate Mardi Gras Indians, parading of some kind, po-boys, etc.

But don’t locals see something different in these icons, or interpret them differently? I would say that we have hybrid identities rather than simply inauthentic ones. For example, when I was a kid at McDonogh 15 Elementary School, we had a resident musician named Miriam Anak who wrote songs — anthems, really — for us to perform. One was called, “Hey, Mister Buggy Man:”

Hey, Mister Buggy Man

Let’s take a ride today,

Go down Decatur Street

To Jackson Square,

French Quarter old and gay.

We meet you on our way,

And there is music, music everywhere.

On a first read, it seems like the most banal touristic tripe imaginable. But for us it was a kind of anthem of local belonging, since we saw the Quarter and its imagery as our neighborhood. Without the blessing of Ms. Anak, of course, we rode the buggies, but did it by jumping up onto the rear axle spans, until we got shooed off by the driver. We also bellowed the word “gay” in the song to emphasize its sexual overtones, thus reflecting a different marker of local authenticity obvious even to children in the 1970s French Quarter.

The role this song played in my childish sense of self-definition clearly shows that an authenticity construed as totally independent of an external gaze is problematic, if not impossible. Yes, I did incorporate touristic ways of conceiving my hometown in the formation of my own identity. But everyone else in America constructs their identity in a similar way, just with different signifiers.

So I’m still left wondering why the myth of New Orleanian authenticity is more damaging than any other place’s defining myths. Especially because so much joy and fulfillment is experienced by embodying archetypes of local authenticity — the kind of thing we see en masse every carnival season.

In the end, it seems like the rejection of the more stereotypical symbols of local authenticity is simply a ploy to locate authenticity elsewhere. Thus the “real” New Orleans can finally be attained by locating the least distinctive aspects of the city in the national context. A good candidate might be exactly those aspects that are supposedly “masked” by fetishized New Orleanian difference: crime, poverty, racial inequality —  since there’s nothing unique (in America) about those social ills.

I think the answer lies in the perspective of the non-native scholar, not in the subject. Natives have an uncomplicated way of assessing local authenticity and it has nothing to do with po-boys or second-lining. It’s usually about where you went to high school. The transplant, on the other hand, has to make an effort to attain authenticity or, of course, give up the game and disparage the very notion of local “authenticity.”

Some transplants embrace Sakakeeny’s reductive formula, throw together a bunch of clichés and become what Rich Campanella calls a “supernative;” others just don’t worry about it. Scholars, however, are also driven by the academic marketplace. Like contemporary hipsters, they seek the status that comes with discovering trends before anyone else does.

It’s true that New Orleans scholarship has been driven for a long time by cataloguing the city’s distinctive features. So what is a New Orleans scholar supposed to do to stay “hip” in the academic arena? Talk instead about how New Orleans is like everywhere else, and that we could realize America’s first socially just community if we would just stop talking about second-lines and po-boys. I guess I’m just too sentimental to be convinced.

C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans studies at Loyola University. 

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • Well done again Charles. The talk of exceptionalism lately has been a bit puzzling to me. On one hand, there is something to be said for addressing long-established social problems found here but on the other, doing that without reverting to “move to Metairie if you don’t like it” responses would be helpful.

    A (very) native New Orleanian that I interviewed post-Katrina talked of that idea in this way: … “There’s a way of presenting who we are and what we are in a negative way and then there’s a way to help people realize it’s not all negative. And I’m not sure what that way is, but when you’re here, and you’re committed to being here, you realize it’s not all negative. It’s hard to explain that to people, because it looks like you like the dirt, like you like the deterioration, it looks like you embrace corruption. It looks like you don’t mind the vast differences between the rich and the poor; it looks like you embrace all of this stuff that America feels it has corrected. Yet, when you’re here, you realize that all of those things help to contribute to who we are, so you don’t want all the trash cleaned up. You don’t want all the corruption gone (rueful laugh) you don’t want everything to be perfect; because we’ve been to those places… oh I don’t know they don’t have the same pulse.”

    So, I think this person (me too) agrees with you yet also suggests in that quote that the unique qualities of “here” make conversation about fixing it slightly circular or necessary to view from Alice’s rabbit hole. So can you avoid that talk completely? does anyone? And let’s not forget the online and in-person “Ain’t Dere No More” crowd ARE natives-since they always tell you their detailed family history, we all know they are from here-and that they are so proud of how unique their city is that they don’t want to hear your any of your lip criticizing it!
    yet it’s true this talk lately is mostly the worry of the non-native attempting to figure out how to live with the dirt, the corruption while still loving the place, and the talk of exceptionalism does seem partly to allow them to assuage their fears of being caught living in the dirty ol’ South.

    What I think about is that maybe the tension between the constant extraction of our culture and the wealth and fame that come from that culture is real and needs to be examined more often and therefore should be something that native New Orleanians should also find a way to describe as well. And really, the divide between is just two different version of the same love. One, the new and heady slightly frightening feeling of falling and not knowing how it will turn out and the other the well-formed, flaws and all stand the test of time (and water) love.

    So natives, maybe instead you could help by steering the talk away from cultural givens to of one about common-sense issues of scale and balance and the lesson of historical give and take. Maybe all new residents should get this advice (like when you take your visitors down Bourbon Street or to Allways) “go ahead-look and appreciate, just don’t stand and point.”

  • Hal Mexler

    I think it’s a mistake to pretend like New Orleans’ social problems are the same as any other city’s, or as the author writes, “there’s nothing unique (in America) about those social ills.” New Orleans comes by its unique set of social ills and obstacles by way of unique mechanisms (one of which is acknowledged by the author when he mentions that progressive policy attempts have been blocked by state government; Louisiana’s particular brand of political corruption is unrivaled in modern politics) which means that local problems will require (and local assets will support) a unique and complex set of solutions not likely found anywhere else.

    And I have a hard time shifting between this author’s contradictory assertions that New Orleans is just like any other city, and that he is too sentimental to give up New Orleans’ unique signifiers toward the goal of making it seem like any other city. I have a sneaking suspicion that the latter was not really the suggestion of the lecture which this writing positions itself against; this seems like a bit of a straw man to me. The point is not that we should ignore local signifiers with the goal of making New Orleans seem like any other city, but that we should not focus on local signifiers to the point of ignoring the social problems that come with them.

    Any culture left unguarded by mainstream culture will develop its own folkways, its own patois and then pidgin and then creole. As New Orleans has been neglected by federal and state governments (and attendant funding), it has developed its own folk art and food and language, but also its own social problems. The art and culture of the city are deeply connected to its social inequalities and suffering. The two cannot be separated, and yet currently and especially in the wake of post-Katrina development, they are. Increasingly we see focus on the revenue-generating folk art and food and language, divorced from the social structures which created it. It in fact is very damaging to celebrate the culture’s creative signifiers, developed as a means of coping with great suffering, while simultaneously burying the suffering the created it and ignoring the communities of its origin. This invests in the architecture and artifice of the city, but not its people. It puts money in the pockets of out-of-state developers, while children grow up illiterate in violent streets.

    The author writes that he is unconvinced of this theory:

    “An over-emphasis on distinctive cultural forms — and, especially, how these cultural features are marketed in a tourist economy (music, cuisine, etc.) — can blind local as well as national observers to deep inequalities and human suffering, they reasoned. Adding insult to injury, the musicians, artists and restaurant workers who create that authenticity (or the illusion of it) get short shrift themselves when it comes to compensation.”

    I argue instead that we should ask those being affected–those suffering from deep inequality, the workers getting the shrift– whether they think this theory is perhaps correct, before forming opinions in the ivory tower of academia. It’s all well and good to love buggy rides and the French Quarter. But let’s talk about violence in Central City, too.

  • nickelndime

    Someone once said that the ghettos of America are the last vestige of American freedom. I agree. But, you must have B#%%% to exist in that kind of culture and environment – and you must value what most others do not. If New Orleans is to survive in the manner in which it was intended, i.e., “meant to be,” then hands off. Back off now. We don’t need no state and federal intervention. No! We don’t need that.

  • Anthony F

    I can lay this out very clearly. As a native.
    When an overarching need for “exceptionalism” gets in the way of the economic development that would otherwise pull more citizens out of poverty (see the scuttling of a new hotel on the corner of Tchoup and Canal to preserve a couple of buildings), or when that “exceptionalism” is used to force a concentration in tourism and the low wages jobs (see FQ people arguing that the area is key to tourism while simultaneously decrying most of
    the things that appeal to tourists) rather than having the city focus on more high wage sectors, particularly those that don’t mesh with the romantic notions put forward for the tourists or held by many recent transplants, then that belief in “exceptionalism” is holding us back.

    New Orleans IS different. But the culture is in the people, and the people have been leaving for decades in search of better economic opportunities. And until you address the issues of the “opportunity tax” that many natives run into, you run the risk of running off the natives and having only transplants adopting and adapting parts of what we do. I’m NOT against people moving to New Orleans. We desperately need the population. But we as a city need to refocus on bringing better opportunity to the city and if 10% less “magical” brings us 80% more “prosperous” I’m well prepared to make that trade.

  • pitirre90

    It appears to me that New Orleanians don’t bother to dissect culture rigorously as scholars do. Fortunately, they don’t have to try as hard, and that is vital to real culture, for better or worse. Attempting to do so may get in the way of what’s at stake; authenticity. The concept itself can be a fiery subject amongst homogenous academics who adhere to somewhat unreal, radical definitions of what is authentic. Looking from the outside in is hardly beneficial to our perception of culture. We have to be in the mix for a semblance of objectivity. The New Orleans fetishists are different to the proud, insular exceptionalists. The latter is a majority, the former a toxic, vampiric minority. The average New Orleanian lives culture in real time, presumably without any self-conscious quandaries getting in the way. Reflecting on meaning eloquently is the job of writers, although those who do not have the time, money, education, or aptitude to compose a fine column still manifest the content of the piece. We are all united by indistinguishable cerebral cortexes.

    That’s not to say the average New Orleanian is always self-aware, or one to debate authenticity. I think we would live in an not so different city if we were all thoughtful, righteous, healthy citizens. It might make us more of a monoculture, and all our peculiar accomplishments and low points would cease to exist, much to the dismay of bohemian voyeurs, vultures, and termites of authenticity. No, that would not happen.

    Culturally, in a kind of macabre way, we have benefited from exclusivity and segregation. Although we want to live by the blissful laissez les bon temps roule, New Orleans would probably benefit from less of it. I dare say–and this might be a “shots fired” statement– that the city can keep its “magical” distinctions as it simultaneously improves the areas it tries so little to ameliorate. A strange idea but bear with me! Could there be a correlation between doing less things at the expense of others and that in turn resulting in less socioeconomic disparity? For such a small, “integrated” city, we live in a grossly separate place. Yes, not as bad as Lafayette, Lake Charles, Mobile, Milwaukee, but disconcerting either way. To borrow from Dr. Paul Farmer, many citizens live under the terrorism of poverty. Although us privileged folk are hardly unaffected by this terror, we tend to relegate tragedy to the quirks and complexities of New Orleans. We stir the pot but we do not lick the spoon. It is that kind of cynicism, collective shrug, armchair vitriol, and surrender that perpetuate the bad in this city.

    Do you think alienating some exotic New Orleans subjects that are observed from a bigoted and convenient distance help us frame the city’s authenticity more accurately? Or will it render it all the more elusive? On one hand, it effectively provokes hundreds of nearly identical columns and commentary on the city, but the marrow remains an uncomfortable pursuit. Admittedly, it is difficult not to be a little bit sophistic when we talk about culture, gumbo, or the Saints. The dialogue is helpful but where do we go from here? I admire your work, although I fear this will quickly spin into some meta-New Orleans opinion storm. What started as “New Orleans is exceptional” was countered with “New Orleans is not exceptional”. That was followed with predecessors to what you just published;
    “Is debunking our obsession with whats hip about new orleans just the latest way to seem hip?” I am not belittling your work research when I say it is merely the latest sound argument presented in a series of New Orleans cultural study building blocks.

    That will be inevitably flipped soon enough, and so on, always in the spirit of jousting but sometimes blind to what is actually going on around us.