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

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Karen Gadbois

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

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. 

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