The Spill in Our Soul (Part Five): Trauma and Industrial Violence in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast

Exploitation or Healing: Healing

Now that the media has dispersed from the scene, the pictures of the oil no longer on the 24 hour news cycle, those of us remote from the coast have a convenient path to our standby mode of amnesia and complacency once again. We can return to life within the society of the spectacle, to live in the automatic, compliant mode. But the locals have a different reality, a different relationship with the land in which they cannot retreat into flat screens, virtual spaces of urban centers that offer a bulwark from the black tide. The locals are the ones who pay in the long run while the industry goes on drilling. They pay with their lives and the events will continue to haunt the region. And in a sense, it is a repetition of the same traumas from the past, a familiar story of marginalization, contributing to the myth of the people as outsiders, as bumpkins, as forgotten people. The Atakapa-Ishak are a forgotten people, scarcely mentioned in generally racist ethnographic record and are still unrecognized by the federal government as a living tribe. This marginalization is also a living reality for the Cajuns, long descendents of exiles, faithful inhabitants of the bayou, fiercely independent and suspicious of global powers. We know what is required. What change is required, and it goes far beyond policy. It goes to the heart of how we view ourselves in the world. The thing is that the rest of the world can learn a great deal from a resilient people and their lifeways. The very culture that the dissociated modern world seeks to purge is presents to us the healing balm for what ails the modern world. If we don’t destroy it, we have a chance of waking up from our long slumber.

Exxon Valdez


In our world of complacency and fragmentation, catastrophe offers itself as an awakening event. The 1969 Unocal blowout initiated a flurry of public concern for pollution that resulted in our most significant environmental legislation under Nixon, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the establishment of the EPA. The Exxon Valdez disaster offered another wave of public concern twenty years later. And another twenty years, another disaster in the Gulf joins a slew of other environmental threats today like climate change, mountaintop removal, and the ongoing toxicity of the water table through hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”). Environmental degradation over all challenges the coherent narrative perpetuated by the dominant society. Old notions of faith and progress are undergoing a trial of confidence that breaks apart modern epistemology. A key to the fragmentation of the colonial self is the recognition of its relationship with the world, with the others, with the abject. Watkins and Shulman write:


The narratives of coherent history and identity of a modernist nation shatter under the weight of unmourned violence. Public discourse is recognized as being shot through with ideology, lies, and silence about the past that cannot be spoken. Collective accounts no longer match up with daily life, and we enter the pastiche of experience that is now called the post-modern. Chela Sandoval calls this situation “a violently fragmented condition.” Yet she suggests that the idea of solid identity in resonance official history was always a fantasy reserved for the privileged. The process of colonialism was always played out against a backdrop of the fragmented experience, “the shattered minds and bodies” of all those marginalized by power and position – the colonized, the enslaved, or disenfranchised. Today, in the process of globalization this process of disintegration reaches even the privileged.(1)


Increasingly the narrative of progress and privilege means up with the negative of this dialectic of power – the shame and guilt, and the tradition of violence that paved the way for the fantasy of entitlement.


The colonial self relied on the construction of, as Hegel termed it, a kind of negative identity. It defined itself by what it was not, by distinguishing itself from a maligned otherness. This is the hallmark of the heroic colonial self, defined by its order and cleanliness; its distance from what Julia Kristeva called the abject. Neocolonialist corporations operating in oil colonies like Louisiana rationalize their actions by claiming the privilege of being “job-creators” for a region considered abject. They litter the language with slurs in a manner of reducing the personhood of others, all the while claiming personhood for the corporation.(2)(3)


There is a kind of implicit Manichean mythology of power occurring in the Louisiana oil colony. The imperial ego has distaste for its perpetual liminality betwixt and between ambiguity and locality; traits the region has in its mixed race heritage, its bi-lingualism, its fluid and mutable placehood between dry and wet, land and water; and the superstitious and dark swampy gator-infested recesses of the Atchafalaya Basin bespeak of the unconscious and a landscape that absorbs the shadow projections of the colonial narrative. Popular imagination and literature around folk beliefs, voodoo, werewolves and vampires highlight our lore about the region. And that isn’t even to mention New Orleans, which has long been the conduit of the Mississippi, and is, in a sense, the ass of the country, absorbing the projections, raw materials, as well as the toxins, of the heartland. Once center of the slave trade, the Big Easy has endured through the strength of creative mythology embodied in its unique music, culture, food, and flair for language. It is an alchemical vas which has absorbed all of these cultures, all of these hardships, and yet jazz, the embodiment of American syncretism, emerged from its Congo Square.


The performance of the self in this culture is not bent toward pretensions, but by survival. This is a culture that endures, that has found a sustainable way of life, and is far more progressive than progressives. This culture offers itself as a lesson in rootedness and a sustainable future if we don’t cease our banalizing extirpation of it. “By their example,” Watkins and Shulman write, “those who have been relegated to the periphery teach those in the center a different mode of practicing the self.”(4) This self is a localized consciousness, one of embedded relationship, one of openness to the land and the people who live there where time slows down and the flat spaces of life find new dimensions. There are not molar models of being here, no blueprints, no flattened spaces. There is, however, the receptivity to land and water, to shrimp, crab, crawfish, to the metaphor and idiot, to each other, and to community. It is in the essence of gumbo: consisting of available ingredients, and is itself as rich and varied as the peoples who inhabit the land. Tidwell describes its origins well, writing that it reflects, “the ethnic mix and shifting empires of Louisiana history. The very name, gumbo, is derived from the West African word guingômbo, meaning okra – the popular southern seedpod vegetable added to most gumbos. The filé, again, is an old Indian spice. The hot peppers and Tabasco sauce commonly served with gumbo evolve directly from the early Spanish colonizers of Louisiana. And the roux, the soul of the dish, is, of course, French.”(5)


In my dissertation, I wrote that the path to redemption for the imperial ego was achieved through the surrender of the self to the sense of the land, to its natural limits.(6) That somehow the inability to love and respect difference is the same as the inability to mourn, to give in to a positive sense of fate in the world. An overflowing of fraternal affection for otherness not only promises a new and sustainable ethic, but a care for engaged action in the region. It moves us from our complacency and silence into our voice, and finally into ourselves. It is a sense of self that betrays the practice of the self we have been encouraged to attend to in this dominant culture. It creeps into our thoughts through dreams, flights of imagination and overflows of empathy. Some might call it our true self being awakened; maybe it’s the world soul. But lest these terms find their way creeping into the positivist solidification of nouns, let us say that the performance of self becomes more varied, responsive and adaptive the more our heart opens. Perhaps it is this open mourning that allowed the Acadians in exodus to take in the land, and let the bayous live inside themselves, its waters merging with their dreams. This is how to find a home in the world.


There is a curious story about one BP executive that kind of came to this point of mourning and surrender. BP lined up an ambitious oil rig in the early 2005 called Thunderhorse, only it was originally called Crazy Horse amid much controversy. The Lakota Sioux protested this sacrilegious namesake and threatened to sue, as they had previously filed lawsuits against companies abusing the name of their culture’s great warrior and spiritual leader. BP quickly relented to the Lakota. Bob Malone, who soon would be chairman of BP America in 2006, went to South Dakota to make amends with the community, a kind of token of penance for that “Promethean debt” Jung described. Malone offered the rig’s plaque bearing the name Crazy Horse and buried it there. “Tribal leaders wrapped him in a ceremonial blanket and proclaimed him an honorary Lakota. The ceremony was so moving that Malone’s wife, who is half Navajo, was in tears by the time it was over, and Malone himself would recall it as one of the most moving and emotional experiences that he had during his 30 year career with BP.”(7)


It strikes me that there is something far more at work in this testimony than a PR stunt. It is a crack to another world wanting to break through, a different sense of being underneath the banalization of the petroleum death mask, even if Malone himself didn’t fully understand this feeling. We glimpse here an opening to a new ethic that we also see in environmentalists moved to protect the environment. We glimpse this new ethic, this new green self in those lending their voices against neocolonialism and exploitation in new social movements and in those appropriately outraged by the atrocities. Naomi Klein concludes her speech:


We badly need some new stories. We need different kinds of heroes, willing to take different kinds of risks, those who confront recklessness head-on. That put the precautionary principle into practice, even if that means through direct action, like hundreds of young people willing to get arrested, blocking power plants or fighting mountaintop removal coal mining. We need stories that replace that linear narrative of endless growth with circular narratives that remind us that what goes around comes around. That this is our only home, there is no escape hatch. Call it karma, call it physics, action and reaction. Call it precaution, the principle that reminds us that life is too precious to be risked for any profit.(8)


If the region does survive the atrocities already occurring, it will only endure if there is a shift in our awareness in a very profound way that touches every aspect of our globalized lives – new awareness of bioregionalism, new awareness of oppressive systems, and a new concern for justice to preserve what is precious in life. Only this green apocalyptic understanding will generate the will for greater and more affirmative action in the world. And it promises to be a richer world, a world that has a great sense of living within the fabric of daily life. Call it what you will, a “knack,” a “lifeway,” a “joie de vivre,” it’s that sense that gets your zydeco rhythm zipping along once the tearful surrender has been conferred.



In a sense, we come back to where we started in this story. Like the industrial traumas of Louisiana, like the history of pillaging in an oil colony, we keep encountering the same experiences with the land, the same sins of history, the same genocide and pillaging the local for the sake of the global. Already the shock in the global has subsided as the country clambers for more carbon, and the “anti-oil” administration approves the massive Keystone XL pipeline that will transport oil across the heartland to Houston refineries. The new sacrifice is a large swath of boreal forests that grow over the Alberta tar sands. There is no end in sight. It is a story repeated over and over. We have seen similar dramas of corporate abuse and marginalized people in places like Nigeria, where Shell is so entwined with the military junta that there is not much hope for justice or democratic representation in a Delta that has had the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year for the last fifty years. It is an enormous catastrophe that is endangering 20 million lives in the region.ix And there is the case in Ecuador, where the indigenous have been trying to sue Chevron for years for carelessly dumping millions of gallons of oil in the headwaters of the Amazon.x It would be a worthy project to examine more closely at how communities try to adapt to, and try to heal from, these industrial disasters. They don’t look to be stopping any time soon. It’d be useful to see and hear and feel how communities exemplify new methods of healing from pervasive industrial shock. And as always, if we fail to ask the right questions, or feel our way through these matters, we will remain oblivious bystanders in a world increasingly callus and fragmented in the grip of violence and illusions. I’m reminded of a line from Leonard Cohen’s great song The Future, “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all, but love’s the only engine of survival.”(11) That’s it – the door to sustainability that can heal the spill in our soul.
I’ll close with one last bit. I recently went back to watch the very first episode of the Beverly Hillbillies, which aired fifty years ago. It was puzzling to me why these rugged trappers and hunters would move to Beverly Hills when they leased their oil rich lands. They had no use for the pretensions of Hollywood or movie stars. Living in a shack in the woods, like Jed Clampett, conveys a richer, more textured sense of existential freedom and direct livelihood. Of course, it is a disconnected farce. The Clampetts would have no use for Rodeo Drive. Maurice Phillips is an Atakapa-Ishak fisherman of Grand Bayou Village, and brother of Rosina Phillipe. Boating through the salt grass marshes, he tells National Geographic, “This land to me is like movie stars and Beverly Hills. That’s my Beverly Hills – Grand Bayou. I love it. I love nature and everything about it. Everything God created, I love it.”(12)




(1) Watkins and Shulman, 50.

(2) Like when BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg made this epic flub, “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don’t care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people.” AP, June 16, 2010.

(3) Cajuns have owned one of the slurs applied to them from other French – calling themselves “coon asses,” a term derived from a French term meaning something like “dirty whore.”

(4) Watkins and Shulman, 167.

(5) Tidwell, 93.

(6) Finn, Mitch. The Dialectic of Civilization: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problem of Anthropocentrism. (Carpinteria, CA: Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2012).

(7) Steffy, Loren. Drowning in Oil, 94-95.

(8) Naomi Klein, “Addicted to Risk.” TED. January 18.2011. Internet Resource

(9) Okonta, Ike and Douglas, Oronto. Where Vultures Feast: Shell, human rights and oil in the Niger Delta. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2001).

(10) Berlinger, Joe and Bonfiglio, Michael. Crude. (New York: First Run Features, 2009).

(11) Leonard Cohen, “The Future,” The Future, (New York: Columbia, 1992)..

(12) “Oil Spill Threatens Native American ‘Water’ Village.” National Geographic. June 9, 2010. Internet resource.