Explaining A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit begins her 2009 book discussing the essential nature of humanity. Not an easy task, Solnit’s argument is framed around critical disaster theory and personal experience and interviews that Solnit herself did while visiting the ad hoc disaster relief agencies after the Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Solnit argues that, despite the moral touchstones within Western society that demand humans are inherently self-serving or selfish beings, something arises that looks like altruism when disaster strikes. In her Prelude, Solnit discusses disaster’s ability to level any socioeconomic divide by quite literally leveling any property or means of centralized aid. Where altruism arises, Solnit argues, is between neighbors–no matter how diverse.

Mainstream media portrayals of selfish violence in times of disaster appear, Solnit argues, as early as Genesis. Solnit points out, “when God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (3). Cain calls to mind one of the most important questions about human nature: “Are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?” (3). What Solnit argues, of course, is that the question of taking care of one another is fundamentally tied to situations of disaster. What disaster shows is not a commitment to one’s own desires, beliefs, or economic circumstance but rather the ability to find common ground and shape a future that is beautiful, safe, and sturdy. The rupture of everyday life causes community enjoyment, “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” (5).

Disaster can even help facilitate something like assimilation, Solnit argues, offering a story about a Native American who was trapped by dense tule fogs that overtook California’s Central Valley had ended up feeling for the first time “a sense of belonging” (4). It is disaster that forms a different touchstone–one of community, Solnit argues. Out of the ashes and dust of mourning and grief comes new relationships with those who participate in disaster relief and between different organizations that may have been founded on adversarial belief systems (or at least partly made-up of people who have adversarial belief systems). The grief and tragedy surrounding connotations of the word disaster are not in their intrinsic or immediate manifestation but rather in what follows. In other words, one can (and perhaps must) decide to change the grief into solidarity, beauty, and love. From this, Solnit arrives at her title: A Paradise Built in Hell. The paradise arises out of the hell of disaster–both in its material tragedy and in the denial of its representation in media that insists humans’ selfish nature. This concept of disaster, Solnit notes, can be revolutionary.

Recent history has blocked solidarity and moves toward communal paradise through intense privatization, something Solnit addresses early to discuss the fallout of W. Bush’s popularity but takes up more specifically in her discussion of New Orleans mayor post-Katrina. Though privatization has an economic connotation, Solnit notes, no “consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers–railways, water rights, policing, education–to the private sector” (9) can happen without also privatizing imagination and desire. The operation of disasters is in undoing this privatization, sending decision-making and impromptu life-saving to community, giving each citizen (which she defines) of that community “participation, agency, purposefulness, and freedom” (9). These “flashes,” as she calls them, of altruism and community building occur through disaster.

In her chapter named after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theory of “beloved community,” Solnit goes through several different organizations that begin post-Katrina disaster relief uniquely, fit in with each particular community uniquely, and then follows them through to their afterlives. Her first example of happiness from grief is provided by the mother of an American soldier killed in the Iraq War, Cindy Sheheen, who moved herself to protest the war at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas to create Camp Casey (named after her son). In the improvised protest camp, Sheheen said it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to her, something which Solnit notes seemed to prove “grief had hollowed out all usual needs and left her nothing but a purity of purpose” (285). King’s “beloved community” accomplishes just this: an emptying out of adversity that is filled with good social change.

Solnit argues what is so perfect about King’s “beloved community” is King’s commitment not only to vast systemic change, the end of apartheid in America, but in community-building based on breaking down adversarial barriers, something perhaps much more difficult to accomplish. The disaster provides the perfect environment for the “beloved community” to come into fruition because it requires that centralized institutions work well in tandem with grassroots relief organizations, that each side is utilized for its different strengths and that in their cooperation, their nature as adversaries take a backseat. “Antiwar, environmental, social justice, human rights, and other movements generate new communities, often transcending old divides, and in the process bringing something of that urgency, purposefulness, suspension of everyday concerns, fellowship, and social joy also found in disaster,” Solnit says (286). Thus, communities are built by the neighbors that run grassroots organizations and with the wide-encompassing scope of more centralized institutions. This, Solnit’s book argues, is most capable after disasters– when the fundamental human nature is discovered as being compassionate, loving, and neighborly. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper.

Different organizations that may have been built around opposing ideologies, who may have in everyday life become enemies of one another accomplish solidarity in times of disaster, Solnit argues. She lists two very good examples of these between organizations like Common Ground, whose founding came out of the same message as well as at least one member of the Black Panthers militant group of the 1960s, and the Rainbow Family, which derived from the hippie counterculture and LGBT rights advocacy movements. Common Ground found solidarity amid the huge socioeconomic racial divide in New Orleans and amid the racist portrayals of looters and criminals in the Katrina aftermath on news media worldwide. The Rainbow Family likewise found solidarity with evangelical Christians in the disaster relief community. Barriers break down and adversarial drawbacks dissolve in the service of fellow citizens when disaster strikes.

Decentralized decision-making and democratic community-building arrive to us, Solnit argues, through the material devastation of disaster. By providing disruption to everyday life, the ruins of disaster have revolutionary potential to thwart privatization and elitist fear. Joy from disaster, love from desperation, paradise from hell has been the major preface to what Solnit throws back out to the readers in her Epilogue. Solnit leaves us with this: “it is poverty and powerlessness that make people vulnerable” (308). As climate change accelerates and inflates disaster, the elites will panic and try to privatize. One’s job, then, as moral citizen is to see disaster as an opportunity rather than a damnation.

Western Narcissistic Highground and Narratology

Here, I am talking about the Frantz Fanon chapter entitled “Concerning Violence” from his book The Wretched of the Earth and the Abu-Lughod piece is her essay from American Anthropologist 2002 entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.”

For much of the beginning of the essay, Fanon talks about this notion of compartmentalizing of colonialism. Obviously, as everyone else has mentioned (and as anyone who has actually read the piece will mention), he is outlining the impact of the colonist on the colonized–in every facet and chiefly in violence. I confess I haven’t finished the entire reading (and hopefully judging by its length we will spend more time discussing this on Thursday having by that time also watched the film), but I see this heading in the direction of validating violent decolonization and violent revolution/rebellion (like that of Saint-Domingue and Cuba and much of Latin America and Africa) for the colonized.

Another interesting tangent he goes on in the beginning that I see coming back is the Marxist idea of the uneducated or non-intellectual colonized (who I think Marx called like limproletariat or something like that) who bring the ultra-despair that compartmentalized defeat in battle (p 50) or the deafening isolation of the compartmentalizing bureaucracy in setting up a nationalized-decolonized state (p 50), mostly because his whole thesis seems to be this idea that decolonization is not liberation, just substitution (something I find extremely relevant given Fidel Castro’s statement about Pres. Obama visiting Cuba and wishing for better future relations).

Nonetheless, as my title outlines, I am mostly concerned and interested in the argument Fanon is making that the colonist (and by proxy the West) takes a narcissistic highground of (A) geographical, (B) economic, (C) ethical, (D) linguistic, (E) biological, and (F) historical narratives. He (the colonist), in compartmentalizing the structure of everything surrounding the life of the colonized, has forced a dominance over it all not only in a physical, tactile way but in the way of narrative. Thus, it is not only a physical domination by the colonist that anticipates the last becoming first, but the colonist’s control over a narrative of a Manichean forever-battle that breeds nationalist fascism following and as a direct result of the process of decolonization.

 

Fanon says–

A—p 39-40 “The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession–all in manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well…This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species.”

Here we have this idea of a geographical dominance over the colonized. This is a very physical, tactile dominance, of course, but I am more interested in the interaction between the way this ties to an overlying idea of claim — the narrative of claim. He talks in the essay too about the dignity of owning one’s own land–in the philosophical tradition a very Western ideal (Anglo even, via Locke). So my question here is who has access to the narrative of geographical claim? Who has access to the language, to the rhetoric of claiming land–you see this is different from who has right to land, something much less able to be substantiated.

B—p 40 “In the colonies the economic substructure is also superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

This one is also about access to narrative. Economics, especially in a Marxist and therefore anti-capitalist essay, may seem to be a centerpiece of a tactile argument about colonialism, but I am still yet more concerned with who has access to a narrative of economics. If the very domination of the colonized by the colonists is in imposing these compartmentalized sectors, including economic pressure and exploitation and more significantly for me the Western economic narrative, then the argument is made for the colonists before the question gets asked. What I simply mean is that the very economics we are to call into question (in the tactile evaluation of economics) are already in the very language of the West, part of the Western economic narrative, not the economic narrative of the native. Thus, a cause-as-consequence narrative dominance for the colonist.

C—p 41 “Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values. It is not enough for the colonist to affirm that those values have disappeared from, or still better never existed in, the colonial world. The naive is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values.”

For the native, the ethical narrative to which he will never be allowed access is that of the colonists. This point I think Fanon goes into deeper quite nicely. It reminds me of the AbuLughod essay when she pointed out the fact that there are already narratives and practices and people and ideas on the ground prior to the colonist’s imposition. The self-gratifying nature of the colonist is also in denying the mere existence of an already in-place ethical system (which Fanon brings up in the African institution of a society that endorses self-shaming). Again, the denial of access to the ethical narrative for the native.

D—p 42 “At times this Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal…When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary.”

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the denial of narrative just because it is linguistic. The very language used to describe (even in poetry and fiction–think “fiery tropical eyes” and the eroticism/over-sexualization of the native female by the colonists) native is only decided by the colonists. The access or control in narrative itself is compartmentalized and dominated by the colonist.

E—p 43 “The native knows all this, and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.”

This quote interests me the most–there is something here about the fact that a biological narrative of dominance is from the point of view in the essay of the native: here we see the rhetorical function flipped from colonist-centered to native-centered. I don’t know what to make of this or whether it matters, but I’m certain it does. Perhaps something about the notion of imposing dominance through violence becomes a biologically-distinct reaction of violence.

F—p 51 “The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.”

This one is the the one that really set it off for me, the one that made me go back through what I had read and find where we have the narrative dominance. As the saying goes, the victors write history. Colonists are the victors every time and, as Fanon’s argument perfects, de-colonists still do not write the history. There is a narrative dominance in history that the colonist will always have if even just because of chronology–but moreover, I think what is much more thesis-driven is access to a historical narrative. This quotation sums it up perfectly–as the domination of the capitalist-colonist continues its raid, the access to historical narrative is simultaneously compartmentalized and unified into one common narrative that the victor and only the victor dictates.

 

So, yea I know this post is long but I’m most concerned with this idea of access to narrative and the western narcissistic high-ground (narcissistic because of its paradoxical setup: cause as consequence and consequence as cause) and high-ground itself a paradox, leaving out any low-ground because the low-ground was destroyed and dominated. I didn’t really get into the narratology part of my argument, but basically I think it’s just really awesome when form and content mesh well and precisely what Fanon is arguing has destroyed the colonized–Manichean compartmentalizing is exactly how his essay is set up: it’s compartmentalized (as any essay is) that follows from the visceral, more tactile-favored compartmentalizing to the philosophical and cultural compartmentalizing that ultimately itself leads us to the climax of his own thesis at which point he decolonizes his own argument. I don’t have the wordcount to explain, so disregard it if that made no sense.