The Ends of Rubble…?

by Yule Heibel on September 1, 2005

Like many others, I’ve preened my morbid fascination by looking at images of the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. The images are often sensational, which is such a strange word when you think about it.

Referring to the senses, the adjective “sensational” implies that something causes a great deal of emotional curiousity and interest, for good or bad: “a sensational new movie” might be good, while “a sensational display of vice” probably is not-good. The former has “value,” the latter is devalued, hence “cheap.” The senses, broadly speaking, are the tools given to our minds by our embodiment in flesh and nerve endings and brain chemistry. To call something sensational can be good or bad; to call it sensationalistic implies that the stimulating artifact in question is making a cheap appeal to one aspect of our embodiment — the animal instincts, the “primitive” brain, the thought-less and head-less (acephalic), vs. the high (and mighty?) part of ourselves we consider “ideal.”

I don’t get tv and I rarely listen to news, which is why internet news reading and internet picture viewing has become my main source of information. I’m looking, in other words, mostly at static images, and I’m not hearing the emotional appeals in the reporter’s spoken voice. It’s always possible to slow down the written word — to stop it, re-read it, re-view it from a different angle, to consider and to hold opposing views while reading a third, and so on. The written word is a technology, a tool, and it’s relatively easy to learn how to use it so that it can enhance all things “sensational,” but it doesn’t have to be sensationalistic. It’s not that hard to stop sensationalism in the written word. You can stop reading, for one thing.

The static image appears to be a different kettle of stew, though. As you see pictures, feelings of horror or glee or shock or relief can flood your brain, as though a spigot of chemical stimulants activating neurological receptors was having its way with your mind. It is trickier to avoid pictorial sensationalism successfully, which may help explain why one common reaction to visual overstimulation is to tune it out entirely, even while still apparently gorging on the supply.

That’s what I found myself doing. As I combed through Flickr postings tagged “Hurricane Katrina,” or through newsarticles’ accompanying photostreams, I also realised how vile I was in my seeming eagerness to discover a truly sublime image that would be capable of eliciting just the right cold-blooded (“sang froid”) reaction of awe and satisfaction one associates with the sublime. But in the end, it was garbage that did it, it was the images of garbage that brought me back to a different frame for my senses.

The domestic in me cut the sublime down to size. Looking at a picture of garbage floating on garbage floating on detritus floating on pollution (sewage, oil, toxic chemicals), I started thinking — not about Endings (the good old teleological stand-by of the perhaps terminally academically deluded), but about Beginnings (the domestic, possibly thoroughly female point of departure). How do you begin cleaning up the mess?

Today I see on the news that some of those Left Behind have taken up their own version of instrumentalised telos: guns, the tool that lets you get the end(s) in sight… According to the news, army helicopters are refusing to land to evacuate people, because too many of the people “waiting” for “rescue” are armed with guns. Today, evacuation from the Superdome was halted after a military helicopter was fired upon, and

…during the night, when a medical evacuation helicopter tried to land at a hospital in the outlying town of Kenner, the pilot reported that 100 people were on the landing pad, and some of them had guns.

“He was frightened and would not land,” Zeuschlag.

He said medics were calling him and crying for help because they were so scared of people with guns at the Superdome. [More…]

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