Civilizations without Boats Prospectus

Boat in Dulac
A Heterogeography of Chauvin, Louisiana

what

These are the facts of Chauvin, Louisiana: a small, coastal town, populated by refugees from the Acadian diaspora; a place where men are trawlers, roustabouts, and roughnecks, and the women wives, cashiers; a hurricane disaster plain; shore-zero for oil spills; a French community that morphed into an illiterate American one; a repository for the old songs, two-steps, and trickster tales from a beautiful, impossible past; a population uneducated on behalf of the state, a still-spooky Catholicism, and technological maladjustment. And yet, facts are not enough.

This research projects intends to map the spaces between those “facts,” the impossible places, the intensities felt behind the hard stones of culture, the worlds that are verging on becoming. I want to study how people make worlds out of the stories and landscapes they live in. I want to understand how these worlds harden into story and culture and land, how they become facts. I want to understand the worlds that die and the ones that are eroded by the strong worlds already extant.

To do this, I will go to Chauvin and talk to the people that live there, make movies with them, look through their stuff, and share in their imaginings. My questions will be: How do you imagine your past? What could the future hold for you, your town, your landscapes? How do you move through the world in the present and what stories and fantasies propel you? But questions, like facts, are not enough. To cull the ephemeral space between actualities requires being attuned to the senses, to my subjects’ and mine, to bodily navigation—in addition to discourse, official or otherwise. I am after the kinds of fantasies that make it possible to live in the face of loss. The kinds that acknowledge the loss of industry, the loss of land, and the loss of community heritage, which in turn have embedded emotional importance in these lost things.

I want to study these people’s lives and the worlds they make in them in order to understand how the people of a small, precarious town carve out space for themselves that they can live in, how they manage paradoxical fantasies and stories, what populates and fuels their dreams. In the process of exploring these research questions, perhaps we might begin to touch the process whereby space, narrative, affect, and imagination condense into fact, how we might intervene in our own myth and world making.

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towards an ethnography of the dead

surgical theater header
tracing the ghost in Michel Foucault’s autoportrait as surprised anatomist

In an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, Michel Foucault reimagines his project of writing as one that slices into the dead body of other people. Only the corpses are not dead, and it is unclear who those people were. He says, “For me the sheet of paper may be the body of the other” (39). He says, “For me, writing means having to deal with the death of others, but it basically means having to deal with others to the extent that they’re already dead. In one sense, I’m speaking over the corpse of others” (40). The metaphor resonates with some autobiographical details Foucault divulges: his father, a surgeon, does not act through speech, but through an act of dissection, to “reach the silent truth of the body” (35); the son, a writer, acts only through a way of speaking which becomes also an act of dissection, but one undertaken only for a post-mortem diagnosis, a ferreting out a kernel of truth that finally became fatal.

Prominent Foucauldian Dana Scully exercising an archeology of knowledge.
Prominent Foucauldian Dana Scully exercising an archeology of knowledge.

Speaking over could also mean that he speaks the loudest in a chorus of the dead. This meaning becomes a stranger fantasy than one of the self-deprecating philosopher, assuming a creepy naïveté. Foucault continues his autoportrait, “I don’t condemn them to death. I simply assume they’re already dead. That’s why I’m so surprised when I hear them cry out” (41). These three sentences would be an excellent epigraph for a horror-adventure novel—words of a villain, an accidental necromancer, a mad scientist. The “they” could be anybody, made ambiguous by Foucault’s conversation: the immediate context suggests his readers (the antecedent seems to be the people in this sentence: “I also understand why people experience my writing as a form of aggression”), but the statements about the death of others, the corpse of others could indicate the lives buried in medical and penal archives, the writers who are quoted in his works (Linnaeus, Nietzsche, Descartes, etc.), or even the Man ushered forth in the modern episteme—the Man that is the subject and object of anthropology, psychoanalysis, medicine, and political economics. To consider Foucault as the one who speaks louder than corpses makes sense with the expanded “they”; after all, their voices are indeed subsumed within his writing. If he masters them there, through analysis and criticism, he has spoken over them. But mastering the subjects of his studies does not seem to be the point of Foucault’s writing.

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