This morning I finished watching the first season of David Simon’s New Orleans drama Treme. There’s no way Treme is going to avoid being compared to Simon’s previous series The Wire since it shares a number of actors and a general narrative framework, but the new series is its own creature. Treme takes place post-Katrina and focuses on the lives of a constellation of individuals connected in a relationship we might call “New Orleans.” Simon’s critique of government authority and bureaucracy has only sharpened, and Katrina and its aftermath gives him as excellent a subject as Baltimore ever did. Disgust with the police, national guard, local and federal politicians, and especially FEMA unites Simon’s characters; it’s a common feeling that manifests itself in DJ Davis McAlary’s (Steve Zahn) parody album and writer/professor Creigh Bernette’s (John Goodman) anti-government YouTube rants. The first season was largely a story of a community trying to heal in spite of its institutions of authority.
My favorite storyline in the first season was Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters), the chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians (which I definitely don’t quite understand as a phenomenon), and his fight with local politicians over the use of housing projects. So far I haven’t seen any accusations that Simon has taken too many creative liberties with the facts of the storm and its aftermath, but I’ll be restricting myself to writing about the show and recommending Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell when it comes to documentary accounts. In episode seven, “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” Albert takes up residence in the Cooper housing projects, even though they’re being kept closed by local and federal governments. This happens after a local politician to whom Albert has inquired about opening the projects offers him a single FEMA trailer. Not content, Albert and some associates break into an apartment (with permission from its usual inhabitant) and set up shop. When the police come to take the chief away, Albert refuses to kneel and is brutally beat.
The bright spot in the episode is when others follow Albert’s example and occupy other project buildings. Big Chief Lambreaux’s first occupation was not a protest, as he had given up negotiating with the authorities who claimed there was nothing they could do. The action is demandless. He knew he was going to be arrested, but by taking the apartment, Albert makes present common, rather than public, space. The difference between the two is often hard to demonstrate and many on the left don’t bother to draw a distinction when they call for an increase in “public space,” uncritical of the police lurking in the conceptual background. If I may quote my thesis,
“The occupation is not a means to an end, it is its own end for as long as the counter-juxtaposition holds. Actions of this sort inevitably come into confrontation with State power, which forces the question of privatization, with the contested resource either privatized for the people as represented through the State or held by the insurgents. The youths of Greece who battle with police for the streets cause us to ask, If the streets are public, why do they have to fight for them? Counter-juxtapositions of reclamation reveal public property as segments of the privatized common. In the midst of a riot or an occupation, the public is revealed to be the less private.”
What good are public housing projects if when they’re most needed, they are inaccessible to the people? It may be helpful here to think in terms of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s linked concepts of constituent and constituted power. The second is the power of the State, the police and national guard, who are ultimately under the authority of an elected official and paid by popular taxation. This is a public power, the authority of the included masses as delegated through layers of bureaucracy and authority. Under constituted power, the inhabitants of the projects find themselves in the odd position of paying police officers to keep them out of their own homes. Constituent power is the force brought to bear by Big Chief Lambreaux and his friends. It’s disorganized, constantly shifting, and very much alive. Simon and his talented co-writers show the fissures revealed by the storm between a vibrant and innovative constituent power epitomized in constant impromptu sing-a-longs among strangers, and corrupt, murderous structures of constituted power, present in the batons used to beat Albert for trespassing on public property. As Davis (Zahn) says in episode two, “You think the mob would have dragged ass like FEMA, left little old ladies on the rooftops?”
I must confess to being suspicious when I first heard Treme’s premise. As a friend put it, “How can you make a show about music in New Orleans?” But the music is a synecdoche for the general intellect of New Orleans, the spirit of a city that endures in the face of nature and its own constituted power. It’s synecdochal rather than metaphorical because the music is an important part of the intellectual common of Simon’s New Orleans, a visible (and audible) reminder of unofficial networks and contingent arrangements. The songs connect Simon’s characters far more strongly than their transcendental unity in the form of a federal, state, or local government ever could. Unsurprisingly, I’ll be looking very much forward to season two.