New Orleans: The Public Sphere of the Disaster
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Monika Krause is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University. Her research interests include critical theory and humanitarian organizations. “The Production of Counter-Publics and The Counter-Publics of Production: An Interview with Oskar Negt” is forthcoming in the European Journal of Social Theory.

It is tempting to inquire about the “reactions of the public” to the events of New Orleans—Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath. One could, for example, analyze the content of the media or survey opinions. With just a few days of delay the pollsters have started to do just that.

There are, however, limits to this way of thinking about the matter: It suggests that the public is something that can be taken for granted and exists entirely independently of the events and then represents them or reacts to them. Yet the news media or the people watching do not in themselves make a public in the emphatic sense of the word.1 The public as a sphere of shared discussion and experience may or may not emerge depending on social circumstances.

It is important to note the extent to which this disaster has produced its own public; that is, it fostered a shared experience that made social contexts visible, articulated interests and led to collective debates about social justice.

The news media has had an important role to play. Most living outside the areas affected by Katrina learned about the catastrophe and its aftermath through television and the internet. Some of the characteristics of the events made them particularly televisable: The crisis unfolded over several days, it was set in a specific locale, the details of which quickly became recognizable even to an observer without any previous knowledge of New Orleans.

But beyond the coverage of the major stations and papers, there is the experience of hundreds of thousands who have been affected. For millions more, following the story has been a very emotional experience. People sought conversations in their workplaces, often transcending the usual reserve between superiors and subordinates. They talked with friends and families, using the phone and the internet. The internet made accounts available by people who had escaped or been evacuated. These conversations have a material reality of their own.

The Public’s Vision

The impulse of the sociologist is to argue that Katrina is not simply a natural disaster but a social event, to analyze the role of race and class in the evacuation procedures and to examine in detail the bureaucratic failures in the emergency response. It is striking, however, how sociological the public conversations already are. The suffering is discussed in its social and organizational context. In the terms of C. Wright Mills: private troubles have become public issues.2

Because the experiences of the victims resonate with others’ experiences of racial discrimination, poverty and state failures, the scope of the discussions extends beyond Katrina. Injustices that are in some form present also in the everyday lives of millions—the victims usually having some practical understanding of them—now get articulated on a national scale.

In the subtext of the debate there is an implicit acknowledgement of the responsibility of the collective for the needs of its citizens, an affirmation of substantive citizenship. When journalists exclaim “these are American citizens” when showing us Katrina's victims, they might imply, as some have commented, that because of the color of their skin, this might not go without saying. But they also mean emphatically: “They should not be allowed to suffer like this.”

The events led many to question the Bush administration and the policies of the last decade. While people were waiting for aid and personnel to reach New Orleans, they discussed how many national guardsmen of the affected states were deployed in Iraq. It emerged that a field hospital in Baton Rouge had been sent supplies against chemical attack including anti-anthrax medicine.3 Did Homeland Security’s focus on terrorism leave the nation unprepared for a civil emergency? Why had the levees not been improved? Why had there been no plans to evacuate those without cars? Would it have taken as long to send help if those waiting had been white?

Faced with the want among survivors and evacuees, the public has also posed a more general question, casting doubt on one of the basic organizing principles of US society: Can it be considered just that individuals are solely responsible for costs whose causes are beyond their control?

The networks showed people in the water trying to hold on to plastic bags with their last possessions, people looking for food in New Orleans, waiting for food at the Superdome. Tens of thousands have been deprived of everything they could use to secure their survival. Those having to start anew include former residents of New Orleans but also for example the thousands who had made their living in the gambling industry on the Gulf Coast. Those who have lost possessions and jobs are now available for the most extreme forms of exploitation.

These scenes recall the enclosures in England, when peasants lost access to the land they cultivated.4 The commons were fenced off and all forms of communal provision and ancient rights of usage were suspended. A version of this process has accompanied the emergence of capitalism around the world and it has always taken considerable force to implement the new rules. That troubles are today first and foremost private troubles, that the individual is the default unit of need and responsibility is a result of this history of violence.

It was of course the storm and the water that had taken the possessions of people in the Gulf region and destroyed their livelihoods. But many had been made vulnerable beforehand through the labor market, the punitive institutions of the state and a lack of social provision. This vulnerability has been cemented after the fact with each encounter the refugees have with a social order based on individual responsibility and private property.

When a man taking a television from a store was asked why he was stealing it, he replied: “Can you see anybody to pay?” This scene exposes the practical contradictions of private property; the moral ones became visible with everything that individuals might need but are told not to take in the name of the law and with everything that might be needed collectively but is not accessible. An evacuee reports the scenes in front of a grocery store two days after Katrina had struck: “The Walgreen's store…remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the windows… The milk, yogurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat. The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers, and prescriptions and fled the City. Outside Walgreen's windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry.” 5 Why not organize and share the food? Indeed, in the days after the storm many attempts were made to do just that. Survivors in the convention center told reporters of the young men who broke into the kitchen of a hotel and made eggs for a huge collective breakfast.

A similar dilemma between need and property arises with everything that might be needed collectively but is not accessible such as the cruise ships which lay off the coast for a number of days while their owners pondered a government request to assist in the evacuation.

In Empathy’s Way

Not everything that has been said in the course of the disaster has been part of this public sphere of shared experience. Since the early days there have been signs of a closure of the debate: For some observers, the events were mediated through abstractions, which made it impossible to relate to the victims as fellow human beings. James Scott has analyzed how the social organization of the state blinds its officials to the concrete diversity and particularities of social life.6 Extending his coinage—“seeing like a state”—we can identify specific visions in the aftermath of Katrina, such as “seeing like a suburban,” “seeing like an army,” “seeing like a tourist,“ and “seeing like a politician.“ Each of these visions depends on a specific institutional infrastructure—the segregation of cities for example, the military, or the tourism industry. Each is racialised in a different way.

In the days after the storm the people inside New Orleans came to be seen by some more as a threat than as a population in need. These interpretations drew on structures of meanings associated with the divide between white suburbs and black inner cities.

Those who took food were reported to be “looting”—especially when they were African-American. The racialised coverage has since been documented: One early picture shows a white man and a white woman wading through the water after “finding” food at a grocery store, another shows a young black man in a similar scenario said to have been “looting” a grocery store. Few attempts were made to understand the social logic of crime in the context of a complete collapse of security.

Some officials spoke of an insurgency in the city. In the Army Times Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force was quoted as saying “We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.” 7 When faced with groups of survivors, the police was set to disperse them.

Sometimes also “the City” or “New Orleans” as a sign has diverted from the suffering of its poorer residents in the aftermath of Katrina. While people were still waiting for help in the Superdome, commentators already began mourning the loss of a city in abstract terms. With warm nostalgia commentators remembered the charms “the Big Easy” held for its visitors. Politicians’ affirmation that “we will rebuild” came long before the remaining residents received aid. As the concrete plans for rebuilding are being discussed, the question “for whom” the city will be rebuilt does not always figure prominently.

Some of the defining moments of the immediate crisis came from politicians losing their professionalism and showing their emotions, such as when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told the federal government to “get off their asses.” Yet there were moments when the political responses seemed driven more by politics’ internal logic than by the situation itself.

Government officials praised each other and criticized each other over the heads of those affected. Very soon commentators discussed in rather narrow terms how President Bush’s career was going to be affected by this crisis. In Europe, commentators and politicians often saw the events as an exclusively American problem, choosing to highlight not the issues that are common between the US and European countries but what separated them. The political context of the events was seen through the lens of foreign policy disputes, foregrounding global warming at the expense of broader social contexts. To the extent that racial and class inequalities in the US were explained, it was done in a tone that left unclear whether the terror of the observer was aimed at social relations in the US or its victims.

The Challenge for Democratic Institutions

The events are still broadly discussed as questions of social justice. The space in which these contexts and connections can be experienced, however, is unstable and precarious. The discussion fostered by crises and single events have been short-lived on previous occasions. 9/11 could have been the start of a discussion on global interdependence but heralded a period of unilateral military intervention and discrimination against specific ethnic and religious groups. 9/11 did trigger a discussion on the coordination of emergency services but the results of the ensuing reform have been called into question by Katrina.

What will happen with the anger, the energy and the insights of this moment? It will be a test of the democratic institutions in the United States whether the discussion can be kept alive and whether the experience of these weeks can be translated into social change.

There are considerable structural barriers to this process. The official news media—what Negt and Kluge call the “public sphere of production”—are limited as a site of a genuine public sphere.8 Journalists are constrained by their routines and are encouraged to “cover live” and report “news.” The everyday hardship of the survivors of the hurricane in the coming months will be attracting less attention from reporters than the events of the first week—just as already the rural parts of Louisiana and Mississippi have received much less attention than New Orleans.

There are challenges to communication in any complex society. How do we enable people to relate to each other across social and spatial distance and be inclusive? The social organization of the news media in the US poses specific problems for an equitable articulation of interests. Policy here has long prioritized private news organizations, which depend on making profit through income from advertisers. The transformation of many news organizations into publicly traded corporations has reduced the scope of executives to define the aims of their organizations: They now have a legal obligation towards their shareholders to put profit first.

Existing political institutions also pose some barriers to translating the lessons of New Orleans into social change. In the first couple of days, a number of politicians became spokespeople for the survivors. African-American members of Congress were quick to respond to the tragedy and the administration has since been criticized from politicians in both parties. It remains to be seen what forms the inquiry will take and what effects it will have.

The organizational structure of the two major parties limits their capacity to carry forward the concerns of the public. They are geared largely towards mobilizing voters on election day. With the exception of the religious right, the parties lack a permanent institutional base within the electorate and offer little to help people organize around these issues.9 A new civil rights movement would have to emerge.

This essay is based on a shorter piece that first appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau, 9/6/2005 under the title “Die öffentliche Katastrophe.”


1 Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience (Minnesota University Press 1993). See also Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (MIT Press 1989).

2 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press 1959).

3 Julian Borger and Duncan Campbell, “Why did help take so long to arrive?” The Guardian, 9/3/2005.

4 See Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press 1985 [1944]), Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Geschichte und Eigensinn, (Zweitausendeins 1981), E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Pantheon Books 1964).

5 “Hurricane Katrina—Our Experiences” by Larry Bradshaw, Lorrie Beth Slonsky; received by email. Accessed at, 9/10/2005.

6 James Scott, Seeing like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (Yale University Press 1998).

7 Joseph R. Chenelly, “Troops begin combat operations in New Orleans,” Army Times, 9/2/2005.

8 Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience (University of Minnesota Press 1993), Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, “The Context of Life as Object of Production of the Media Conglomerate,” Media Culture and Society, 1983, 5/1.

9 Frances Pox Piven and Richard Cloward, Why Americans Don’t Vote (Pantheon 1998); Walter Dean Burnham, “The Appearance and Disappearance of the American Voter,” in Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers ed. The Political Economy (M.W.Sharpe, 1984).