September 6th, 2005


And God smote the pleasure zone

In a Salon article entitled A New New Orleans David Koen, a non-profit lawyer from the city, says "we need our city back. It will cost billions, and we should pay for it — and here's why". The article, though, far from outlining economic arguments for the reconstruction of the city, turns into a sensual sort of poetry about red beans and rice, kids in go-karts, casinos, zydeco washboard busking, "the plastic cups bars will give you so you can take your beer to go, magnolias and camellias blooming everywhere, and the way no one bothers you if your face is covered with tattoos or you're decked out in a multi-colored rainbow umbrella hat..."

When I visited New Orleans in 2002 (the American Patchwork Tour played in the town), I had much the same impression of the town's liberalism and pleasure-orientation. I described it in my tour diary as "the revelation of the tour":

"You never imagined such a town existed in America. It's a pleasure town, a place where the people really have a credo beyond 'give me convenience or give me death'. Here it's 'Give me jazz and cheap drugs, give me fabulous French colonial architecture, give me horses and carts and antique shops, give me the spirit of carnival like they have it in Venice... It's just a buzz and a delight to be guided round the streets of the French Quarter (you're disappointed to find that they don't actually speak French here) by Phiiliip, who was here with his boyfriend this past new year. It's even a delight to meet the promoter, a svelte handsome Philippino, and to play the faux-ethnic musical instruments in the atelier above the venue. And it's a delight to swim in the hotel pool at 2am and not be told off for diving and splashing."

So how do you make an economic argument for reconstructing something that's about pleasure and poetry, that seems to go beyond the economic? The answer, I think, is that there's no contradiction between pleasure and economic value. The French Quarter of New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina relatively unscathed, and will no doubt be the first area back to some kind of normality. And that's because its pleasure economy brings in millions of dollars each year, thanks to tourists and visitors, tours and spectacle.

What struck me in 2002, though, was how different New Orleans was from all the other American cities we'd seen on our travels. It was different, really, because it wasn't puritan. It was different because, whereas so many American places are not places at all but circulation systems and highways, with "no there there" (as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland), New Orleans had a real sense that here was a "there", a place, somewhere to stop, get out of your car, and walk. (Not in the wrong areas, though.) It was also a city steeped in French culture and black culture, and a city steeped in sunshine, which is a culture in itself.

One question I often ask myself is, "Why doesn't consumerism make us all into pleasure-lovers? Why doesn't it feminise men, undermine the work ethic, make us all into dandies and slackers?" If it's true that our consumer societies ought to be making us ever more refined, epicene, decadent and sybaritic, it may not be New Orleans that's anomalous, but all the other American cities, the rich cities with grim glass towers rising in joyless CBDs, long working hours, poor textures, crummy cuisine and prohibitionist licensing laws. What's preventing Anytown USA—that grim place where people seem unable to do anything but work, make but not spend money, drive cars and watch TV—from becoming New Orleans?

The answer, I think, is religion and politics. America is too Christian and too right-wing to want to relax, despite its great wealth, into a peaceful and feminised shopping culture like the one we see in Japan. Something of the sort did seem to be taking shape during the Clinton years, when massive budget surpluses, global trade, and louche sexuality were the order of the day. (Hell, Clinton's America got so louche, lax and consumerist that I moved there!) The odd fact is that America, that great capitalist nation, is not really about money and trade. If it were, it would always vote Democrat. America seems more truly American, alas, when it's fighting wars, clamping down on pleasure zones and preparing for the "end days".

And isn't there something strange about the way disasters befall only the un-American "pleasure zones"? New York is attacked by terrorists, Los Angeles and San Francisco are shaken by earthquakes, and New Orleans devastated by hurricanes. Why is it only the most liberal and pleasure-loving American cities that get smitten? It's almost enough to make you believe in the "jealous" Old Testament God, the faggot-hating God who stamped out Sodom and Gomorrah, or pick up Brecht's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny". People say the bottom line in America is money. I say... if only!