Kristina Busse

Abstract for Second Lining as Suffering and Solidarity: Absence and Authenticity in David Simon’s post-Katrina New Orleans

Co-Written with John Dudley

SCMS (March 2011)

Even prior to its premiere, Treme was heralded for its authenticity yet judged against potential appropriations of New Orleans reality. Airing not five years after the Gulf Coast’s deadliest hurricane and its horrific aftermath were broadcast live across the world, Treme immediately evokes and is weighed against these familiar images. In general, representing collective traumatic events and their specific effects remain a central challenges for artistic representations. In this essay, we want to argue that music balances the non-representable absence and the trauma it marks with a representational authenticity through its extensive diegetic use.

We suggest that one way art can appropriately represent traumatic events is by engaging simultaneously with particular and universal accounts: focus on the particular responses of individuals allows viewers’ affective engagement while a more distanced overview of the disaster can encompass the event’s enormity. Balancing those two opposing representations prevents the text from become solely affect-driven or too clinically abstract. In Treme, music performs the function of linking the two structurally and thematically—often a musical interlude connects multiple narrative lines and love for music is the central element in the otherwise racially, socio-economically, and generationally diverse cast of characters. Moreover, music itself becomes the universal element in Treme: using the way New Orleans has always been connected to jazz in particular, the series reinforces a sense of authenticity by casting well-known New Orleans musicians. Music itself becomes an abstract connector among various characters as well as between the characters and the audience.

The unique cultural practice of “second lining,” in particular, functions metonymically for a show that uses music to engages with trauma, mourning, and living. The procession of mourners and uninvited participants who form the “second line” behind the deceased at a traditional jazz funeral offers a powerful reminder to the living that the shared past exists and its memory must be honored but that obsessively revisiting traumatic memory must be avoided. With its roots in African and Caribbean ritual practice and specific to New Orleans and the African-American community, second lining connects the individual with the community, the past with the present, and the dead with the living.

Moreover, in spite (or perhaps because) of its particular historical meaning, the second-line parade has become a ubiquitous signifier of “real” New Orleans culture, a staple of the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival and other events central to the city’s tourism industry. In using this specific model as a central musical and dramaturgical element in the show, creator David Simon showcases not only his ability to re-create authenticity but also to engage with their underlying meanings. Even as he and Treme viewers can be no more than tourists to these (semi)fictional characters' lives, allowing us to share the music offers a non-representational yet nevertheless all too authentic way to create affective connections where intellectual attempts to comprehend catastrophe and trauma are bound to fail.