I Want Magic: A Defense of New Orleans Exceptionalism

by C.W. Cannon


A recent academic vogue among some scholars of New Orleans is to warn against the dangers of an ideology deeply rooted in the local culture: New Orleans exceptionalism. There are two strains of anti-exceptionalist fervor today. One fear is that the will to see a New Orleans that is distinct from broader national cultural norms will result in biased conclusions, in a failure of what is naively referred to as “objectivity.” The other is the complaint that New Orleans exceptionalism “masks” serious social injustices that would appear in bolder relief, and presumably be redressed, if not for that old narrative about New Orleans’ “unique” culture. The academic itch to debunk popularly held exceptionalist verities has increased in recent years precisely because New Orleans exceptionalism became a great rallying cry after Hurricane Katrina. The more that average New Orleanians wanted to see their city as a special place—perhaps to summon motivation to rebuild lives at the site of catastrophe—the more vigorous became the finger-wagging of a tiny handful of experts who managed to make a career out of specializing in the academic study of New Orleans. It’s easy to see how sneering at exceptionalism is partly an effort to promote exclusivity in a narrow discourse community. But it’s even easier to see the willful blind spots the critics of exceptionalism don’t seem to be aware of.

To charge that New Orleans exceptionalism will constitute an epistemological “confirmation bias,” as Richard Campanella does in the Spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas, is to assume that no other confirmation biases are possible. This dream of absolute objectivity seems dated in today’s post-modern intellectual milieu. One chooses one’s biases, hopefully in a somewhat conscious manner, and should announce them, rather than pretending that any one of us can be free of bias. More specifically, New Orleans exceptionalism is defined by what it claims New Orleans is an exception to. Whether seen as an enemy of truth or as an enemy of social progress, New Orleans exceptionalism needs to be understood as a response to far more pervasive and dominant ideologies on a larger scale. No form of exceptionalism exists in a vacuum. The claim of New Orleans exceptionalism is not that New Orleans is an exception to all of human history. New Orleans exceptionalism expresses a sense of difference on three successive levels, depending on which exceptionalist text is up for analysis. New Orleans exceptionalists have claimed that New Orleans is different from the rest of the United States, different from the rest of the South, and different from the rest of Louisiana. All of these assertions have been made in published texts and in private conversations. While people do say things like “New Orleans is the greatest city in the world,” this is more of a common expression of civic pride, heard in many a great city, than an expression of specifically exceptionalist sentiment.

So New Orleans exceptionalism has defining oppositions and can only be understood in relation to this broader ideological context, which, at the most general level, is Americanism. The believer in that old myth of pure objectivity, then, may be motivated by an Americanist bias, which suspects in New Orleans exceptionalism some kind of affront to America, some kind of anti-American strain that is deeply blasphemous. Indeed, many an exceptionalist text, from Lafcadio Hearn, to Robert Tallant, to stuff I see posted on Facebook by fairly typical New Orleans bohemians, is explicitly anti-American in a cultural if not directly political sense. In other words, to warn against New Orleans exceptionalism is simply to fall into the trap of some other, unnamed bias—better to acknowledge biases and take a position openly, rather than disingenuously claiming that only the other guy is diseased by ideology.

Another weakness in this latest round of New Orleans Americanist rhetoric (billed as “moving beyond” New Orleans exceptionalism) is the sharply reductive definition and geneaology of New Orleans exceptionalism it trots out. Besides ignoring the tri-level stage that exceptionalist ideologies take shape in (America, South, and Louisiana), detractors like Thomas Adams and Matt Sakakeeny, organizers of a conference titled “New Orleans as Subject: Moving Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity,” have claimed that New Orleans exceptionalism is “static,” “reified,” and “ahistorical.” But this is itself an ahistorical observation. Much of what today’s Americanist detractors attribute to New Orleans exceptionalism derives from penetrating critiques of the rising tourist industry, and its effects on local culture, by Mark Souther, Anthony J. Stanonis, and Kevin Fox Gotham. But the broad scope of New Orleans exceptionalism is far older and more various than tourism caricatures suggest. I think the way out of the vague, reductive view of New Orleans exceptionalism as tourist hype is to think not of New Orleans “exceptionalism,” but of “New Orleans exceptionalists,” specific names who have authored specific texts. That would have the added benefit of addressing another rhetorical sleight-of-hand dear to the practice of interpreting New Orleans’ place in the national culture. While I have always understood New Orleans exceptionalists as persons who celebrate the idea of New Orleanian difference, and Americanists as those ideologues who berate New Orleanian difference as detrimental, the new anti-exceptionalist movement lumps these very different interests together—since both assume and overemphasize New Orleans’ distinctiveness in the first place. But this is finally too violent a conflation of diametrically opposed attitudes, haters and rhapsodists.

Whether in the interest of truth or of social progress, we’re told that the danger of New Orleans exceptionalism is that it will somehow hinder our ability to apprehend facts. But what constitutes a “fact?” New Orleans exceptionalism is in itself a fact, accumulated in hundreds of years of written texts, in English, French, and German. These texts form a preponderance of facts. Anti-exceptionalist scholars tend to value numbers over texts, quantitative over qualitative research, but the sheer numbers of exceptionalist utterances must mean that New Orleans exceptionalism is an ideology with a long history and a complex series of stages in its development. It began as a species of anti-colonial nationalism, pitting Francophone Creoles against the new American administrative power. One of the most distinctive features of New Orleans exceptionalism was evident in those early stages: that it crossed racial lines. White Creoles such as Charles Gayarré had their version, as did Afro-Creoles like Armand Lanusse and the Les Cenelles poets. This shows also that there are varieties of New Orleans exceptionalism, different strains that agree on New Orleanian difference as a reservoir of possibility but disagree about other important issues.

Just as conscious exceptionalists should study the roots of their ideology (though it tends to begin in the gut first), Americanists, if they can admit their own ideology, can see early on the roots of New Orleans Americanism as a counter-argument to exceptionalism, most notably in George Washington Cable. New Orleans Americanism doesn’t hold that New Orleans does not have certain exceptional historical and social features, rather it sees exceptionalism as a dangerous ideology that needs to be disabused in order for New Orleans to take its rightful place in America—whose own exceptionalist triumphalism is far more dangerous than our little city’s. Indeed, from antebellum Afro-Creole Republicanism, to Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein, to Lafcadio Hearn, the point of New Orleans exceptionalist arguments was to link New Orleans to non-U.S. influences and thus to escape the straitjacket of American exceptionalism by invoking a more global understanding of the city’s culture and historic destiny. Cable artificially disconnects his Creoles from the broader francophone world in his 1880 masterpiece, The Grandissimes. Moreover, to make his point that New Orleanian difference is more detrimental than valuable, he engages in some fantastic distortions. Like other Americans of his day, Cable views miscegenation as one of the great evils enabled by an exceptional New Orleans. This conviction leads him to paint the free Afro-Creoles of New Orleans as psychically damaged by the sinful circumstances of their ancestry, and, most significantly, as intellectually and politically impotent. Yet he had personally witnessed how these same people forcefully asserted themselves and their political interests during Reconstruction and before. This is an example of how Americanist bias distorts facts equally as much as exceptionalist apologetics can.

Simply refusing to note the exceptional in New Orleans, rather than misrepresenting it, is also an Americanist intellectual weakness. Thus Afro-Creole exceptionalist Rodolphe Desdunes felt compelled to write a pamphlet in 1907 taking to task none other than W.E.B. Dubois for his inability to recognize the contributions of Afro-Creole New Orleanians. H.L. Mencken’s characterization of the South as a “Sahara of the Bozart” led to a similar flare-up of exceptionalist rhetoric in the 1920s. Finally, after nasty national commentators characterized New Orleans as a second-rate Detroit following Katrina, many locals responded by embracing exceptionalism as a badge of honor. Indeed, knee-jerk New Orleans exceptionalism became more widespread after the storm than ever before. The message in all these instances is clear: when Americanists refuse to recognize what their terms don’t have words to describe, exceptionalists remind them that their terms aren’t the only ones. This is a tendency to be embraced, not shunned as some kind of provincial ignorance. New Orleans exceptionalism represents the possibility of an alternative value system existing alongside, and sometimes in opposition to, American values. The specific content of both of these vague conglomerations of values is variable, historically contingent, and hard to pin down, but the point is that a will to offer an alternative to a nationally hegemonic value system is valuable in itself, not something to be ashamed of.

And this leads to the saddest failure of understanding in today’s faddish academic critique of exceptionalism, which is the disregard for its utopian character. I’ve already said that New Orleans exceptionalism doesn’t represent a distortion of facts but rather a body of facts—a textual record. But of course every body of facts is selected by a governing ideology. At its most imaginative, New Orleans exceptionalism represents a utopian vision of an ideal society, of a way of living that manages to celebrate different values than the prevailing ones in the broader national hegemonic culture. As such, exceptionalism has often been a bohemian ideology. I thought its bohemian character began with Lafcadio Hearn in the 1880s until I read Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein, who wrote in the 1850s. His The Mysteries of New Orleans (Die Geheimnisse von New Orleans) was published serially in German in the radical German newspaper, Louisiana Staats-Zeitung. In many ways it is a typical exceptionalist text. For example, he writes, “New Orleans has always been the leader in the United States in everything that heightens enjoyment of life and makes the dullest people into Epicureans.” We see here some common features of New Orleans exceptionalist ideology as it has developed over the centuries. Most notable is the sense that New Orleans offers a value system seen as alternative to mainstream American values, specifically in terms of sensual and aesthetic fulfillment. For Reizenstein and many other successive exceptionalists, New Orleans throws up an obstacle to the march of Anglo-Saxon capitalist and puritanical definitions of value. It’s right and fair to point out that Reizenstein’s audience was not representative of all New Orleanians, and that his assumptions about New Orleans might simply be the ravings of one fevered brain—indeed, his work wasn’t translated into English until 2002. But the numbers argument misses the point. Like all ideologies, New Orleans exceptionalism is a history of ideas, not of a broad social movement. Indeed, Reizenstein, like many other exceptionalists, might be expressing a wish or a dream of New Orleans more than he is recording an accurate social portrait.

Let’s consider just one more exceptionalist text, penned a century after Reizenstein. Robert Tallant wrote in 1950 that New Orleanians “derive more enjoyment from their lives than do most Americans…for even those who cannot afford to belong to a privileged leisure class often act as though they do.” There are multiple ways to interpret this statement. We could point out that it’s too sweeping to be factually accurate. We could say it masks the reality of economic inequality by suggesting that all New Orleans social classes know how to laissez les bon temps rouler, thus negating the need for economic justice. Or we could see in this a call to democratize leisure as well as labor and prioritize leisure as a more meaningful pursuit than slaving away for the boss in the hope of illusory social mobility (i.e. the “American Dream”). Instead of seeing distinctive New Orleanian cultural practices and attitudes as masking or distracting from economic struggle, we could put the horse before the cart and realize that New Orleanian joie de vivre has often been a response to and a coping strategy for economic distress. We need to be able to deplore economic conditions without also deploring the people who created unique cultural forms and attitudes under such conditions.

This brings us finally to the “problem” of New Orleans “magic.” Anti-exceptionalist positivists always sneer when the “m”-word comes up. But invocation of “magical New Orleans,”–or, as Lyle Saxon titled his 1928 book, Fabulous New Orleans–represents a will to live a life of awe, mystery, and intensity. Why do some people care so much if others like to color their factual mess of pottage with some fanciful brush strokes? Because, so goes the vulgar materialist critique, fantasy and aesthetics are “mystifications” that “mask” real social inequities. But this is the usual Americanist puritanical charge: that New Orleans’ valorization of sensual and aesthetic fulfillment prevents its economic functionalism (that is, these lazy and dissolute dreamers don’t want to work). Regarding the knightly defenders of fact over fiction, Nietzsche reminds us that “truth” is always a matter of distortion anyway: “What we do in dreams we also do when we are awake: we invent and fabricate the person with whom we associate—and immediately forget we have done so.” The trick is to be as conscious as possible of how one is fabricating one’s own experience. One of the loudest exceptionalist themes in New Orleans literature—far more common here than in other regional literary traditions—is that folks like a little fantasy in their lives. So? The will to fantasy is perhaps the most dangerous but also most liberating aspect of New Orleans exceptionalism: the dream that sensual fulfillment is more valuable than social ambition, that a rich aesthetic life need not be sacrificed to the dictates of economic survival. The claim that the imperative of sensual and aesthetic fulfillment simply masks economic injustice is the same old Americanist puritanical suspicion that culture, art, and partying are the enemy of economic progress.

Anti-exceptionalist scholars really just suggest a change in emphasis, from cataloging the ways in which New Orleans is different to checking off ways the city is not. In other words, we should focus on what makes New Orleans most like everywhere else rather than on what makes our experience special. One of the biggest problems with this approach is how tone deaf it is to the aspirations and possibilities of local identity. New Orleanians have broken into the two camps of Americanist and exceptionalist for centuries, yet now we supposedly have an opportunity to end this ideological history by amputating one side of the dialectic. But why would we want to do that? Why is our rich local mythology seen as the problem? Can it really be that our little city’s dream of an exceptional identity is a greater contributor to inequality than capitalist ideologies of unrestricted free enterprise, individual initiative, and social mobility? If we could manage to excise our deeply ingrained sense of special identity, and see ourselves more like a smaller version of Houston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, etc, who could possibly believe that this cultural mutilation would lead us to overcome the ingrained injustices that are part and parcel of American capitalism everywhere? Such puritanical sacrifices of emotional fulfillment are easier said than done anyway—just as being aware of what drives one’s libido doesn’t make it go away, being told that we shouldn’t think we’re so special doesn’t erase that urge either.

I can admit that I, too, often roll my eyes at exceptionalist platitudes, especially since they’ve been harnessed by tourism and embraced by many new transplants in superficial ways. I think it’s fair and necessary to distinguish between vulgar exceptionalism—like bashing neighbors who want some peace and quiet as “enemies of the culture”—and a more thoughtful, conscious embrace of exceptionalism as an ideology. Far from being some recent tourism-induced local fad, New Orleans exceptionalism is older than po-boys, jazz, and every local university. To dismiss it as an enemy of knowledge or, worse, an enemy of an equitable society, is not only a failure of imagination, but the willful blindness of an ideology unwilling to name itself.


C.W. Cannon, Ph.D., teaches in the English department at Loyola University. He is a frequent contributor to The Lens (thelensnola.org), where he writes about New Orleans, the South, and race. His novel Soul Resin (2002) was excerpted in the Fall 2008 edition of Louisiana Cultural Vistas.


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