International Symposium "New Orleans : the misfit city" - November 7-9, 2013

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Aix-Marseille Université - LERMA - FRANCE

Cosmopolitan city, a place of cultural exchange between the Francophone communities of European and Canadian descent, Creoles from the Caribbean and Africa, and a significant influx of American as well as Irish, Italian and German immigrants, New Orleans holds a special place in American history, geography, and culture. At the frontier of the French and Spanish empires, during the formative years of the American nation, the city immediately played a vital role in the young nation. It became the "point on the globe" (Thomas Jefferson) that would have justified a declaration of war against France had Napoleon chosen to pursue it.

The Louisiana Purchase (1803) appeased tensions and the city became the natural outlet for western trading at a time when the center of gravity of the United States had shifted toward the Mississippi basin. The city has played a major role in the slave trade, due to its strategic location on the Gulf of Mexico, and remained essential in the history of racial segregation with the Supreme Court ruling of 'separate but equal' in the Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896). Although having escaped destruction during the Civil War, New Orleans is still systematically devastated by hurricanes and floods. Recently, Hurricane Katrina (2005) has served as a reminder of the city's marginalisation in contemporary America, and the indifference of the Bush administration during the disaster demonstrates the perduring place of New Orleanians as oucasts of society.

In the arts, since the 19th century, New Orleans has been associated with marginal figures in the Creole world, whether it is the mythical figure of the métisse hairdresser, high priestess of Voodoo, Marie Laveau—who inspired many works of all genres—, the portrait of female oppression in the New Orleans Creole society in The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899), or stories of racial injustice in the writings of George Washington Cable, Old Creole Days (1879) and The Grandissimes (1880). But it is undeniably the masterpieces of the Southern playwright Tennessee Williams that give the city its claim to immortality, again inseparable from marginality in various forms, including class demotion, homosexuality and madness in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Suddenly Last Summer (1956). City of excesses and eccentricities, New Orleans is at the heart of novels that marked their time such as All the King's Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren, The Moviegoer (1960) by Walker Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole, or The Knockout Artist (1987) by Georgian Harry Crewes. After the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, chronicles (The Great Deluge [2006] by historian Douglas Brinkley) and investigations are resurrected, including Breach of Faith (2006) by Jed Horne and 1 Dead in Attic (2006 ) by Chris Rose, both journalists at the Times-Picayune, as well as Nine Lives (2009) by Dan Baum, an epic which traces nine lives and nine destinies before and after the hurricane.

Considered one of America's most recognizable and photogenic cities, New Orleans serves as the setting for Hollywood classics (cinematographic adaptation of Elia Kazan's Streetcar with the unforgettable Marlon Brando [1951]) as well as landmarks of indie cinema and counter culture films (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda smoking marijuana in St Louis Cemetery in Easy Rider [1969], Brook Shields as a child prostitute at the Columns Hotel in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby [1978], or the French Quarter, Lafayette Cemetery and the city's streets in Interview with a Vampire [1994]). The post-Katrina era has been equally productive with the remake of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) by Werner Herzog, the HBO series by David Simon Treme (2009), where the episodes retrace the renaissance of the oldest African American neighborhood of the US, as well as political documentaries like When the Levees Broke (2006) and Trouble the Water (2008) or Jonathan Demme's historical documentary and portrait of a civil rights activist I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful (2012). In addition to its current political and sociological subject matter, the series Treme also gives tribute to the musical tradition of jazz, created by slave descendants, which New Orleans has been associated with since its inception and through which the African American community has forged a new identity.

This international conference is part of an interdisciplinary research project on American cities firmly established by the LERMA on the cultural theme of North American cities: two international events have already taken place on this topic, the first on Chicago in 2002 and the second on San Francisco in 2009, that have led to publications through the PUP (Perspectives on Chicago [2004] and San Francisco. West of Eden [2012]). The symposium will provide the opportunity to combine various perspectives on a city with a singular destiny through a multi-disciplinary approach incorporating history, literature, arts (jazz, cinema, television series, photography…), and urban studies.