Blue Velvet: Re-Dressing New Orleans in Katrina's Wake
Created and maintained by David Theo Goldberg and the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, Northern Illinois University
David Theo Goldberg's Blue Velvet: Re-Dressing New Orleans in Katrina's Wake presents a cohesive and integrative analysis of the historical and social causes of the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Specifically, through an evaluation of historical policies such as redlining and its consequent "born-again racism," Goldberg contends that "The Lower Ninth Ward is neither mistake nor oversight. Its destruction… [was] as surely the outcome of neoliberal privatization as its neglected condition was the product…of the segregating racial state."
Blue Velvet is a multimedia, peer-reviewed digital article hosted by the Vectors journal. It presents its analysis through two different narratives: the project and the index. The project is a linear cataloguing of evidence and analysis formulated as twenty-four distinct arguments. These arguments - whose length varies from a few sentences to several pages of text - are each classified by a keyword whose decomposition is linked to the rhetoric of the argument.
The project interface is a nearly blank cityscape of New Orleans. The keyword titles of the arguments scroll at the top of the screen, occasionally raining phrases from that section upon the city. By clicking on the argument, a heavier rain of words is produced, followed by a click-able red text which leads into the narrative and evidence. This evidence is comprised mainly of still images and charts. A handful of audio and video clips are deployed throughout the entire project. These multimedia offerings are supplementary to the main body of the project which is its text.
The second component of the article, helpfully linked at the end of the project itself, is the index. The index presents all the materials from the project as part of a web diagram. The web is navigable by double-clicking any element, and includes the full text of the arguments and thumbnails of the media elements. Unfortunately, these multimedia elements cannot be launched from the index. The index does, however, show in which argument each image, video or audio clip resides.
Blue Velvet represents a peer-reviewed scholarly article. As such, the most likely audience for the project is to be other scholars themselves. Owing to the high level of interpretation and the relatively complex approach taken by Goldberg, the article seems destined to be appreciated chiefly by the academic community. Pre-university level students are likely to have difficulty comprehending the full weight of the article; Goldberg's language and narrative require an ability to draw conclusions well outside the norms for a high school classroom. At the university level, Blue Velvet best fits into any classroom discussion in which the questions raised by Hurricane Katrina can be brought to bear. History, sociology, and urban planning courses can all take advantage of the Goldberg's analysis.
At its core, Blue Velvet reads like a traditional historical narrative. This is unsurprising, given that the project was conceived as a digital transformation of Goldberg's previously published scholarship. One is left with the impression that much of the digitized materials presented with the arguments serve as supplement, rather than complement, to the text itself. While the charts and maps fit seamlessly into the broader article, the multimedia elements often feel superficial; cherry-picked examples rather than fully-formed arguments in their own right. As such, the projects contribution to digital scholarship seems limited - the interface and structure more enterprising than the materials to which they were applied.
This is not to suggest that the scholarship present in Blue Velvet isn't extraordinary. Rather, it is to express some doubt as to the necessity of presenting the scholarship in a web format rather than print. If the projects multimedia elements - particularly the audio and video - do not feel integrated into the project, then the project could be (and indeed has been) satisfactorily represented through traditional scholarship. That the project is paired with a soundtrack which becomes irritatingly repetitive and grating by the third or fourth screen further persuades the reader to search out its print predecessor for actual research.
In essence, the project is digital chiefly in its use of the "showers" of words and the decomposition of keywords. This (and pretty much only this) is where the article moves beyond its textual origins. And yet, so potentially valuable is this possibility that the project shows merit as an expansion of the field of digital history. The index adds some measure of interactivity which the core project lacked. The lack of integration between all of the components mars an otherwise interesting approach to reproducing print scholarship in an additive online format.
Christopher J. Meyerle
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: December 2009