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The Writing of Catastrophe: From Natural Disaster to Social Psychosis

Why is it so difficult to speak and write of Catastrophe ?

Every epoch asks this perennial question: Why have we lost our artists, philosophers, journalists, scientists, and statesmen who would be able to write one verse, play, or analysis of Catastrophe that would enlighten the public ?   Where are our modern day tragedians ?

Our brief article would like to sketch a response to this difficult question not simply by talking about Catastrophe, but by opening a dialogue with Catastrophe, that is to say, by making room for a discussion on the difficulties of speaking and writing of Catastrophe.  For in every natural and cultural catastrophe there is an Other Catastrophe that goes unheard of or is misread by the common journalistic and humanitarian response to disaster.

The national medias seem to recognize this Other Catastrophe, yet do not quite know how to read it, except to propose that it offers us an educational opportunity in the lessons of history.  Or in the words of Newsweek: « The possible lessons go beyond natural disasters, as important as natural disasters and their victims may be« . (Rita’s Lessons/Newsweek Oct.3,05).  It will be our purpose in this article to reveal how such lessons are systematically unlearned and lead to nothing other than the missed lessons of tragedy.

The Other Catastrophe:  Symptoms of Katrina and Rita

Although it was recognized rather early on that it was not hurricane Katrina itself as natural disaster, but the lack of response received in her after-math that caused a major part of the destruction, it soon became recognizable that even this lack of response was not the real problem.  For a more true Catastrophe was beginning to write itself behind the visible Katrina: one that was not simply a force of nature represented on a radar or television screen, but a force of civilization or noise  disrupting such representations. Indeed, one may well ask if on attempting to report on this Other Catastrophe not only our medias, but government officials systematically failed to represent the reality on the ground, so that « no matter how much governments plan someone always fails to get the message » (Newsweek).

What could be worse ? The message was often reversed: people being told by officials to evacuate their cities, then to return, then not to return (Katrina), then told to evacuate, then not to evacuate (Rita). Yet, the reversals did not stop there, but expressed themselves in forms of irony that is hard not to call tragic:  How does an oil rich state such as Texas not have fuel stockpiles so that motorist would not run out of gas in emergency situations? How does a  modern city such as New Orleans surrounded by a body of water equal to that surrounding cities such as those found in the Netherlands, not have ‘learned the lesson of history’ and built a system of dikes that would provide for its citizens ?

The Fantasy Dimension of Reality

Such missed acts and reversals have become the norm, not the exception, in our age of instantaneous communications  So much so, that in the imperatives to make sense and do something, a catastrophe goes from being a contingent event to a necessary act once its reality acquires a certain dimension of fantasy. For instance, no matter which cultural group one listened to in the reporting on hurricane Katrina – whether religious, political, artistic, scientific, etc. – it had  become increasingly clear that the real catastrophe lay in a certain sense dormant and only finally emerged as a Catastrophe in a catastrophe when millions of disenfranchised people were discovered living in third world conditions in a modern land of plenty. To make sense of this absurdity, each group attempted to explain the reality on the ground with the construction of a fantasy: for the political activist, the real catastrophe of Katrina was a racially motivated act, since someone either did not build the levees around New Orleans sufficiently strong to withstand the hurricane or someone deliberately sabotaged the levees around the black neighborhoods to protect the French Quarter; for the religious zealot, the real catastrophe was the result of an act of God metting out punishment to a sinful city; for the local people the real catastrophe occurred with the ‘bad-faith’ of those officials who not merely failed to take seriously their calls for assistance after the hurricane, but failed to plan for their evacuation in the first place; while for the scientist, the real catastrophe had already occurred the moment the industrialized countries failed to take responsibility for global warming and the disastrous effect it will have on the world’s poor.

What is important in each one of these examples is that in order to explain an event, and no longer simply report it, such and such an act is systematically believed in.  At this level, it becomes evident that the importance of the event is not merely if it occurred or not; rather that when it did happen, there were groups of people and individuals who would always think it did not happen « that way », or that if it did not actually happen, others would always think it did in some « particular way ».  Otherwise said, it is the mode or manner in which the event becomes recognizable that is crucial.  For it is this noise of interpretation – and the need to exclude or frame it – that is itself part of the catastrophe. For each one of these modes of explaining a catastrophe goes from being a description of a contingent event to the witnessing of a necessary act the moment it is framed in a belief system.  Such fantasy frames serving not only to give the interpreter the power to see behind the screen of appearances to the Other Catastrophe, but to be blind to other equally possible interpretations of reality. In the urgency « to do something » and « to understand », a catastrophe is not a mere natural disaster, but has become an opportunity for anyone from a moralist to a city manager to voice their ideas and to exclude a certain noise as coming under the control of an Ideal: God, the State, the Father. For this Ideal is believed to be representative not merely of Nature, but of some Other: that is to say, of a cultural figure, Big Brother, or « voice of conscious » that one supposes is – or should be –  behind the scenes watching, caring for, or even punishing its subjects.

From  Screen of Culture to Other of Civilization

In beginning to write and read a catastrophe, it is easy to observe that the moment we attempt to represent or speak about it, we are no longer reporting a natural event, but constructing a reality that is always on the verge of reversing, being eclipsed, then fantasized to the limit where the event would find its reason in a cultural ideal (whether religious, artistic, political, or scientific). To recognize how this catastrophe becomes Other – or comes from the Other – is to state that this reality consists in a dimension of fantasy.  What may come as a surprise, at least for some, is just how the use of fantasy sets the conditions for a cultural transmission not merely of natural disaster, but a certain catastrophe of civilization. Such a catastrophe is traumatic in two times: firstly, in the experience not merely – or primarily – of a shock from an exterior event –  as an enemy or natural disaster – but as an impossible interior of modern civilization itself; secondly, as a void that only becomes reality once projected onto the screen of fantasy.  In this respect, a fantasy is nothing other than the attempt to make this ‘blind-spot’ of our modern day civilizations representable through cultural frameworks, i.e. through religion, politics, science, and art.

Finally, today, in our secular and modern democracies if it is through a process of Critique that cultural fantasies are ‘de-ontologized’, that is to say, criticized as forms of regression serving to thwart the progress of civilization, then these traditional forms of critique (government watchdog agencies, journalism, activism, etc.) have become, at best, mere braking mechanisms, at worst, part of the problem itself. For by handing over to the journalists ( or the experts and university professors) the writing of catastrophe, such an analysis remains at the level of a cultural critique: that is to say, such forms of analysis are  caught within the fantasy dimension of the event the moment they try « to get behind the scenes » in order to reveal so many agents of deception, bad faith, incompetence, and ideology.  No doubt, investigative reporting, from Watergate to the recent uncovering of the C.I.A. leaks by the office of vice president Cheney, has served to reveal certain acts that actually happened or were perpetuated within an unethical intent, yet when all is said and done a question needs to be asked:

Is there not the recognition today of a more primary act that does not leave a trace, one that is not partisan to such and such a party or cultural group, but is an effect of the structure in which such human actors are caught ?

Or again, is there a certain inhuman inertia in each and every one of these events that reveals the anxiety of an act where no one is in control ?  What would it be to take responsibility for such a place, or rather, what would it mean to assume responsibility for an Other Catastrophe beyond a fantasy and its critique ?

To begin to respond to these questions is to reopen a question on the tragedy of civilization.

Modern Catastrophe and its Pathological Defense

If a catastrophe can be shown to come not merely from an other exterior to society, whether as cultural enemy or natural disaster, but from an Other within a civilization itself, then is it this force of civilization that should be used to explain culture (and not the other way around) beyond the screen of fantasy and critique. For in such cases, to defend oneself against a catastrophe would not merely – or primarily – be a defense against a contingent event –  through an actual flight from a natural disaster, but a defense against the forces of civilization itself: a peculiarly modern defense consisting in an impossible flight (remember those motorist stuck in traffic with Rita) and certain pathological reactions (remember those senseless and paranoiac acts of certain people and police of New Orleans).  Fantasy, in the this instance, is a way to ‘act out’ an impossible flight from this Other Catastrophe of our modern civilizations; while, it sets up a ‘passage to the act’ that systematically goes from being a mere humanitarian response to paranoiac delirium (remember the national guard being sent in to New Orleans ‘to protect’ the citizens).  For if an act of defense  systematically becomes as catastrophic as the event one is supposedly fleeing from, then has this mode of defense become itself part of the real tragedy ?  Today, in this loss of flight from this Other Catastrophe, are we not witnessing the unleashing of something real that resists the traditional forms of defense whether in the actual flight from natural disaster or their projection in terms of cultural fantasy and critique ?  Is it not this passage beyond the ideals of democracy – beyond the good and the economy of goods – that tragedy has always served to reveal in a writing of pathos (pathology) ?

In asking these questions we are beginning to ask the question if a real Catastrophe were ever to appear on a cultural emission, a television, for example, would it necessarily crack the screen of the television itself ?  What would be a writing of catastrophe that would make a direct reading of this crack possible, that is to say, that would not re-present Catastrophe, but present it ? As odd as these questions may sound, they will have served our purpose here if they call attention to the distance a cultural fantasy assumes in shielding us from what is real in a catastrophe: its pathology (just as more than one photographer stands accused of using a zoom lens – or ghetto scope – to stay at a distance from the tragedy he or she is attempting to portray, more than one professor, politician, psychotherapist, or religious cleric stands accused of merely speculating on the reality of their subjects). Such questions will have also served their purpose if they begin to indicate why the dominant voices of our cultural institutions – the politicians, religious clerics, journalists, and artists – seem themselves to be a defensive mode of re-presenting what is real in this Other Catastrophe.

To construct this Other Catastrophe in its tragic dimensions, reveals a construction of the drives that, although unreadable in a critique of culture, opens up a clinic of civilization.