Sunday, January 06, 2008

Disaster at the AHA

The History News Network has done a great job of blogging the American Historical Association's conference in D.C., in text and a few choice YouTube clips.

I enjoyed the two clips of Kevin Rozario of Smith College (day 3), whose work I remember from a conference at MIT that took place shortly after Sept. 11, "The Resilient City: Trauma, Recovery and Remembrance." (Organized by Larry Vale, whom I got to meet later at a UNC conference on affordable housing, and Tom Campanella, now a professor of urban studies at UNC.) In that paper, he argued that the great disasters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries--to wit, the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906--for all of their devastation, paradoxically were reinscribed to conform to a great American narrative of optimism and recovery. From the version of his talk in the conference proceedings, published in 2004,

A quick glance at American history shows that narrative has long been the magic that makes blessings out of calamities. Sermons and private writings attest that calamities were among the most enthralling topics in colonial America. Disasters had to be explained but there was little doubt that theyw ere meaningful. They were part of God's greater designs. Misfortunes were not exactly welcome, of course, but a religious framework for understanding them was by and large consoling. Possessing a strong conviction that God was especially close in calamity and that God was good, Puritans, like most other European settlers, simply had to believe that disasters possessed some benevolent purpose. Hence they foun themselves plotting their disasters according to "comic," as opposed, in the Aristotelian scheme, to "tragic" conventions. The narrative sequence usually went something like this: some wretch or group of wretches commits a sin; God sends a disaster to punish and test the individual or the community; people heed the warning and mend their ways; they rededicate themselves to God and ultimately earn salvation.

This spring, Rozario's book came out, The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America. But by then, another disaster: Hurricane Katrina.

As Rozario turns to the present, he finds that the impulse to respond creatively to disasters is mitigated by a mania for security. Terror alerts and duct tape represent the cynical politician’s attitude about 9/11, but Rozario focuses on how the attacks registered in the popular imagination—how responses to genuine calamity were mediated by the hyperreal thrills of movies; how apocalyptic literature, like the best-selling Left Behind series, recycles Puritan religious outlooks while adopting Hollywood’s style; and how the convergence of these two ways of imagining disaster points to a new postmodern culture of calamity.

This is the idea that he elaborates on in his AHA talk: why did this progressive narrative "fail at the moment of Katrina"? Having just read Naiomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, he heads there for his tentative conclusion: "crisis as a tremendous opportunity for profit."

Relatedly at the AHA, Elizabeth Turner of the University of North Texas recalls the Galveston Flood of 1900 (day 3).

Not so disastrously, our friend Bruce Lawrence of Duke with a reconsideration of Marshall Hodgson's The Venture of Islam (day 1).

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