Another short (with curiously bad sound—whither the static?). This time inspired by Primo Levi’s assertion that “things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.” And I think history plays a roll here, inasmuch as the morally possible shifts over time. And we cannot undo or unremember (though maybe we should investigate that) past moral reprehensibilities. Which would suggest a perpetual slide into the catastrophic.
“Progress and catastrophe are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Without the Joker, there is no Batman. How we weave together historical narrative is dependent upon crafting foils in order to highlight stories we mean to tell. Below is another brief soundclip, mainly me playing with the technology—and rehearsing ideas for an imminent podcast project (more on which soon). Dualities and dichotomies feature in how we approach the catastrophic, and I draw on a bit of fiction to help illustrate some of these.
How we engage with catastrophe has to show up in our social and cultural fears, anxieties, paranoias, and uncertainties. What scares us and how—and that things scare us—are a fundamental aspect of history. More on this in more detail, as I limp towards completion of my manuscript on toxic fear. But thinking more broadly about fears, and fears of the unknown, and unknown fears (fears we didn’t know we had?), these stories and imaginations probably shape a good deal of our histories. And we should acknowledge that. And, back to the catastrophic, it might help us to read more deeply into our cultural histories of fear—and how the catastrophic functions within the modern human condition. Below is another sound stub, linking three pieces of writing that resonated or helped draw on implicit connections that might not be there, but encouraged me to dig deeper into ideas about the uncertainties surrounding the abyss, the unknown, where catastrophe might lurk.
Look: the American southwest is already parched. Much of the early, excellent environmental history I encountered in graduate school straddled subdisciplines of environmental history and the history of the American West. Though I resisted the premise that the West was flat, arid, and treeless—courtesy of Walter Prescott Webb—I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which was geographically west, but none of these things. So I didn’t really relate. Nevertheless, upon reading Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, and Charles E. Wilkinson’s Crossing the Next Meridian, it became abundantly clear to me that my wet West was very much the exception, and that water or its absence was a defining feature of the western landscape and its history.
Below is a brief reflection on another book—a recent read—Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, set in the not-so-very distant future, where water scarcity has become even more severe. Earlier this week, I attended a sci-fi book club at the Ark + Anchor café to discuss The Water Knife. The great pleasure of participating was that my older two children read the book as well and participated, too.
Another thinky-piece. No interventions needed, I promise. But here’s another look at catastrophe as an all-consuming feature of the modern condition. If one purpose of philosophical helps us to examine how to die, then Roy Scranton—in his recent book, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene—argues that this new environmental condition means we need to start thinking about how to die not as individuals but as a civilization. Then I think about Herman Hesse. I don’t get out much, but I’m sure I’d be great at parties.
Incidentally, in addition to his short book above, also check out Scranton’s War Porn, which is also fabulous in a brutally stark kind of way. Maybe not for the faint of heart, but very, very compelling.
Here’s a little audio clip from Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Other Writings (as quoted in Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital). Just to start the week on a positive note.
I’m thinking about Benjamin’s work more and more as I prep new ideas for a course on Catastrophic History (HIST 3CH3). I’m fascinated with his obsession with catastrophe, but also how it was prominent throughout many of the writings of other thinkers of the same kind of time. Hannah Arendt and Günther Anders, for example. More anon, but this serves as the backdrop for much of the preparation for the course. Which isn’t to say that this will be a course heavily driven by intellectual history (from the students’ perspective: probably not), but I’m interested to see if we can revisit some of these older ideas, and brush them off for the twenty-first century. I suspect we think (or should think, or need to think) about catastrophe rather differently. We should investigate that. And consider how it shapes our histories.