Parameters of Catastrophic History


Is there a better or more important time to be thinking about catastrophic history? During the Winter 2017 semester, I will be teaching HIST 3CH3, Catastrophic History: Natural & Technological Disasters, for the first time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of conceiving of the class and in imagining its trajectory, not least because it will be taught in McMaster’s new Wilson Building, in a new active classroom. Rather than offering a more traditional lecture course, I will be turning much of the adventure over to students. The key emphasis will be on student discovery through a series of introductory digital research skills that I will be teaching.

The course begins with an investigation of responses to and rationalizations for the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Trying to make sense of catastrophe, I submit, is as historically significant (maybe more so) than the explosive moment of a catastrophe itself. I likely don’t have any specific endpoint for the class mapped out, but the last week of readings will consider Hurricane Katrina in the context of neoliberalism.

But another series of questions for students will involve establishing parameters for the course itself. What is a disaster? Does war or genocide or economic collapse belong within the boundaries of catastrophic history and our examination of it? We certainly think of them as disasters—historical actors refer to crises and disasters in the context of war and genocide and fiscal uncertainty. What distinguishes them from earthquakes or tsunamis or dam failures? With these kinds of questions in mind, another tack involves asking what is a natural disaster? And what is the difference between a natural and a technological disaster? Scott Knowles, for example, asks whether Hurricane Katrina was a weather event or a technology failure (302). It’s an pretty provocative question, and one that undermines our much-too-comfortable reading of “natural” disasters as “acts of god”: chance happenings that are beyond human control. That idea—that disaster and catastrophe both trade in surprise or fate (note how both have etymological roots in the idea of fate being in the stars)—requires careful exploration.

Another subtext—one I don’t mean to impress heavily on students, unless the course tenor warrant it—is engaging with the catastrophic more directly. Here, I’ve been reading and thinking about Walter Benjamin, Günther Anders, and other philosophers who sought to situate catastrophe at the heart of the human condition. Rather than uncontrolled, uncontrollable syncopation in the fundamentally progressive narrative of human history, what happens if catastrophe is the norm, undermining traditional faith in progress? That idea resonates with many of the philosophical reflections on the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire found himself rejecting any belief in a benevolent god in Candide, and lampooning (not to mentioning executing) his Dr. Pangloss, an all-too-unsubtle caricature of Leibniz as defender of the “best of all possible worlds” worldview. The same uncomfortable sense of catastrophe as a lynchpin for human history is prevalent in Benjamin’s witnessing of the failure of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. Benjamin would commit suicide in 1940, before his capture by the Gestapo. But his cousin, Anders, saw the triumph of the Allied forces, but watched the world devolve into Cold War and saw, in the growing atomic arsenal, a new and even more ominous expression of civilizational destruction. Today, the Holocaust and nuclear apocalypse leave scars, but they are less immediately threatening. Instead, we reckon with refugee crises, climate change, new economic collapses, a new wave of fascist politics, a broadening gulf between wealth and poverty the world over with an elite class managing to insulate themselves evermore from the masses. In brief, a side project—working only in the shadows of this undergraduate course—is to develop a new theory for catastrophic history for the twenty-first century.

Margaret Mead & How to Change the World


May we live in interesting times. This is a curse that history says we can never avoid. My reading of catastrophic history dictates that we live the disasters we create. And the events of last week promise that we are bound for evermore interesting times ahead. Stick with me, baby, croons Bob Dylan in “Mississippi,” stick with me anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now. Too right.

Since Tuesday night, my corner of the Twittersphere has been laden with laments for what is to come and with rallying cries for more organization, more protests, and more efforts to unite concerned citizens against the worries of xenophobia, homophobia, and the multitude of phobias that have given rise to the Age of Trump. In the backdrop of this, I’m reminded of the famous assertion above from Margaret Mead (1901-1978), who died 38 years ago today.

Mead might be the most famous American anthropologist of the twentieth century—or indeed the world’s most recognizable anthropologist. Bold claims, perhaps. But her 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, made her an immediate public intellectual, and she maintained that role for the next fifty years. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I’d love to see a good and recent biography that considers especially her role as a public intellectual and science activist.

I first encountered Mead, in my work on Barry Commoner. In the 1950s, the two collaborated in promoting science activism and social responsibility within the American Association for the Advancement of Science during fraught divisions over the potential hazards of nuclear weapons testing and fallout. Commoner regarded her as an important ally and mentor. He also spoke highly and warmly of her in a number of oral histories I conducted with him. Commoner’s correspondence files at the Library of Congress contained numerous letters to and from Mead. And I also dipped into Mead’s papers, which are also held at the Library of Congress.

Mead’s suggestion that activists should not be discouraged by the scale and scope of the opposition that confronts them—that commitment and dedication to a cause—against all odds—and that thoughtful engagements with “the good” are not only necessary but history-making—has long been a tenet and famous defence of grassroots organizing. From a humble seed grows the giant oak. It is a powerful reminder that change comes from inside all of us. And that we should act. It’s an important message, and one I regularly share with students.

But something about last week presented to me my first glimpse at a cynical rereading of Mead’s clarion call for grassroots activists. You can subvert that message. Rather than conveying hope, it can express despair. Small groups of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Not always for good. And they’re not always doing it from kitchen tables or church basements. Sometimes those small groups live in gilded towers and wield inconceivable amounts of power. I can’t believe this is what Margaret Mead meant, but I’m prompted into this reinterpretation by the current climate of our newly interesting times.

Bill Hicks: It’s Just a Ride

In his “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie,” the young Bob Dylan conveys a beautifully hopeful message during the uncertain 1960s. It’s a long poem. The bootlegged recording of him reading it above is well worth a full listen. I don’t want to play spoiler, but toward the end, Dylan asks: And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’. His answer is that there are two options: the church of your choice or Brooklyn State Hospital.

You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

I’ve spent much of the last week delving into art, literature, and music. Ostensibly, I’ve been looking for hopeful messages (and there’s likely no better artist worth revisiting these days than Woody Guthrie—if Woody Guthrie is a new name to you: stop reading this now and go find everything you can on Woody Guthrie). There’s a light and encouraging tone to the young Bob Dylan’s voice and words. And it carries over into many of his “protest songs.” But, subject for another post, perhaps: the older Bob Dylan provides the perfect soundtrack for the kind of catastrophic history I’m exploring at the moment. His songs are heavy, world-weary, tough, hardened. No less brilliant or beautiful. But that gravelly voice carries the weight of the world, one too many mornings, and bears witness to pain, violence, and burdens of the soul. Another time.

Because I’ve spent less time thinking about Bob Dylan’s younger work lately. In fact, the first voice I turned to last week was the comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks might be an acquired taste, but I suspect we will come to appreciate him as one of the most important comedians of the 1980s (he died in his thirties in 1994). His act followed in the spirit of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and viscerally and vociferously challenged the political status quo. He viciously lampooned mainstream media and popular culture. With another of my artistic heroes, the author Don DeLillo, Hicks shared a fascination with the Kennedy assassination. On occasion, he veered into paranoid conspiracy theory territory, but he was always clear, poignant, provocative, and profoundly clever. Like Kerouac, however, love was a key point of emphasis in Hicks’s work. There are numerous iterations of the following conclusion to his 1992 “Revelations” special, performed in London, and billed as the last authorized filming of his stand-up. In it, he offers up a simple choice for humanity.

Not shown in this clip is the typical Hicks finale. At the end of his act—after noting that so many forces of good (Gandhi, JFK, MLK, Lennon) are assassinated—Hicks would enact his own assassination. Gun shot and he would collapse onstage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that footage (he did it frequently) without tearing up. The comedian transcended entertainment. Good comedy is always a powerful form of social commentary. But “it’s just a ride” is the social commentary. The assassination goes beyond that. And it transforms and complicates the message he delivers in the video above. In that split second, his statement of hope devolves—shatters—into a statement of hopeless futility. And reinforces the importance of the message.

Talkin’ Kerouac Blues on the Week That Was


Back in a simpler time—July—I spent an hour with my nineteen-year-old self. On a research trip to Boston, I made a quick, early morning trip to Lowell to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave. During the summer of 1994, I had a professional football tryout with Oxford United (I maintain that I am the only academic to have ever gone to Oxford for the soccer). And I discovered On the Road. I’m sure this is a pretty clichéd rite of passage thing—a young man traveling and reading Kerouac, but I’ll own it. I’ll also own up to the other cliché: I don’t think any other book has so truly transformed me.

Which is something I need to reckon with. Kerouac and his work have fallen under a bit of a cloud over the past couple of decades. He is (rightly) criticized for telling stories of and for boys, with more than a twinge of misogyny. I’m reluctant to concede that I largely missed that at the time, or overlooked it. But, nevertheless, Kerouac provided one of the more clarion calls for shaping the kind of philosophy that I’m reminded of this week in the immediate aftermath of the US presidential election and the collective lump so many people have in their throats about what Trumperica (coming to yuge screens everywhere in January 2017) might mean to people of colour, to women, to the LGBTQ community, to non-Christians—indeed to many of the progressive gains dearly fought and won since Lyndon Johnson promoted the “Great Society.”

So, Kerouac. I loved the irreverence of his prose. I was less influenced by the stream of consciousness: his long, loud run-on sentences. But his play with rhythm, cadence, and flow—blow, man, blow—moved language and mood, and conveyed the hidden energies that rarely meet the surface. For someone trying to emote explicitly and communicate the universe of new feelings and experiences as they hit him, his prose was as sparse as Ernest Hemingway’s.

The looseness of that prose—and it was never really loose: free, free-ranging, free-form—captured the essence and vitality of the youthfulness that lay at the heart of Kerouac’s experiment. But I think the mistake of many readers is that they only translated that into the storyline of his work: the freedom of the road, the wild and reckless abandon of young men enjoying the privilege of their age, their colour, and their gender. Rather against his own will, it seems, Kerouac found himself at the forefront of a Beat Generation,  and became the spirit of the hippy movement that followed, and an inspiration for latter-day hipsters. He became the legendary “voice of a generation” who drank himself to death at too early an age (at just a handful of years older than I am now). On that July morning, his grave was adorned with the detritus of more nocturnal visitors than me: bottles, shot glasses, etc. The icon has largely outlived and cannibalized the literature. We all experience literature differently, but for me this all constitutes a grotesque misunderstanding of Kerouac. What has been lost in the mythologizing is the intent of Kerouac’s work.

I read a profound sadness in Big Sur, one of Kerouac’s lesser known and later books. In a critical scene, Kerouac describes “a big axe chopping contest” in which Cody Pomeray (the new cipher for On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, a cipher for the real-world Neal Cassady) does not fare well:

They were chopping off two foot chunks, no easy job—I realized you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood—Monsanto [the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti] an old lumberman up in Maine as I say now showed us how he conducted his whole life in fact by the way he took neat little short handled chops from both left and right angles getting his work done in reasonably short time without too much sweat—But his strokes were rapid—Whereas old Fagan [the poet Philip Whalen] pipe-in-mouth slogged away I guess the way he learned in Oregon and in the Northwest fire schools, also getting his job done, silently, not a word—But Cody’s fantastic fiery character showed in the way he went at the log with horrible force, when he brought down the axe with all his might and holding it at the far end you could hear the whole tree trunk groaning the whole length inside, runk, sometimes you could hear a lengthwise cracking going on, he is really very strong and he brought that axe down so hard his feet left the earth when it hit—He chopped off his log with the fury of a Greek god—Nevertheless it took him longer and much more sweat than Monsanto—”Used to do this in a workgang in southern Arizony” he said, whopping one down that made the whole tree trunk dance off the ground—But it was like an example of vast but senseless strength, a picture of poor Cody’s life and in a sense my own—I too chopped with all my might and got madder and went faster and raked the log but took more time than Monsanto who watched us smiling

The symbol and message are clear. What’s also evident is the growing sadness at a world lost. Big Sur lacks the irreverent and boundless energy evident in On the Road. That beatific hunger for adventure that made On the Road such a critically significant work is replaced with a melancholy: not just of aging hipsters realizing that Neverland has passed them by, but of a world that doesn’t quite understand them.

Kerouac’s intent, his primary message, was not about romanticizing the wild adventures of roving wastrels. Rather his sympathy for Cody’s struggles above capture instead Kerouac’s real craft. I remember at nineteen: I read On the Road as the quintessential love story. In everything I read by Kerouac (and in the months that followed, I devoured just about anything I could get my hands on), I saw love: exuberant, forlorn, lonely, tired. But love. Listen, people—I saw in every page—love each other. Be good to each other. Can’t you see? The world discourages that love. These big and dark and ugly cities with their people milling and mulling and their heads buried in their newspaper or smartphones or their own business are killing our love for each other, he was hollering to me. Maybe not the smartphone part: that was not a part of my 1990s landscape, even less so Kerouac’s. But you get the point. The road became not a form of escapism, but an Odyssean search for home: that place where love was the cornerstone of what makes us human. And what civilizes us. Love each other, be good to each other, is what I saw in Kerouac. And to strangers. Embrace love. That is all. I don’t think we’ve been listening.

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

HIST 3CH3: Catastrophic History outline

I don’t remember the last time I’ve had this much fun preparing a course. In January, I will be teaching HIST 3CH3 (Catastrophic History: Natural & Technological Disasters) for the first time at McMaster University. I’ve been thinking about the course for quite some time, but I’ve been reluctant to put the course design down on paper for fear of ruining it. But while I’ve had to leave a lot off the syllabus—and I have pages upon pages of notes of course content I mean to squeeze in through serial podcast recordings and discussion in class—I do have something I’m quietly pleased with.

HIST 3CH3 will meet in McMaster’s new L. R. Wilson liberal arts building, in the building’s ground floor active learning rooms. I look forward to learning exactly what the space has to offer, but the emphasis in the class will be student discovery and activity. As you will see in the attached syllabus (still subject to some change), I’m doing very little lecturing, and putting the onus on students to make their own discoveries about disasters in history. In addition, I’m dipping a toe into some digital projects as a means of easing my teaching curriculum in that direction. I’m really looking forward to this!

For McMaster students: there’s still some room in the class if you’re looking to put a little History into your degree.