Experimenting with Digital Tools

This is an experiment. In January, I will be teaching a new course called “Catastrophic History.” One of the student group projects will involve using Timeline JS to reconstruct and visualize disasters. It occurred to me that I should play around with the tool before turning it over to students. Surprisingly, my problem stemmed most from having to identify a quick and manageable project to itemize in the tool’s accessible spreadsheet. My toxic fear research, for example, consisted of an almost infinite number of prospective moments to fit along a timeline. As a result, I turned to something a little more frivolous. As part of a present for my older children, I’m compiling (read: imposing) a playlist of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs for their listening education. They will be grateful. Here’s the playlist, in chronological order (of course!).


For the record: this all took less than half an hour, while getting my littlest ready for bed. Timeline JS makes this very easy. I see, however, that it’s possible to vary all kinds of aesthetics, including typeface, background colour (which I simply alternated one page from the next), etc. The finished products can be visually impressive and, I hope, instructive to students.

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.

Go Home, Noah. You’re Drunk.

More catastrophic thinking. Günther Anders writes about the Flood and Noah’s preparations. Because this is, in many traditions, the first real catastrophe on a massive scale. From Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s fabulous book, A Short Treatise on the Metaphysics of Tsunamis, a translation of Anders’s account:

Only a man who was mourning [the death of] a beloved child or his wife was allowed [to clothe himself in sackcloth and cover his head with ashes]. Clothed in the garb of truth, bearer of sorrow, [Noah] went back to the city, resolved to turn the curiosity, spitefulness, and superstition of its inhabitants to his advantage. Soon a small crowd of curious people had gathered around him. They asked him questions. They asked if someone had died, and who the dead person was. Noah replied to them that many had died, and then, to the great amusement of his listeners, said that they themselves were the dead of whom he spoke. When he was asked when this catastrophe had taken place, he replied to them: ‘Tomorrow.’ Profiting from their attention and confusion, Noah drew himself up to his full height and said these words: ‘The day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that will have been. And when the flood will have been, everything that is will never have existed. When the flood will have carried off everything that is, everything that will have been, it will be too late to remember, for there will no longer be anyone alive. And so there will no longer be any difference between the dead and those who mourn them. If I have come before you, it is in order to reverse time, to mourn tomorrow’s dead today. The day after tomorrow will be too late.’ With this he went back whence he had come, took off the sackcloth [that he wore], cleaned his face of the ashes that covered it, and went to his workshop. That evening a carpenter knocked on his door and said to him: ‘Let me help you build an ark, so that it may become false.’ Later a roofer joined them, saying: ‘It is raining over the mountains, let me help you, so that it may become false.’

This story captures so many elements of my interest in catastrophe and future-thinking and so on. And there is a powerful suggestion of human resilience and hope, even in the face of total collapse. I find this moving.

But there’s another part of Noah’s story, which has as profound an influence on the Old Testament and the human condition that follows. Noah’s son Ham is cursed, because he sees Noah in his nakedness, drunk in his tent, and tells his brothers about it. And this brings us back to the internal suffering that is a largely un-investigated aspect of the catastrophic: Ham, but also Noah himself. Historians stress the complex powers of memory and remembering—and also the social politics of forgetting—the past or elements of it. Theologians have posited that Noah did not understand the intoxicating powers of his wine. Maybe Noah knew only too well, but sought to blot out the disasters he has witnessed?

On that, a brief audio thought:


Moral Possibilities of the Catastrophic

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.

Dualities in Catastrophe

“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.