Günther Anders & the Catastrophic Imagination (with Jason Dawsey)

This week is Günther Anders week on the “Bedtime Stories” podcast. Anders might be little known amongst environmental historians, but he is arguably one of the most important catastrophic thinkers of the twentieth century, and would reward some study. I came across Anders’s work while reading Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s work on “enlightened catastrophism,” and was immediately hooked. There is a moving lucidity in his writing when it comes to catastrophe. His correspondence with Claude Eatherly is particularly powerful as an introduction, but there are bits and pieces of his work that have been translated. I have referred to Anders a few times on this blog (start here and here and here). But the truth is that the bulk of his work has not yet been translated into English, which is a shame.

Which is not to say that Anders’s work has received any attention from English-speaking scholars. Looking for more access to Anders and his writing on catastrophe, I discovered Jason Dawsey’s PhD dissertation, “The Limits of the Human in the Age of Technological Revolution: Günther Anders, Post-Marxism, and the Emergence of Technology Critique.” The discussion below is another result of a cold call to a gracious colleague I’d not met before. It serves as a terrific introduction to Anders’s work and thinking. Dawsey is an historian at the University of Tennessee, and the editor, with Günther Bischof and Bernhard Fetz, of The Life and Work of Günther Anders: Émigré, Iconoclast, Philosopher, Man of Letters (Transatlantica Series, Volume 8).  (Review here).

Next week: 17 October: “Convergence: Climate, Capitalism, Catastrophe” (with Andreas Malm)

Previous:

5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)

12 September: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” (with Jacob Hamblin)

19 September: “Disaster Narratives: Predictions, Preparedness, & Lessons” (with Scott Knowles)

26 September: “Catastrophe in the Age of Revolutions” (with Cindy Ermus)

3 October: “Histories of the Future & the Anthropocene” (with Libby Robin)

Parameters of Catastrophic History

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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.

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:

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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.

Catastrophe: The Decay of Intellect

Happy Monday!

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.