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.