Diane Goldstein: Professor of Folklore, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Frida Hastrup: Lecturer, The SAXO Institute, University of Copenhagen.
Ursula Heise: Professor of English, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Kevin Rozario: Ass. Professor, American Studies, Smith College.
Isak Winkel-Holm, Associate Professor, Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.
On March 8th 2001, three teenagers from the small coastal Newfoundland community of Pouch Cove, drowned. Initial reports, which were later contested, suggested that the boys’ lives were lost while jumping from one piece of floating ice to another, in a traditional follow the leader or “chicken” type game, called “copying.” While it is still largely unclear what happened on the night of the drownings, the community contested the media construction of the boy’s deaths as resulting from foolhardy teenage behavior, and set to work challenging outside interpretations of the accident by creating and publicizing an alternative understanding of the tragedy. This paper is about deaths heavily imbued with cultural resonance and layers of historical meaning, meanings which resisted outside constructions of the cause of the drownings resulting in a counter narrative of traditional knowledge and heroism. By peeling away the ethnographic layers behind the competing narratives, this talk will illustrate the importance of narrative ownership in community healing from disasters.
Looking back on the history of European colonial trade in the Indian Ocean, stories of shipwrecks, cyclones, disease and failing crops are not very hard to come by. For all its imperial zest, the effort to commoditize natural products was often less than smooth. As it turned out, the tropics resisted too easy incorporation into convenient mercantile practices. The tropical context, then, was both what enabled trade and threatened the gain to be procured by it.
Building on my contemporary work on the aftermath of the Asian tsunami disaster in South India, a main point of which was to explore the complex mutual constitution of the disaster and the everyday in coastal life, this presentation goes back in time to explore how tropical natural resources emerge as constituted both by everyday entrepreneurship and pending disaster.
The overall ambition is to discuss ways in which nature gets configured both as passive scenery for commercial enterprise and a mutinous actor standing in the way of success. How, I ask, do tropical nature and its potentially disastrous qualities appear in light of each other?
Biologists claim that humans are currently confronting the sixth mass extinction of species in the history of life on Earth, with human activity as the major cause for the first time. The biodiversity crisis is both fast (by the standards of evolutionary time) and slow (in terms of humanly perceptible and reportable events). A multitude of books, films, photographs, websites, paintings and other art works have sought to document and mourn disappearing species over the last few decades, while scientists and policy-makers have crafted global databases, red lists, and laws to protect them. This presentation will compare the endangered species laws of Bolivia, Germany, and the United States to explore to what extent they are shaped by internationally shared policies or by distinctive national and regional cultures. Endangered species laws, as legal and cultural texts, embody particular perceptions of risk and thereby open a window onto locally and regionally specific cultures of disaster.
While calamities have always generated cultural responses—the art, literature, philosophy, religious sermons, movies, and so forth, through which individuals and societies seek to make sense of crises—it is only recently that scholars have begun to think in terms of “cultures of disasters,” or what I described more alliteratively, and singularly, in my 2007 book as a Culture of Calamity. What is at stake in this shift to a study of the cultural logics of disasters? In this talk, I propose to map out and engage with key texts that have sought to establish a field of disaster studies that focuses on the cultural life of calamities so as to reexamine questions of public policy, emergency response, humanitarian aid, psychological recovery, and reconstruction. I will suggest that this approach to disasters is a response to a growing awareness of the importance of ideology in the politics of disaster (culture as politics by other means), but also a growing recognition that we live in an age of catastrophe, one in which disasters seem to hold a key to the patterns of development and destruction, ruin and renewal, that shape and threaten our world.
Heinrich von Kleist’s “Earthquake in Chile” from 1806 is a literary fiction about the earthquake in Santiago in 1647. But how are we to understand an imaginary disaster like that? As a representation of the traumatic impact of meaningless events? As a metaphor for the French revolution? As a self-reflection concerning the contingency of literary language? Or as an occasion to ask philosophical questions about the basic goodness the order of things? With Kleist's seminal short story as paradigm, this paper will, very tentatively, sum up the conference by outlining a number of different approaches to humanistic disaster studies. The so-called 'cultural turn' in contemporary disaster studies is, after all, several 'cultural turns'. Thus, the question is where we end up when we take these turns, and whether they will lead us towards a deeper understanding of disaster.