Anelise Hanson Shrout                American Studies Association, 2015

Comment on “Miserable in its own way”? Disasters, Solidarity and Resistance

I want to begin with a sort of awkward riff on a clichéd quotation – the infamous “happy families” opener to Anna Karenina.  Here it is: In disaster studies – “all non disastrous events are alike, but each disaster is disastrous in its own way.”  

This idea – that disasters are uniquely terrible and therefore incomparable – is a feature of the history of disaster studies.  Scholarly definitions of disaster – “anything that befalls of ruinous or distressing nature; a sudden or great misfortune, mishap, or misadventure; a calamity,” imply, to greater and lesser degrees events that, if not unprecedented, are very rare. Put simply, disasters are disastrous not only because they are terrible, but because they are terrible in unique and unforeseen ways.  This meaning plays out in psychological, historical, sociological and risk assessment literature.  Disasters are written about as unknowable and unforeseeable “Acts of God,” – or as the actions of a similarly arbitrary and capricious Nature.  Disasters strike in random and unpredictable ways, they are as Ted Steinberg wrote in 1996, often classed as “morally neutral, objective events,” which are inflicted on suffering populations seemingly at random.  This is a gloss, of course, but a gloss that has largely represented disaster literature in recent decades.

While this might have been the ways that people in the past reacted to disasters (or how people today do), this kind of framework discourages systematic analysis.  When individual disasters are characterized by terrible and unique misery, they are rendered incomparable to any other crisis event.  Every disaster becomes miserably disastrous in its own way.

However, in recent decades, scholars have begun to take a more holistic approach to disaster studies.  For example, psychologists have examined the far-reaching effects of disaster-borne trauma, and have used similar traumatic reactions to make claims about the similarity of apparently very different disastrous events (I’m thinking of – among others – of Bruce Dohrenwend’s work on PDST here).  Environmental scientists have endeavored to put “natural” disasters in geological and climatological context.  Sociologists, anthropologists and historians have argued that crises must be seen as a consequence of structural forces including poverty, racism, imperialism and capitalism – see, for example, Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires’s There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class and Hurricane Katrina; Stephen Biel’s edited volume American Disasters; Christof Mauch and Christian Pfister’s Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses: Case Studies towards a Global Environmental History and (I think one of the best examples of a comprehensive approach to disaster as a category of object rather than as a collection of individual crises), Kevin Rozario’s The Culture of Calamity: Disaster & The Making of Modern America.

These more recent approaches have occasioned two broad shifts in disaster studies.  First, scholars have begun to emphasize commonalities among sufferers across time and space.  For instance, historian Stephen Biel argues that the experiences of disparate disaster victims can be better understood in the context of “communities” of disaster, and we’ve just heard Jacob Remnes posit a related concept – post-disaster sociality/disaster citizenship. At the same time, scholars of risk have worked to class disasters in terms of how they impact individuals, leading to broad comparisons of destruction and death tolls around the world.

Secondly, the structural turn has caused scholars to pay greater attention to the benefits that disasters could accrue to elites.  For example, Kevin Rozario’s work explores the ways in which capitalism and capitalists have broadly benefited from disasters. Similarly, Ted Steinberg has argued that the development of a culture that casts disasters as inevitable shifts blame away from those who develop land in “risky” spaces. Mike Davis has contended that media-induced “disaster amnesia” has worked to create two systems of risk prevention – one in which the destruction of capital is subsidized by the government, and another in which non-elites are blamed for living in dangerous (but often cheap) places.

The papers on this panel might be read as another intervention – writing against narratives which have centered the exploits of elites, capitalists, colonizers and developers, and turning instead to the ways in which disasters have been useful for those who were non-elites, workers, colonized and dispaced.

Jerusha’s paper examined testimonies from sixteenth century New Spain which used the demographic crisis of a rodent-born hemorrhagic fever to critique the increased access of “commoners” to luxury goods and “idleness.”   She argues that while these critiques might be read as interpreters’ imposition of Spanish norms onto native voices, they should actually be seen as evidence of changing power relations within Native society – and, indeed, might be read as indigenous elites’ responses to something that was, for them, a different kind of disaster – changing practices of land cultivation that undercut tribute traditionally owed to nobles.  In doing so, she both illustrates how colonized peoples made use of crisis, and reminds us that “colonized people” is not a monolithic category, but is instead one which requires more nuanced classed and gendered analyses.

Jacob Remnes demonstrated not only the ways in which disaster victims could build networks of solidarity as a way to resist stitial over-reach in the aftermath of crises, but destabilizes the whole idea that disaster aftermath can be broken down into categories of “benefactor” and “recipient.”  He argues that, just as we ought to look for the benefits that accrued to elites in the midst of disasters, we must also look for how non-elites mobilized disaster and disaster relief to aid themselves and those in their broader cohorts.

Eric Larson takes a different tack, demonstrating that neoliberal states often considered to tend towards laissez-faire should also be read as paternalistic, and that such a reading better explains interactions between indigenous peoples and the government in twentieth- and early twenty-first century Mexico.  Further, he contends that risk assessment and management policies, designed to “protect” people from natural calamity, were also deeply linked to the paternalist mission of the state, neoliberal politics and (consequently) international market forces.

Finally, Sharon Howell asks that disaster scholars also attend to solidarity arising out of financial crises, and draws out the various parties competing for a piece of Detroit’s financial disaster.  She also contends that we must see the long histories of anti-capitalist and anti-racist post-disaster counternarratives, which often shape the development of contemporary solidarity movements.

Taken together, these papers call for a broad understanding of the meaning of disaster, adn greater attention to be paid to how disasters and disaster response have been useful for “victims.”  They illuminate the ways in which crises can create sites of resistance and possibilities for solidarity, and argue that disasters can simultaneously create conditions for non-elite misery and also provide a venue for resisting state, capitalist and colonial power.