An excerpt from
The Culture of Calamity
Disaster and the Making of Modern America
The Golden Age as Catastrophe
Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them, as long as they happen somewhere else.
In his remarkable 1985 novel White Noise, Don DeLillo stages a primal scene of the electronic age. A postnuclear family—two adults and an assortment of children from previous marriages, an endearingly dysfunctional Brady Bunch—is gathered together on a Friday night, eating Chinese takeout, watching TV. All eyes are riveted on the screen, taking in image after image of “floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes.” The scene is familiar enough, but there is something arresting about the enthusiasm of these media consumers for all things catastrophic: “Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.” So narrates Professor Jack Gladney, matter-of-factly describing his family’s response to the evening’s entertainment. But the experience weighs on him, and by the next day he is looking to his university colleagues for explanations. “Why is it,” he asks, “that decent, well-meaning and responsible people find themselves intrigued by catastrophe when they see it on television?”
This is a good question. If the content of movies, video games, and network news reports is any indication, we live in a culture of calamity. It sometimes seems that we can’t turn on our televisions without encountering dramatic images of destruction: a hurricane battering a southern resort; a sea of fire engulfing a national forest; a great river breaking through its levees and rolling over the surrounding countryside; a tower of glass and steel bursting into flames and crumbling to the city streets below. Why are these images ubiquitous? What makes disasters so fascinating, so thrilling, so involving? White Noise, to the extent that it is a story about a disaster, “an airborne toxic event,” is a symptom of the culture of calamity. It also offers a diagnosis. Troubled by the inevitability of death, haunted by postnuclear anxieties about impending technological and environmental annihilation, the novel presents our interest in disasters as an expression of existential anxiety, as an entirely natural response to the prospect of personal and collective obliteration. More remarkable, however, are those passages that attend to the claims of culture, insisting on the intensified attraction of images of calamity in a mass media society. “Only a catastrophe gets our attention,” Gladney is assured by a professor of popular culture, Alfonse Stompanato. “We want them, we need them, we depend on them.” This is an extraordinary assertion, but one that deserves to be taken seriously. DeLillo properly places disasters at the center of contemporary fields of desire, gesturing at a theory of attention for the postmodern age. Of course, it is necessary to be precise about the subject of Stompanato’s statement. Who, exactly, needs disasters? In one sense everybody, or nearly everybody. The culture of calamity reveals a general psychological addiction to images and stories of disaster in our society, though this varies in significant ways across registers of class, gender, and race. There is also a decisive structural or ideological component to the American dependency on disasters. After all, dominant political and economic systems have long relied for their authority and legitimacy on the presence or threat of calamities and other crises. We must consider the development of both of these forms of dependency if we are to fathom the power and place of calamity in American culture.
In this book I offer an analytical history that traces and analyzes the evolution of American ways of managing and imagining disasters between the seventeenth century and the present. I take notice of the political, economic, and environmental dimensions of this story even as I endeavor to track down the cultural meanings that Americans have attached to natural disasters (fires, floods, hurricanes) and to sudden catastrophes that share many properties with natural disasters (nuclear hazards, terrorist attacks). Seeking to detail changing responses to calamity, I have consulted relief records, legislative transcripts, economic data, private papers, newspapers, letters, memoirs, diaries, sermons, philosophical treatises, poems, novels, photographs, movies, and television footage. The sheer volume and intensity of this material (collected in local and national archives across the country) convinces me that disasters have been, and continue to be, occasions for extraordinary cultural production. Disasters have made history. It is clear from this documentation that critics working at that uncommonly productive junction of Marxist and postmodern theory (David Harvey, Marshall Berman, Edward Soja, Frederic Jameson, Michel Foucault, to name a few) are not the only ones who have grasped the peculiar prominence and resonance of disasters in the world that capitalism has made. It is our lot, our predicament, and possibly our fortune to possess a crisis-oriented imagination.
My own research persuades me that disasters, and discourses of disaster, have played a long and influential role in the construction of American identities, power relations, economic systems, and environmental practices. It is conventional, and by no means inappropriate, to think of disasters in strictly negative terms, but calamities have also often presented opportunities. The most potent philosophies of the last two centuries have insisted that improvement or “progress” unavoidably moves through catastrophic rhythms of destruction and reconstruction, ruin and renewal. Just recall Hegel’s “slaughterbench” of history, Marx’s annihilating forces of capital, Darwin’s murderous conflicts of evolution, or the capitalist processes of industrial innovation that economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described as a “perennial gale of creative destruction.” Given this, it may be less of a surprise to discover that Americans, especially those in positions of power and influence, have often viewed disasters as sources of moral, political, and economic renewal. A strong case can be made that ideological commitments to economic growth and material improvement have emerged out of encounters with calamity. Indeed, I have come to wonder whether dominant American ideas of progress would even be imaginable without disasters. Certainly, a close analysis of the extraordinary capacity for turning disasters into “blessings,” for seeing silver linings in adversity, helps to explain how so many Americans have managed not only to sustain but to construct a faith in progress while coping with the wars, social disorders, and boom-and-bust cycles that have characterized modern life. Whether we can go so far as to claim that modern America has emerged from its emergencies and calamities and the responses they have provoked, they undeniably hold a key to understanding the twentieth- and twentieth-first-century world.
It is tempting, when considering why calamities dominate our television screens, to single out the role of the news and entertainment industries. A good deal of recent Continental philosophy and critical theory, after all, insists that technology and the electronic mass media have radically transformed our senses, changing what we notice about the world and how we feel about what we see. This notion is amply explored in White Noise. Stompanato, whose orphic pronouncements are given a respectful hearing in the novel, explains popular interest in disasters as a “natural” response to “brain fade,” the craving of the benumbed and media sated for “an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information” (66). In a world of too much information, only extreme events seemingly have the power to cut through the White Noise, to grab and to hold us. This, he says, is why we watch. His explanation has a self-consciously postmodern flavor, presenting calamities as mere spectacles noteworthy for the emotional and aesthetic impressions they make rather than for any moral significance or meaning they might possess. And it is a powerful case.
This denatured understanding of the spectacular character of “events” has transformed cultural criticism over the past generation, with weighty implications for disaster studies. In the same year that White Noise appeared, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, a gloomy philosophical jeremiad on the decline of morality and reason in the new media age. Adapting and revising Marshall McLuhan’s famous formulation “the medium is the message,” he argued that it was an intrinsic property of electronic visual media to convert all experience into entertainment, vacating incidents and events of complexity, depth, and history. According to his analysis, death and destruction, like sex and violence and anything else for that matter, now appeared on television only as amusing or distracting images; this, indeed, was the inevitable fate of all representations enhanced by stirring music, voiceovers, and dramatic editing techniques and inserted into a data flow that blurred distinctions and transitions between dramas, sitcoms, commercials, and news reports. Disasters, in this interpretation, were extreme cases, evidence that even the most horrifying events were bound to end up as spectacles.
So one answer to Gladney’s question—what makes televised calamities so entertaining—might be this: the visual media turns all events into entertainment. And, as DeLillo suggests, such instruction, or programming, reaches deep into the psyche. When an actual disaster strikes in his novel in the form of an “airborne toxic event” it stirs much the same feelings in the fleeing Gladney family as the earlier televised disasters. Viewing the “black billowing cloud” through the windshield of their car, Gladney records their strange fascination: “We weren’t sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see, so close, . . . But it was also spectacular” (127). His metaphors, his entire frame of reference, become inevitably cinematic: “The whole thing was amazing. They seemed to be spotlighting the cloud for us as if it were part of a sound-and-light show, a bit of mood-setting mist drifting across a high battlement where a king had been slain” (128). Disasters are captivating in part, then, to the extent that they mimic and evoke popular Hollywood movies. And, as DeLillo infers, they must therefore be in some way desirable. Elsewhere, he has made this point directly; in the novel End Zone, his protagonist admits unhappily to a “thrill almost sensual” when reading about mass destruction and carnage. This reaction prompts feelings of guilt, but DeLillo avoids lazy analysis of the sort that dismisses the public’s appetite for (spectacles of) destruction as a predictable manifestation of the degraded taste of a population raised on trashy movies and television shows. On the contrary, he requires us to recognize that disasters in the media age have accrued an erotic dimension, that they have become the stuff of fantasies, and that this tells us something profound about the conditions of life in a postmodern world. He pays insufficient attention to the market logics and ideological considerations that prompt media corporations to push images of violence and destruction, even as he overlooks the obvious point that in a corporate mass culture “the people” rarely get the programming they want. But we do have to consider the delights of destruction. It is not simply a matter of mass media turning disaster into entertainment; there is something intrinsically fascinating about spectacles of calamity.
How do we account for this fascination? Two intriguing explanations that deserve mention, even though they receive only cursory attention in this book, are those proposed by evolutionary psychologists and psychoanalytic philosophers. The former maintain that humans are adapted to pay special attention to anything unusual or threatening that happens across our line of vision, responding with heightened physical and emotional arousal to potentially dangerous situations—this is the adrenaline rush that prepares us to fight or for flight. Some of the most interesting work in this field has charted how feelings of fear turn to exhilaration when an anticipated threat passes or turns out to be illusory. So appealing is this rush, according to psychologist Michael Apter, that most people actively seek out what he calls “the dangerous edge” in pursuit of the thrills that perilous encounters can elicit. Although these encounters would surely trigger a feeling of panic in the absence of controls, they can be relied on to generate a sense of enjoyment when a “protective frame”—a physical or psychological distancing mechanism—is in place. Amusement park rides or suspense movies, for example, trick us into a pleasure response by involving us emotionally in (simulated) harrowing events while shielding us from actual risks. This is essentially what Stompanato has in mind when he says we take pleasure in spectacles of disaster, so long as they are “somewhere else.”
Many psychoanalytic critics agree that media-borne disasters exert a natural attraction, but they tend to view this as a matter of longing rather than adaptive behavior. Exemplary here is Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of the cultural impact of the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As he points out, images of this calamity, like the terrorist attack itself, were “obviously libidinally invested.” Similar scenes had played out repeatedly in blockbuster movies from Independence Day to Die Hard, lending substance to the idea that catastrophes had become objects of popular fantasy; hence his superb observation that “in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and that was the biggest surprise.” Why should comfortable Americans fantasize about calamity? Äizek’s answer to this question is highly complex, applying a technical Lacanian understanding of the circuits connecting instincts, dreams, and desires that cannot be reproduced here with any adequacy. Suffice to say, he insists that the frisson provoked by spectacles of destruction owes a great deal to the power of such images to conjure up the tumultuous drives, the desires for sensual gratification and acts of violence, that are repressed when we are socialized into adulthood. Calamities, in his vocabulary, offer us a glimpse of “the real.” Of course, it is always perilous to try to make definitive statements about the workings of the unconscious, but, if Freud’s depiction of the id as “a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement” has any validity, it seems at least plausible that spectacles of destruction should exert a compelling hold over our imaginations, speaking to our yearnings for a life less ordered. This is all highly speculative, and we should be spending as much time thinking about how the social world shapes unconscious desires as investigating how the unconscious shapes the social world.
Social conditions and experiences have somehow become sedimented into our fantasies. It is no surprise that we dream of catastrophes because we live in a catastrophic world. Spectacles of calamity command our attention because they present an occasion for processing, intellectually and emotionally, the experience of living in a world of systematic ruin and renewal, destruction and reconstruction, where technological and environmental disasters always loom.
The fact that anxieties and desires fuel an appetite for spectacles of destruction is especially significant precisely because disasters now so thoroughly present themselves to us as spectacles. The annihilation of the twin towers was famously described by eyewitnesses, television commentators, and viewers across the country in terms of its filmic qualities: it was, in the parlance of the day, “like a movie.” Even as sophisticated an observer as John Updike, watching from a distance, could not resist televisual references when he described his reaction:
From the viewpoint of a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn Heights, where I happened to be visiting some kin, the destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers had the false intimacy of television, on a day of perfect reception. . . . As we watched the second tower burst into ballooning flame . . . there persisted the notion that, as on television, this was not quite real; it could be fixed; the technocracy the towers symbolized would find a way to put out the fire and reverse the damage.
Involuntarily reimagining his window frame as a television screen, he found himself in a position of passivity, waiting for the situation to correct itself (or be corrected by the powers that be). So rendered, this looks like a textbook postmodern experience, substantiating the contention that in a world bereft of historical bearings even the most awful events inevitably offer themselves up as pure spectacles. But of course this was hardly the entirety of Updike’s response. As soon as the enormity of the event sunk in, as soon as he started to fathom the extent of the carnage, he and his wife, by his account, “clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling.” A few days later, he spoke of his shock about this “horror of horrors” to a BBC News reporter: “To actually be seeing it not a mile away was very moving, disturbing, unsettling. It’s like the bottom fell out of your own existence somehow.”
This discharge of feeling led to deeds. Being a writer, Updike wrote, trying to wrench meaning out of the event. And, not too surprisingly for a man with a fondness for quoting existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, he was soon at work on a short story reflecting on the religious implications of this shattering event. Updike was hardly exceptional in his energetic response to September 11. Even those who witnessed the event only through its representations were moved to act, whether agitating for political reforms, taking part in patriotic rallies, or participating in one of the biggest fund-raising campaigns in U.S. history in support of the victims and their families. This spectacle of destruction, in other words, like most of the disasters covered in this book, was a galvanizing force. It was an aesthetic display, but hardly an anesthetizing one. Although spectacles have the capacity to numb, to distance viewers from events, leaving them adrift on a raft of sensations, they also have extraordinary power to command attention, to focus energies, to make us feel alive, and to involve us in the world around us. Whether this is the right sort of involvement is a matter to which I will return, as is the issue of what problems get overlooked or neglected in the society of the spectacle. What is clear, however, is that more attention needs to be paid to the activating aspects of calamity.
One of DeLillo’s achievements in White Noise, a text that maps out recent (middle-class) responses to disaster as richly as any work of fiction I know, lies precisely in his ability to grasp the mingled hope and dread, distaste and delight, involvement and distance so characteristic of responses to disaster in our time. White Noise properly treats calamities as events that make things happen. And it is alert to the continuing imprint of established values and outlooks. One of the most powerful is a residual romanticism that continues to have a profound influence on our understanding of the good life, and which reserves a privileged place for adversity. Gladney’s sardonic fourteen-year-old son Heinrich, for example, bursts suddenly to life as his family encounters the “airborne toxic event.” He is “steeped happily in disaster,” “practically giddy,” his voice betraying “a craving for terrible things” (123). Buoyed by a new sense of confidence, a new awareness that life is real and intense, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by other refugees at the evacuation center, grown men and women who warm to his spirit and his aura of authority. The calamity, in other words, is his proving ground (“Let him bloom, if that’s what he’s doing,” says his father, “in the name of mischance, dread, and random disaster”); it is here that he is transformed from spectator to actor, intoxicated by a powerful sense of self (“Was it possible that out of the turmoil and surge of this dreadful event he would learn to make his way in the world?”) (131). Like romantic philosophers and poets, Heinrich embraces calamity, thrilled to discover that the imperiled life is the life most fully lived. And he is by no means the only person thus roused by the crisis. His “spirited enjoyment” is fully matched by the spiritual exhilaration of the godly. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, are in their element, passing out tracts and assuring all who will listen that the Day of Judgment is at hand: “Wars, famines, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. It’s all beginning to jell.” Disasters, here too, are welcomed, because they make things happen. They matter. At the same time they seem to simplify an otherwise intolerably complicated world, seemingly revealing dualisms of good and evil or right and wrong that are so hard to identify in the ordinary run of events. Thus disaster presents a chance to overcome some of the inertia that inhibits decisive action.
Without a cultural history we cannot begin to fathom the powerful hold of these customary reactions on the contemporary imagination of calamity. Nor can we grasp how and why the conditions of modernity might play such an important, possibly paramount, role in the story I tell here. For all the surface cynicism, for all the irony, White Noise is also thoroughly susceptible to the fraying modern dream of a world without disaster, the prospect of a future in which technology might be harnessed to protect us from the harms of nature and the hazards of science itself. Despite his suspicion of the motives of politicians and experts and his sneaking disillusionment with the ways of the modern world, Jack Gladney, for example, takes heart from the presence of bureaucrats, technicians, and soldiers, gladly submitting to their commands and ministrations. “They seem to have things under control” is a thought, or wish, that brings assurance and satisfaction (147).
Even as disasters have become entertaining spectacles, they have also laid the cultural groundwork for the expansion of a powerful national security apparatus. This suggests a widespread longing for protection from calamity, and underscores the extent to which the current political system depends on disasters to justify exercises of power in an era of supposed fiscal restraint and deregulation, as well as the degree to which laws and institutions are organized around the avoidance and mitigation of disaster—risk management. In the novel, to be sure, disaster officials assume a rather outlandish appearance in the guise of Advanced Disaster Management, a private consulting firm that “interfaces” with state governments to simulate evacuations in preparation for disasters. The inevitable joke is that the organization ends up treating a real toxic spill as a statistical deviation: “The insertion curve isn’t as smooth as we would like. There’s a probability excess. Plus which we don’t have our victims laid out where we’d want them if this was an actual simulation” (139). This passage reads like a literary gloss on Jean Baudrillard’s well-known and provocative assertion that in postmodern society life is actually “organised according to a script for a disaster film.” Still, DeLillo has identified one of the most important developments of our time, the morphing of a national security state into what might better be described as a disaster-security state in which official and semiofficial agencies have come to wield extraordinary power—all in the name of disaster prevention and relief. This, the novel suggests, is an age in which disasters are always happening, or always about to happen, and in which emergency management, however disconcerting and preposterous, is necessary and unavoidable.