Skip to main content

The Culture of Disaster

From antiquity through the Enlightenment, disasters were attributed to the obscure power of the stars or the vengeance of angry gods. As philosophers sought to reassess the origins of natural disasters, they also made it clear that humans shared responsibility for the damages caused by a violent universe. This far-ranging book explores the way writers, thinkers, and artists have responded to the increasingly political concept of disaster from the Enlightenment until today.
Marie-Hélène Huet argues that post-Enlightenment culture has been haunted by the sense of emergency that made natural catastrophes and human deeds both a collective crisis and a personal tragedy. From the plague of 1720 to the cholera of 1832, from shipwrecks to film dystopias, disasters raise questions about identity and memory, technology, control, and liability. In her analysis, Huet considers anew the mythical figures of Medusa and Apollo, theories of epidemics, earthquakes, political crises, and films such as Blow-Up and Blade Runner. With its scope and precision, The Culture of Disaster will appeal to a wide public interested in modern culture, philosophy, and intellectual history.

272 pages | 22 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

History: History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society


“Marie-Hélène Huet flags us down with a peril advisory for our era. Probing relentlessly into the calamitous contours of post-Enlightenment thought, her book establishes a large and brilliant range of motion with which to measure a new sensibility and critical areas of desensitization, ethically and politically pitched. In many ways reaching toward the outer limits of human responsibility, Huet turns in a refreshingly pertinent, thoroughly unique tour de force. Brave and knowledgeable, The Culture of Disaster travels to the frontiers of sense-making, where things crumble, crash, and quake only to be recuperated by sense and voracious systems of meaning. I will carry this book with me as my special guide to the catastrophic tropes that rule our clouded horizon.”


Avital Ronell, New York University

“In this sweeping book, Marie-Hélène Huet analyzes some famous disasters and some lesser-known ones, natural ones and interiorized ones. But in both cases, she renders these events unfamiliar to us to better translate their enigmatic principle. Always elegant, she turns away from sensationalism, the hypervirulence of calamity to reveal instead disaster as the ‘endless terror’ that haunts and defies humanity and has been set to confront modernity.”

Pierre Saint-Amand, Brown University

Table of Contents

List of Figures
Introduction: The Nature of Disasters

Acts of God, Deeds of Men
1: Enlightenment and the Plague
2: The Silence of Lisbon (1755)
3: The Reign of Cholera (1832)

Political Disasters, Time in Ruins
4: Losing Rome (Rousseau)
5: Nightwatch: Terror and Time
6: The Politics of Mortality

Tall Ships and Falling Stars
7: The Face of Chaos (Medusa)
8: The Sphinx of the Ice Fields

The Culture of Disaster
9: Now Playing Everywhere



American Comparative Literature Association: Rene Wellek Prize
Honorable Mention

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press