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What Is an Event?

We live in a world of breaking news, where at almost any moment our everyday routine can be interrupted by a faraway event. Events are central to the way that individuals and societies experience life. Even life’s inevitable moments—birth, death, love, and war—are almost always a surprise. Inspired by the cataclysmic events of September 11, Robin Wagner-Pacifici presents here a tour de force, an analysis of how events erupt and take off from the ground of ongoing, everyday life, and how they then move across time and landscape.

What Is an Event? ranges across several disciplines, systematically analyzing the ways that events emerge, take shape, gain momentum, flow, and even get bogged down. As an exploration of how events are constructed out of ruptures, it provides a mechanism for understanding eventful forms and flows, from the micro-level of individual life events to the macro-level of historical revolutions, contemporary terrorist attacks, and financial crises. Wagner-Pacifici takes a close look at a number of cases, both real and imagined, through the reports, personal narratives, paintings, iconic images, political posters, sculptures, and novels they generate and through which they live on. What is ultimately at stake for individuals and societies in events, Wagner-Pacifici argues, are identities, loyalties, social relationships, and our very experiences of time and space. What Is an Event? provides a way for us all—as social and political beings living through events, and as analysts reflecting upon them—to better understand what is at stake in the formations and flows of the events that mark and shape our lives.

240 pages | 14 color plates, 1 halftone | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Sociology: Social History, Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


What Is an Event? is a sustained meditation about what Wagner-Pacifici has called the ‘restlessness’ of events. She develops a ‘political semiotics’ of the event, elaborating and classifying the speech acts and other symbolic performances that attempt to comprehend, represent, steer, deflect, or bring to an end events—but that often have the effect of pushing them unpredictably forward. Anyone interested in the dynamics of history will have much to learn from this remarkable book.”

William H. Sewell, Jr., University of Chicago

What Is an Event? is an attempt by one of contemporary sociology’s most brilliant practitioners to theorize the process by which we come to perceive and narrate particular stretches of history as ‘events.’ Drawing on official documents, novels, paintings, and personal narratives, Wagner-Pacifici examines the way we conceptualize beginnings, pauses, turning points, trajectories, as well as the historical background from which events such as shootings, stock market crashes, and revolutions ‘emerge’ or ‘erupt.’ The result is a remarkably ambitious sociological theory of the ‘shape’ of the past.”

Eviatar Zerubavel, Rutgers University

What Is An Event? is an intellectual treat. Charting how and why events matter, it animates a wide range of cultural texts—from seventeenth century paintings to twenty-first century violence, from political revolutions to financial crises—and demonstrates how they transform across time and space en route to taking their place at the forefront of historical and social thought. Eloquently phrased and elegantly formulated, the book showcases Wagner-Pacifici’s theoretical sophistication, singular analytical acumen, and splendid prose. This is Wagner-Pacifici at her finest.”

Barbie Zelizer, Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, University of Pennsylvania

“Once again, Wagner-Pacifici brings together art, philosophy, and sociology in probing, sophisticated, and deeply illuminating sophisticated ways. Her new social theory sheds new light on empirical events that have remained mysterious even as they continue to transform our social world in fateful ways.”

Jeffrey C. Alexander, Yale University

"Robin Wagner-Pacifici’s What Is an Event? is a powerful and beautifully crafted attempt to lay the groundwork for both a definition of an 'event' as well as a methodological approach for studying events as social researchers. Perhaps most audaciously, it intimately ties ontology and methodology...the book’s generative strength is in the kind of theoretical and empirical work it potentially opens up."

Iddo Tavory | American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents


Introduction 1
Why a Book about Events?
Advances and Limitations of Existing Scholarship
Form and Flow

1 • Political Semiosis
Inside or Outside
Deconstructing Political Semiosis

2 • Ground
L’Origine du Monde: Birth
Et in Arcadia Ego: Death
Ground as Surface, Point of Contact, Scene of Action
Underground and Overground

3 • Rupture
Suspended Animation
Time and Space in Rupture
Event and Series: The Financial Crisis of 2008
“The Trigger Gave”

4 • Resonating Forms
Violence and Event Formation
The French Revolution
Jacques- Louis David: Eventful Moments and the Pause

5 • Fragmenting Forms
The Representational Uncertainty of the Paris Commune
Styles and Genres of the Paris Commune
Formal Fault Lines of Il Quarto Stato

6 • Sedimentation and Drift
Sedimentation and the Official Report
Insiders and Outsiders
Event Spaces
9/11 in Lower Manhattan



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