Poetry and disaster

Who gets to speak of disaster? Who can name it, define its duration, and say when it has come to an end? Breaking news favours the event, the crisis. But what of slow, plural catastrophes, the ones that seem to stretch on without the singularity of a time and a place? In news cycles, there is little drama in the narrative of managed decline, the slow desertion of justice, conflicts that begin and end and blend with others. These things extend beyond the conventionally abridged shock of disaster, their boundaries are more diffuse.

If one can even speak of a ‘natural’ disaster (of which there are few in comparison with its opposite), such a catastrophe can brutally expose pre-existing social and economic rot within sites already so decayed that their messy deficiencies defy the eventfulness of disasters that have been compressed into a name. In such instances, the oft-attendant word ‘tragedy’ can sometimes be deployed immediately after the event to obscure or delay charges of criminality, as if such lamentable and numbing things not yet sheathed in the definition of catastrophe might be fated rather than structured.

Natural or not, the onset of disaster often sets in motion events unlike social life. Declaring a state of emergency enables the triggering of predetermined sets of actions usually hidden from daily operations: rapid response units, exceptional procedures, disaster protocols, emergency powers. These things can be activated by ruling forces that also endow pre-selected groups with unique and extraordinary abilities to intervene into the democratic order of civil life to use strategies already anticipated for future textbook disasters. In her book Thinking In An Emergency (2012), philosopher Elaine Scarry notes the tendency to create a binary between ‘acting’ and ‘thinking’ in moments of disaster, where acting is immediate, and thinking too slow and ponderous to deal with problems effectively. This binary exists to forestall accountability when things go wrong within a disaster response. “There was not enough time,” or, “we had to do something”. Of course, in practice, thinking and acting are not so easily disentangled.

This is an extract from ‘Poetry and Disaster’, published in Beatrice Gibson’s forthcoming book, January 2019.

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