If you’re reading this, you probably signed up to receive a newsletter about disasters.
But, to quote the subjects of today’s Q&A, “Here is a new idea: there is no such thing as a disaster.”
That statement kicks off Critical Disaster Studies
, a volume edited by historians Jacob A.C. Remes and Andy Horowitz that they were kind enough to send my way earlier this fall. Over the course of ten chapters, authors travel through time and across continents to consider what earns the “disaster” designation.
“There are floods and earthquakes, wars and famines, engineering failures and economic collapses,” Remes and Horowitz explain in the introduction, “But to describe any of these things as a disaster represents an act of interpretation.”
I ended up highlighting and bookmarking dozens of pages—one of the chapters offers the clearest explanation I’ve come across of the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program—and it includes some voices you’ve heard in this newsletter before like former Q&A subject Scott Gabriel Knowles
Last week, I had the chance to speak with Remes and Horowitz about why this conversation has real-world implications, the broader field of critical disasters studies they are working to build, and why they set out to destroy the premise of this newsletter (just kidding about that last one).
Colleen Hagerty: Right from the introduction, right from the beginning you get into this idea that there aren’t just “disasters.” Can you talk about that—how do you introduce an idea like that to the general public? Why is it important to?
I would also love to hear the reaction this has received from experts in the disaster studies space. I’ve written before about the no natural disasters campaign and that gets some very strong responses…
Andy Horowitz: There’s generations of work in disaster studies trying to define, like, what’s a disaster as opposed to a mega-disaster? What’s the acute emergency period against the recovery period? You know, all these things.
It always struck me as just a really, frankly, bizarre parlor game, like, how many buildings have to fall for it to count? How many people have to die?
I want to say some of the people do this work are very good scholars, but this piece of what they do, I found a little bit curious and I never quite understood the stakes of, like, the distinction between the “threat period” and the “recovery period.” No one in the book, none of the contributors to the book are trained in disaster studies. We all sort of come to this study of disasters from some other discipline.
In my work
on [Hurricane] Katrina, for example, it just seemed like these things were totally elastic and blurry and overlapped. And in fact, it seemed like it obscured more than it revealed to try to establish a universal set of frames that you could apply.
Katrina is the example I know best: so you have this hurricane called Katrina, which comes and goes, and after it goes, the levees fall. So the flood that was the concern of people is technically after the storm is over. And some people whose homes flooded rebuilt their homes, and some people whose homes flooded did not. But that had nothing to do, surprisingly, with the amount of water, that had to do with so-called recovery policies.
So, the center of the thing keeps moving, if that makes some sense. Like I could never actually figure out what this acute moment of disaster really was. My questions as a historian were always about, well, why were some people in harm’s way and others not? What makes some things count as an emergency and other things not?
Asking that question helped Jacob and I to sort of figure out together in conversation that really, it was the disaster idea itself that needed to be questioned, and not in a postmodern, academic, “what is the nature of the human?” sort of way. That is interesting and great for some people to do, but this actually has very definitive impacts on people’s lives.
If you are homeless because of a flood, you get disaster relief. If you’re homeless because your mortgage is underwater, you do not get disaster relief. What gets defined as a disaster matters in direct, material, life and death, high-stakes ways.
And we all were familiar with this idea there’s no such thing as a natural disaster, but that kind of just reaffirmed that there was something called a disaster that you could, like, pick up off the shelf. It’s like okay, well, this is a banana. This is a pineapple. This is a disaster.
It’s worth reflecting on the idea that it’s not objective in that way. It’s definitely an imposed idea that serves some people’s uses better than others, and we thought that the debate over the sort of nitty-gritty taxonomy had gotten stale, and that the more important thing to do was to ask about this category of what suffering and what problems are seen as normal and not a disaster. And what suffering and what problems are seen as extraordinary, not normal, and therefore, a disaster that should be corrected.
Jacob, did I do that right?
Jacob A.C. Remes: I think that’s exactly right. And one of the things that surprised me is how receptive the kind of mainstream disaster scholar community has been to this point. I think there really is this hunger in disaster scholarship, because there’s increasing emphasis on questions of equity and on who gets aid and why. I think there’s this increasing interest in understanding how these structures have been built over time.
AH: Yeah, Jacob, you made such a good point about the sort of wider focus on equity. I think we see across American intellectual life a focus on structural questions. This is what Black Lives Matter was marching about, like we now have become much more comfortable, I think, as society talking about structural inequality and institutional inequality.
CH: I’m curious about the book timeline because you do mention that this was in progress before the Covid-19 pandemic. What was it like for you working on this at a time when it seemed really difficult to understand what sort of world it would be reaching by the time it got published?
JR: This started with a conference in 2018, and really, the purpose of the conference was to say, all right, let’s find a bunch of work that seems to be critical disaster scholar scholarship, talk about it, and then figure out what are the themes that define it.
AH: I just want to emphasize what Jacob said, because it was really very smart of him. And it sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it ended up being brilliant. He just said, “Let’s announce a conference on critical disaster studies, not tell people what it is, and then let whoever thinks that they’re doing critical disasters show up, and those will be our people.”
So, we gathered what like 12 or 14 people on the cutting edge of this thing that didn’t quite exist yet called “critical disaster studies.” And we talked about it for a day, and that was probably more productive than the conference itself. Then, everybody went home and basically rewrote their conference papers as book chapters based on that conversation.
JR: So, we had basically gave the press the final draft of the manuscript sometime in the first semester of 2019, and then it went off to peer review, and we got back the peer reviews in April 2020.
I think it was kind of surreal to be trying to think in April 2020 what disaster studies were going to look like in July 2021, which was when we knew the book was actually going to hit the shelves. Andy and I had this series of conversations of, like, what do we do? Should we put in a new chapter? And Andy was very smart in saying there is nothing that could be written now that, when this comes out in a little bit more than a year, is not going to be useless, is not going to be dated.
AH: I’ll just add, Jacob, I think we sort of saw the arrival of the pandemic—I mean, in a lot of ways, because we experienced it, it was terrible, and it remains terrible—but it was also kind of proof of concept for the book. Like, did the book have explanatory power for this new event? And we really felt like it did. I’ll say immodestly, we felt like it was useful. Re-reading the book after Covid helped me see new things in the chapters and helped me see new things about Covid.
JR: An example of that, actually: last week, I taught Dara Z. Strolovitch’s chapter figuring out when the mortgage crisis became a “crisis,” and my students were really taken with this—they latched onto this idea as a way of thinking about Covid. And it really helped them understand this difference in time between kind of the “disaster” moment of COVID, particularly in New York, where a lot of them were evicted because the dorms shut down and no one knew what was happening and it was this very acute disaster in March, April, May 2020.
And then there’s what we’re in now, which to them felt like this kind of long crisis. So, the way that Dara wrote about how things become crises or don’t get recognized as crises really resonated and helped them to think through different temporalities.
One of the things we haven’t talked about is this question about anticipation, which to me is increasing a central question. Like, what does it do to our understanding of disaster and climate change that the discourse is so fused now? That disasters now get seen as part of the climate change question and climate change is increasingly understood through disasters? And that is necessarily going to shape how we experience the disaster.
CH: For someone who reads this interview and is interested in learning more about the work that you’re both doing and the work described in the book, where can they go?
Read Andy’s book
is actually the biggest thing that I can say.
AH: You just have to buy it, don’t have to read it.
CH: I mean, it is the holidays…
: Jacob had and continues to have a vision of basically a new field or at least a new organization of the field with people who think in terms of critical disaster studies. And the idea that was very attractive to me was less that, like, there would be a new conference with new stickers that people could have or dues people could pay, but rather, it was a way of actually moving the conversation forward. So, I think the very simple answer to the question is, if you’re into the book, go to Jacobs website, the Initiative for Critical Disaster Studies
, and there you will be able to sign up on a mailing list to find out about new work.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity. A huge thanks again to Jacob A.C. Remes and Andy Horowitz for speaking with me, and with the University of Pennsylvania Press for providing me with a copy of Critical Disaster Studies.