- Risk Theory and the Contemporary American Novel
1. Introduction: Risk Today
"Risk never sleeps"—this warning sets the stage for the Traveler's Insurance advertisement broadcast on national television during the American League Championship baseball playoffs in the fall of 2007. Risk-personified, the central figure in the ad, roams the city at night, inadvertently setting off one calamity after another. He washes his face in the vast restroom of an empty office building and starts a flood; he tests the controls of an adjustable bed in a department store and ignites a fire; he rides a floor-waxing machine in a museum and sends statues crashing to the floor. His ambiguous ethnicity, set off by a white suit, seems sinister in this post-9/11 consumer landscape, and it is made more so by the black lettering (R-I-S-K) on his knuckles (see Figure 1). Short and dark with a drooping mustache, he is either a multicultural everyman (Greek–Italian–Malaysian) or a threatening foreigner (Pakistani–Iranian). In classic advertising fashion, this alien figure commands attention by exploiting but then defusing what people fear.2 Un-deliberate in his destructiveness (which surprises him as much as anyone), Risk-personified is no match for Traveler's Insurance.3
A distinctive feature of contemporary American culture is our anxiety about risk. We are preoccupied with the prospect of catastrophe: nuclear war, environmental disaster, terrorist attack, susceptibility to accident and terminal illness, and, most recently, economic collapse.4 Risks are generally understood as calculations about the likelihood and impact of forces (hidden and transparent) [End Page 109] that threaten human survival. Dating from the seventeenth century, of Arabic (risq) or Latin (risco) origin, the term was initially used by sailors and maritime investors, and became a staple of the insurance industry where it defined the probability of a negative event (illness or death) together with the cost of associated losses, as in "good" or "bad" risks.5 Neutral through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "risk" acquired positive connotations in the area of capitalist finance, where it was viewed favorably "in relation to making a profit" (Lupton 8).6 Such assumptions seem quaint in the wake of the 2008 stock market and credit crisis. Yet what has persisted is the basic tendency of American governments to protect the most powerful risk takers.7 And while the failure to measure and regulate risk in the mortgage industry proved destructive to the entire market, few would deny that society's vulnerable have suffered disproportionately the effects of widespread collapse.8
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The prominence of such events and the preoccupations to which they give rise make the academic study of risk especially timely and important. The ad for Traveler's Insurance highlights a scenario that may be a phenomenon of the past.9 What has most concerned academics since the 1970s is the growing number of risks that are uninsurable.10
My subject in the following essay is a field of risk theory that has developed over the past four decades, a rich interdisciplinary area of inquiry conducted for the most part in social science, law, and philosophy.11 Risk theory views unpredictable hazards as products of human actions and seeks to create "cognitive map[s] to colonize the future" (Beck, World Risk 3).12 It is also global; risks and the catastrophes they anticipate are seen as anarchically [End Page 110] independent of regional and national borders. Because they are unbounded and because they foreground both the potential for human control and the inevitability of human powerlessness, catastrophic risks demand a dynamic analysis. A key source of this dynamism is the recognition of the problematic subjectivity of attitudes toward risk.
Risk theory is, therefore, concerned not only with actual sources of danger but also with the perception of risk. Why do people emphasize some risks and ignore others? Calculations of what to fear, what is called "Risk Assessment," always reflect moral, political, and economic as well as psychological considerations. Even more important is the link these theorists make between risk and the increasing...