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Catastrophe is very much the register of the contemporary condition. Over the last decade, international atmospherics have been getting hotter and hotter as a result of global warming (Hurricane Katrina), global terror (9/11), and global finance (Greece). Adding to the general sense of bewilderment is the suspicion that efforts to stabilize matters have been counterproductive. Marie-Hélène Huet’s The Culture of Disaster is a very topical book, but it approaches disaster not as a fundamental or astonishing rupture but as the premise for modern thought. She argues that “the state of emergency that characterizes current Western culture” has its origins in “a pervasive anxiety about catastrophic events” that gathered force in the eighteenth century (2). It was the enlightenment that made disasters a “properly human concern” (7). Catastrophic events such as the plague that attacked Marseilles in 1720–21 or the earthquake that devastated Lisbon in 1755 undermined conceptions of divine retribution and ideas of a knowable if wrathful God. As Huet notes, “disaster” comes from the “Italian dis-astrato which designated the state of having been disowned by the stars that ensure a safe passage through life” (3). But the abandonment was not simply religious. As the debate “shifted from the divine origin of disasters to their unpredictable unfolding,” calamities called into question the very capacity of intellectual and [End Page 139] administrative systems charged with maintaining order (9). After the French revolution, disaster was interiorized as a “unique form of individual destiny” that “made emergency the standard for present and future days” (9, 117). Without saying so, Huet implies that modern comprehension makes disasters, including those of our own day, particularly vivid.
Gilles Deleuze contends that “for philosophy, the Lisbon earthquake played a role comparable to the discovery of Nazi concentration camps” (quoted on 48), and though this contention seems overdrawn, Huet carefully assesses the philosophical and theological reassessments that followed after 1755, much of which was already anticipated in responses to the plague in Marseilles. For growing numbers of eighteenth-century theologians, God spoke through chaos. It was possible to “recognize God’s language precisely because it defies understanding or predictability; . . . there is no obvious message to be deciphered and no available translation” (44). The Lisbon earthquake served to challenge the notion that God was “the origin of rationality” (49). At the same time, neither the earthquake nor the plague clarified the rational order of the universe. She writes of the plague that “the primacy of the collective fate that doomed all without distinction of age or social standing, the severing of ties that turned friends into enemies, [and] the radical disorganization of the governing institutions” all challenged the social order and the legibility of the world (36). Disaster exposed its own proximity in everyday life. Moreover, rumors manifested the plague in another form. The “spread of malicious lies” was so socially debilitating that it constituted a “truly contagious disease,” something Thucydides had already observed when the plague struck fourth-century Athens (29). The plague and the earthquake did not so much hasten the replacement of theological with scientific explanations; rather, disaster revealed the limits of each. As a result of interpretive work, both came to serve as powerful reminders of the “fragility of life and the limits of human knowledge” (25).
For Huet, the sense of permanent emergency would become the essential element of modern life with the outbreak of the French revolution. “Paranoia, the great disease of the French Revolution, fed rumors, anger, and uprisings,” and the threat of mob violence, all the more terrifying because it was so capricious, subsequently haunted the scene of the political and epidemiological disasters that followed (2). For republicans, the peril lay in the way the revolution devoured its own children, a peril that insinuated itself in all subsequent political activity. “The dawn began in ‘89,” wrote Michelet, “then came daylight, all clouded with storms, then the dark and deep eclipse” (quoted on 126). For royalists, the revolution did not simply represent a permanent rupture with the life...