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Jonathan Veitch Introduction: What We Talk about When We Talk about Disasters WHEN I WAS FIRST ASKED TO INTRODUCE THESE PAPERS, I IMMEDIATELY began to reflect on my ow n experience w ith disaster—w hich, as it turns out, is m ore substantial th an I had im agined. In Los Angeles, th e Rodney King insurrections took place a dozen blocks or so from w here I lived and w ent to school (though in Los Angeles even the distance of a few blocks can put you on th e other side o f the moon). I recalled th a t I had lived through the N orthridge earthquake and th e fires in the Santa Monica M ountains, the m ost recent o f w hich burned my p aren ts’ hom e. And later, after m oving to New York, I came out of the subway on 14th Street one glorious autum n day to see th e W orld Trade C enter float to the ground like so m uch pixie dust. In reflecting on all this, I cam e to the stunning realization th at disaster was not ju st som ething th a t happened to other people, b u t rather, it was a phenom enon th at had transpired—to a rem ark­ able degree— in shocking proxim ity to th e places I w orked and lived. It was only fate or luck th at m ade m e a w itness rath er th an a participant o f these dram atic upheavals—and a w itness so curiously inured to events of this sort th a t I could have h itherto im agined my life w ithout them . That bears further reflection, bu t this is not the place for it. social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 655 As the lone hum anist setting the stage for papers by so m any distinguished scientists and social scientists, I find m yself in circum­ stances that recall those of Emily Dickinson, w hen she described her position in the pecking order ofAmherst society as a “kangaroo among the beauties.” That characterization of herself was an admission of her clumsiness or awkwardness. I would like, if I may, to introduce these texts w ith a rather awkward question that m ight be useful to keep in mind. The q u estio n begins w ith an ex tra p o latio n from Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “The Im agination o f Disaster.” Sontag is, of course, anything b u t clumsy. She is one o f the m ost provocative and elegant essayists o f her generation. It is m y question th at is clum sy (though provocative, I hope). Briefly sum m arized, “The Im agination o f D isaster” is a reflection on the science fiction movies o f the 1950s in w hich Sontag explores th e subtext o f these “ch arm in g ” and “naïve” films, w hich range from Them to Godzilla to the Invasion ofthe Body Snatchers. In her essay, Sontag m uses about the public appetite for and pleasure in the spectacle of destruction: “a panoram a of m elting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plum m eting spacecraft, colorful deadly rays.” This orgy of destruction is always im agined in m orally simplistic term s, accom panied by the nostalgia for the “Good War,” a w ar w ithout ambiguity and w ithout the threat of collective destruction. In her essay, Sontag also talks about America’s deep ambivalence tow ard the scientist who is alternately portrayed as a Faustian char­ acter (bad) or a technician (good). I do not have space to go into the m any interesting observations she makes along the way, but I do w ant to dwell on her conclusion. Sontag writes: Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under contin­ ual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, 656 social research destinies: unrem itting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by...


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