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  • Between Disaster, Medium 3.11
  • Akira Mizuta Lippit

Disasters enter the world from above. Disaster, from the Greek astron and Latin astrum meaning star or planet, falls (dis-) from above, from ill-fated stars. In this sense, disasters are always extraterrestrial, even when their elements are deeply terrestrial in nature. They unearth the metaphysical elements of the physical world, exposing the otherworldly dimensions of the planet that are embedded within the earth, imminent and inseparable from everything worldly. Not only does the disaster expose the uncanniness of the earth, the foreign soil at its core, but every disaster is also a return, the return of a disaster that has already taken place on earth and is repressed by it and within it. The event of disaster is also a memory of disaster, of this very disaster, taking place now.

What the disaster destroys, according to Maurice Blanchot, is the possibility of a future, suspending it in the passivity of disaster, of a past disaster that never entirely passes until the end of the world. “We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the future,” says Blanchot. “It is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the future—that which is yet to come—if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop [End Page 3] to every arrival.” What is disastrous about disaster, according to Blanchot is not only the material and psychical forms of devastation but its capacity to destroy its own arrival along with the arrival of all futures. “To think disaster,” concludes Blanchot, “(if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any future in which to think it.”1

The disaster that never comes—or rather the disaster that is the non-arrival of disaster, of the future, and which exposes the outside that lies always within—comes always in place of the disaster. The second, secondary, medium disaster takes the place of a disaster that cannot arrive. What takes place in the disaster, what takes place in place of disaster, what takes the place of disaster as the other disaster, its trace, reminder, revenant? How to understand a disaster that is never what it is, and can never be or become what it is or is destined to be? Not one disaster but two, a second disaster in place of one. “When the disaster comes,” says Blanchot, “it does not come. The disaster is its imminence, but since the future, as we conceive of it in the order of lived time, belongs to the disaster, the disaster has always already withdrawn or dissuaded it: there is no future for the disaster, just as there is no time or place for its accomplishment.”2 Disaster destroys the condition of its own possibility and so takes place without taking place, its impossibility and thus its postponement—its deferral—is the event. Everywhere and nowhere, an everywhere that turns each place into a nowhere. And in place of the disaster that never comes, the imminent disaster that never arrives, that never happens, is the disaster. This is the disaster of the disaster that never comes and in this manner, never ends. What is the force of the second disaster, a phantom disaster that always refers to another originary disaster past and still to come? What kind of event does it constitute?

An event without precedent that is also a repetition: unanticipated, accidental, and yet already known because already past without having ever occurred. Such an event took place in Japan on March 11, 2011, now known in Japan as “3.11,” an appellation that echoes “9/11” and the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes of a decade earlier. The magnitude 9.0 Tōhoku or Great East Japan Earthquake (Higashi Nihon daishinsai) triggered a massive tsunami, and then a nuclear crisis inscribed with the name of Fukushima, the nuclear power plant that came to stand for the entire crisis, stands alongside the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as...


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