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  • Editor's ColumnWitnessing Catastrophe, Interpreting Catastrophe

This issue focuses on catastrophe. It is a concept that calls out for a comparative approach; it compels and challenges us to think in an inter- and cross-disciplinary fashion. Thinking catastrophe today raises multiple questions. What constitutes a catastrophe? Is catastrophe another name for human tragedy, something to be feared and avoided? Or is it, from the perspective of neoliberalism, an opportunity to be exploited? Etymologically, catastrophe means an "overturning, sudden turn, conclusion" (OED), from the Greek kata, meaning "down" and strephein, or "turn." How do we interpret and bear witness to a catastrophe, to a sudden upheaval in the norm that creates a break with the interpretive habits through which we make sense of that norm? We might ask whether a humanist framework is equipped to do justice to the topic of catastrophe. Does climate change call for rethinking catastrophe after the bio-genetic age of the Anthropocene, through a non-human perspective, if such a thing is possible? What historical catastrophes continue to serve an exemplary or paradigmatic function? And finally, whose catastrophe is heard and whose catastrophe remains silenced?

In thinking through these last questions we might take up two of the many disasters of the twentieth century whose effects are still felt today: the genocide of European Jews and the expulsion of Palestinians from their land. The Hebrew term for catastrophe is Shoah and the Arabic one is Nakba. For many scholars, the word Shoah more adequately registers the horrors of the genocide during World War II than the term holocaust, which, etymologically tied to notions of sacrifice or burnt offerings, suggests that some purpose can be found in this violence. Shoah attests to a resistance to any redemptive narrative of Jewish suffering—any narrative that would "make sense" of the loss of six million Jews. The term Nakba denotes the forced expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians between 1948 and 1949.1 If the creation of the State of Israel is in a large part a response to the plight of European Jews, what of the historical trauma and dispossession of the Palestinians? The matter is even more dire given the illegality of the Nakba's commemoration in Israel.2

Witnessing both catastrophes should not translate into a crude equivalence. We must affirm the incommensurability of these events, their irreducible historical differences. But if the Palestinian Nakba is not the same as the Jewish Shoah, each might provide a basis for one day relating to another's catastrophe, another's trauma. As Edward Said once memorably put it, "there is suffering and injustice [End Page 1] enough for everyone," and, he added, "the only way of rising beyond the endless back-and-forth violence and dehumanization is to admit the universality and integrity of the other's experience and to begin to plan a common life together."3 Judith Butler similarly shifts the discussion from a straightforward comparison of catastrophes to asking more fruitfully "whether the Shoah and its suffering might contribute to an ethical and political framework for the present that speaks up against state-sanctioned violence,"4 against the ongoing Nakba. To break with the status quo, which is living together badly, requires for Said and Butler a relational modality, an interpretive generosity and openness to each other's catastrophes, even a mourning of your enemy's loss.

The volume opens with Dominic Rainsford's critique of the urge to quantify catastrophe and suffering, questioning the role of numbers in responses to trauma. In "Literature, Catastrophe, and Numbers: Saadat Hasan Manto and Tahar Ben Jelloun" he instead explores the literary dimensions of catastrophic experience and ethics, claiming that we respond to a poetic narrative of catastrophe rather than catastrophe as an arithmetic. In "Racial Microbiopolitics: Flint Lead Poisoning, Detroit Water Shut Offs, and The 'Matter' of Enfleshment," Chelsea Grimmer examines the way that the regulation of water, specifically, serves as both a material and metaphorical tracer of racialization. Next, Judith Sierra-Rivera studies the concept of "goce emocional," the emotional pleasure that artist and intellectual Carlos Mérida identified as an aesthetic foundation to pre-Hispanic Mayan architecture, in her piece, "Carlos Mérida's 'Goce...


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