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  • Overturning Catastrophes
  • Alexandra Perisic

The word catastrophe is derived from the Greek word katastrephein, meaning a "sudden turn" or "overturn" (from kata=down and strephein=turn). In Greek theatre, it designated the last parts of a tragedy, the moment when the action begins to unravel and the protagonist has to face the consequences of their actions. In the 1700s, the meaning was extended to include any sudden disaster, leading to the now frequent conflation between disasters and catastrophes. Writing on theatre and catastrophe, Federica Bueti contends that "kata-strephein is, then, not the tragic death of the hero, but, rather, the moment when the ethical dilemma of the hero is made visible, a cue of further collective reflection" ("The Theatre of Catastrophe"). It is a moment of pause, when the situation could still develop in a number of ways.

In this article I expand on catastrophe as a sudden overturn or a possibility (and sometimes excuse) for a sudden overturn; one whose aftermath is not predetermined. I argue that in capitalism1 catastrophes often lead to a collision between two worldviews. On the one hand, as argued by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), capitalists use disasters and catastrophes to privatize new sectors of society and impose free market reforms. While I concur with Klein's assessment, I also contend that there is another side to catastrophes. Following Félix Guattari's claim that ruptures allow for the emergence of new ethical and aesthetic modes of being, I argue that catastrophes can lead to non-capitalist imaginings and practices.

In my analysis, I rely on two examples. First, I focus on Martinican writer and philosopher Edouard Glissant and his metaphor of the womb abyss. According to Glissant, the Middle Passage was a catastrophe, perhaps the biggest one in human history. The passage was primarily an abyss, the utter and complete dehumanization of the slave population. Yet, it was also a womb, where in an atmosphere of extreme violence, creolization began, a mixing of different cultural elements leading to new ways of being in the world. The struggle between the dehumanizing forces of capitalism and the utopian forces of what Glissant calls the world in Relation, began during the Middle Passage and continues to this day.

I place Glissant's theory in conversation with a more contemporary example, the recent national debt crisis in Greece. The near bankruptcy of Greece could be characterized as a catastrophe. In light of this situation, two poles were formed. [End Page 118] Grassroots efforts, founded upon ideas of mutual aid and solidarity, led to community kitchens, healthcare clinics, and popular assemblies. On the other hand, the European troika (the European commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) used this opportunity to pursue and intensify neo-liberal austerity measures.2 In the summer of 2015, we witnessed precisely a clash between two worldviews in the aftermath of a catastrophe. The juxtaposition of Glissant's writing and the Greek debt crisis is not meant to lead to a comprehensive account of catastrophes or to a generalizable model. However, thinking about catastrophes dialectically and comparatively can help us take an ethical stance and decide on a political course of action in the future. Particularly given that, due to global warming, increasing social inequality, and military/police violence across the globe, we are likely to witness many more catastrophes to come.

neoliberal catastrophes

Naomi Klein's 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism has become a bestseller and a mandatory reference in any discussion of neoliberalism, economic crisis, natural disasters, and war. In this brilliant and extremely well documented work, Klein traces the development of the neoliberal doctrine from its endorsement by Milton Friedman and his disciples in the University of Chicago's economic department, to the present day.3 She underlines the dependence of neoliberalism on the shock doctrine, which she defines as "using moments of collective trauma to engage in radical social and economic engineering" (8). The doctrine posits that the aftermath of a crisis—be it economic, political, or environmental—when the population is disoriented and its reference points obfuscated, is the best time...


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