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  • Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster by Gerard Passannante
  • Cassandra Gorman (bio)
Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster. By Gerard Passannante. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2019. 240 pp. $25.00.

Gerard Passannante opens the fourth chapter of his new monograph, Catastrophizing, with an anecdote from the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California. One of the permanent exhibitions on display [End Page 772] at the museum—which, despite its name and promise to advance "public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic" (<, holds no dinosaurs in sight—is a display of microminiatures by the Armenian American artist Hagop Sandaldjian, who compiled dozens of sculptures upon tiny surfaces including the eyes of needles and strands of hair. Passannante cites Sandaldjian's depiction of Mount Ararat, "where Noah's ark is said to have landed" (147). The artist contracts the aftermath of that biblical archetype of natural disasters, the Great Flood, on to a single grain of rice. To do so is to seek creative mastery over an unfathomably catastrophic event. Sandaldjian's extreme attempt to manage the plummeting depths of catastrophe through the control of a minute, microscopic space offers a parallel, Passannante claims, with the early modern artistic imagination. In a chapter that turns to Robert Hooke and seventeenth-century studies of the microscope, Passannante observes how "the artist generates the conditions under which potential catastrophes might be forestalled by carefully managing the body and the mind" (148). There was something about the toppling scale of disaster, he claims, that quite literally captured imaginations in early modern Europe. In the wake of recent natural disasters, upending ideologies and especially the resurgence of materialism, the early modern mind was at risk of being taken prisoner by overwhelming experiences or fear of catastrophe. It was the act of making art, with its careful "managing" of space and perspective that offered both a way out and a way of finding sense in the insensible.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology's playful blurring of fact and fiction forms an appropriate introduction to Passannante's second book, which takes as its focus the history of an experience that both is and is not based in actuality: the experience of catastrophizing in early modern materialist thought. Passannante identifies a phenomenon in the early modern history of ideas, which he calls "catastrophic materialism." He lists its general characteristics as "a reasoning from the sensible to the insensible, a precipitous shift or collapse of scale and perspective, a temporal compression of beginning and end, and an act of imaginative making that feels paradoxically like the evacuation of agency" (4). Unsurprisingly, this leads Passannante in a variety of complex directions, from wonder and terror at macro- and microscopic revelations to sensations of the pre- and post-Kantian sublime. He is correct to acknowledge, as he does in his introduction, that "[w]riting a book about disastrous thinking is a challenge, not least because the subject could potentially encompass a great number of other texts and topics" (22–23). Building on his previous work in the monograph The Lucretian Renaissance, the author's primary interest remains the impact of [End Page 773] philosophical materialism upon early modern European culture. Epicurean materialism, Lucretian analogies, and the depth of the "Democritean pit" haunt the pages of this book, which draws attention to the "reflexivity that often attends disastrous thinking" (9, emphasis mine.) The issues with this focus emerge directly from its interest. It is complicated, when an argument is presented as "cumulative" (23), to define its specific overall significance. Catastrophizing is demanding of its readership, tasking them to recognize "formal resemblances and echoes between examples" and to draw the bigger picture that Passannante leaves resonant and suggestive, but implicit (23). While the cumulative argument grows in strength as the book gathers momentum, the first half of the monograph reads as a series of case studies which, while individually compelling, do not immediately come together to form a cohesive whole.

Despite these challenges, the lasting impression of Catastrophizing is of an immensely scholarly, wide-ranging study of early modern art forms and the imagination of disaster. The first chapter explores the workbooks of Leonardo da...


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