“Nature is constantly straining against its chains: probing for weak points, cracks, faults, even a speck of rust. The forces at its command are of course colossal as a hurricane and as invisible as a baccilli. At either end of the scale, natural energies are capable of opening breaches that
can quickly unravel the cultural order.”
Mike Davis / Dead Cities
Catastrophe works like fingerprinting techniques at a crime scene. ‘Dusting for prints’ reveals that ‘absence’ is never absolute and that both the innocent and the guilty hover around every scene of misery and disaster, occasionally one being mistaken for the other. But in the end, they are all human prints and the grief is always contained and analyzed (‘triaged’ as they say, in the early accounting that medical emergencies require), and packed away as trauma requires. Or worked out as ‘just keeping going’ requires. The military draws a cordon around the diseased area and, eventually, rebuilding commences…
But natural catastrophes (if one were sufficiently scientific and objective, every catastrophe would be seen as ‘natural’) don’t really leave fingerprints. In fact, they are more like the dusting substance itself, revealing, as Mike Davis’s quote above alludes to, latent breaches and cracks in the social order, the cracks that underlie every human endeavor but which remain muted or covered over and which all human order is devoted to maintaining.
Our cities are monuments to this octopus like quest by humans to search out every exposable facet of natural potentiality and put it to work in the service of a human motivation. (Usually these days that exploration is in the service of capital acquisition; it has becomes hard to extricate that aspect of late modern life from any other aspect of life, some are ready to tell us there is no difference anymore—and, really, never was a difference).
But while the human agenda is always to quell the urgency of the natural (one suspects that the military is merely the outgrowth of this extremely long term human trend: ‘repelling the intruder’ covers much ground). ‘Global survival’ is merely shorthand for technical competence and engineering .. that is, more, but better, levees, earthquake predicative apparatuses, mid-ocean tsumnami sensors, satellite surveillance.
The Great Missoula Flood
On TV last night there was a special about an area in Washington state called the Scablands. The topography of the area is so strange that it took a few years before scientists think they discovered what caused these weird rock formations that covered an area hundreds of miles in length. Apparently 20, 000 years ago a gigantic glacier some 23 miles wide and 500 ft or more high formed in one of the valleys during a period of extreme glaciation. They theorize that the huge wall of ice stopped up the river going through the valley and caused a lake to form bigger than two of the Great Lakes. At great pressure, the case at the bottom of this immense frozen block, the water does not freeze at its normal 32 degrees Fahrenheit but manages to stay liquid till it is 31 or 30 degrees. There it slowly begins its regime of crackdom, slowly but surely bringing down the huge mass, its very size inculcating its demise. Nevertheless, the cracks don’t signal a permanent new regime since the old conditions are still present and the mass slowly begines to form and rise again.
Catastrophe of the south
I’ve written before about the apocalyptic mindset of the southerner. I recently came across a southern artist who had concentrated his large canvases on southern disasters and it made me realize the special relationship that the south has to catastrophe, all the way from it’s founding as a center of slave activity, to floods and hurricanes, to the fighting and subsequent defeat in the civil war, to economic collapse of king cotton and so on. No wonder the peculiar mind set of the old south, the feeling of being put-upon by outsiders, and the isolation that came before that, the inferiority complex and the aggression that often accompanies that state of mind.
The final end of catastrophe is often disappearance, perhaps not even all at once that ways of life succumb and transmute or just are destroyed. In fact, it would be unusual for catastrophe to have THAT much power. More often it’s simply the power to command abandonment, a small tricking away of power.
The Relation of the Extreme(s) to the (always coming) Disaster
The radical ends (primordial and eschatological) are always far before and far after. The current cultural fascination of the extreme in all areas is perhaps in its own way a recognition of those radical possibilities, but in an immanentized version of the old transcendental, the always present possibility of being un-homed and even the courting of the uncanny through the extreme, the possibility of strtetching the human to the limit of sensation, cognition, possibility even to the point of death, the only really firm extreme that anyone will experience. (Even then it’s problematic whether it could be called an experiencing of a limit.)