Tuesday, 16 March 2010

A Paradise Built in Hell

While I'm on a derridata roll, reminds me of how prescient you were in your email from way back in January, concerning Rebecca Solnit. I see Contexts Crawler just catching up, when they refer to a piece in the Chicago Tribune to help determine whether disasters make people behave altruistically or not. Mhuthnance, you'll be interested in this too, as someone who has studied Disaster Management, and I think the same for you ahuthnance. True, Burroughs' description of the man on the Titanic who disguised himself with women's clothing, so he could get a place on a lifeboat, will long be remembered as setting the standard of how to "measure infamy and shame". But such conduct is not necessarily representative of the associations formed in critical situations:

Natural and man-made disasters can be utopias that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, according this stimulating contrarian study. Solnit (River of Shadows) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the elite panic of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations.

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster- whether manmade or natural-people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet social desires and possibilities?

Solnit explores these phenomena, looking at major calamities from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco through the 1917 explosion that tore up Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She examines how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as looking at the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis. This is a timely and important book from an acclaimed author whose work consistently locates unseen patterns and meanings in broad cultural histories.

1 comment:

A Huthnance said...

excellent post - a lot different from the media's disaster coverage, which always focuses on "looting mobs", or the Tony W. images of snipers, etc post - Katrina.