“[The] most common catastrophe, the end of life, may have already happened without our knowing it”
–Brian McGrath (Clemson U)
Two weeks prior to “Catastrophes,” the International Conference on Romanticism’s 2012 session, a hurricane had formed and began moving through the Caribbean with an East Coast trajectory:
10/25/2012 2:33 AM EDT, Updated: 10/26/2012 5:05 PM EDT
“Could a Hurricane Sandy, winter storm hybrid worse than the “Perfect Storm” of 1991 slam the East Coast just in time to ruin both Halloween and Election Day?”
A catastrophe does not start. Its beginning is not a fixed point in time and space. A catastrophic event develops, unfolds, and emerges. While the catastrophe eventually becomes identifiable, its obscurity is not suddenly contained. The causes and effects of a catastrophe are impossible to register entirely:
10/27/12 11:10 PM ET EDT
“‘We’re looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people,’” said Louis Uccellini…The rare hybrid storm that follows will cause havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.”
Wayne Parry and Allen G. Breed, “Hurricane Sandy, Approaching Megastorm, Threatens East Coast”
So how do we measure catastrophe? Does the number of people involved determine an event’s ontological status? Even when a catastrophe appears to impact a single person only, seemingly infinite multiplicities are required beforehand in order to arrive at the individual’s loss:
11/7/12 5:13 PM MST
Catastrophe By the Numbers:
In Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: A Poem, Barbauld examines “a national loss that can only conceal the individuals who bear that loss themselves.”
—Erin Goss (Clemson U)
Catastrophes are events that can be experienced but only through limited means. Different representational systems, from language to infrared technology and from maps to numbers, supply the conditions for making manifest that which an individual human cannot readily “see.”
With the aid of a representation, humans convert an event into something it is not, something containable, accountable, and meaningful:
ICR 2012: 175 attendees, 147 papers, 5 plenary speakers, 2 absentees due to weather.
Weather for Tempe, AZ: November 8-11, 2012
Average Temperature: 79/55.
Average Precipitation: 0.02
Containment: Once a catastrophe is converted, by way of a numerical system for instance, it becomes a representational thing over which humans can exert control:
11/9/12 12:53 PM MST
Accountability: When a catastrophe is quantified, that conversion provides another way to represent the expenditure for an event. It allows us to ask who—or what—pays the cost:
Conference registration fee: $140
Discounted fee for students & independent scholars: $80
Banquet: $50 (with cash bar)
Hotel Fee at the Twin Palms: $331.96/$80 per evening plus tax
Plane Ticket: $365 round trip
CO2 Impact: 1,928 lbs.
Meaning: For decades, literary criticism has dismissed the numbers. But like words, numbers are representations and they express meaning. But when either words or numbers are used to represent a catastrophe and those involved, words and numbers can equally exclude the individuals represented in favor of their own proliferation.
“But when a scrap survives, disciplines come ‘limping back.’”
—Elizabeth Effinger (U of Western Ontario)
“A ghostly language can grow back over the damage.”
—Tristram Wolff (UC Berkeley)
Because catastrophes lack clear beginnings as well as endpoints, they cannot be represented by lines. Lines, by definition, require two endpoints. When winds gather together they form a storm, and when they scatter they leave artifacts in their wake. The manifold tendencies of these artifacts presuppose the catastrophe that initially altered their courses. Rather than reach an endpoint, a catastrophe transforms:
11/07/12 11:16 PM ET EST
“A nor’easter blustered into New York and New Jersey on Wednesday with rain and wet snow…inflicting another round of misery on thousands of people still reeling from Superstorm Sandy’s blow more than a week ago…Under ordinary circumstances, a storm of this sort wouldn’t be a big deal, but large swaths of the landscape were still an open wound.”
—Colleen Long and Frank Eltman, Huffington Post
So will a map of catastrophe look significantly different from a conference’s? An old storm is embedded in the winds of a new one much like a conference picks up the conversations from the last. The drift of arguments change and new topics gain emphasis, and yet, our function as scholars to preserve texts demands that the old data limp back into the dialogue, pending an apocalypse. Events like conferences are not entirely cut-off from one another despite being punctuated by seasons, locations, and all the infinitesimal bits for which we cannot account. Perhaps on a map, neither conferences nor catastrophes are lines with endpoints, but waves.
Many thanks to ASU and the conference organizers, Mark Lussier and Ron Broglio.
Congratulations to the graduate student essay winners:
First Place: Rebecca Nesvet (U. of North Carolina Chapel Hill), “Patagonian Giants, Frankenstein’s Creature, and Contact Zone Catastrophe.”
Second Place: Tristram Wolff (U. of California Berkeley), “Etymology and Slow Catastrophe: Tooke to Coleridge to Wordsworth.”