Notes on Disaster

Fall, Summer 2015, 2016 | ArteZine

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Notes on Disaster


Translated from Arabic by Robin Moger

It is impossible to present a complete picture of disaster or to apprehend it in its entirety. It is too complex to be taken in at a single glance. More fitting to make partial appraisals, to reckon it in fragments. Disaster has no single narrative because it is not a single, personal account of misfortune; it is greater than mankind, greater than the sum of all personal stories. It sweeps along, a raging whirlwind of numberless details and fragments of destruction. There is nothing personal about disaster, despite the great cruelty it visits on individuals. It does not single out anyone in particular, but instead it targets the collective spirit and hovers like a prophet of doom over the heads of all.

Disaster is a superhuman event, transcending the limits of man’s endurance. It is fashioned by forces that men are not accustomed to dealing with in their daily lives, or perhaps forces with which they are familiar but that randomly or intentionally have suddenly become outside their control. If daily life is built on interconnected relationships of control and domination, then among the things that disaster lays waste is just this personal sense of empowerment, breaking the individual and crushing him; snatching the individual away from himself. The fragility which characterizes the disaster-stricken individual finds its home in the group, for the disaster-stricken group is a weak group, aware of its fragility, not trying to hide it, and at the same time grasping whatever chances circumstances allow for its survival. Disaster therefore is a communal event, in which stricken individuals band together in a stricken group and search for a new beginning. And in this way, it is also a political event, for disaster is a collective fumbling towards a new reality in which the individual might finally return to himself.

It is impossible to search for a solution for disaster, because it is not a problem, just as it is too big for its source to be located in the actions of any one party. It is no crime, with a perpetrator and a victim. It is a new history, or a radical change that cannot, under any circumstances, be modified, refuted, or even understood. Disaster is more complex than problems or crises, and calls, not for a response or solution, but a completely new beginning, a completely new language without which it cannot be addressed. The failure to find this new beginning and language leads to an impression that it is possible to overcome the disaster by managing it, i.e.: by searching for means to redress it.

Disaster management is the art of generating man-made disasters; natural disasters are unplanned, they strike like Fate. Man-made disasters are a string of totalitarian decisions and evil calculations, often made on the pretext of ameliorating the impact of a previous disaster or avoiding one to come. Man-made disaster is basically an assault on Fate, an attempt to tame it and dictate to it. The history of the universe is a string of “fateful” natural disasters, by whose grace life arose on earth. In other words, life, by one measure, is a cosmic disaster brought on by the blows of Fate, and cannot be separated from the death that dogs its steps, like the echo of the first disaster. Man-made disaster, meanwhile, is the engineering and management of death and destruction, by making them seem a pre-ordained destiny that no one can interfere with or change.

With time disaster can become invisible, impossible to detect in any one event, but that does not nullify its presence. Even in times of security and calm, disaster is there, for disaster does not obey the logic of a linear temporal progression. The instant in which the disaster occurs does not end with its passing, but persists in numerous forms. Disaster is both temporal and historical. It is the instant of a new history’s formation. A point about which history turns: an origin. Disaster is not merely a major event that redirects the flow of history, but the precondition for the formation of the history to come, and thus, once past, disaster does not live on as a memory, but rather as memory entire, or rather the necessary condition for the formation of this memory.

Disaster-consciousness is an awareness of formation within the context of disaster; a consciousness not damaged by disaster, but honed. Disaster-consciousness does not seek to flee from disaster, nor to manage it like a crisis, but instead strives to set it in plain sight. It does not want to mend what is broken or to reclaim what has been taken. It does not want to ask for pardon or to forgive. It does not want purgatory or punishment. All it desires is to look disaster in the eye. This consciousness is like an island, borne within, and set apart from disaster.

Disaster calls for a new beginning, a new land, and the new land that it reveals is like an island—though not always a new world. Gilles Deleuze says that there are two kinds of islands: continental and oceanic. Both are formed by natural disaster, the first through the splitting away of part of the continental mass and the second—in many cases—by volcanic eruptions, which spew rock formations out from the depths of earth. The first is an offcut of the old landmass; the second is fashioned from new land. The very dynamic that draws man to these islands with the goal of populating them is the same that led to their creation: the desire to move away and be apart on the one hand, and on the other, the urge to create a new world. The island that welcomes inhabitants fully committed to their journey towards it—a dynamic that reflects the formation of the island itself—is capable of being a new beginning to a new world. But this does not always take place, as shown by Robinson Crusoe, who settled on a desert island where he created a bourgeois world based on ownership and Protestant ethics. Nothing on the island was of any use to Crusoe, so he fetched everything he could from the innards of his sinking ship and with them built an extension of the world he’d left behind. There is only one world in Crusoe’s life, which he carries with him wherever he goes.

Disaster leaves us with an island or, at best, moves us to an island after destruction has brought an end to everything else. The essential characteristic of this desert island—a blank slate for the creation of a communal spirit—is that it is a new beginning or a second birth. Deleuze states that there are no second births because of disaster, quite the opposite: there is a disaster after the origin because there must be, from the outset, a second birth. He goes on to say that this second “origin” is more important than the first because it gives us the law of repetition and causality, whereas the first gives us nothing but moments. Or in other words, what makes life alive is not its force or strength, but its inbuilt capacity for death and its fragility in the face of disaster, and thus its ability to start, or be born, anew. The thing that makes history epochal are the blows of fate and disaster that befall it, without which it would be eternal and unchanging.

In the moment that mankind reaches a desert island, two disasters intersect: the disaster that prompted them to set out on their search and the disaster that formed the island. The new life, or birth, cannot take root at this intersection without a new language that can take one disaster and lead it into another: a language-driven transition that ensures that every disaster finds refuge in another, that converts disaster into something else. Men make the island the repository of their isolation and their distance from the old world; the island makes them bearers of its isolation and separation. The island gives men a living substance out of which can be fashioned a new world and men grant the isolated island an awareness of itself. The old language is not able to effect this transition, because it only sees the island as an extension of the old world and it will always attempt to manage the disaster, to reproduce its context and conditions in form capable of being controlled.

Identifying the concept of emptiness makes it easy to distinguish the island from Utopia. Utopia seeks out emptiness in order to fill it with a preconceived notion. Utopia has no interest in what might be found on the island. All it wants is an empty expanse of desert in which to build its world. Should Utopia find life on the island, it would simply ignore it and act as though it isn’t there. But the desert island’s emptiness does not preclude the life that exists there. It is deserted, but not devoid of life—all it lacks is the human project that makes the land flower. Deleuze states that the populated island can remain as deserted as it was in its pristine state if its human inhabitants are truly devoted to whatever it was that drew or drove them there, i.e.: if they remain devoted to their isolation, to their need for a new creation. If this is so, then the island shall remain deserted despite its inhabitants, and its inhabitants will become its own awareness of this state. So: the populated island will remain deserted until the day comes when its inhabitants forget they are living on an island, in which instant it will straightway grow verdant.

What message does the island have for the fertile plains? What can the second birth possibly tell the first? At best, the message will be empty, or full of unintelligible words, for between the two lies death and disaster. They are two self-made worlds, each with its own language. At worst, it will send out an invitation to settle there, the invitation Robinson Crusoe might send to convince others to come to his island and there reproduce their world instead of a new one. Thus do the plains claim another island.

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