Disaster Time

(This is the text of a talk I gave last fall at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities’ Timescales conference. It feels depressingly relevant this year in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which, as my paper argues, are rightly understood not as discrete events but as ongoing disasters which are not over yet and will not be over any time soon. I want to update this material at some point to reflect what’s going on today in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Houston, and Florida, which are all likely to be hit by the disaster capitalists in varying degrees; I also want to think more about how Trethewey’s use of photography resonates with Siegfried Kracauer’s view of the historical archive in his 1927 “Photography” essay . But in the meantime, I’ll post this here as a placeholder.)

In this talk I aim to develop a theory of disaster time, using Natasha Trethewey’s 2010 memoir Beyond Katrina, a reflection on the Mississippi Gulf Coast before and after Hurricane Katrina, as exhibit. My plan is, first, to outline a critical understanding of disasters not as sudden events that punctuate history but as the ongoing state of our current era of climate change and global capitalism. Second, I’ll propose that Trethewey represents photography as the mode of witnessing proper to the age of disaster. This is not because the snapshot documents the disaster itself, but because it preserves fragments of the cultures lost to disaster. Her writing remediates photography in its demand that we look, that we bear witness to the ongoing history of which the hurricane is part.[1] Trethewey writes as a form of long exposure, and her text elicits a slow and sustained gaze that lingers at the site of crisis after the news trucks leave and the next news cycle begins.

That we live in an age of disaster, and that we can expect natural disasters to become more frequent and more fiery in the coming years, is now an axiom of environmental discourse. Earlier this year, UN representative for disaster risk reduction Robert Glasser warned that between global warming, drought, food and water insecurity, population growth, and new viruses, we should predict “cascading crises” of natural hazards and humanitarian emergencies—to put it plainly, more Syrias (Jones). Meanwhile, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert explained that warmer temperatures and drier climate are extending the wildfire season in North America, making blazes like the one that burned in Alberta, Canada this spring more likely. And meteorologists are finding that their climate models project an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones over the rest of this century (Emanuel). Though many questions are still unresolved, the idea that human actions—burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, draining coastal wetlands—are contributing to an increase in natural disasters is now generally accepted by the scientific community.

But how might one narrate or speak or visually represent the age of disasters? A theory of disaster time might begin with Walter Benjamin’s image, in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” of the angel of history. Benjamin saw modernity as, to borrow a phrase from modernist scholar Pericles Lewis, a “rapid succession of world-changing historical events” (32). History, for Benjamin, is not a linear process in which one thing gradually succeeds another; it is instead an ever-growing heap of ruins. Benjamin writes of the Angel of History, as painted by Paul Klee, “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.… This storm is what we call progress” (257-258). The image resonates with Trethewey’s vantage point in Beyond Katrina, in which a series of upheavals—Hurricane Camille in 1969, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, segregation, desegregation, a post-disaster reconstruction process which benefited the gambling and tourism industries more than the long-term residents, the deaths of her grandmother and mother, her brother’s imprisonment and release—accumulate before our eyes, the later events added onto rather than replacing the earlier ones.

To Benjamin’s vision of history itself as a violent storm which adds new material without subtracting the old, a theorist of disaster time might turn to Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” to understand how our current age of disasters operates. Nixon defines slow violence as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2). Phenomena like climate change, ocean acidification, and deforestation, Nixon points out, pose challenges to narrative and visual representation because they are indirect and “accretive,” unevenly spanning years and generations, unlike the “eye-catching” spectacles of tsunamis and bombings (2-3). Many photogenic, singularly dramatic cataclysms, however, can no longer be understood as isolated events either. They are better understood as eruptions in the longer history of environmental slow violence. A theory of disaster time has to account not just for the newsworthy event—a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake—but also for the decades of deforestation, wetlands loss, debt, and economic inequality that made these natural disasters have such staggering human costs.

Trethewey understands this slow, under-the-radar unfolding of disaster time. She points out in Beyond Katrina that the economic growth of Gulfport and Biloxi during the twentieth century corresponded to human-driven ecological decline. Describing marsh loss along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she writes that these wetlands are “[a]mong the most valuable ecosystems on earth… [and] greatly responsible for cleansing polluted water, recharging groundwater, and absorbing storm wave energy” (43). But “dredge-and-fill commercial, industrial, and residential development has been extensive” (43). The casino and tourism industries provided new job opportunities to residents like Trethewey’s brother Joe, but they also hastened the erosion of the shoreline, making the coast more vulnerable to a storm like Katrina.

The period of time following a disaster, meanwhile, is the subject of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which traces what happens when a reeling civil society finds itself in the power of investors who see every catastrophe as an opportunity to privatize public goods and turn a profit. Klein cites New Orleans, in the period following Katrina, as a prime example of the disaster-capitalist fantasy of a “clean slate,” an opportunity to shut down public housing and public schools in favor of condos for the wealthy and for-profit charter schools (4-7). The “shock doctrine” is the theory undergirding this opportunism. As Klein explains, the idea is that “the original disaster… puts the entire population into a state of collective shock…. [S]hocked societies often give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect” (20). Disasters are good, according to the purveyors of disaster capitalism, because they create a clean slate for business ventures, a new terra nullius where people used to live. For the investors, it’s a bright new beginning; for the displaced, it’s a catastrophe stretched out over time. In Beyond Katrina, Trethewey describes feeling disturbed by a waiter who tells her that the hurricane was a “cleansing” and that it “needed to happen” (27). She suspects that perhaps he meant the coast needed to be cleared of its poor, predominantly African-American residents in order to be “cleansed.” Klein, too, is disturbed by this sort of rhetoric, suggesting that it represents a “desire for unattainable purity, for a clean slate on which to build a reengineered model society” (25).

Beyond Katrina captures disaster time as a series of historical accumulations and recursions. Trethewey’s poem “Theories of Time and Space,” printed at the beginning of the book, reflects this recursiveness in both subject matter and composition history. It is a poem with two births. Composed before Katrina for Native Guard (a poetry collection which was published in 2006), the poem was a metaphorical reflection on time and individual change, registering the disconnect between geographic and temporal returns. “You can get there from here, though / there’s no going home,” Trethewey writes of a drive down a Mississippi highway toward her one-time hometown (5, ll. 1-2). After the hurricane, though, as Trethewey explains, “the poem had become quite literal: so much of what I’d known of my home was either gone or forever changed.… For me the poem no longer meant what it had before—even as the words remained the same” (2). Once signifying the personal transformations that make an old hometown feel uncanny, the poem came to refer to the actual erasure of old Gulfport. In Beyond Katrina, the poem is reprinted at the beginning of a section labeled 2007, marking a historical revision of its composition date. As Thadious M. Davis points out, this is revision not as re-writing, but as re-seeing (38). This revisionism is typical of the book, which overlays natural, social, and personal disasters from the past century, like a stack of transparencies or the layers of sediment in rock formations. Trethewey’s grandmother, who confuses Camille and Katrina in her memory, implicitly offers a method for the book itself, which eschews chronological order in favor of a temporal fluidity, a back-and-forth structure that signifies the ongoingness of disaster (9).

The poem’s final lines link text and photography as processes of re-vision. Trethewey compares memory to a book—a “tome” with “random blank pages” of things forgotten or deliberately left out, and yet something that “you must carry” (5, ll. 15-16). The line prefigures the notion of a “preferred narrative,” a thread which runs throughout Beyond Katrina as Trethewey meditates on the way friends and strangers choose to dwell on some memories and ignore others in order to make sense of the storm. Photography, like memory, represents an effort to re-see what is already in the process of being lost: “The photograph—who you were— / will be waiting when you return” (5, ll. 19-20).

Beyond Katrina uses photographs not to index the damage of the storm itself, but to preserve the history of a family who lived and worked in Gulfport for many generations but is now gone: the old family home demolished, the grandmother dead, the siblings moved to Atlanta. Trethewey frequently refers to storm recordings in her text, as in “Providence,” a poem about Hurricane Camille which begins with the line, “What’s left is footage.” But she does not reproduce any still frames from this footage in the book itself. Instead, she recreates a family photo album, complete with pictures of her grandmother as a young woman on the beach, her uncle Son Dixon, who helped build North Gulfport during the 1950s, and herself and her brother Joe as smiling children. It is an intensely and deliberately personal selection of photographs, reflecting what Davis calls Trethewey’s “enfoldment” of the autobiographical and the historical in her poetry (41). It refuses the familiar iconography of Hurricane Katrina—dramatic aerial footage of flooded streets, people stranded on rooftops or paddling in makeshift rafts, dead bodies floating, ruined homes, heavily armored police, the faces of suffering people—in favor of something more domestic, even sentimental. Trethewey’s photos do not appeal to voyeuristic viewing the way some news coverage does; they are not disaster porn. Instead, she asks us to re-see them as quiet memorials to a family and a community that might otherwise be forgotten.

Trethewey’s understanding of history is close to Benjamin’s, and she describes it by quoting Hegel: “When we turn to survey the past, the first thing we see is nothing but ruins” (qtd. on 51). She goes on to explain that now, “As I contemplate the development of the coast, looking at old photographs of once new buildings—the pride of a growing city—I see beneath them, as if a palimpsest, the destruction wrought by Katrina” (51). A photograph, like a poem, is a document of the moment it was produced, but it’s also a living artifact, layering new meanings on top of the old ones as if it were a multiple exposure. In Beyond Katrina, text remediates photography, and at the same time photographs remediate text via the simile of the palimpsest, a page on which one manuscript is written over another. It’s this ghostly, layering effect that makes photography, for Trethewey, the paradigmatic medium for representing disaster time. What looks like a clean slate is, if you look harder, a culture under erasure; what looks like a singular event is, once your eyes adjust, part of a deep-rooted, ongoing pattern. Beyond Katrina calls on us to look, and not only to gawk at the disaster itself, but to look back at the past, and to keep watching long after others have looked away.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Schocken, 2007.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 1999.

Davis, Thadious M. “Enfoldments: Natasha Trethewey’s Racial-Spatial Phototexting.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 4, 2013, pp. 37-54.

Emanuel, Kerry A. “Downscaling CMIP5 Climate Models Shows Increased Tropical Cyclone Activity Over the 21st Century.” PNAS vol. 110, no. 30, 2013, pp. 12219-12224. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1301293110.

Jones, Sam. “World Heading for Catastrophe Over Natural Disasters, Risk Expert Warns.” The Guardian 24 April 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/apr/24/world-heading-for-catastrophe-over-natural-disasters-risk-expert-warns. Accessed 2 October 2016.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador, 2007.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change.” The New Yorker 5 May 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/fort-mcmurray-and-the-fires-of-climate-change. Accessed 2 October 2016.

Lewis, Pericles. The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Trethewey, Natasha. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Tenth Anniversary Edition. University of Georgia Press, 2015.


[1] I use “remediate” in the sense described by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in Remediation: Understanding New Media, as the borrowing or importation of one media form into another. They write, “[W]e call the representation of one medium in another remediation, and we will argue that remediation is a definining characteristic of the new digital media” (45). However, they also point out that remediation is not itself a new phenomenon, and that ekphrastic poetry and the inclusion of “maps, globes, inscriptions, letters, and mirrors” in Dutch painting are also examples of remediation (45).


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