The Cultural Life of Catastrophes and Crises

European Summer School in Cultural Studies 2009
Copenhagen, August 17  –  21

Catastrophes and crises are exceptions, disruptions of order. On various levels and with different degrees of radicality, they change and subvert what we have been accustomed to regard as the normal state of things. They may occur on a personal level creating traumatic or stressful situations, on a social level creating unstable political, financial or religious situations or on a global or regional level creating military or environmental situations of danger and emergency.
Our understanding of catastrophes and crises remains, however, framed and oriented by the cultural formatting of our attention: the collective repertoire of symbolic forms, historical sensibilities, modes of representation, and patterns of imagination determine how we identify and analyze catastrophes and crises; how we think of them, and how we deal with them.

The cultural life of catastrophes and crises is Janus-faced: One the one hand it pertains to actual catastrophic events and processes of crisis: how they can be assessed, represented, dealt with, and eventually overcome. On the other hand it involves the ideas and images related to catastrophic and critical situations reverberating in the cultural imagination: how these fearful and fascinating images provide a stock of metaphorical resources for thinking about all kinds of disruptions in terms of catastrophe and crisis. Culture is at work in both cases, either to facilitate the adaption to actual disruptions, or by unfolding singular sets of visions and passions that accompany our historical existence.

The range of possible objects for such an enquiry is vast. Historical and contemporary experiences and ideas of catastrophes and crises resound from antique travelogues to contemporary computer games, from anthropological records to avant-garde literature, from global mass media to site-specific performances, from corporate culture to political philosophy.

With this session of the European Summer School in Cultural Studies we wish to highlight and investigate the cultural life of catastrophic events and moments of crisis. We suggest dividing the multiple approaches to the cultural life of catastrophes and of crises into three different levels: facts, forms, and fantasies.

Facts. Natural and manmade catastrophes like Lisbon, Holocaust, Chernobyl, 9/11, Katrina, and Sichuan, and crises like the decline of the Roman empire, the advent of religious wars in the 17th century or World Wars in the 20th, the habitual economic crises accompanying modern capitalism or the contemporary environmental crisis – they are all as brute as facts can be, thereby at the same time demanding and defying the work of cultural representation and understanding. The anomaly of catastrophes and crises, turning habits and expectations upside down, eludes stable representations, the traumatic experience traumatizing in turn the ability to reassess the exceptional. The themes of anticipation, witnessing, coping and attestation to what can not be properly attested to are central here, but also the phenomena of social and existential resilience, together with the mechanisms of cultural memory and the resources of anamnesis at work in different strategies of representation.

Forms. The elusive character of catastrophes and the unpredictable processes of crises force cultural imagination to invent new forms of narration, figuration, and documentation. The subversion of the order of things does not only take place in real life but also in the order of a movie plot or a poem. What is at stake here is the ways in which we are able to conceive of the dynamism of unfolding events and its causal and spatio-temporal characteristics. Mapping tipping points has a long history in cultural theory from Aristotle’s theorizing of the catastrophe as dénouement to René Thom’s cusp diagrams. The cultural imagination of turning points ranges from the plotting of fatal encounters in the novel of the 18th and 19th century to theories of emergence and hyper-complex systems. The aesthetics of the sublime and of choc and "suddenness" are relevant under this heading as well.

Fantasies. Catastrophes and crises have generated an avalanche of collective fantasies from Gilgamesh over the Revelation to modern blockbuster disaster movies and dystopian science fiction. The mythology of catastrophe and of crises is perhaps not a reliable depiction of real life catastrophes and crises, but it is vital to our cultural imagination of catastrophes and crises — and thereby also to the way we respond to real life disasters and emergency events. Relevant themes here are the contrary fantasies of either post-distress harmony or chaotic and looting hordes, and the political use of such fantasies in the Rousseauan and Hobbesian imagination of the state of nature. But also the fear of a nuclear holocaust and ecological breakdown that haunted the imagination during the Cold War. The notion of providential justice hiding behind the contingency of catastrophes and of crises comes up here as well, together with the relevance of the problem of theodicy to narrative form. The fantasy of catastrophes and of crises might even be one of the ways a culture confronts itself in guise of the forms of decadence it might take, ultimately asking the question: how does a culture fall?

The deadline for handing in the proposal at the local partner institute is 25 March 2009. Both doctoral students as well as junior researchers (post-docs) are invited to apply for the summer school. Doctoral students and junior researchers who are accepted for the summer school are eligible for ESSCS scholarships. These scholarships cover travel and accommodation costs up to a set amount.

The European Summer School is a joint venture between The International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, The Copenhagen Doctoral School in Cultural Studies, The Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, The London Consortium and University of Oslo.

Applications should include:
 title of proposed paper
 abstract (max. 300 words)
 biographical information (short CV)
 brief description of research project/interests
 contact information (e-mail, telephone and postal address)

For registration and further information, please contact:

In Denmark: Kirsten Zeuthen, Copenhagen Doctoral School , 1 Karen Blixens Vej, 2300 Copenhagen, tel +4535328211, e-mail , web

In Germany : Sonja Altnöder, International Ph.D. Programme (IPP) "Literary and Cultural Studies", International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, Justus Liebig University Gießen, Alter Steinbacher Weg 38, 35394 Gießen
Germany, Tel.: +49.641.99 300 55, Tel.: +49.641.99 300 41 (GCSC/IPP Office), e-mail, web,

In Great Britain: Karen Wong, The London Consortium, 24 Litchfield Street, London WC2H 9NJ tel +44 (0) 207 836 7558, e-mail, web

In the Netherlands: Eloe Kingma, ASCA, Oude Turfmarkt 147, 1012 GC Amsterdam, tel +31205253874, e-mail, web

In Norway: Kirsti Sellevold, Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo , P.O. Box 1003, Blindern, 0315 Oslo , tel +4722856827, e-mail, web

Questions concerning the session can be addressed to the organizers.