Earthquake in Haiti: Kleist and Modern Disaster Discourse

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In the vocabulary of modern disaster research, Heinrich von Kleist's seminal short story "The Earthquake in Chile" from 1806 is a tale of disaster vulnerability. The story is not just about a natural disaster destroying the innocent city of Santiago but also about the ensuing social disaster orchestrated by the citizens of Santiago themselves. Three cognitive schemes play a role for the way Kleist – and his fictional characters – imagine the vulnerability of human society: the theodicy, the sublime, and the state of exception. These three symbolic forms are part of the surprisingly small and surprisingly stable repertoire of cultural concepts and images that, for several centuries now, govern the way we think about disasters and the way we act when they strike. The task of a cultural disaster research, the essay suggests, is to study the deep grammar of our common imagination of disaster surfacing in fictional as well as in factual disasters. Thus, the recent "cultural turn" in modern disaster research must be supplemented with a cultural-historical turn in the ambition to explore how modern disaster fiction reveal and rework the historical repertoire of symbolic forms through which we perceive disaster.
Original languageEnglish
JournalNew German Critique
Issue number115
Pages (from-to)49-66
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2012

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Humanities - Disasters, vulnerability, Kleist (Heinrich von), sublime, theodicy, state of exception

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