In his 1940 essay Theses on the Philosophy of History1, Walter Benjamin argues that ‘the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is not the exception but the rule’. He continues, ‘we must attain at a concept of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we should clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency…’ Urban life at Benjamin’s time would certainly have appeared not so different than the forces driving the mega-cities today. Sophisticated socio-economical strategies too often cannibalize citizens, condemning the city to a perpetual transformation and its inhabitants to a stifling condition of poverty and social injustice. It is the post-post city. Post-everything: post-war, post-atomic, post-capitalist, post-communist, post-Fordist. Reality here needs to be experienced exclusively as a postponed horizon of expectations. It is primarily a problem of definition: post- is a prefix that implies the idea of an endless overcoming. If this prefix describes the potential of what is not already there, not defined or yet definable, the only effect of this linguistic liniment is to alleviate the feeling of exhaustion produced by our own expectations and projections. In such scenario experience has been transubstantiated into something else—a wireless connection, a flat screen, sexual frustration, anxiety, self-exploitation and a feeling of dispossession.

Apparently, all is in its place. The city is grey as usual. It is a lunar landscape, its heart emerging soon after the last scores of Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra as in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We expect catastrophe in other places, while it is really just within the sight. It is only a question how to present it: instead of noisy reverberations or blank spots, we have to imagine a silent and slow disintegration. Don’t you perceive the tremors in the nice apartment in your multikulti neighbourhood while social and cultural crystallization is trashing and devouring the energies that once gathered us together? Don’t we share this “state of emergency” that Benjamin rightly addressed as the contemporary collective condition? If the state of emergency is the rule, then catastrophe doesn’t necessarily have to be considered a sudden disaster or transcendental force that we would have to accept as inevitable. Catastrophe could actually be experienced as a moment in which possibilities arise, yet not within a pre-existing structure, but in the somewhat threatening state of chaotic becoming. Rather than generating prospects of pure decline, can the catastrophe be approached as a moment of openness, where the dissolution of the existing enables the formation of new collective structures? As it is now, the instrumentalization of disaster, which Naomi Klein defined as ‘shock doctrine,’2 (2007) is a well-functioning mechanism driven by the free market and directed toward the exploitation of shocked people to generate profit and a temporary politico-economic stability. But in such a suffocating returning circle, in this catastrophic moment, a ground emerges where new moments of collective social actions could potentially materialize. In the dissolution of existing conditions, catastrophe is not necessarily the falling apart of our civilization; it is, rather, the moment of its metamorphosis. It is the awakening of awareness of the immanent circumstances in a way that forces us to reconsider the concept of belonging together and the meaning of our actions within the limitation of our common condition.

In the theatrical tradition of Greek tragedy, the catastrophe (kata strephein) was the moment in which the chorus—the collective voice of the politeia (Athenians)—announced the final resolution of the tragic event: This is the prominent moment of the tragedy that functions as the final resolution of a narrative plot, opening a series of ethical issues. While directing the performance towards a non-returning point, the kata strephein is that overturning moment which reverses the perspective. For an audience, the ‘public’, it is also the manifestation of a common horizon defined by and through the peculiarity of individuals’ actions. Catastrophe’s potential then resides in its being a space of disentanglement and openness. Thus, it might be worth thinking about catastrophe as a starting point and not as an end. A dénouement is the epilogue of a story and its promise for the unexpected to unfold, for a collective future others to be discovered, developed, and narrated.
 

  • 1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1968).
  • 2. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).