Criticism and Calamity: From Critical Disaster Studies to a Critique of Disaster

Dr. Peer Illner

Laufzeit des Forschungsprojekts 11/2017 – 12/2019

In 2015, natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and heatwaves left 22.773 people dead, affected 98.6 million others and caused $66.5bn in damage (UNISDR 2015). Yet the international community spends less than 0.5 per cent of its global aid budget on diminishing the longstanding risks created by such hazards. Instead, the vast majority of the international aid budget is spent on immediate emergency relief, rather than on disaster risk reduction. This shortcoming in policymaking is paralleled by the history of disaster research that, since its inception after WWII, has understood disasters primarily as sudden, rupturing events.
Against this short-sightedness in disaster research, the last decades have seen the formation of the field of critical disaster studies, or vulnerability studies, that highlights long-term social vulnerability to hazards, far beyond the impact of a single emergency. In my postdoctoral project, I argue that despite its attention to the long-term production of disaster risk, critical disaster studies is characterised by a severe lack. With all its emphasis on the manifold ways in which human populations are made vulnerable to hazards, it still imagines a disaster to be a sudden-onset event, rather than a structural condition. Instead of critical disaster studies, my postdoctoral project provides a critique of disaster studies, similar to the way in which Karl Marx developed a ‘critique of critical criticism’. Contributing to the research goals of the Excellence Cluster, the project thereby establishes the methodological difference between critique, criticism and criticality.
If critical disaster studies has held on to the normative idea of a more or less stable everyday state that is impacted by a sudden disruption, my project argues for an understanding of disaster as an ongoing, structural condition. I capture this ongoingness by framing disaster relief as a problem for social reproduction, understood as the way in which communities reconstitute themselves on a daily basis. In this view, disaster relief becomes a form of reproductive labour, akin to childcare, elder care or medical care, and indeed often involving all three. When seen in the light of social reproduction, disasters pose the question of who performs these elemental tasks. This question touches the fundamental distinction between the state and civil society, challenging political life as we know it.
Focussing on the modifications to disaster management in the United States between 1970 and 2012, my project follows a fundamental shift in the relation between the state and civil society in the provision of disaster aid. Once construed as strictly a responsibility of the state, the mitigation and management of disasters has since the 1970s shifted into a matter for civil society: a shift which has been heralded as progressive, democratic and inclusive by existing disaster research. My project argues that this perspective that valorises the participation of actors from civil society in the fight against disasters fails to grasp the systematic reconfiguration of social life that has taken place in the last decades of the 20th century under the banner of disaster.   Mapping the changes in the disaster sector onto the coextensive economic crisis, I show how the inclusion of civil society in the provision of aid services was accompanied by a structural withdrawal of the state from disaster relief and other welfare services. I contextualise this withdrawal in the US government’s general turn to austerity in response to the economic crisis of the 1970s. In doing so, my account couples the notion of disaster with that of economic crisis to examine disasters as a specific problem for social reproduction.

Advisers to the project are:
Prof. Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen (University of Copenhagen)
Prof. Joshua Clover (University of California, Davis)
Prof. Mark Neocleous (Brunel University London)

Selected publications related to this project

Illner, P., (2017), “The Locals Do It Better? The Strange Success of Occupy Sandy”, in: R. Bell, R. Ficociello (eds.), Eco Culture. Disaster, Narrative, Discourse. London: Lexington Books (in print).

Illner, P., Holm, IW., (2016), “Making sense of disaster: The cultural studies of disaster”, in: R. Dahlberg, O. Rubin & MT. Vendelø (eds), Disaster Research: Multidisciplinary and international perspectives, 4, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. pp. 51-65.

Illner, P., (2015), “Who’s Calling the Emergency? The Black Panthers, Securitisation and the Question of Identity”, in: Culture Unbound, vol 7, no. 3, pp. 479-495.


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