What insights from critical disaster studies can help frame cultural analysis in and of the COVID-19 pandemic?

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Kim Fortun's picture
July 13, 2020
In response to:

From Roberto: I took the liberty of reaching out to the disaster research and practitioner community via the RADIX listserv to see what their thoughts are on the inclusion of war and terrorist attacks within the category of disasters. In my query, I specified that my interest was in the ways academics, and particularly anthropologists, thought about this issue in theoretical/analytical terms. I was hoping to make a clear distinction between the inclusion of war and attacks in policy, as that may follow more a vital systems security type of governmental justification, but it is interesting that, in their responses, the respondents moved back and forth between academic and governmental definitions of disasters. One comment was particularly insightful, bringing up alternative concepts other than disaster that may be more inclusive. People like Katiana Lementec, for example, has used the term "upheavals" to bring disaster scholarship and development induced disaster/displacement like the building of the Three Gorges Dam. One respondent brought up "complex emergencies," and we could also include "crisis" as one of the more inclusive terms, but these terms also bring with them the baggage of ignoring the historical political ecology or longue durée of catastrophes and reducing our focus to the immediate emergency. I asked those who replied if I could share their thoughts with the Disaster STS group and they agreed, so I copied and pasted their responses in the word document that is attached.

Kim Fortun's picture
July 9, 2020
In response to:
  • Disaster governance -- and legitimation of particular modes of governance -- has been different in different historical periods and settings. Historian Michele Landis Dauber (year?), for example, describes how New Dealers had to frame the Great Depression as a disaster -- “afflicting citizens through no fault of their own” - in order to secure and legitimate federal aid to those in need. Focusing on more recent developments, John Hannigan, describes how “a humanitarian aid model for dealing with disasters became widely accepted in international affairs during the 1970s and 1980s; faltered in the 1990s; and is currently being challenged by a new approach to disaster management wherein risk management and insurance logic replace humanitarian concern as guiding principles” (2013, 1)" (quoted in Fortun et al. 2016) 

  • While organized to address immediate needs, disaster response often lays ground for enduring structures of different kinds. A literally concrete example is how temporary housing for disaster survivors often becomes permanent housing, though under-designed for this. A more general examples is given by MIchale Landis Dauber in her description of the way federal aid to people in need during the Great Depression in the United States laid ground for a truncated and compromised form of the welfare state that we still live in -- turning on “suspicion that those in need are reasonable for their own deprivation.” 

July 9, 2020
In response to:

Roberto:

Perhaps this piece by Paul Farmer et al. on the compounding of the cholera epidemic and earthquake in Haiti gives us some food for thought? Thinking about transnational STS and critical disaster studies, it may be worthwhile to discuss how COVID is compounded in places that are still recovering from or experiencing other kinds of disasters. 

Vivian: 
I have been interested (not surprisingly) of how the pandemic has been framed, in particular, as a war, an "invisible enemy," something that requires some external or bio-technical solution or shifts blame -- in disasters, of course, we know this happens (e.g., framing disasters as merely "natural" ).  Celia Lowe's article on the pandemic that never quite was (H5N1) I like -- asking questions like for whom is biosecurity? And illustrating how geopolitics plays in anticipatory pandemic responses.  I have attached that piece.  There is another piece that I have been interested in: The State, Sewers, and Security: How Does the Egyptian State Reframe Environmental Disasters as Terrorist Threats? by Mohameed Rafi Arafin, in AAAG.https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2018.1497474
The other aspect I have been trying to think through, which maybe already came up in the anti-blackness/rebellious mourning call: I have been thinking a lot about how George Floyd tested positive for COVID-19, how this is a compounded disaster: antiblackness, institutionalized racism, and the pandemic. I don't think that anyone would argue against the notion that the pandemic is a disaster, but what about it is disaster?  I like thinking about disaster as capaciously as possible.  I have started reading Christina Sharpe's "In the Wake," in which she talks about slavery, black subjection, colonialism, terror as disaster. Perhaps this would be a timely piece of work to add to disaster literature? 
The first chapter is available on Duke UP's website: https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/PubMaterials/978-0-8223-6294-4_601.pdf
Roberto:
I think another piece that might go well with this group of readings is Lakoff and Collier's "Vital Systems Security." I am pasting a link to it below. Andrew Lakoff also did a talk for the Italian Society for Applied Anthropology on the pandemic recently. The talk is up on Youtube. I am also pasting a link to it.
Also, I have recently co-authored a piece that will come out in Human Organization about disaster anthropology and COVID 19. The contributors to that article included Virginia Garcia Acosta and AJ Faas. Although the piece is not available for circulation yet, here are some questions that came up during the drafting of the article: 
  1. Disaster anthropologists have long defined disasters as diachronic processes that enhance the socially disruptive and materially destructive capacities of geophysical phenomena, technological "accidents," and epidemics. One question to ask however, is whether we must give special consideration to the way viruses manifest agency in comparison to say hurricanes, earthquakes, or toxins or radioactivity released during technological accidents. Do we draw analytical blindsides by reducing pandemics to simply another kind of disaster? What special methodological and theoretical considerations must we keep in mind when examining COVID 19 from a disaster anthropology perspective? 
  2. Following up on the question above. In many instances, governmental, non-governmental, and inter-governmental organizations engage in a division of labor that separates responsibility for disaster management from pandemic management while, in other instances, an organization may be charged with managing both. When dealing with COVID as a transnational phenomenon, what agencies are involved in its mitigation and how do their legal and policy jurisdictions factor in to their ability to handle the pandemic? 

Roberto:

Also, just thinking about the general historicity of the branch of disaster anthropology I was trained in (which we could say is the Susanna Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith branch of the field that is heavily invested in political ecology and vulnerability theory), a lot of folks see O'Keefe et al's 1976 article as foundational. What is interesting here is that these critical geographers used a comparative approach at the level of the nation as the ground for making their core argument. So there may be some room for discussion there in terms of the Disasters STS group wanting to transcend national level data. Here's the citation for that article: 
O’Keefe P,Westgate K,Wisner B. 1976. Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters. Nature 260:566–67
Oliver-Smith, who is credited with bringing political ecology and disaster anthropology into conversation also credits the work of a Latin American and British network of geographers, anthropologists, historians, and sociologists called La Red with creating the formulation of Marxist analysis that became foundational of the vulnerability shcool of thought. Andrew Maskrey and a group of Latin American researchers including Virginia Garcia Acosta, Gustavo Wilches Chaux, and Jesus Manuel Macias, among others collaborated on this volume, which precedes Oliver-Smith's and Hoffman's The Angry Earth and deserves a good bit of the credit for what became the American flavor of political ecology disaster studies in the US: 
Maskrey A, ed. 1993. Los Desastres No Son Naturales. Bogot´a, Colomb.: La RED, Intermed. Technol. Dev.
Group
Finally, getting back to Lakoff and Collier, I think Ulrich Beck's Risk Society is particularly relevant here. Beck's concern with the ways toxicity and radioactivity moved across national borders (a transnational risk) and the kinds of social movements he hoped would emerge to counteract them may be worth discussing in the COVID 19 context.

Vivian:

VSS and Reflexive Biopolitics goes well with Lowe's piece, because she makes the very good point that the infrastructures that Lakoff/Collier discuss that are at the core of VSS/biopolitical governance are quite different across contexts (and as she goes on to show, in Indonesia).  Beck is interesting, certainly, and is part of a general group of sociologists (including Giddens, etc) that discuss risk/globalization.   

Thank you, Roberto, for the history/roots of Oliver-Smith/Hoffman's work. As an aside, there is always one part of Oliver-Smith's "Theorizing Disasters" from Catastrophe and Culture that I never really understood, which is why he excluded terrorist attacks and war from his pretty inclusive list of disasters. There is no discussion or footnote or anything that I could find!  
And, obviously, Kim, your work on Bhopal as a transnational disaster is so helpful too.
Roberto: 
As for your question about why war and terrorist attacks were not included in the OS branch of disaster anthropology, I've heard or read a few comments on the matter, but I can't quite recall where at the moment. The justification runs along the line that there are different "root causes" and different institutions as well as different problematics involved. For example, political conflict can result in refugee movements, which involve a different collections of agencies as well as international accords like UNHCR. Granted, we can make the case that disasters also drive transnational migration, but, if I am not mistaken, the UN Convention does not recognize them as refugees. Maybe that's changed since my refugee studies days back in the 90s. Also, disasters and pandemics are the result of human practices that enhance the socially destructive and materially destructive capacities of geophysical phenomena and viruses, while political conflict and war are seen as the result of political intentionalities. Now this is me badly paraphrasing the justifications which, I agree, may not be completely watertight. Some anthroplogists have explored the relationships between disaster and political conflict, but usually the studies focus on how disasters push a particular historical political ecology over the edge into all out conflict. Sahlins' Stone Age Economics, for example, makes a connection between cyclones, famine, and eventual political turmoil, but the latter is seen as an effect and not as an ontological coeval. Same goes for the Guatemalan Civil War after the 1976 earthquake and there's quite a few other disaster ethnogrpahies that look at social change in the aftermath of a disaster. So there is literature that connects the two but, in some brands of disaster anthropology, war and disaster remain ontologically different. I guess it would make for a good conversation as to the blindsides such a differentiation creates and whether there are useful reasons to maintain it. Something that comes to mind in this case is Mitchell's Can the Mosquito Speak, where he looks at malaria epidemics and WWII in Egypt as intimately entangled, and we could certainly say the same about war and disaster in many cases. Also, a little footnote that may not be relevant: When Oliver-Smith was at the University of Florida, he worked closely with Art Hansen, who specialized in refugee movements. Perhaps some of this differentiation is the result of an academic division of labor from those days? That might be pushing it. I do think in general, a lot of the disaster anthropologists from this branch of anthropology would defend the differentiation they make on the grounds I listed above which, again, may have faults worth discussing. Finally, it is worth noting that many disaster anthropologists do recognize the history of militarized disaster response in the US, which goes back to Collier and Lakoff's Vital Systems Security, but it seems they separate terrorism, war, and disasters because of their different "root causes."
PS - I guess the issue of war, terrorist attacks, and disasters being ontologically coeval gets to the heart of what kind of anthropology we want to do. One of the issues I have with political ecology and vulenrability theory is that they remain soemwhat unreflexive about their own modern epistemological vantagepoint. So, to a great extent, these kinds of disaster anthropology begin with certain predetermined ontologies as an analytical point of departure. 
I guess we could think of other kinds of anthropology where ontologies are not analytically predetermined, but they constitution is explored over the course of the ethnogrpahy like Mol does in Multiple Ontologies. Someone who comes to mind is Mara Benadusi, who has an article in Economic Anthropology about oil refinery development as disaster. The case here is that, while petrochemical development may not fit certain narrowly defined ideas about what a disaster is, what matters is that her interlocutors mobilize disaster discourse to speak about its toxic effects.
Vivian:
Yes, I like thinking of the disaster as being multiple (pace Mol).  In my own research in Sri Lanka, the government has, with the UN funding, developed their Disaster Management Act in 2005, following the Indian Ocean tsunami.  Specifically, the Act and much of the work undertaken by the post-tsunami established Disaster Management Centre focused on mainstreaming of "Disaster Risk Reduction" (preparedness rather than response -- this is also the management orientation that Lakoff/Collier discuss in the context of the US).  In Sri Lanka, everything from tsunamis and earthquakes, to fires and civil strife and terrorist attackes are all consider "risks" under the purview of the Disaster Management Centre.  The former Minister of Disaster Management would regularly refer to Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war as a "human-made" disaster, when speaking about mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction in the country. In light of my own experience, I always struggled with OS's exclusion of terrorist attacks and war!