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The Great Catastrophe

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Organizer: Andrea Capra

Co-Organizer: Modhumita Roy

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The specter of the catastrophe haunts human history: from millennial eschatological visions of the end-times to scientifically fueled scenarios of nuclear apocalypse. In You Must Change Your Life Peter Sloterdijk defines the Great Catastrophe as "the goddess of our Century": indeed, right after sobering up from the intoxication of two World Wars, our societies faced the anxiety-ridden hypothesis of nuclear annihilation. Today this threat seems to have receded into the background of the collective imaginary, surpassed by the escalating threat of climate change.


In recent times a number of critical contributions have focused on the active role that thinking and writing about the catastrophe plays in informing our stance toward a possible, incumbent, or actual disaster. On the one hand Sloterdijk ties the emergence of the catastrophe to the reinvigoration of the imperative “you must change your life”; on the other, Alenka Zupančič in her essay The Apocalypse is (Still) Disappointing argues that once the catastrophe approaches it “does not produce an opening to the new dimensions of the possible, but usually incites either apathy or depression, or an anxiety-ridden inclination to 'realize' the existing possibilities”, calling for “the courage to see the hopelessness of our predicament”.


While contemporary philosophy mostly focuses on how human agency is impacted by disaster, literature also reckons with the aesthetic concern of how to represent the catastrophe itself. This is especially challenging when the catastrophe advances in a slow and cumulative way, as in the case of climate change, or when it conceals its very manifestation, as with invisible radioactive hazards. It is not surprising, then, that science-fiction and horror are arguably the genres more capable of countering the conceptual intractability of catastrophic events: they seem more suited than other literary forms to capture temporal scales incommensurable with human lifespans.


Against this backdrop, we invite papers that engage with the necessity of catastrophizing, i.e. thinking through and with the catastrophe. Some of the questions that we seek to raise are: what is the immunological value of thinking the catastrophe, and of representing it? What is the value of popular genres such as speculative and science fiction, petro- and detective fictions, post-apocalyptic and horror fiction in thinking the catastrophe? How successful are these texts in excavating the systematic and deliberate arrangements - spatial, social, political, and economic - that have brought us to this moment of impending calamity? How can literature represent catastrophes which dwarf human scale? What is at stake in comparing apparently incommensurable catastrophic events? Why is catastrophic rhetoric so prone to be politically exploited? Does thinking ‘The Catastrophe’ as universal and singular, as Sloterdijk does, obliterate global inequalities and plural temporalities?


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