By Mark Featherstone
I have recently been working on a paper on the French philosopher of speed Paul Virilio and the idea of catastrophe. Virilio’s basic idea is that we should understand the development of society in terms of speed and acceleration and that the modern idea of progress is identical with notions of dynamism and movement. So far so good. We can all identify with Virilio’s thesis. We know that modern technology and specifically modern technology in capitalist society functions on the basis of an ideology of speed where faster is better.
The problem is that for Virilio the speed of technology has started to reach its limit under conditions of globalisation, so for instance communication is now quasi-instantaneous, and the planet has started to shrink to the extent that there now seems to be very little space in the world. In a capitalist world where competition is everything, the collapse of space, or what Virilio calls geocide, has the effect of intensifying the struggle between people and making them more violent towards each other. This is part of Virilio’s idea of catastrophe: social catastrophe.
However, his core theory of catastrophe turns off the idea of technology and the view that when we invent technology we also invent accidents or disasters, so that the invention of the car is the invention of the car crash, the invention of nuclear power is the invention of the nuclear disaster, and so on. All of this is, of course, useful for explaining man-made disasters, but it seems to do little to explain natural catastrophes such as the Asian Tsunami or the Haiti earthquake, which occurred as I was writing about Virilio’s theory.
The earthquake that hit Haiti on 12th January left the capital city, Port-au-Prince, covered in dust. Large sections of the city, particularly the hillside slums areas similar to Brazilian favelas in design, collapsed leaving the population buried under rubble. Current estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 people may have died as a result of the earthquake with more to follow from the 250,000 injured and 1.5 million left homeless and exposed to disease and lack of food and clean water.
At first it appears that none of this can be explained by Virilio theory of catastrophe. The earthquake was a natural disaster and Haiti has been particularly impacted by natural disasters throughout its history. In recent years the country has been hit by hurricanes and floods and has never really been able to manage any of these catastrophes, primarily because of the grinding poverty that has characterised the country since its emergence from colonial rule in 1804 and its more recent turbulent political history.
Herein resides the relevance of Virilio’s theory because it can show how the natural catastrophe of the earthquake has been magnified by the historical tragedy of Haiti, the country which was the first, apart from America, to escape colonial rule, and where the slave population was inspired by the revolutionary ideals of their colonial masters, the French, to try to build a free society. This county, the country of CLR James’ Black Jacobins, which was under the thumb of the tyrannical regimes of Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier for so long and only made the transition to democracy in 1990 with the regime of the slum priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been caught in a poverty trap by the global socio-economic system that has exacerbated its catastrophic history and without doubt made the impact of the 12th January earthquake far worse than it would otherwise have been.
This is the thesis of Peter Hallward who has written extensively on Haiti. Hallward suggests that the unimaginable devastation that has turned Port-au-Prince into a tomb was caused by the global economic regime that has trapped Haiti in poverty. According to this view we may not be able to explain natural disasters, such as the Haitian earthquake, using Virilio’s theory, but we can certainly better understand the impact and aftermath of such disasters by studying the social, economic, and political contexts that condition the ways in which they effect particular societies in different ways.
From this perspective it is the social, political, and economic situation of Haiti that has led to its current predicament in the wake of the earthquake. It is this context, which has led Haiti to be called the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, that has exacerbated the devastation caused by the earthquake and brought about a situation where corpses litter the streets and the state is unable to cope with shortages of food, water, and emergency health care to the extent that an estimated 20,000 people are dying each day because of the inability of the international relief effort to manage the aftermath of the disaster. While a richer, more robust, nation may be able to cope better with such events, so for example Japanese cities are built to survive earthquakes comparable to the Haitian one, Haiti has been thrown into what Thomas Hobbes called a state of nature where individual survival is all the matters.
Under these conditions, two particular stories leapt out from the mass of media coverage of the aftermath of the disaster, and seemed to say a lot about the ways in which such catastrophes can impact upon societies and how societies can resist the chaos of the state of nature and even under the worst circumstances, such as those which has befallen Haiti, maintain some level of civility.
The first story, which focused on the orphans of Haiti, related details of the children of the disaster and explained that the terrible situation of these children has been magnified and made intolerable by the earthquake. They now face an uncertain future and even if they survive the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe their lives are likely to be characterised by severe psychological problems and mental trauma.
The second story, which explains how the residents of Port-au-Prince’s most notorious slum, Cite Soleil, chased escaped gang members from their streets in order to prevent the descent of their neighbourhood back into the kind of violence and disorder that made it infamous, provides a glimmer of hope that illustrates how even under the worst conditions human society can survive.
Perhaps we must hang onto this social utopianism in the face of such catastrophic conditions and affirm the ability of humans to survive in even the most disastrous situations because this spirit is, after all, written into the history of Haiti, the home of the Black Jacobins. Finally, and in affirming this spirit through recognition of our common humanity and gestures of charity that counter the hegemonic savagery of global capitalism, we must certainly reject the cruel sentiments of figures such as Pat Robertson, the American Christian fundamentalist, who claimed that Haiti brought the earthquake on itself by signing a pact with the Devil in order to escape from colonial rule.
Despite what Robertson believes, Christianity is a religion of empathy, sympathy, charity, and humanity and these sentiments are the ones which we should apply in our response to the catastrophe in Haiti. For Virilio, this is exactly what we can learn from thinking about both natural and unnatural catastrophes. In his view thinking about catastrophes can teach us that despite our enormous technological feats, human society is a fragile thing that we must defend together. This is why despite the natural origins of the Haiti earthquake, it still requires us to think sociologically, because sociological thought is essential for allowing us to think about how we respond to it, the ways it has been exacerbated by human social, political, and economic formations, and how we should reform those formations in order to prevent such devastation in the future.