The Nightmare Will Be Archived: Our Culture of Disaster

The Kantian turn in philosophy marks a point at which the familiar opposition between Culture and Nature is problematized. Each becomes the ideal means through which to view the other. We will never adequately understand and explain living forms and the complete system of Nature, Kant argues, until we learn to properly to distinguish and describe truly beautiful works of art. Conversely, we will never adequately understand art until we recognize that it is does not result from conscious planning but rather comes to us only in the form of “free beauties” and only from geniuses who must be considered “Nature’s chosen favorites” (anything less in not art). In the generations just following Kant, as a result of his formulations, the Romantics conceived of an ideal world in which Nature and Culture are no longer separate entities but blend in perfect beauty and harmony with one another.

Caspar David Friedrich
Winter Landscape (1811)

In contrast to the Beautiful, Kant also postulates a state of consciousness known as the Sublime. This refers to the experience of beholding spectacles in either Nature or Culture which are either so staggeringly vast or so overwhelmingly powerful that they defeat the powers of the imagination to comprehend them. The initial moment of the Sublime is one of shock, though this is later followed by a moment of recovery in which we realize, through reflection, that there is within us a moral law which makes us superior to all natural phenomena.

John Martin
The Deluge (1831)

Below I have linked a very recent op/ed piece which argues that in our day the Romantic notion of the ideal merging between Nature and Culture (a notion which no one but a few residual hippie types has take seriously for many years) has, now that it is fully dead, come back to haunt us. However, the merger of Culture and Nature has come back in the form of the Sublime. Rather than in any harmonious balance, Nature and Culture, or our own day, have merged into a single horrify complex of live-streaming Catastrophe. Our culture and our nature (each the evil twin of the other) are a state of perpetual trauma.

The Half-Life of Disaster
The World’s Media-Driven Nerves Quickly Move
from Shock to Vague Foreboding
and ‘Disaster Capitalism’ Surges On

Brian Massumi,
Friday 15 April 2011

The world watched in horror as the northeast coast of Honshu was shaken by an earthquake of unimaginable magnitude, then razed by a tsunami of monstrous force. The natural disaster struck with a suddenness defying comprehension. It is as if a body blow to Japan had knocked the wind out of the world. The hit was so sudden as to leave one speechless. One minute, a city; the next, twisted metal and rubble. Life one minute; death the next.

The media images showed all there was to say: the horror. The breathtaking, senseless horror of it, surpassing the human scale of understanding. Then amid the rubble, life began to stir again. The media lens zooms in to the human scale. Language regains its descriptive traction. A family finds a loved one against all odds. A volunteer doctor travels 18 hours each way to spend a few precious hours of his weekend days off ministering to the traumatised and wounded. A last survivor is pulled from the rubble days after all were feared dead. The human stories apply a narrative balm to shock-raw nerves. The shock is soon alloyed with admiration for the Japanese people’s calm and fortitude in the face of the disaster. An affective corner starts to be turned: from horror to heart warming.

Of course, nothing can ever expunge the horror. It will be archived. (read more)

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