Catastrophe and Critique (German Studies Association, Annual Conference, Montréal, Canada, October 5-8, 2023)
The term catastrophe, which has its roots in ancient Greek dramaturgy, denotes a “downward turn” of events and is linked to Aristotle’s definition of peripeteia, a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances. Typically, the breakdown of the established social order and fabric is beset by a period of uncertainty and upheaval. During this liminal phase, a theoretical space unfolds in which critique can be brought to bear on the prevailing system, generating the potential for change. Calamitous incidents insofar not only usher in ruin but also harbor the promise of renewal and rebirth. Analogous to the volatile forces of nature that have transformed life on this planet, catastrophes may function as a catalyst in the reevaluation of societal norms.
Critique follows a similar pattern. As recorded by Reinhart Koselleck in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, critique (Kritik) can be traced to the ancient Greek verb κρίνω, which means among other things to separate (scheiden), to part (trennen), to decide (entscheiden), and to judge (urteilen). These definitions share the sense that criticism requires the creation of spatial and temporal distance by which one can perceive an object in a new way. One witnesses a similar arrangement in Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, where he connects to both catastrophe and the crisis of climate change an act of recognition, which he characterizes as a moment “when a prior awareness flashes before us, effecting an instant change in our understanding of that which is beheld.” That this prior awareness “arises from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself” accentuates the above notion that catastrophes can bring about not only ruin, but also change, as the preconditions for the passage away from ignorance are to be found within the existing systems of knowledge themselves. Nonetheless, one must also heed Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning to beware martyrdom, “vor dem Leiden ‘um der Wahrheit willen’” (Jenseits von Gut und Böse) in pursuit of that knowledge. Otherwise, as Maurice Blanchot remarks in his reading of that passage, one risks knowledge of the disaster becoming “knowledge as disaster and knowledge disastrously” (The Writing of the Disaster), a notion captured so memorably by Walter Benjamin in Thesis IX of his Über den Begriff der Geschichte. There, he makes clear that one must be wary of how catastrophe and critique engage with one another, lest the latter essentialize and naturalize the former within the realm of human affairs, leading to the absolvance of human actors who perpetrate acts of great violence and destruction, and label it progress.
For this panel, we invite papers that discuss the interrelatedness between catastrophe and critique. Of special interest is the analysis of catastrophe as a driver of change and/or as an integral part of the creative process. How has the term been utilized in the writing of historical, philosophical, and literary texts related to pivotal points in European history such as the French Revolution, the World Wars of the twentieth century, and the onset of the Anthropocene? Moreover, does the reestablishment of the post-catastrophic order ultimately lead to the curtailment of critical thought (which may manifest itself in the suppression of memory and the return of traditional power structures)?
Please send a one-page abstract (200-250 words) and brief bio-blurb to both Christoph Weber (email@example.com) and Matthew Childs (firstname.lastname@example.org) by March 15, 2023.
Christoph Weber, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of German
Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
University of North Texas