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Overwhelming Nature: Confronting Catastrophe and the Sublime in the Arts and Humanities
Mahindra Humanities Center Graduate Student Conference
Harvard University | 25–26 March 2023
Conference Coordinators: Elaine Chen & Therese Shire
The present conference seeks scholarly contributions across disciplinary and national borders that explore accounts of the experience of facing natural catastrophes. The conference will consider the potential and limits of understanding catastrophic experiences through the concept of sublimity.
The experience of natural disasters such as catastrophic fires, floods, and earthquakes is often accompanied by the apprehension that the present misfortune spells the end of ‘life as we know it.’ Yet as the highly personal notion of ‘life as we know it’ suggests, ‘catastrophes’ occur not only in nature but in human perceptions and subsequent subjective accounts of natural convulsions. The objective phenomenon—the fire, flood, or earthquake—is the ‘disaster,’ but it is the subjective experience of and response to the devastation that nature has wrought which constitutes the ‘catastrophe.’ The subjective focus of the term ‘catastrophe’—which derives from the ancient Greek verb katastrephein, ‘to overturn’—has its roots in the rhetoric and drama theory of antiquity. In classical rhetoric, the ‘periodic style’ is called the lexis katastremmenē (literally: the ‘catastrophized’ style), which refers to a long sentence with complex syntax that suspends the overall meaning until the final word is pronounced; and in the ancient theater tradition, the ‘catastrophe’ refers to the resolution of a drama, whether comedic or tragic. Accordingly, in European traditions, the concept of the ‘catastrophe’ has not only to do with the subjective experience of a disaster—the emotions of fear or dread that one feels—but also with the poetic act of integrating both the disaster and the feelings that it raises into a cogent narrative. It was only in Western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries that the term ‘catastrophe’ came to be associated with overwhelming nature and a specifically tragic end, demarcating a particularly modern account of experiences of disaster.
As the history of the term ‘catastrophe’ begins to suggest, the phenomenology of the catastrophe is closely related to yet another ancient category that informs the lexicon of modern experience: that of the sublime. Although the term originates in Pseudo-Longinus’ first-century aesthetic treatise Perì Hýpsous (On the Sublime), in which it refers to the greatness and longevity of artful language, artistic and philosophical engagement with the category of sublimity first becomes rigorous during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, particularly in England (Milton, Shaftesbury, Addison, Burke) and then Germany (Bodmer, Breitinger, Mendelssohn, Kant). While English philosophers often focused on the objective features of sublime nature, Kant argued in his Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgment, 1790) that destructive nature is not in itself sublime, but rather provides cause for the rational moral agent’s sublime recognition in the face of catastrophic events that nature is a “power that has no dominion over us.” These and other concepts of sublimity constitute a rich variety of modes of narrativizing the experience of catastrophe, found not only in the literature of the English and German Enlightenments, but throughout history and in many different cultural contexts, from Seneca’s ancient description of the eruption of Vesuvius near Naples (Naturales Quaestiones, 79 AD) to Ruth Ozeki’s novel responding to the transpacific reverberations of Japan’s 3.11 triple disaster (A Tale for the Time Being, 2013).
Though both of the terms ‘catastrophe’ and ‘sublimity’ have been shaped by competing canonical—largely European—intellectual histories, they do not describe a category of experience unique to European modernity itself and remain subject to continuous reassessment and revision. On the one hand, since clear-cut distinctions between subjects and objects, and between humans and nature, have undergone ‘catastrophes’ of their own, critics such as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway question the usefulness of ‘sublimity’ and ‘catastrophe’ in the age of the Anthropocene, in which human beings are subjected to natural disasters of their own making. On the other hand, engagement with knowledge, both old and new, about Earth’s systems has demystified catastrophic events, and thereby complicated their employment by survivors and witnesses as tragedies. Given the synchronicity of these revisions and parallel intellectual ‘catastrophes’—for example, discursive upheavals surrounding matters of nationality, race, and gender—artists, critics, and scientists are faced—in an age plagued by natural disasters of increasing number and severity—with the task of re-conceiving the catastrophic sublime.
The conference organizers welcome responses to the following topics and questions by scholars from across geographies and disciplines:
- How do human beings narrate their experiences of (natural) catastrophes? Can there be an other-than-human narrative? In which ways do the experiences of catastrophes shape human-nonhuman relationships? What role does the sublime play in (human) narration of catastrophe?
- How do texts and artifacts produced in the wake of catastrophes from ancient times to the present support, expand, or challenge shifting definitions of sublime experience? To what extent is sublimity a relevant category across the centuries and across cultural and geographical regions?
- Which artists, forms, genres, and media are addressed in the canonical discourses of the catastrophic sublime—and which are omitted? How might the exploration of different modes of experiencing catastrophes enrich these discourses?
- How have oral and mythological traditions engaged with sublimity and catastrophe and which viewpoints have influenced cultural narrative throughout history? How might these perspectives enrich or complicate contemporary catastrophe narratives?
- What is the relevance of the concept of sublimity in fields beyond the arts and humanities? Which fields may contribute to exploring narratives of catastrophe and the sublime?