This year, it seems, has been an endless stream of events labeled catastrophes. The refugee crisis, Brexit, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, the failed Colombian peace referendum, Aleppo, Standing Rock, innumerable terrorist attacks across the globe, and now the election of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States. By definition, however, these events are not catastrophic. From the Greek katastrophē, meaning “an overturning, a sudden end,” catastrophe was first defined as “a reversal of what is expected.” Despite its current connotation, the word was not associated with disaster until the mid 1700s.1 In his 1985 text Into the Universe of Technical Images, Vilém Flusser writes that, because they produce a wholly unexpected situation, catastrophes cannot be predicted. This reversal engenders new information, making catastrophes a necessarily neutral phenomenon, ripe with possibility.2
In 2016, and in recent years, we have not experienced true catastrophes because each of the disasters, whether natural or human-made, was entirely foreseeable. The warning signs were there: melted ice caps, floods, droughts, wars, corruption, systemic inequality, famine, food waste, and so many unnecessary deaths. Now, because enough people have been ignoring or denying the harbingers of social, economic, and environmental tragedy for the past few hundred years, we are both practically and psychologically unprepared when they come to fruition. We cannot anticipate that which we refuse to accept as true, though we are no less responsible for the consequences. In his 1983 text Post-History, Flusser asserts that “the incomparable is incomprehensible. If we affirm that our situation is incomparable, we give up the effort to grasp it.”3 In the MFA Art Writing (and Criticism) program, we define criticism as “making finer and finer distinctions among like things.” This inherently neutral act of critically making distinctions, of acknowledging the comparable, recognizes our obligation to at least make an effort to grasp our situation.
When we think critically, we take ownership of our individuality—our most valuable possession. I use the word possession because, though we do not buy or are given our individuality, it can be taken away. To allow algorithms to build our opinions; to consume purely based on desire; to have blind faith or disbelief; to ignore injustice—these are all acts that forfeit our unique agency. By engaging our individuality, we can more efficiently promote progress and avoid tragedy. Furthermore, through demanding individuality we strengthen our ability to adapt to the unexpected, whether that means taking advantage of positive change or working to repair negative effects. Criticism, performed in writing, orally, or translated through an act or object, allows us to make the most of our world.
- “Catastrophe.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/catastrophe (accessed: November 10, 2016).
- Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 159–160.
- Vilém Flusser, Post-History (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2013), 3.