2012–2013 Seminar: Catastrophe

Given an assembly of real and imaged crises in modern societies, we have seen significant religious and secular movements around the themes of the Second Coming, the end of time, the end of history, the end of capitalism, the end of the West, the salvation of the saints, redemption and so forth. In many respects these are old themes that could be connected to the Sabbatian movement, cargo cults, Christian millenarianism, Jewish messianism, and so on. There was also the sense of chaos and catastrophe in Greek tragedy. Perhaps the difference between traditional millenarianism and modern catastrophe imagination is that the sense of a shared doom is widespread, embracing both secular and religious people. It is global. In the modern world, science fiction, literature, film and religion are enjoying a boom in public interest such as The Rapture, The Leftovers, Living in the End Times  and Contagion.

A definition of social catastrophe might be:

A social and political situation resulting from the concatenation  of systemic problems – social conflict, organised violence, moral uncertainty, scarcity, environmental collapse, ageing of populations, economic collapse and so forth – that produce a generalised system failure for which they is no available remedy, because there is no political will and no economic capacity to address the problems.

From this sense of social catastrophe, various forms of the catastrophic imagination emerge. The committee’s approach to the topic is multidisciplinary (drawing on, for instance, scholarship from the disciplines of political science, sociology, anthropology, geography, philosophy and so forth).