Monday, September 12, 2005

Modernity and Catastrophe

Very many appalling, and deeply moving, images and stories that have come out of New Orleans in the last week or so, the most memorable of which have focused upon the most vulnerable members of society, such as children and pensioners. At the same time, the most commonly expressed sentiment (after, perhaps, grief and outrage) has been astonishment: how could this have happened, have been allowed to happen, in the richest, most "modern" country in the world?

Many fingers have been pointed in an attempt to answer this question; the politics of blame have been in full swing since the scale of the disaster became apparent. None of these, however, from allegations of incompetence to more sinister suggestions, are as disquieting as that offered (admittedly in another context) by the French author, Michel Houellebecq. In his recent novel, La possibilité d’une île, one character discusses the heatwave in France in 2003, which claimed the lives of some ten thousand people in two weeks. Noting the reaction in the press in the days and weeks that followed this, he talks of the series of appalling images and reports that appeared, containing scenes worthy of concentration camps, and the apparent lack of compassion that allowed things to reach this stage. He then goes on to discuss, in the following terms, the prevailing response to these:

“Des scènes indignes d’un pays moderne”, écrivait le journaliste sans se rendre compte qu’elles étaient la preuve, justement, que la France était en train de devenir un pays moderne, que seul un pays authentiquement moderne était capable de traiter les vieillards comme de purs déchets, et qu’un tel mépris des ancêtres aurait été inconcevable en Afrique, ou dans un pays d’Asie traditionnel.

There are, of course, significant differences between the French canicule of 2003, and what we are now witnessing in New Orleans. The basic point, however, remains both salient and deeply disquieting: that the "modernity" that we trumpet, and from the standpoint of which we express our utter disbelief at our own reaction to catastrophe (again, and again, it seems), may, in fact, be in some way causally implicated in that reaction. Could it be, in fact, that it is only in times of catastrophe that we are forced to confront the alienation that in fact characterises la vie quotidienne?

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