3 March 2010

The Writing of the Disaster

  • Rebecca Solnit. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Viking. August 2009.

River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, surely one of the best books of the past decade, was, on the face of it, a biography of a photographer. Muybridge famously proved, with the use of multiple cameras and sensitive electrical triggers, that horses in full gallop at times have all four feet off the ground. His sequenced, detailed equestrian photographs, along with his equally important work on men and women walking and performing ordinary tasks and his panoramas of San Francisco, effected a virtual sea-change in human perception. Not until Muybridge could people see what they looked like as beings in continuous action, and it was for this reason that he has repeatedly been seen as a prefiguration of the cinema.

Solnit’s genius was to see Muybridge not only as a seminal photographer, but as a confluence of all the lurching, multidirectional motions of the United States in the late 19th century. Muybridge, Solnit told us, hailed from the epicenter of fin-de-siecle modernity, which was not, as one might expect, New York or Paris, but California. Wherever the old world was giving way to the new, Muybridge was there: he lived in boomtown San Francisco; he photographed Yosemite Valley and the US war against the indigenous Modoc people; Leland Stanford, railroad magnate and founder of the university bearing his name, owned the horse whose gallop Muybridge made famous. Solnit followed the trails of information with deliberate guilelessness, and the book that resulted is one that seems to be recreating the very birth of modern life. Railroads were annihilating time and space, while nature photographs testified to the landscapes they plowed over; old relationships to land and local space were forcibly overturned by new relations of property and class. Marx and Engels’ rich ambivalence in their paean to bourgeois modernity in the Manifesto (“all that is solid melts into air”) was not only the attitude behind the book, but its aesthetics as well: much like Marx and Engels, Solnit has an incantatory style of prose, one that involves repetition of key phrases and long, swiftly unfurling sentences intended to recapture what the emergence of modernity felt like.

Marx was in many ways the principal spirit animating River of Shadows, but despite the frequent references to the Manifesto in the book, it was the later Marx—the coolly brilliant analyst of Capital, rather than the young, optimistic, prediction-sowing polemicist. Solnit viewed Muybridge’s output in terms of an almost classical base-superstructure relationship: the violence of rapid capital accumulation in the West gave birth to photographs that celebrated the local, the eternal, and the immutable, lending ideological legitimacy to the process. People would see in these photographs and films what they had already lost in reality. At the same time, there was an undeniable kinship between Muybridge’s time series shots of motion in progress and the rationalization of Taylorized assembly line production.

When, at the end of the book, Solnit found herself on Sand Hill Road near Stanford University, marveling at the endless row of venture capital firms nestled in the classic landscape of California oaks, she had explained something of where we had come from, and didn’t venture to saywhere we should be going. Though her other work quickly gave her political game away—a blend of anti-imperialism and anarchism, with a strong ecological bent—you could read River of Shadows without necessarily discerning anything in the way of a particular commitment. If the whole exercise depended on a strong, idiosyncratic interpretation of historical change, it read more like an impartial explanation for those changes—one that, despite its clearly materialist sympathies, didn’t promote a particular politics.


A Paradise Built in Hell is different. Here, Solnit brings to public light the findings of academic social scientists, who have discovered that in periods of disaster people more often than not behave with altruism and empathy towards each other, rather than, as conventional understanding has it, violently and selfishly. This discovery alone is fascinating and unexpected, but in Paradise Solnit wants more: she would have us believe that the temporary societies that arise in disaster are revelations of a fundamental utopian impulse in human nature, which everyday (capitalist) life mystifies. Their dependence on disaster conditions makes these enclaves fleeting, but it is in their image that our own society—inherently self-destructive as it is—might be redeemed. Far beyond the explanatory debunking that her social science, which at least in principle strives for value neutrality, already provides, Solnit gives us a pamphleteering, partisan vision of utopia.

Solnit loosely organizes the book as a series of case studies, lightly researched or even more lightly reported, beginning with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, moving through the Halifax explosion of 1917, the Managua earthquake of 1972 and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, and, finally, September 11th and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Other disasters come up along the way, including the Argentinian default in 2002 and the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, not to mention modernity’s “ur-disaster,” the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In each instance, Solnit sees the same basic phenomenon: the failure of government to provide for its citizens, and the rise of self-regulating communities as a matter of necessity. Certain items essential to commercial life lose their value, such as money and property. People frequently engage in what some see as “looting,” which Solnit usefully recasts as “requisitioning”: the taking of goods for use, rather than as mere theft. Altruistic help for others emerges spontaneously and is widespread. Only rarely does one find the violent, survivalist narratives of disaster of The War of the Worlds or The Road.

If anyone turns out to be responsible for the violence that popular imagination characteristically associates with disaster, it is the authorities designated to help the victims. From the army captains stationed in San Francisco during the Great Earthquake to the National Guard under Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s “shoot to kill” order—or, more recently, the US military in Haiti—the people in charge often cause the most pain during a disaster, out of the usually unfounded fear that insurrectionary mobs could rise up and cause an even greater social disaster. Moreover, these authorities often protect property over human life: thus, the wealthy whites of San Francisco had guards, while the poor Chinese, unprotected, were subject to racist violence. Such behavior on the part of authorities (Solnit’s preferred term is “elites”) often means that disasters become the spur for great social changes or even revolutions, because ruling groups lose their legitimacy the more they betray their appointment as protectors of the common good: two of Solnit’s best examples are the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua (after the 1972 quake) and the more familiar example of the Bush administration after Katrina.

Where Marx was the bearded prophet presiding over River of Shadows, Peter Kropotkin, the “Anarchist Prince,” steps into that role for A Paradise Built in Hell. Kropotkin, the Russian naturalist turned social thinker, gave philosophical anarchism one of its most significant concepts, “mutual aid”: the idea that in natural and social evolution, the struggle for survival was characterized as much by communities of assistance and unselfishness as by competition. Solnit sees the disaster societies as vindications of Kropotkin:

Most of the disaster sociologists have delineated a worldview in which civil society triumphs and existing institutions often fail during disaster. They quietly endorse much of what anarchists like Kropotkin have long claimed, though they do so from a studiedly neutral position buttressed by quantities of statistics and carefully avoid prescriptions and conclusions about the larger social order. And yet, they are clear enough that in disaster we need an open society based on trust in which people are free to exercise their capacities for improvisation, altruism, and solidarity. In fact, we need it all the time, only most urgently in disaster.

Here, as elsewhere, Solnit’s move mirrors that of Kropotkin himself. She moves from a mere description of putatively natural processes to a declaration, based on that description, of how we are to build our societies and the principles that must guide our daily lives.

Because her purpose in A Paradise Built in Hell is so essentially prescriptive, it seems almost inevitable that Solnit would conjure up a villain, whose opposing and retrograde ideology she can overturn. But rather than Herbert Spencer or one of the other Social Darwinists—Kropotkin’s actual opponents—we get Thomas Hobbes, who plays here much the same part that, say, the long-dead John Locke and his “tabula rasa” play for Steven Pinker: a symbol of a timeless, and timelessly stupid, philosophical idea, rather than a philosopher who lived and breathed in the world, subject to the constraints of his time. And so the textbook Hobbes, who told us about the violence of man in a state of nature and the consequent necessity of giving up individual freedoms for the formation of a commonwealth, is trotted out, not without some cost to the intellectual complexity of Solnit’s book. “Men in his [Hobbes’] view,” Solnit writes, are like those “in that of many other European writers of the period … stark, blank, mechanical creatures, windup soldiers social only by strategy and not by nature.” In fact, this “mechanical” man was peculiar to Hobbes, whose conception of man drew on recent discoveries in the natural sciences—it was a perspective that was in fact radical and idiosyncratic, not conservative and typical. In her animosity towards Hobbes, Solnit goes so far as to repeat the caricature of the misanthropic and “solitary” figure, putting him in contrast to the radical Diggers of the English Civil War. Yet Hobbes was as radical as the Diggers. What he did intellectually was reconstitute the legitimacy of a monarchical state in a country that was shedding its belief in a divine source for rule. For the first time, one could speak of the State without speaking of God. But Solnit, it turns out, does not want to speak of the State at all, and so Hobbes—one of its great theorists—must be dispatched.

The cursory treatment of Hobbes signals a larger problem with Paradise: for a book so concerned with empathy and altruism, it is filled with enemies. Some of these these are journalists and intellectual figures who you’d think would be on her side. One is Naomi Klein, whose book The Shock Doctrine (2007)—itself something of a parade of cartoon villains, such as Milton “Doctor Shock” Friedman—comes under criticism for repeating all the old cliches about how people behave under disaster, resulting in what Solnit laments is a “a surprisingly disempowering portrait from the Left.” More often, though, Solnit’s enemies appear in the form of spectral masses, which, like the “extraordinary communities” in disasters, suddenly emerge to defend the status quo: congealed privilege and hypercapitalist exploitation. What Solnit admires is what we might call “the people,” as in the Spanish pueblo or Mandarin renmin—those authentically popular but hitherto disenfranchised groups in whose name the revolution will be made—while the phantom bad groups are “the media, public opinion, and the bureaucrats and politicians,” who show up on cue to disrupt the “people’s” carnivalesque utopia. 

This sort of rhetoric is fine for a pamphlet or a short polemical article. In a work as long as Paradise, which purports to be both history and analysis, such politics is essentially paranoid—all the worse because as a style of thought it ends up voiding the specific content of the disaster sociologists on whose insights Solnit draws extensively. For example, one of her recurring ideas is the phenomenon of “elite panic,” a situation in which the ruling class of a given disaster area perceives a threat to their property or continuing domination, and therefore enlists the available media and police to suppress the potential insurrection. The term “elite panic”—an interesting and plausible idea—was coined by the sociologist Lee Clarke, and developed by her colleague Kathleen Tierney, but you wouldn’t know from Solnit’s book that Clarke admitted her concept to be “controversial, and tenuous,” or that, far from there being a tremendous distinction between “elites” and the “people,” “elites panic just as non-elites do.” Nor would you know that, for Clarke, “elite” is a “relational” concept rather than—as it is in Paradise—pure reification, a concept deployed to designate the enemy, rather than explain a phenomenon.

The impression that Solnit is using her disaster cases to uphold some very old ideas of the anarchist Left becomes most evident when she chooses to bring up that most mythologized of Latin American groups, the Zapatistas. Out of what disaster did they arise? “It is hard to say what the disaster was,” she admits, before trying out a few ideas: “It was the 501 years of colonialism, extermination,and discrimination against the indigenous people of the Americas. It was the long decades of impoverishment and repression under the P[artido] R[evolucionario] I[nstitucional] … And it was the new threat posed … by the North American Free Trade Agreement.” That none of these are disasters in the punctual sense employed throughout the book seems not to matter. Solnit wants us to believe not in some fundamental idea of human nature revealed by disasters, but in the projects of communal living that certain groups of the Left have tried out sporadically over the last century. The disasters are incidental. She uses some of the experimental camps that sprung up in the Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina as an excuse to begin talking about the Rainbow Gatherings, in which thousands of people congregate to realize a completely informal, self-sustaining social structure. “I have beento a regional Rainbow Gathering,” Solnit writes, “and my response was mixed … but I saw the desire and partial realization of a goal of creating a mutual-aid gift-economy society and an impressive and moving atmosphere of sweetness, openness, and generosity … as far outside the monetary economy as possible.” These lovely emotions, according to Solnit, are characteristics only of the Left, as she reveals in her description of the protests against the Iraq war in 2003:

During the buildup to the beginning of the war on Iraq in2003, huge crowds assembled to march in opposition to it. I joined—and though this was about a particular political stance, the expression on people’s faces wasn’t partisan. The crowd—one march I joined had two hundred thousand participants, on a weekend when people marched and demonstrated on all seven continents of the earth…radiated ebullience and exhilaration.

Here, as elsewhere, Solnit uses an example of collective action to celebrate a desire for public life in a world she sees as tending towards privatization. No doubt, public protests can be a good and necessary thing. But the analogy between an anti-war march or a Rainbow Gathering and the public sphere is imperfect. Where protests often center on a particular project—which accounts for the sense of ebullient solidarity among protesters, a mood visible in demonstrators across the political spectrum—actions in ordinary public life can’t sustain for long the single-mindedness or solidarity of the protest or self-recruiting festival. Ordinary public life, not only in our own society but in any we can imagine, is characterized by much more compromise, sheer complacency, and arguing among opponents. A diversity of issues is always at play. A protest march—or a disaster community—acknowledges some of these issues, but it is not compelled, as any complex and durable society would be, to accommodate all of them one way or another.


In its emphasis on temporary communities furnishing the image of a more just society, Solnit’s book is really the true inheritor of a philosophical work she does not mention, Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, a somewhat free-associative essay on the American and French revolutions. Like Solnit, Arendt meant to convince us of a certain idea about what political life should look like by a selective analysis of a historical subject. And like Solnit, Arendt saw a “lost treasure” as the key to the future: the political “councils” that spring up around revolutions, where participation and judgment become continuous requirements, rather than occasional obligations, of civic life. Arendt took her notion of politics from an idealized view of the Greek polis; it so happened that the councils around revolutions offered, at least in outline, a modern instance of that notion. Arendt wasn’t interested in historical reality so much as her bracing vision of increased political participation and judgment. In a typical historian’s response, Eric Hobsbawm complained that Arendt’s unwillingness even to entertain the facts about her material left it without interest to those who wanted to know something about the sociology or history of the revolutions under study, even if many of her insights, liberated from academic scholarship, flashed out with characteristic brilliance.

Solnit is not so cavalier, but neither is her political theory as original as Arendt’s. Her traditionally anarchist preference for bottom-up, people’s organizations over top-down government leaves her open to the charge that a corporate solution might have been just as useful when disaster struck. After all, not only did volunteers step up where government failed in New Orleans; as Fortune was happy to report in the days following Katrina, big business did as well. On this account, every bit Solnit’s rival, we have Home Depot and Wal-Mart to thank for delivering goods to the displaced of the Gulf as much as we have the small groups that sprouted up en masse in the Lower Ninth Ward. Indeed Solnit’s utopian sketch of an “open society based ontrust in which people are free to exercise their capacities for improvisation, altruism, and solidarity” closely resembles many a neoliberal’s account of contemporary capitalism. In an acute crisis, we may be able to rely on each other and, for that matter, on Wal-Mart for help. But where are either the neighbors or the Fortune 500 when isolated individuals suffer, as they do every day, the deprivations of unemployment, homelessness, unequal oportunity, and so on? The answer suggests there may be something to be said for the automatic and even apathetic solidarity of the faceless government bureaucracy that mails out unemployment relief and prints food stamps.

One might also wonder if an effective government-based emergency relief system might have nearly obviated the need, in the aftermath of Katrina, for both corporate charity and spontaneous solidarity. Solnit inadvertently seems to uphold this idea when she singles out Cuba for praise in handling disaster relief. During the 2008 hurricane season in the Caribbean, the Cuban government—through its Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—moved over two million people to safety, with four people dying in the storm. Texa stried to do the same ahead of Hurricane Rita, with one million people—and over a hundred died in the evacuation. Does this prove that Cuba has a “mutual-aid society” in which civil society spontaneously steps up to create a utopian model of altruism? Or does it prove the exact opposite: that an authoritarian, one-party government, virtually without the input of its people, has managed to institute the best system to handle disasters? Neither, of course. But we are left, then, with a historical problem, not a utopian solution.

Solnit’s study of disasters admirably brings to light human capacities for solidarity. The capacities should always be recalled in discussions not just of alternative political orders, but the ones we still have. Yet the ability of human beings to unite in the midst of catastrophe around a single project—survival—should not be mistaken for the multiplicity of desires and choices that characterize public life: in other words, the collective is not the public. A modern understanding of the latter would likely involve some conception of the State, which Solnit, tempted by a doctrinaire anarchism, is too eager to throw out with the bathwater of Somoza and Bush. There is a real question about whether flowerings of anarchist mutual aid can prolong themselves—as a society has to—over generations. The inertness of established institutions is at once what’s inhuman about them, and sometimes a mark of their superior humanity, in much the same way that calling the fire department in the event of a blaze is much more reassuring, though also less inspiring, than assembling a neighborhood fire brigade. This suggests that the State has a role to play, one that is not merely repressive—not only in the world we desire, but also, as Solnit seems to imply with her example of Cuba, the world we have inherited. And if we are to be honest in facing our future, in which disasters of all kinds seem more and more likely, what we may need more than consoling visions of communal life are better explanations of our past problems, explanations which are no less useful the more inconvenient they prove for our most dearly held political convictions.

Image: The Tsunami in Sri Lanka. Amrita Das. 2004. Black ink and acrylic on handmade paper. Courtesy of Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles.

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