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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Catastrophe, Disaster, Darkness: Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster,” 50 Years On

22nd October 2013, 20:00 to 21:00, Senate Suite, University College, Professor Michael Levine (University of Western Australia)

It has been nearly half a century since the appearance of Susan Sontag‘s landmark essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” She described the public fascination with science fiction disaster films, claiming that, on the one hand “from a psychological point of view, the imagination of disaster does not greatly differ from one period in history to another [but, on the other hand] from a political and moral point of view, it does” (224). Even if Sontag is right about aspects of the imagination of disaster not changing, their representation in media and popular culture suggest that dynamic conditions prevail on both counts. The political and moral point of view is, after all, bound up with the psychological. Disaster has become a significantly urban phenomenon, and highly publicised “worst case” scenarios highlight various demographic, cultural, and environmental contexts for visualising cataclysm. The 1950s and 60s science fiction films that Sontag wrote about were filled with marauding aliens and freaks of disabused science. Since then, their visual and dramatic effects have been much enlarged by all kinds of disaster scenarios. Partly imagined, these scenarios are grounded in real threats from terrorism and the war on terror, pan-epidemics, global climate change—and more generally—political ineptitude, and the many forms of human frailty and fragility.

This paper revisits Sontag‘s “The Imagination of Disaster,” fifty years on in view of the changing face of disasters and their representation in film media, including more recent films. The paper then considers disaster recovery and outlines the difficult path that architecture, urban planning, and politics generally should tread when promising a vision of rebuilding that provides for such intangible outcomes as “healing and reconciliation.” Hopes for the seemingly positive psychologically- and socially-recuperative outcomes accompanying the prospect of rebuilding risk a variety of generalizations akin to wish- fulfilment that Sontag finds in disaster films.

This lecture is free and open to all. 

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