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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Professor Adi Ophir: From Hannah Arendt to Ariel Sharon: Notes for a Political Theory of Man-Made Disasters

4th February 2009, 17:30 to 18:30, Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College

IAS/Van Mildert College Public Lecture

Large scale disasters, i.e., events in which death abounds and is accompanied by the devastation of whole regions and populations, become objects for political theory in two different contexts: in one, anticipation, prevention, and mitigation of large-scale disasters become part of what one normally expects from a ruling power; in the other, the creation and ongoing administration of such disasters become a modus operandi of this power. This lecture will be limited to the latter context.

Hannah Arendt is arguably the first political theorist to devote systematic attention to large scale disasters caused by acts of States: wars, deportations, terror and massive use of violence against civilian populations. Arendt thought about her epoch as marked by "political catastrophes" and "moral disasters" and made these the focus of her analysis of the historical present. Most explicitly, Arendt was interested in "the disasters of totalitarianism." In more general terms, she was preoccupied with the growing power of States to eliminate their own populations. However, in Arendt's work there is no explicit theory of political, man-made disasters.

In my lecture I will present a sketch for such a theory. I will dwell briefly upon the recent catastrophization of the Gaza Strip since the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada) in the Occupied Territories, and its culmination in Ariel Sharon's "disengagement plan." I will argue that what we've been witnessing in Gaza is a newly emerging type of political disaster that should be related to the peculiar type of state power formed in Israel by the end of the fourth decade of enduring occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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