Representing Catastrophe in Contemporary Arts and Letters

*Conceptual and Formal Reevaluation*

International Conference, Université Jean Monnet, Saint-Étienne (France)

ECLLA (Études du Contemporain en Littératures, Langues et Arts)

18-19 May 2021

9/11 marked, in a spectacular way, the entry into the 21st century,
inaugurating “the eruption of the possible into the impossible.”
(Jean-Pierre Dupuy, *Pour un catastrophisme éclairé*) Since then, the rise
of declinist theses or collapse theories has generated a proliferation of
discourses and images which predict the end of our civilization, anticipate
the modalities of its disappearance, and urge us to think about the notion
of catastrophe along new lines. Indeed, it seems the time for conjecture or
forecast is over as catastrophist discourses – in science, in the media or
in politics – alert us to the multiplication of catastrophes, thereby
inviting us to reexamine a notion which, until recently, was characterized
by its unique, unprecedented, and unpredictable nature. The evolution of
its meaning is definitely under way since ‘catastrophe’ is now seen less as
a dénouement or an endpoint than as a series of phenomena which, repeatedly
surging in our daily lives, place it in a state of permanent topicality.
Paul Virilio noted that a society which privileges “the present – real
time” and “sets immediacy, ubiquity and instantaneity to work, brings
accidents and catastrophes on to the scene.” (Paul Virilio, *The Original

Used in the singular, catastrophe encompasses a plurality of phenomena
which may or may not be attributable to humans, including natural
disasters, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks, or even pandemics. It does
not refer to “a single event, but a system of discontinuities, of critical
threshold crossings, of ruptures, of radical structural changes.” (Dupuy)
Indeed, catastrophe is not so much regarded as an outcome or a prospect as a
state of permanent alert and vigilance with regard to phenomena that are
already under way. If its iteration transforms hazard into certainty, it is
also because the border between the natural and the cultural, established
by Western modernity, has been dissipating, more particularly since the
term Anthropocene (Paul J. Crutzen) was coined within the Earth sciences to
describe this pivotal moment when human beings, by their actions, have
become the main generators of disasters, at the risk of eliminating the
role of contingency. In turn, arts and letters are exploring the
conceptual, ethical, and practical issues raised by this “great
acceleration” (John R. McNeill*, The Great Acceleration*), and in doing so,
are encouraging a re-articulation of our relation to time, space, images,
and narratives.

Catastrophe seems to be the object of a renewed desire today (Henri-Pierre
Jeudy, *Le Désir de catastrophe*). We will therefore interrogate what is at
stake in the very use of the term and how contemporary artistic practices
appropriate it for reflections on catastrophe as well as through

Be it the continuing success of disaster movies or the growing number of
“ecodystopic fictions” (Frederick Buell, *From Apocalypse to Way of Life*),
the imaginaries of catastrophe seem to be proliferating, notably in the
fiction industry. Quite often, they draw on a familiar dramaturgy which
takes the catastrophic event as a pretext for the unfolding of a story
hinging on a causal, before/after logic. How can a work of art, whatever
its medium, circumvent and/or counter such dramaturgy? How to envision art
not merely as translating catastrophe but as performing it? As a disruption
which, however briefly, defeats intelligibility, catastrophe prompts us –
compels us even – to reexamine the ways in which we apprehend the world.
Beyond the *topoï* of the unspeakable and irrepresentable, the etymology of
the term refers to morphological changes. Understood thus, catastrophe may
be regarded as generating aesthetic potentialities, which can lead us to
ponder the specificities of its poïetics.

Restoring the emotional and sensory charge of catastrophe, its power of
stupefaction may be all the more pressing as its proliferating imaginaries
seem to have resulted in a certain uniformization. The ubiquity of
catastrophes is partly related to the omnipresence of images, pictures
taken by witnesses and circulated on social media with increasing speed.
The multiplication of possible points of view, however, seems to falter
over the codes of the spectacular which give some images their iconic value
– Dantesque visions of megafires, scenes of desolation after tsunamis,
hurricanes, or explosions. Social media experts have tried to create
“disaster emojis” (*emerjis*), the closest thing to a global language in
their view. Underlying the project is an effort towards standardization, a
desire to break down linguistic barriers in the name of communicative
efficiency, both of which renew the old rivalry between text and images
described by W.J.T. Mitchell as “a war of signs.” (*Iconology*) More
broadly, intermedial studies, notably the reevaluation of the notion of
remediation introduced by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in 1999,
offer a lens through which the issues raised by the representation of
catastrophe can be productively studied.

Reassessing the relation between catastrophe and the spectacular may also
lead to reconsideration of the former’s relation to place. The importance
given to ruins and memorials testifies to the intertwining of time and
space, both subject to the same disruption of the sense of place. One may
think of the Ground Zero Sonic Memorial Soundwalk narrated by Paul Auster.
Interactive multimedia projects like this one extend the experience of
catastrophe to those who were neither witnesses nor victims. One may wonder
whether they participate in the monumentalizing of place: the
circumscribing of a sense of place in an effort to palliate or counter the
overflowing nature of the catastrophic event. The disrupting of the ways we
inhabit space suggests another line of enquiry. The precariousness common
to the human species and all other living beings indeed raises issues
relating to practices of inhabiting, and more fundamentally to habitability
itself. This, in turn, calls attention to the conceptual and aesthetic
approaches contemporary artists have devised to reflect those issues and
reflect on them.

We are inviting papers on 21st century artistic practices. Proposals may
address but are not limited to the following:

–  narratives of catastrophe (cinema, TV shows, literature): criticism and
reevaluation of its dramaturgy and storytelling

–  the work of art *as* catastrophe: practices and reception

– the scenography of catastrophe in photography and in the visual arts

–  media coverage and mediation of catastrophe

– representing and reclaiming places of catastrophe (wastelands, ruins …)

–  the relations between the arts and scientific discourse

– the language of catastrophe (linguistic evolutions and lexical creations

Proposals (400-word abstract + short bio) should be sent before 4 January
2021 to the organizers: Sophie Chapuis (,
Anne-Sophie Letessier (, Aliette
Ventéjoux (

Notification of acceptance by 29 January 2021.

Papers (presented in French or in English) should not exceed 20 min.

Given the current climate of uncertainty, we will arrange for
videoconferencing if the need arises.




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