On Fault Lines and Fractured Communities


‘Not pride, alas, it is, but love of man,
To mourn so terrible a stroke as this.’

Voltaire, On the Lisbon Disaster

On 1 September 1923, a massive earthquake hit the greater Tokyo and Yokohama area, killing over 100,000 people and destroying two thirds of Tokyo. The capital city of commercial triumphs and consumerist luxuries lay in ruins. Prior to the 2011 tsunami, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was the most devastating disaster Japan had seen. Continuously studied by historians, the earthquake has come to mean many things, entangled as it was in politics, ideology and Japan’s process of modernization and nation-making. Photographs in Brown’s invaluable archive depict the widespread human and environmental costs of the earthquake, and the construction of an adequate narrative is an ongoing process.

For some, the earthquake presented a ‘golden opportunity’ for urban reconstruction (though the grandiose schemes were never realized due to bureaucratic infighting and budgetary concerns). For the authorities, the Kanto disaster presented an opportunity to reorder Japanese society which, from their point of view, had been mired in an age of social unrest and moral decay. In the post-disaster period, ideological issues were as crucial as relief and reconstruction. A few days after the earthquake, the Ministry of Education sent boy scouts to collect stories of survival and heroism (see Borland). Within three months, the Ministry had published and disseminated a collection of stories in three volumes – entitled Education Materials Related to the Earthquake – outlining the praiseworthy deeds of ideal Japanese citizens. The volumes were filled with stories that demonstrate selfless sacrifice, filial piety, humanitarian benevolence, courage and loyalty to the Emperor. The narratives were, in effect, instruments used by conservative officials to reinforce certain ideologies and traditional values, which were increasingly threatened by commercial forces and the influence of western democratic ideas (Borland).

But reality presented a very different picture from the narratives of glorified acts of selflessness, bravery and kindness. To the deaths caused by the natural phenomenon historians have added the human-engineered disaster – the organized killing of Korean citizens by Japanese civilian vigilantes, police and military, in the days following the earthquake. The massacre, though carefully documented by historians, is not extensively known by the outside world. The wave of violence began after rumors circulated about a potential Korean uprising, which involved Koreans poisoning wells or committing arson. Rumormongering turned out to be as destructive as the fires that spread through the city. On 2 September, the government declared martial law; when police and military heard the rumors, they participated in rounding up the Korean citizens. Initially, the Koreans were kept at detention camps for protection, but according to historical studies, many in fact died at the hands of the authorities (see Ryang). There were approximately 20,000 Koreans living in Tokyo and Kanagawa at the time; scholars estimate that over 6000 Korean citizens were killed in the days following the earthquake (police admitted to the death of only about two hundred Koreans). Some Chinese, and even Japanese, were also killed, after being mistook for Korean. Most bodies were brutally mutilated or tortured. Authorities also took the opportunity afforded by the chaos to execute political activists and labor leaders.

Although Prime Minister Yamamoto had issued a special appeal condemning the violence towards Koreans, the government did little else to stop the bloodshed. Historians have long discussed the complex reasons behind the atrocities. The history of colonialism and antagonism certainly played a role, as did the fact that the Korean population in Japan had grown rapidly from 1920 to 1923. The Japanese attitude towards Korea had always been a mixture of contempt and affinity (see Allen). But as Edward Seidensticker writes in his history of Tokyo, ‘A willingness, and indeed a wish, to believe the worst about Koreans has been a consistent theme in modern Japanese culture’. J. Michael Allen argues convincingly for the scapegoat theory, pointing out that the Koreans bore ‘the burden of Japanese confusion and anger in the chaos brought about by the disaster’.

Pre-existing fears and prejudices, coupled with the panic that followed the earthquake, led to the slaughters. Recalling Heinrich von Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’, the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake presented two opposing sides of human society. There were indeed acts of kindness and courage, people helping one another through the shared plight of grief and terror. But the shadow that is the massacre looms large. Not for Tokyo was the ‘disaster utopia’ described by Mark Healey, forged out of shared suffering. And like Jeronimo and Josefa’s descent from the idyllic paradise of the forest to the brutality of the church, the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake could be portrayed as a downward spiral. The community of Tokyo was exposed to be exceedingly fragile, or perhaps illusory to begin with – since true integration was denied to those who were not born Japanese (see Allen).

Film director Akira Kurosawa was a survivor of the earthquake, and recorded the horrors in his autobiography. Kurosawa described in excruciating detail the harrowing landscape of devastation, where ‘every manner of death possible to human beings [was] displayed by corpses’. Kurosawa’s passage on the massacre of the Koreans is perhaps one of the most engaging parts of his autobiography:

“What is frightening is the ability of fear to drive people off the course of human behavior. By the time the fires downtown had subsided, everyone had used up all the household candles, and the world was plunged into the real darkness of night. People who felt threatened by this darkness became the prey of the most horrifying demogogues and engaged in the most incredibly reckless, lawless acts. […] When a person can’t see anything to the left or the right, he becomes thoroughly demoralized and confused […] The massacre of Korean residents of Tokyo that took place on the heels of the Great Kanto Earthquake was brought on by demogogues who deftly exploited people’s fear of the darkness. With my own eyes I saw a mob of adults with contorted faces rushing like an avalanche in confusion […] They were chasing a bearded man, thinking someone with so much facial hair could not be Japanese.”

It was indeed the dark night of the soul, and as a child witness, Kurosawa was bewildered by the behavior of the adults. However, Kurosawa’s argument for the demogogues responsible for the madness is unconvincing. Exploitative demogogues were no more responsible for the massacre than star alignment was. Human actions and societal forces were responsible for the social catastrophe of the massacre. At the height of modernization and westernization, human reason seem to have disappeared overnight. The government was right to be concerned about the moral decay of Japanese society, but the seat of that decay was probably not what they expected it to be. Although it was certainly a small group of people who participated actively in the massacre, that such an event occurred signals fractures in the society (plus it is impossible to know how many of those who did not directly participate actually condoned the slaughtering). Such social violence, fueled by ethnic animosity and long-repressed rage, ultimately did more damage than protests, riots and urban decadence (which were the main issues that the government was concerned about).

The Great Kanto Earthquake called for a re-examination of the moral limits of 1923 Japanese society. And although this is history, it is not entirely in the past. Just last year, officials in Yokohama recalled textbooks that described the massacre. From the 1923 earthquake to the 1995 Kobe earthquake to the recent 3/11 tsunami, much remains to be analyzed about the interrelationship between Japanese society and the culture of disaster. And if Murakami’s interpretation is to be heeded, multiple fissures still lie beneath the calm surface of rational, progressive Japan. If nothing else, the Great Kanto Earthquake reminds us of the porous boundary between natural and human-made disaster. It is only through human failings that events become catastrophes for humankind, in the truest, most destructive sense; so perhaps there are no purely natural disasters, only natural cataclysms prolonged and darkened by social catastrophe.


Further Readings

Allen, J. Michael, ‘The Price of Identity: The 1923 Kanto Earthquake and Its Aftermath’, Korean Studies, vol. 20, no. 1 (1996): 64-93.

Borland, Janet, ‘Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Reinvigorating the Japanese State with Moral Values through Education following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 40, no. 4 (2006): 875-907.

Ryang, Sonia, ‘The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Massacre of Koreans in 1923: Notes on Japan’s Modern National Sovereignty’, Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 731-748.

Schencking, Charles, ‘Catastrophe, Opportunism, Contestation: The Fractured Politics of Reconstructing Tokyo following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 40, no. 4 (2006): 833-873.

Weisenfeld, Gennifer. Imagining Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake (University of California Press, 2012).


To be content with the world…is to find within oneself the strength to face up to everything that is abominable, to find within oneself the strength to resist the abominable when it happens. In other terms, self-enjoyment means: to be worthy of the event…be it a catastrophe or a great love…This is a theme that runs across philosophy. – Gilles Deleuze, Lecture on Leibniz, 1987


On 17 January 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit the city of Kobe, the largest earthquake to have devastated the region since 1923. In merely 20 seconds, the disaster killed more than 5000 people, injured tens of thousands, and rendered more than 300,000 homeless. The house that belonged to the parents of writer Haruki Murakami were among those destroyed by the Kobe earthquake (also known as the Great Hanshin earthquake). At the time of the event, Murakami himself was not in Japan. But in the aftermath of the disaster, he returned to his homeland after years of self-imposed exile. After the Quake, a series of short stories, was the result of Murakami’s return and his attempt to come to terms with the catastrophe. Like the author, the characters in these poignant stories were absent from the scene of the disaster; the catastrophe exists on the periphery of their consciousness, even as it continually haunts them.


All six stories are set roughly one month after the Kobe earthquake, and the characters reflect on the disaster in their individual ways, mostly through their losses and the vacuity of their daily lives. As with his other works, Murakami seems fascinated by characters who experience existential emptiness. In ‘Landscape with Iron’, a runaway girl befriends a painter who had abandoned his wife and children in Kobe; next to the bonfire she experiences a sudden realization: ‘There’s really nothing at all in here […] I’m cleaned out. Empty’. The first story in the series, ‘UFO in Kushiro’, follows the journey of a man whose wife leaves him suddenly in the aftermath of the earthquake; she leaves a note reading ‘You have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air’. The abandoned husband, Komura, then goes on a strange voyage to Hokkaido where, watching images of ‘tilted buildings, buckled streets, old women weeping, confusion and aimless anger’, he tries to figure out the state of his own life. In a conversation with a companion he met in Hokkaido, Komura denies that his wife’s departure had anything to do with the earthquake, to which his companion replies, ‘I wonder if things like that aren’t connected somehow’. That is precisely the idea that Murakami is suggesting subtly with these stories of loss, betrayal, confusion and regret – that all these things are connected somehow, and that the human heart is linked to seismic activity.

Beneath the complacent surface of life, tremendous subterranean forces are threating to disrupt the calm, to change the world irrevocably. In that sense, disaster is always just around the corner. As Murakami writes in ‘All God’s Children Can Dance’:

‘And then it struck him what lay buried far down under the earth on which his feet were so firmly planted: the ominous rumbling of the deepest darkness, secret rivers that transported desire, slimy creatures writhing, the lair of earthquakes ready to transform whole cities into mounds of rubble.’

Disasters are reminders not only of the physical fragility of our cities, but also the fragility of love, of human connections. Murakami’s characters are concerned about connections, even if they remain isolated and their lives are continually fraught by the difficulties associated with those connections. In the beautifully written ‘Honey Pie’, short-story writer Junpei is caught in a love triangle involving his two best friends. Like the painter in ‘Landscape with Iron’, Junpei has family in Kobe, whom he failed to contact after the earthquake; he tried to resume life as if nothing happened, and avoided news about Kobe. But denial does not work. Junpei is forced to admit that

‘Whenever anyone mentioned the earthquake, he would clam up […] He hadn’t set foot on those streets since his graduation, but still, the sight of the destruction laid bare raw wounds hidden somewhere deep inside him. The lethal, gigantic catastrophe seemed to change certain aspects of his life – quietly, but from the ground up. Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought, I am not connected to anything.’

Internal upheavals, not unlike earthquakes, cannot be averted, and require tremendous time and effort to recover from. In many ways, the emptiness and isolation experienced by Murakami’s characters are a result of their own frailties, their lack of social responsibility towards others, particularly those whom they love. As with Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’, there is much here about the possibility or impossibility of human community, about what people do to one another, and the emotional or social catastrophes that wreak havoc upon our mental lives. (It is of interest that a European story and one set in Asia should both ask questions about community and disaster.)

The connection between the heart and the earthquake is made even more explicit in ‘Thailand’, in which the main character, a pathologist, vacations in Thailand and through conversations with her driver, reflects on her past. When asked about the Kobe earthquake, she recalls how the man who had abandoned her lived in Kobe:

‘She had spent thirty years hating one man. She had hoped that he would die in agony. In order to bring that about, she had gone so far as to wish in the depths of her heart for an earthquake. In a sense, she told herself, I am the one who caused that earthquake. He turned my heart into a stone…’

The suggestion that a single thought could cause an earthquake is compelling, if not terrifying. The mind is responsible for much. And the psychological and the geological are inextricably intertwined. But if the mind can cause earthquakes then, theoretically, it can also avert disaster. This is one of the suggestions behind ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, the most surreal and fantastical story in the collection, featuring a giant frog who enlists the help of Katagiri to save Tokyo from a devastating earthquake by battling a giant worm that lives underground. Absurdity aside, the fact that Worm could be stopped suggests that disasters can always be averted, even if nature itself cannot be controlled. After Tokyo is saved, Frog tells Katagiri something that could be seen as the kernel of the collection: ‘The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield. It is there that we experience our victories and our defeats.’ The fight – and the disaster – is entirely internal, a psychomachia, and without defeating ‘the me inside me’ – what Frog calls the enemy – then there can be no hope for community, for the ‘intensive collectivity known as “city”’.

After the Quake ends with an affirmation of the possibility of change. Junpei, the writer, decides at the end that change is needed, that responsibility needs to be taken in the aftermath of catastrophe, and from the ruins something new can emerge. In Junpei’s words, ‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far […] I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’ Of course, such change is never easy, and the problems of human community continue unabated, as Murakami discovered. Two months after the Kobe earthquake, Japan faced another catastrophe: the gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, which claimed the lives of fifteen people and injured thousands of others. In Underground, which resulted from interviews with survivors and members of the Aum cult, Murakami sought to analyse the Japanese psyche, and what he found were multiple fractures in Japanese society. The gas attacks, like the Kobe earthquake, are indications of the precariousness and violence that will continue to complicate processes of building communities and forging connections. Like the reconstruction work that takes places after earthquakes, such processes are always painstakingly drawn out. But at least we know that in these instances of difficulty, human beings – not God, and not the stars – are largely to blame.


The Seismicity of the Heart

In the novel Strong Motion, Jonathan Franzen uses earthquakes to describe love – the love that moves us, uproots us, that always carries with it the potential for destruction. As Franzen says in an interview, ‘the phenomenon of humanly induced seismicity’ is enticing literarily, and a novelist can make effective use of the elusiveness of earthquakes. Franzen had, in fact, worked in a seismology lab, so he understood that earthquakes are still relatively enigmatic phenomena – to this day, the ways in which earthquakes interact with other disturbances are shrouded in mystery, as are the exact causes of tremors. No one knows for certain what sets earthquakes off and why. Franzen, along with others, situates this mysterious cause inside the human heart. In the same interview, Franzen mentions the ‘bridges between the geologic scale and the human scale, between the large forces of nature and the small forces of the heart.’ While poor construction and ineffective management are socio-political instances of human responsibility for disasters, there are subtler, more incalculable ways in which human society is linked to seismic movement.


Such metaphoric readings of earthquakes, while not necessarily scientific, do provide fecund soil for literary invention. One of the most famous stories set in the aftermath of an earthquake makes precisely this nebulous link between the human heart and catastrophe. Heinrich von Kleist’s short narrative, ‘Earthquake in Chile’ (1807), is set against the background of the earthquake that devastated Santiago on 13 May 1647 (though Kleist most likely had in mind the Lisbon earthquake that challenged the optimistic theodicy of the Enlightenment). The story follows the fate of the lovers Jeronimo and Josefa, who were condemned for fornication and sacrilege (Josefa refused to give up her lover even after she was forced into a convent, and henceforth became pregnant). Prior to the earthquake, Josefa was on the verge of being executed, and Jeronimo was prepared to hang himself in prison. But the earthquake toppled church and prison, thus freeing the lovers, who reunited in the forest outside the city, along with their infant son. The disaster destroyed both the just and the unjust, and was initially seen to be a social leveler. Survivors who met in the forest showed each other great kindness regardless of social rank; great acts of compassion were witnessed, and the air was filled with the ‘spirit of reconciliation’. In the idyllic woods, the survivors experienced human sociality at its purest, freed from the institutional obstacles that were leveled by the earthquake. After the seismic activity subsided, some of the survivors decided to return to the city and pray in the only church left standing. Jeronimo and Josefa joined the congregation, only to be recognized by someone in the crowd, who condemned the lovers for having caused the disaster with their sin. The furious mob descended on Jeronimo and Josefa, and clubbed them to death; their son was, fortunately, saved by a companion.

Kleist, as always, maintains a neutral tone throughout the story, but to a certain extent he invites the readers to sympathize with the lovers. While the first part of the story deals with the destruction wrought by nature, the second part deals with the destructiveness of human society. Jeronimo and Josefa survive the earthquake only to perish in the social catastrophe of the church. Thus it is society, not nature, which is placed under scrutiny; or rather, it is the moral limits of society that are being examined. In the words of Isak Winkel Holm, ‘What is at stake is the weakness not of a society’s institutional but of its moral infrastructure. When vulnerable houses and institutions collapse, it is still up in the air whether the ties of the human community are fragile or robust.’ Although Kleist does not offer unambiguous answers, the tragic ending of the story suggests the moral frailty of a society unable to look beyond its need to condemn. The sociability established in the woods was only temporary, and physical devastation did not impart lasting lessons about right and wrong. It is perhaps not so much Jeronimo and Josefa’s affair that caused the earthquake as the cruelty of the Santiago society itself. Disasters thus have much to do with the possibility or impossibility of community. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, French Jansenist Laurent-Etienne Rondet rightly remarked that ‘Earthquakes are a symbol of disturbance among peoples’. The disharmony already inherent in Santiago society was writ large in the cataclysmic collapse of its buildings and institutions. If catastrophe is a wake-up call that jolts the survivors out of everyday complacency, it is also a challenge to human morality, and demands a reexamination of the limits of sociability.

The Fault in Our Stars

In the aftermath of catastrophe, the inescapable question arises: Who is responsible? The term ‘disaster’ has its roots in the French word désastré (‘disastered’), which was in turn derived from the Italian dis-astrato, signaling the state of being abandoned by the protective stars (literally de-starred). So to be in disaster is to be left to one’s miserable fate by the cosmic agencies that are ultimately responsible for earthly calamities; in this interpretation of disaster, human beings are not responsible for the destruction. As Edmund in King Lear remarks, ‘When we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit/ Of our own behavior, we make guilty of our/ Disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars’.

However, since the emergence of the modern discourse on disaster, following the Lisbon earthquake, the idea of disaster willed by God or controlled by cosmic forces was replaced by one of ‘human-engineered calamity’ (Marie-Hélène Huet). Disaster became politicized, and could only be understood outside theological terms. As Chateaubriand writes of the 1832 cholera:This plague without imagination has encountered no cloisters, no monks, no graves or gothic crypts; like the terror in 1793, it has strolled mockingly in broad daylight, in a brand new world’ (translated by Huet). This brand new world is a world of risk, in which humans are capable of manufacturing great hazards that harm the very communities that civilization has worked so hard to construct. Some disaster sociologists would even go so far as to argue that there is no such a thing as a natural disaster, for all calamities are channeled, enabled or amplified by human systems.

In the philosophical debate that followed the Lisbon earthquake, Rousseau unrelentingly placed responsibility for the disaster in the hands of humans. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau writes that, ‘The majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work…If the residents of [Lisbon] had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer and perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock’. From Rousseau’s perspective, it was poor construction that claimed the lives of the citizens; the catastrophe is therefore a social matter. The residents also perished because they refused to leave their possessions, and were therefore buried in the rubble along with their treasures (NB: Before the earthquake, the city of Lisbon was known for its wealth). As Rousseau states in the Second Discourse, the new man, perfected and thus corrupted, have built far from Eden an unstable city that he prizes above his own well-being. His subsequent downfall is thus a result of his own greed.

This shifting of focus from God’s wrath to man’s own corruption brings forth a new understanding of disasters that is still valid today. We only have to look at the poorly constructed levees in New Orleans and the decisions to build nuclear plants in earthquake-prone regions to grasp the full extent of the role that humanity plays in catastrophes. Disaster prevention and reconstruction remain fraught processes due to mismanagement, financial obstacles, social inequality, and inefficient bureaucracy, all of which fracture the precarious sense of solidarity built in the aftermath of destruction (Fukushima is a case in point – a topic for another post).

There are also other instances in which human activity directly causes disaster. It has long been suspected that industrial drilling, or hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking) causes tremors in regions otherwise not known for earthquakes. Fracking is a process by which highly-pressurized fluids are pumped into the earth to shatter rocks and release natural gas; the waste liquid is then injected back underground. While the research results remain inconclusive, it is almost guaranteed that companies will continue to drill even if fracking does cause earthquakes. The absence of ethics in this case could lead to the death of thousands. And when that occurs, it would no longer be possible to blame ‘the sun, the moon, and the stars’.

[To Be Continued]

On the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755


“Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All’s well,’
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race[...]

Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?”

- Voltaire, On the Lisbon Disaster (1755)

On 1 November 1755, an earthquake devastated the city of Lisbon, killing approximately 30,000 people, and causing extensive damage throughout Portugal, southern Spain and northern Africa; the seismic waves were felt as far away as Britain, Holland and Germany. A tsunami and raging fire followed, and the conflagration swept through the Portuguese capital for almost a week. Scholars estimate that 17,000 out of the 20,000 houses in Lisbon were destroyed by either the tremors or the fires, plus half of all churches, and several palaces that contained collections of precious art. Eyewitness accounts describe ‘a Spectacle of Terror and Amazement, as well as the Desolation of the Beholders, as perhaps has not been equaled since the Foundation of the World’. This catastrophe – one of the worst to have struck Europe in the eighteenth century – marks what is known as the beginning of the modern discourse on disaster. The following is a brief summary of my readings on this subject.

It is frequently claimed that the Lisbon earthquake prompted western philosophy to turn away from the idea of God as the origin of rationality. If God is just and almighty, how can we explain devastating, unpredictable events such as an earthquake? What is the source of all this evil? On one side of the debate, theist philosophers such as Leibniz argued that providential order lay behind the seemingly disorderly event. On the other side of the debate, Voltaire asserted that nothing lay behind the destruction, no meaningful order or rational explanation, only the contingencies of a violent universe; the world is therefore not the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Voltaire’s line of argument marked a turning point in philosophical discourse, and sought to overthrow the optimism that had previously informed visions of a harmonious millennial state. In the words of Gilles Deleuze, from a lecture on Leibniz, ‘After the Lisbon earthquake: how is it possible to maintain the least faith in a rationalism originating in God?’

In the poem ‘On the Lisbon Disaster’, Voltaire criticizes Leibniz’s theodicy, and asks the ‘bloodless thinker[s]’ to gaze upon the ‘appalling spectacle of woe’ that has befallen Lisbon. If God is indifferent, then these philosophers are equally unsympathetic towards the ‘quivering mass of flesh’ that strewn the streets of Lisbon, nor are they moved by the ‘scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts’. Voltaire’s use of such visceral images brings attention to the human element in the scene of disaster, the fragile flesh that lies upon the ruins. While the philosophical debate precipitated by the Lisbon earthquake cannot be said to have answered questions about God’s justice, or about good and evil, it did push the idea of disaster and human suffering to the centre of western culture. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, disaster appeared in art, literature, popular prints, and operas; this tradition is followed in our own era by depictions of mass destruction in film and other media. In other words, the Lisbon earthquake fueled ‘the spectacle of woe’. As Marie-Hélène Huet writes, ‘our culture thinks through disasters […] [which] mediate philosophical inquiry and shape our creative imagination’.

Through fictional and cinematic representations of catastrophe, we form a collective imagining of disaster, which in turn shapes how we act or think when confronted with real calamities. It is partly the understanding of human suffering that drives the rescue and reconstruction processes that follow catastrophic events; for the culture of disaster focuses as much on the catastrophe itself as on the fragility or strength of the human society when dealing with devastation. Each disaster shatters anew the system or order that we have imposed on chaos. We know this is not the best of all possible worlds, yet the wrecks and fragments still need to be reassembled into renewed wholes.

There is also the need to deal with the possibility of future disasters, which returns us to the age-old question raised by the Lisbon earthquake: Who is responsible? If God is not responsible, then who (or what) is? What is the origin of all this senseless suffering?

Fast Fashion

I’m taking a break today, from the usual research routine, and have decided to comment on the much-discussed Chanel show for the A/W 2014 collection. A critical reading of fashion is not something I’ve ever attempted before (though I do enjoy fashion), so this is quite random and informal.

chanel-fall-2014-620x413[Images from Garance Dore]

Over the past few days, many online magazines were flooded with images of the purpose-built Chanel Superstore, housed in the Grand Palais in Paris. Known for his innovative runway designs, Karl Lagerfeld amazed the fashion world with his reimagining of luxury pieces as supermarket products: Iconic quilted bags came wrapped as packs of meat; rows of tin cans, lined in Warhol-esque style, bore the Chanel logo; the names of products – like Coco Chanel Coco Pops – were nods to the founder of the house. Models strolled down the supermarket aisles as if they were customers, carrying baskets or carts, and quequing up at the check-out. Judging from the photographs, the details of the elaborate stage set were remarkable. There is a certain whimsical quality to the idea, and the show was deemed a great success. At the end of the show, guests were invited to enter the market and take anything from the aisles. Predictably, the crowd descended and fought over the coveted items stamped with the Chanel logo (though they were asked to return the goods at the end). Lagerfeld understood that if you stick the renowned interlocking C’s (or what some in the Chinese media have coined ‘The Cash-Cash’ sign) on anything, consumers will hunger for it, even if it is only a bottle of ketchup.



chanel-fw14_garance-dore_detail_5[Images from Garance Dore]

The debates that ensued centered on the complex relationship between fashion and consumerism. The mode of consumerism fueled by the fashion industry is elitist yet seemingly egalitarian – while the few decides the trends, and only the few can actually afford the luxury goods, the many can possess a tiny slice of the luxury world. Fashion is, in this sense, a champion of capitalism, and erodes the boundary between luxury and necessity. By drawing a direct link between designer goods and everyday products of the supermarket, Lagerfeld not only taps into the consumerist psyche, but also creates an illusion of affordability, which ironically highlights the fissure between the wealthy and the poor – a fissure that the fashion industry has, sadly, helped to widen.

Fashion’s flirtation with food is by no means confined to the Chanel show. Both the Kate Spade and Charlotte Olympia shows this year featured bags that resemble Chinese takeaway boxes (an idea that Lagerfeld had already executed for the 2010 Chanel collection). But the most notorious reference to food was undoubtedly the Moschino x Jeremy Scott collection in Milan, which made explicit, kitsch references to McDonald’s, with models wearing clothes that resemble the red-and-yellow uniforms, and carrying bags that imitate Happy Meal boxes (costing $1265). Though the show was praised by many in the fashion industry, it enraged real-life McDonald’s employees, who accused the brand of mocking their difficult, low-wage lives. In an interview with The New York Times, Scott claimed that he was just trying to have a little fun, and that the clothes should be seen as humorous, irreverent but gleeful.

The Moschino show is a case of ethical blindness, in my view. The critics were right to point out the inappropriateness of selling a uniform-like dress with a price tag well beyond the reach of those who are forced to wear that uniform on a daily basis. The rich might well dapple in the lifestyles of the less wealthy (going to supermarkets, eating fast food), as if it were a form of alternative tourism, but they know they can return to the comfort of their wealth at the end of the day. Additionally, to promote fattening food in an industry that consistently encourages anorexic thinness and eating disorder (particularly in women) is nothing short of ironic.

Some have read both the Chanel and Moschino shows as examples of fashion being a little facetious and critiquing itself. But is contemporary fashion capable of this critique? Fashion as represented in these shows speak not of self-referential reflection but of excess and consumerist frenzy. Perhaps Lagerfeld’s show signals that fashion is no longer what it was in the days of Coco Chanel (especially with regard to the representation of women). If luxury is meant to be something in which we luxuriate, in which we revel, then these fashion pieces are not luxury since they encourage fast consumption and fast forgetting, prompting the consumer to move on quickly to the next trend. Originally associated with debauchery and sexual pleasure, luxury has now become mostly linked with the possession of certain products or the enjoyment of a particular lifestyle. Robbed of its association with transgression and rebelliousness, fashion has, in a way, become pure market, much like McDonald’s. Our large appetites lead us to consume so much in the market without reflection, hence the excesses of shopping and the debts accumulated. Fashion coupled with fast food means consumption in the double sense of shopping and eating – voraciously, insatiably, self-destructively.

Time to re-read Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin.

Contemplating Disaster

Disasters linger in cultural memory. Recent years have brought a long list of natural catastrophes, notably the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, typhoons in the Philippines, and the hurricane and tornadoes in the US. Reports of disaster circulated, and call attention to the cultural representations (photographs, narratives, eyewitness accounts) that record for posterity the personal losses and collective traumas suffered. And in the wake of drastic climate changes that threaten our world with further cataclysms, now is the time to speak of disaster. For a new research project, I am looking at the culture of disaster and the human capacity for reconstruction. The main goal is to undertake a comparative study between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourse on disaster and the current approach to catastrophe, particularly in the context of urban destruction.

The formidable forces of water, earth, wind and fire have brought some of humankind’s greatest cities to their knees – one only has to think of examples such as Pompeii and Herculaneum to be reminded that destruction was never far from human civilization. Disasters bring into question the durability of all human constructions, and starkly reveal the fragility of our cities. But aside from toppling buildings, disasters also disperse communities, and the reconstruction process is as much architectural as it is socio-political. When the grounds have stopped shaking and the fires have been put out, what then? Where do we start? How do survivors regain a sense of normality? What role does the international community play? And more importantly, how do we deal with the possibility of further devastation?  Philosophers and urban planners would like to see the ruined site as the locus of resilience. But the work of reconstruction is, in fact, much more complicated than this, as attested by the post-disaster rebuilding in Japan where, despite the three years that have elapsed, reconstruction remains a fraught process.

Over the next little while, I will explore various aspects of this topic. Any feedback or suggestion is very welcome!

John-Martins-The-Destruct-001John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1822

Beyond the Ivory Tower

During an 8-hour meeting at my previous job, at a university in Asia, it dawned on me that it had been almost a year since I read any ‘literature’, as in primary texts that inspired me to pursue a life of thought in the first place. Instead, what I had been doing for 1.5 years included attending meetings, filing endless piles of paperwork, reading the most mind-numbing books on language education, and regurgitating the same banal teaching material week after week to students who could probably care less. Of course, I was grateful for a job with a steady income, at a time when most of my peers did not have stable jobs, but when the brain becomes feverish after enough meetings, money no longer seemed like an attractive lure. A month later, I submitted my resignation.

This initial experience with academic life (albeit in a particularly hostile environment) led me to rethink my decision to become an academic. The life of deep contemplation, reading, writing, and engaging discussions is, alas, a fantasy that is increasingly unlikely in a world of contingent positions and suffocating tenure pressures. I began to wonder more and more about what lies beyond the formidable walls in which I have enclosed my life. Nowadays, it is no longer controversial to speak of the post-academic life. Informative websites such as Beyond Academe, Alternative PhD, and How to Leave Academia, all indicate a growing trend towards ‘post-ac’ jobs. After spending a few months collecting information about alternatives, I realized I was not alone, and that many PhD graduates are becoming discontent with the ivory tower. The article in Forbes, which argued that professors have the least stressful jobs in the world, is outrageously inaccurate (and Forbes has since then admitted the potential unreliability of their research). The academy brings a whirlwind of stress, anxiety and insecurity that makes leaving seem like a logical solution. This brilliant Manifesto says it all:

“Because I am tired of being made to feel like a failure because I have been failed by a flawed system…Because participating in a system that degrades, demeans, and disempowers you is masochism…Because obfuscation, elitism, arrogance, and self-righteousness should not be rewarded…Because I refuse to believe that a system that does not value me is the only one in which I can have worth…Because life is short…Because I am prevented from doing the work I was trained and prepared to do…I am leaving the academy.”

Many of the reasons listed are the reasons why I left my old job, and are now reasons why I am contemplating a post-ac life. Considering the harrowing state of crisis that has besieged the academic job market (endless applications followed by endless rejections, coupled with poverty and despair), it is only logical to be open to other options. Yet the academic world has always frowned upon those who ‘sell out’. The elitist attitude of academic culture means that most academics do not acknowledge – or are at least skeptical of – the idea of an intellectually-engaging career elsewhere. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues, such an attitude ‘only shows that academia’s conception of the life of the mind is narrower than it should be’. This narrowness is damaging to new graduates. The truth is that many PhD graduates pursue a career outside academia, which turns out to be just as engaging as academic work, if not more. Instead of pushing PhDs into the narrow tunnel of academic positions, departments should inform PhD candidates, from the beginning of their studies, that there are alternatives to an academic position, and that these alternatives are not ‘second best’. As Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman write:

‘A first step toward adjusting graduate education to occupational realities would be to change our attitudes and our language, to make clear to students entering programs [...] that we are offering them education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.’

Academic elitism – or snobbery – has cultivated a system of shame that deludes us into thinking we must be professors in order for our education to have been worthwhile. But the real-life examples of many who have had fulfilling careers outside the academy tell a very different story. We need to redefine ‘success’. There is also a certain disdain for money and a misguided belief that careers in the ‘real world’ are solely about profit, not about the mind – as if competition for tenure has absolutely nothing to do with higher pay and power! Liberal-minded academics have always upheld the academy as a place of egalitarian ideals and humanitarian goals, but this ignores the steeply hierarchical structure of the university system (just look at the miseries suffered by adjunct faculty) and the narrowness that it perpetuates. Many academics are, in fact, conformist and conservative, and in many ways, radicalism has never been as far from campuses as they are today.

Choosing to leave the academy, then, can be an act of rebellion. But there is positive change at the end of the strife – or at least I hope so. A life of the mind and career-building outside the ivory tower are not mutually exclusive things; I plan to continue doing research and writing, regardless of what I do. There will undoubtedly be a sharp learning curve, as I try to convince potential employers that my expertise in 19th-century literature and culture might be useful outside a niche field. There is also the additional difficulty of leaving the sense of familiarity felt in the academic world, and ditching the prestigious title of ‘Doctor’. More importantly, I believe that while universities are undervaluing the arts and humanities, such disciplines still play a significant role in our society – in places such as non-profit organizations, in community reading groups, in the ever-changing publishing industry and in creative work, where literature can move beyond theoretical play and into ‘the realm of emotional significance’ (Jonathan Franzen). Leaving academia is not about selling out – it’s about finding a more fulfilling life for oneself and pursuing meaning beyond the bounds of education. And when the day comes, when I’m comfortable thriving in the ‘world outside’, then I will once again be able to read Romantic poetry with an unfettered mind.


More articles on post-academic life:

1. Out of Academia

2. Doctor Outsider

3. The Repurposed PhD

4. Leaving Academia

5. I Quit Academia

Out of Hibernation

I must have at least eight excuses for not having written on this blog for month after month, but perhaps none of them are compelling enough to mention. The office became manic, the streets chaotic and the slush pile of to-dos accumulated. But since this January was meant to bring a new phase in life, then now is as good a time as any to start posting more regularly. Blogging as a form of serious thought is, after all, one of the less nefarious things that the internet has offered us. Besides, being productive on the blog might displace less productive activities, and gradually draw me away from the likes of Facebook. To quote Jonathan Safran Foer, ‘The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.’

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