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

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