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  2. Making Sense of Catastrophe; Listening in Trouble

Making Sense of Catastrophe; Listening in Trouble

Friday, December 6, 2019 - 16:00 to 19:30
room CBG.2.04, LSE, Houghton St

A Culture & Social Psychology Symposium, The Open University-LSE
If you would like to attend, please RSVP to the administrative team at and please specify 'LSE/CuSP event'.

Catastrophe event image

Catastrophes, disasters, and other crises can be thought of as events that rupture the continuity of lives. Whilst on one level the disruption may be thoroughly material (explosions, earthquakes, floods, fires, demolished buildings, torn flesh), these events also rupture the sense of coherence, continuity and community that we call ‘world’. If what once had meaning now shows up as Hamlet’s mere “quintessence of dust”, is this because a world whose presence had been taken for granted has been consigned to the past, and a new regime of coherence has yet to take its place? How does it feel to go through an imposed liminal experience of hovering between a world that is ‘no longer’ and another that is ‘not yet’? Is the devastating impact of a world destroyed simultaneously the call for the creation of a new world?

How should social psychologists think about and approach this ambivalent, uncertain and emergent zone between worlds? At the contemporary moment, we encounter crises of democracy, climate emergency, a deadly humanitarian crisis in policing the borders of Europe, ‘epidemics’ of violence, and longer-running catastrophic ‘slow violence’ perpetrated in the context of economic, racial, political and social inequalities. For some activists, these crises must be “never again” moments - the status quo is untenable and must itself change. Others resist framing in terms of crisis, treating the issues as amenable to traditional policy-making tools, or denying them as unnecessary scare-mongering (“catastrophising”). Still others talk of a permanent state of emergency that has become the new normal. A catastrophe calls for a radical response (“never again”, “lest we forget”, “all hands on deck”) – and so witnessing a phenomenon as a catastrophe imposes a demand for the creation of a new world. Instead we often get ameliorative efforts (“lessons learned”, “bouncing back”, “building back better”). A catastrophe, in short, may not be self-evident (“crisis? What crisis?”), so to even understand an event as a catastrophe is significant.

For those personally thrown into catastrophe, the question of whether it really is one is a non-question. When routines and taken-for-granteds are ruptured, ‘making sense’ itself can become demanding. How does one navigate the ruins of the mundane? What matters amongst life’s details when a world has been shattered? What does the catastrophe reveal about the basic assumptions necessary to everyday life? Is somebody or something to blame and can justice be restored? Is it possible to think of the future, and does a future even seem possible any more? Is the appropriate response hope, despair or pure pragmatic ‘getting on with it’? Should we have seen it coming; is it really so acute, or has it been a long time in the making? How can we now relate, politically and otherwise, to those who have and have not shared our experience? Can we rethink our lives in a way that renders what happened less unpredictable? Can we image a future to come and a people to live it? How do we listen to the trouble, and in troubled conditions? 

Taking up the theme of living through catastrophes, this symposium explores theorisations of this liminal post-disaster condition. We wish to entertain theorisations that can simultaneously sustain both the devastation of the catastrophic and the forging of new worlds, to, as Donna Haraway puts it, ‘stay with the trouble’.

  • 4.00 Introduction from Flora Cornish and Paul Stenner

Panel 1 

Panel 2


“Grenfell changes everything?” Post-disaster agency beyond hope and despair

Flora Cornish, LSE

How does one contend with the destruction of hope and the necessity of hope after disaster? How can we theorise the post-disaster condition in a way that allows for the possibility of new, livable worlds and the simultaneous resistance to change of disaster-prone structures?
The Grenfell Tower fire was a disaster of national significance, traumatising a West London community, horrifying observers, and causing a wide range of actors, including local and national politicians, housing professionals, and community workers, to respond that “Grenfell changes everything”, implying that the disaster necessitated fundamental change. The catastrophe generated immense change in the local community, whose caring, creative, and campaigning response is widely acclaimed and ongoing. As in other disasters, however, the societal response can be characterised by inertia as much as by change. As the resilience of the structures, institutions of state, and corporations which created the conditions for disaster becomes evident, despair becomes a plausible replacement for hope.
Drawing on 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork this presentation examines the changes that have been enacted, seized, called for, achieved, partially achieved, postponed or neglected in the aftermath of Grenfell, to explore the ways in which a disaster may or may not be a source of agency in bringing about emancipatory change. It draws on Haraway’s term ‘staying with the trouble’ in the interest of theorising post-disaster agency in a way which can appreciate supportive and responsible action without effacing the resistance of structures to responsible change.

Art as “staying with the trouble”: Catastrophe and tragedy as spontaneous and devised liminal experiences

Paul Stenner, The Open University

A catastrophe is an event having the quality of a sudden downwards turn (it derives from the Greek words for down and turn), but it is also used as a word for the denouement of a story. This is especially so for a tragedy. Indeed a similar connection between life (catastrophe 1) and art (catastrophe 2) is expressed in the fact that the word tragedy can denote both a real disaster and an art form. Perhaps this intriguing connection between life and art arises because the shattering or shaking of lives brings in its wake the possibility or prospect of continuation or reconstruction (future). ‘Lives’ here can be taken both with a ‘psychological’ (e.g. ‘trauma’) and a ‘sociological’ meaning, and in the wake of catastrophe the possibilities that can be entertained vary from (and perhaps oscillate between) positive and hopeful (from resilient ‘bouncing back’ to hopes of ‘building back better’), through avoidance and denial of possibility altogether, to pessimistic doubts and fears (dwelling in the downward turn of disaster). Qua ‘possibilities’ these variations are necessarily unstable when lodged in that liminal phase following the destruction of what was (downturn) but prior to the reconstruction of what will, or may, ‘turnout’ to be. This paper will approach catastrophe as liminal experience, and will work with a distinction between spontaneous (catastrophe 1) and devised (catastrophe 2) liminal occasions, that I have introduced elsewhere (Stenner, 2017). I will argue that the devised liminal experiences of art help in the necessarily creative process of re-building sense-making following the catastrophic destruction of the coherence of a world. During times when sense-making necessarily fails us (because catastrophe makes no sense, and time itself is out of joint), art can thus help us to become more active in the wake of the passive downwards turn, and – importantly - to communicate this to others. Time allowing, I will discuss how this can explain why the core ideas of a number of key psychologists (including Freud, Winnicott, Vygotsky) are inspired by a meditation on tragedy (Oedipus and Hamlet in particular).

The catastrophe that never was: Child protection, perpetual disaster or a crisis of listening?

Joanna Motzkau, The Open University

Child protection scandals, i.e. the news that one or several children/young people have come to serious harm (suffering sexual exploitation, physical violence or neglect) due to apparent catastrophic failures within existing child protection systems, are so called ‘never events’. These have, despite serious improvements and ‘lessons learnt’ declarations, continued to haunt UK child protection practices since the 1970s (when a distinct child protection system within UK policy and practice first emerged).
This talk considers child protection ‘scandals’ vis a vis the concept of catastrophe. In how far does the realization that existing structures and practices meant to keep children safe have failed, constitute a catastrophe, an instant crises that challenges a status quo, or are such events better understood as indicators of an underlying permanent but systemic issue with the way policy and practice have operated for decades.
I will argue that the tendency to catastrophise in this context has contributed to obscuring long-term issue at the heart of child protection system failures: a crisis of listening.

How do we ascertain what is important to survivors in post-disaster contexts?

Helene Joffe, UCL

We are just about to embark on listening to the perspectives of survivors in Palu, Indonesia, in the wake of the major earthquake of September 2018 that displaced 164 000 people and damaged or destroyed 12 000 schools. A major issue there is that most children in the marginalised regions of Palu remain outside of full-time education. The project aims to develop evidence-based, multi-pronged interventions for fostering resilient recovery in the marginalised, disaster-displaced communities of Palu via school-based hubs. As a starting point it will assess pupil, caregiver and teacher priorities in three marginalised communities and knowing what these are, intervene to increase empowerment of the community and foster resilient recovery via disaster preparedness programs. Alongside this social scientific work, there will be work on the infrastructure of the schools. My talk will focus on the social science of ascertaining what is important to people in such contexts and what can be done to give them what they need in a way that leaves them with increased equity and resilience.

Making sense of images of catastrophe: What is an ‘atrocity photograph’?

Jovan Byford, The Open University

Recent decades have witnessed a notable rise in scholarly interest in the visual culture of war and atrocity, and the role that images play in shaping public understanding of human suffering. This work has looked not just at the role of images in forging the memory of past conflicts, but also at their power to constitute an event as a 'catastrophe', and shape, and mobilize public responses to it.
The presentation examines the intricate set of implicit, and sometimes contradictory rules and conventions that govern the visibility of images of death and suffering and moderate the public’s engagement with them. It considers several related issues: Why are some injured or dead bodies more visible than others? What role do ethics and aesthetics play in determining what we see, and when? How is looking at violent images, as an accountable activity, managed in everyday discourse? In considering these questions, the presentation argues for better appreciation of the inherently political nature of images of death and suffering, and the variety of social and political functions that they serve in contemporary societies. It also calls for a greater critical engagement with what we actually mean when we refer to an event as an 'atrocity', and its depiction as an 'atrocity photograph'.

Defensive tactics: listening for reactionary responses to an impending crisis

Alex Gillespie, LSE

Retrospective studies of crises reveal that the transition from defining a situation as routine to agreeing that it is a crisis usually lags behind events. The risks of impending car crashes, industrial disasters, and even wars are rarely fully appreciated in the early stages of the disaster. Institutional failings that are diffuse, such as an unsafe culture in hospitals, are often only evident as disasters after the fact. It is often said that listening to the trouble earlier, and thus appreciating the significance of unfolding events, may have blunted or even avoided the crisis. The question I ask is: how do people ignore, dismiss and even deny evidence when en route to a catastrophe? How do they stabilize the taken-for-granted, their own world view, and even their identities as events overtake expectation? I propose that there are three broad types of defensive tactic that are used to perpetuate a definition of the situation as normal: avoiding information (e.g., excluding, ignoring, discouraging, distracting, deflecting), delegitimizing the bearers of bad news (e.g., relativizing, stereotyping, stigmatizing, distrusting), and limiting the implications of emerging events and facts (e.g., isolating, fudging, dichotomizing, rationalizing). Ironically, evidence of these tactics being used to resist the idea of a crisis can be taken as an early indication of the impending crisis.