Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: Kevin Rozario’s “Culture of Calamity”

American studies scholar Kevin Rozario’s The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America (Chicago University Press, 2007) is a fascinating read. Rozario writes that Americans today live in a culture of calamity, and that their interest in disasters is a response to the prospect of personal and collective obliteration, and that they respond to them with both fear and enjoyment. This culture has been long in the making, and has played an important role in the shaping of modern American capitalism, with its emphasis on “creative destruction.”

Fantasies of destruction have long played a role in constructing and deconstructing national and marginal identities, power relations, economic systems, and environmental practices. At one key moment early in the book, Rozario frames calamities as ‘events that make things happen.’ Historically, they have represented not only destruction, but also opportunities for economic, social, and moral renewal. They make a complicated world seem much simpler, revealing (or creating) dualistic visions of good and evil, right and wrong. Most important here, perhaps, is Rozario’s forcing the reader to keep in mind that different responses to different calamities were often dependent on socioeconomic status; those more comfortable have been more likely to view calamity as opportunity.

In a somewhat scattered fashion, Rozario paints a picture that begins in colonial times and runs through to Hurricane Katrina. Special emphasis is given to puritan responses to disasters, to the 1908 San Francisco earthquake, to the disaster spectacles at Coney Island, and 9/11. In addition to presenting historical case studies, Rozario sketches a larger argument in which calamities historically have inspired both stronger government control, as people turn to their leadership and even welcome authoritarian means in order to be kept safe, and a more conductive climate for capital to work in, not least since reconstruction, recovery, and safety keep being farmed out. Rozario is also careful to point out that disasters historically have been met with improvised responses and a failure to articulate a clear way to respond to future ones. In short, the “winner” in calamity culture history has rarely been those most in need.

This Rozario brings home with force in an epilogue about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, here discussed in a review of Neufeld’s A.D. New Orleans was struck worse than it had to be because of poor preparedness; those who were helped most were those who needed it least; and those who had little to being with were left with nothing once the water subsided. This might be overstating Rozario’s argument a bit, but I will let the reader be the judge of that; because I really think you should read this book.

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