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Critical Catastrophes, The Brooklyn Rail

This year, it seems, has been an endless stream of events labeled catastrophes. The refugee crisis, Brexit, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, the failed Colombian peace referendum, Aleppo, Standing Rock, innumerable terrorist attacks across the globe, and now the election of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States. By definition, however, these events are not catastrophic. From the Greek katastrophē, meaning “an overturning, a sudden end,” catastrophe was first defined as “a reversal of what is expected.” Despite its current connotation, the word was not associated with disaster until the mid 1700s.1 In his 1985 text Into the Universe of Technical Images, Vilém Flusser writes that, because they produce a wholly unexpected situation, catastrophes cannot be predicted. This reversal engenders new information, making catastrophes a necessarily neutral phenomenon, ripe with possibility.2

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Amelia Rina