S. Apocalyptic Imaginations: Disaster, Ruination, and Resilience

Elizabeth Angell, Columbia University & Maria Brodine, Columbia University

Sunday, May 8th
9:30 – 12:30
Ida Sproul Room

This session brings archaeological perspectives to bear on the
contemporary imagination of apocalypse, disaster, and ruination.  As
the physical traces of the past, “ruins” are archaeology’s terrain.
But they also play a vivid role in the public imagination of present
traumas and possible futures, both through the figure of the
archaeologist in popular culture, and in the emergence of new and
projected scenarios of post-industrial decay, environmental
devastation, and political conflict.  TV archaeologists find treasure
or trouble in fictional ruins while forensic archaeologists excavate
ruins-in-progress; studies of past civilizations influence
contemporary environmental debates; and future archaeologies of late
capitalism tell morality tales onscreen in the latest post-apocalyptic
blockbusters.   How might archaeologists and ethnographers explore the
imagination of disaster and ruination in the contemporary world?  What
can the archaeology of past disasters tell us about disaster’s
aftermaths and traces–including those of resilience?  How should we
make sense of the role disaster stories play in public understandings
of archaeology as a discipline?  And how does the apocalyptic
imagination relate to more quotidian experiences of accident, ruin,
and breakdown?  Contributions to this session will employ ethnographic
and archaeological case studies to think about the aftermath of past
disasters and the imagination of future ones, turning a critical eye
on “disaster capitalism”, examining the moral and material
infrastructures generated by disaster planning, and suggesting that
the question of what disaster and ruination produce is as important as
that of what they destroy.  We welcome imaginative and artistic
interventions as well as traditional papers.


Waiting for the Earthquake: Anticipation and the Imagination of Disaster

Elizabeth Angell, Columbia University, eangell@gmail.com

How does the imagination of a future earthquake disaster shape the experience of dwelling in a seismically active landscape?  This presentation explores the moral and material infrastructures generated by earthquake anticipation in Istanbul, Turkey. I ask how the coming earthquake is produced as an object of knowledge by experts like seismologists and engineers, but also through rumor, faith, and superstition. I also examine anticipation as a response to the temporal instability of the earthquake hazard, and take TAG Berkeley’s proximity to the San Andreas Fault as an opportunity to consider how the imagination of disaster plays out in other lives and landscapes.

Paradise Lost and Found: The Place(s) of Archaeology on Montserrat, West Indies

Krysta Ryzewski, Brown University, Krysta_Ryzewski@brown.edu & John F. Cherry, Brown University

On the Caribbean island of Montserrat the chronic threat of natural disaster and accompanying risk awareness pervade daily routines, architecture, popular music, contemporary material culture, and memories. These processes of coping were triggered by the devastation that the ongoing eruptions of the Soufriere Hills volcano has caused to over half of the island since 1995.  We discuss intersections and divergences between our current archaeological work on Montserrat and the communities who are experiencing disaster. We also consider archaeology’s place and potential contributions to investigating disaster diachronically, in the contemporary world, and in the active efforts to craft the island’s future.

Levees and the Great Wall of Orleans-St. Bernard: Engineering Ruin or Resilience?

Maria Brodine, Columbia University, mbrodine@gmail.com

A levee is a raised, engineered bank of earth that divides water from inhabited land. In everyday life, its function may become disguised or invisible despite its ubiquity. Yet it has colonial roots in the American South and is a crucial character in the so-called “battle with Nature”. Like other walls or borders, it can be seen as a war zone. It is also a site for creativity, resistance, and assemblage. Building on ethnographic research in post-Katrina New Orleans, I will use the levee to approach the relationship between popular imaginations of “apocalypse” and the emergent concept of “resilience.”

Foreclosure: Rupture, Revelation, and Recycling

Michelle Rosales, Columbia University, mjr2162@columbia.edu

Daily habits and digressions within the space of the home occur through interactions of bodies and objects—from arrangements of plates in a cabinet to accidental slips of a plate from the hand. What happens to the home within the context of widespread foreclosure disaster? The processes of foreclosure disrupt the experience of ownership by making the invisible visible: shareholders, such as banks, make themselves present through letters and phone calls. The foreclosed home ruptures the notion of time by becoming recyclable as it weaves through decline and progress and moves from ruination to opportunity.

Hunger and Perseverance in the Post-Apocalypse

Shanti Morell-Hart, University of California, Berkeley, shantimh@berkeley.edu

Food is an active component of social and political process, in times of daily plenty and in times of extreme scarcity.  Routinized modes of foodways are hard to dislodge, even when resources and broad lifeways are violently disrupted.  Ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and archaeological examples attest to the improvisational ability of individuals and communities when faced with food shortage.  Using illustrations from around the world, I explore how notions of materiality and theories of linguistic practice contribute to discussions of starvation management.  I posit how cultural redefinitions of food and foodways help to negotiate extreme circumstances, and extend even into post-crisis periods.

Post-apocalyptic Landscapes Revisited: Material Pilgrimage and the Jewish Past in Contemporary Poland

Petar Cvijovic, Columbia University, pc2458@columbia.edu

Once the center of Eastern European Jewish life, Poland became a desolated land during the World War II apocalypse, when the Nazi destruction of Polish Jewry turned the country into one mass graveyard. Burdened by such a disturbing past, Poland has been avoided by Jews around the world for years after the war; however, it has recently become their major European pilgrimage site. This paper will address the question of how material things of post-apocalyptic landscapes and cityscapes, such as the ruined Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, Hasidic rebbes’ graves, and death camps, shape the contemporary practice of Jewish pilgrimage to Poland.

Rebellion as Disaster Response in Occupied New Mexico

Albert Gonzalez, Southern Methodist University, ag3113@columbia.edu

The nineteenth-century conquest of the Southwest by the United States is best characterized as a punctuated moment in a decades-long colonization project.  Occupation served to awaken local minds as to the project’s existence in the same way that earthquakes remind those in geologically-vulnerable regions of long-ignored building standards.  Attempts to determine and address causal factors tend to follow such awakenings, and those affected by a disaster’s punctuation often have little mercy on their targets.  I approach the occupation of northern New Mexico from that perspective, analyzing the prioritization of targets by Mexican rebels during an 1847 rebellion against American occupation.