Adi Ophir: The Politics of Catastrophization

The main thrust of my argument is to provide a conceptual framework for understanding “emergency” in terms free from the discourse of sovereignty and its legal implications, in a way that still holds open a certain, limited place for the sovereign decision on the exception. While I am joining here scholars like Ann Stoler who insists on “degrees of sovereignty,” or Thomas Aleinikoff who speaks about sovereignty’s “semblances”, the theoretical context of my argument is different from theirs: it is an attempt to construe a political theory of man-made disasters and use man-made disasters as view point from which it becomes possible, in fact necessary to revise some of political theory’s basic concepts. The immediate political context of this project and its initial motivation has been an attempt to provide a comparative-theoretical perspective for the recent catastrophization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and of the Gaza Strip in particular.


I. A Two Tier Concept of Catastrophization

The neologism ‘catastrophization’ is a common, technical term in cognitive psychology and psychiatry. It designates an “anxiety disorder” in which one interprets “a specific, mildly negative event as having global and negative implications for one’s view of the self and/or one’s future.” For the psychologist or psychiatrist, catastrophe lies in the eyes of the beholder. Catastrophization is a “cognitive bias” in which some event which “in reality is merely inconvenient or uncomfortable is magnified into something “terrible, awful, and unbearable.” Individuals who are “high in social anxiety” tend “to interpret positive social events in a negative way and to catastrophize in response to unambiguous, mildly negative social events.” Those who tend to catastrophize are inclined to over-generalize risk related factors and exaggerate the chances of the worst possible thing to happen.

Cognitive psychologists seem quite confident in their ability to distinguish their patients’ distorted sense of reality from their own sober evaluation of what’s really dangerous. Catastrophe, they seem to say, is in the eyes of the beholder. But sometimes catastrophes do happen and a sober understanding of reality must overcome an opposite cognitive bias, namely the tendency to deny this possibility. Taking the possibility of real catastrophes into account one may say that “catastrophization” is a disorder, indeed, but of the world, not of the mind, in which “specific, mildly negative events” generate – gradually or abruptly – other events with “global and negative implications for one’s self, one’s world and one’s future.”
I would like to call these events or state of affairs “with negative implications for one’s self, one’s world and one’s future” by the name “evils.” Evils – always in the plural – involve suffering and losses, humiliation and scarcity, deprivation and neglect. For the cognitive psychologist, catastrophization designates a subjective attitude: one is panicked, helplessly, by the misconceived prospect of a coming avalanche of evils one is going to suffer. For the historian or political theorist, the humanitarian expert or the journalist, catastrophization can also mean the processes that bring about that very avalanche of evils that injure entire populations. “Objective” catastrophization is the sudden or gradual rise in evils’ quantity, quality, frequency, span of distribution, and durability – in short, a rise in “the volume of evils,” and the accompanying decline in the availability and effectiveness of means of protection, healing, and restoration. Catastrophization is a process in which natural and man-made forces and factors work together to create devastating effects on a large population.

A brief note about the distinction between man-made and natural factors is in place here. In extreme, rare cases, actual, objective catastrophization may be generated by unknown natural forces and go completely unnoticed until a full-fledged disaster takes place. Such a state of affairs is almost as abstracted from the contemporary human world as the state of nature. Some human agency is usually involved in the process of catastrophization, to a certain degree, at least, either by contributing to the production and distribution of an avalanche of evils or by contributing to its mitigation. In late modernity it has become quite obvious that both the rise in the volume of evils and the decline in the efficiency of evils’ mitigation are socially and politically mediated. Women and men have become capable of tracing processes of catastrophization, forecasting disasters, anticipating and mitigating much of their negative effects, providing extensive assistance to the victims so as to prevent further deterioration of their situation and helping them restore their ruptured life- world. At the same time, women and men have become capable of catastrophizing entire regions, in fact the whole globe. In late modernity there are no more natural disasters because catastrophization is always socially and politically mediated.

Processes of catastrophization may advance more or less rapidly, more or less abruptly, with changing frequencies; they may expand or contract, have accumulated effects that lead to a crash or take the form of a sudden blast with dissipating effects. But catastrophization is not catastrophe. The later is not simply a process that takes place in and expands over time and space, but rather an event that transforms both. Catastrophe is an event in the strong sense of this term. Catastrophes are large-scale or mega-disasters that affect multitudes or entire populations and leave their marks on many people’s space and time. Space is marked by deterritorialization of a whole region, and then a reterritorialization of a special zone within it, a zone of disaster. This is the area where former orders crumble, normal expectations become meaningless, and the self evident dimension of everyday life is lost, and where, amidst ruins of all kinds, the survivors experience a dramatic reduction in their ability to move and communicate.

Time is marked by a clear and painful differentiation of a terrible present from a relatively peaceful past, before it all happened, and from a future one longs for, when it will all be over. In the catastrophic present people still remember a past in which sheer survival was not the issue and often recall the moment or event in which their life were shattered, and they cannot think about a different condition without imagining a certain leap into the future. However, it is not only the content of the lived experience that was or would be radically different before or after the event, but the nature of time itself changes. Durations, sequences, repetitions, the empty moments of waiting, the intervals between one happening and another, all these are transformed during the time of catastrophe, and will only be gradually recovered, if at all, when a new normalcy will be established.

The rupture in the lived (veçu) time and the experienced space is not merely subjective. It has an objective dimension because it is the condition within which the many survivors experience their space and time, and this condition has clear objective manifestations. In space, the disaster zone may be isolated, disconnected, access to it may be limited or forbidden, the ways out may be blocked; in time, the pace of events may be greatly accelerated, or just the opposite – for hours or days nothing happens and waiting itself is so tormenting that it becomes part of the catastrophe. Catastrophization is different. It is a process, not a cataclysmic event that ruptures space and time; the pace of the process may be slow, only some of its manifestations may be perceived; in fact the process may be imperceptible and not be experienced at all. That which matters in catastrophization is the steady and significant rise in the presence, quantity, and impact of evils – the volume of evils – and the decline in the means for protection and relief. Without an intervention that would counter it, the simultaneous intensification of the destructive forces together with the increase in people’s vulnerability and exposure to these forces might cause a total collapse or disintegration of the lived environment. Catastrophization is a process in which catastrophe is imminent. However, what is imminent has not happened yet. This suspended moment of catastrophe, which catastrophization implies, this interval which makes possible both moral urgency and political manipulation, will be crucial for my analysis.

“The volume of evils,” exposure and vulnerability makes sense only in relation to a certain, more or less defined population. Disasters happen in and to cities, communities, whole regions; catastrophization occurs within and across populations and regions. The city can be considered as the true subject and hero of disaster, as was the case in late medieval and early modern plagues, but in order to follow the plague and understand its catastrophizing effect one must have a notion of the city’s population, its normal pattern of death and burial, the distribution of disease and deaths across neighborhoods, etc. Populations and regions need not pre-exist the catastrophizing process; they may rather be defined by this very process (think, for example, about potential carriers of HIV, actual carriers of HIV, and those who have already developed symptoms of AIDS). The population defined by catastrophization is the medium of the catastrophizing process. The quantification of evils which catastrophization implies must have a defined realm of reference in which more and less dramatic changes in the pattern of evils’ production and distribution may be observed, quantified, and measured. Some way to observe and measure events in a multitude must be assumed, and this is precisely what the notion of population has made possible. While catastrophes may happen to communities, cities or, more abstractly, to multitudes, catastrophization, in the way I propose to use it, is a process that can be conceived and articulated only in relation to populations; it presupposes the notion of population and is one way to account for the condition of a given population. And since “population” belongs to and presupposes a certain discourse of governmentality, catastrophization too must be thought of as part to such a discourse.

Governmentality introduces here two different connotations, more precisely, two different planes of reality. First, catastrophization as an object of concern or interest for anyone whose task is to govern people, things, and territories, and especially those processes that take place by and through means and acts of government, or due to the withdrawal of or failure to provide such means; second, catastrophization as a process that is made to appear, take shape, and assumes its specific spatio-temporal dimensions by and through a discourse of governmentality that articulates an order of evils as imminently catastrophic. Hence, catastrophization is always “governmental ” and as such it subsists in two distinct planes, which are neither reducible to nor separable from each other and whose specific interrelations vary across periods, types of regime, and geo-political circumstances.

The first plane is the plane of actual or “objective,” environmental, political, economic, and bodily processes where nature has been entirely socialized while organized men might appear as devastating as forces of nature. This is the plane in which men and (socialized) nature, in concert or separately, cause multiple deaths, endemic violence, massive dislocation, severe shortage and deprivation, deterioration of health services and hygienic conditions, desolation of entire regions, and destruction of the fabric of life of numerous people. The second plane is “discursive”. The classification of evils into processes, events, and state of affairs, the distinctions, for example, between accidents, a structured failures of systems, and intentional and systematic production of evils, or between scarcity, malnutrition, famine and starvation; the assessment of deterioration in living conditions, the definition of events as “humanitarian emergency,” “catastrophe,” or “natural disaster” – all these are effects of a discourse of governmentality, but they are also discursive means of castastrophization. They designate objects to be observed, described, measured and analyzed, predicted, and interfered with by and through a certain discourse, and they all result from applying certain rules of “object formation” in that discourse. These are the discursive means through which the catastrophizing process assumes its objective status. It is only through this mise en discours of the catastrophizing process that “emergency claims” or “emergency statements” can be pronounced in response to that process.

By replacing the subjective bias of the overly anxious person with the discursively constructed concern of rational persons whose task or vocation is to warn others of a coming catastrophe or manipulate its unfolding, we have replaced a sterile opposition (between objective and subjective catastrophization) with a fruitful, i.e., dialectical opposition between actual and discursive catastrophization, conceived as two aspects of an intersubjective, socially constructed experience. Psychological catastrophization presupposes, as we have seen, a clear distinction between an adequate, objective sense of reality and a subjective, distorted one. The dual nature of “governmental catastrophization” implies a somewhat similar distinction between actual processes and their discursive articulation. However, the discursive is neither subjective nor necessarily distorted representation of the real; it is rather the condition for the possibility of its observable appearance and conceptual configuration. At the same time, discursive catastrophization may become part of the actual processes that determine the way a catastrophe is unfolding and takes shape, or anticipated, mitigated, and sometimes even prevented.

Governmental catastrophization may take place simultaneously on these two planes, the actual and the discursive, but even in the rare occasions when this happens there is always a gap between the two. Often, discourse records what nature, governments, and other powerful human agents have caused or have failed to do, and traces their policies and actions in the debris they have left behind. Less often – and yet this is something we have learnt to expect from a functioning system of government – some discursive catastrophization precedes the actual processes and enables (or pretends to enable) preparedness and mitigation. This is, for example, the case with, earthquake preparedness in places where earthquakes strike often enough.

The gap between the two planes is not simply temporal. Planned policies and sporadic acts carried out by state apparatuses, economic firms, and other bodies governing men, things, and territories may bring about, more or less gradually, more or less systematically, a series of devastating effects that affect large populations. But the same effects may also be the result of failing – purposefully or inadvertently – to take specific actions that might have prevented the catastrophe or mitigate its impact. In both cases, the objective processes might go unnoticed and be misunderstood and misrepresented. The accumulative effect of wide spread production of evils is not accounted, disasters are not inscribed into public memory and their victims simply disappear without a trace, and some recognized devastating effects are explained away as soon as they are recorded. Discursive catastrophization is the more or less systematic response to – or preemption of – unacknowledged or disavowed actual catastrophization. It is the effort to articulate “humanitarian conditions” that can be inspected, followed, and explained, become objects of a continuous gaze and be spaced out in charts and tables. The deterioration of these conditions can be measured and compared, and “the verge of humanitarian catastrophe” can be delineated and declared.

Catastrophization in this sense is a way to describe a state of affairs so as to make what has been a “tolerable” or “normal” situation seem too dangerous or intolerable, to arise moral and political reactions, and to mobilize assistance. The described process which has been naturalized or normalized before now appears as either exceptional or as bearing potentially exceptional consequences. An imaginary threshold that separates a state of disaster or the happening of catastrophe from protracted disastrous conditions is invoked. It might have already been crossed with or without notice, it may be declared as imminent and too close, but in any case, by the very fact that it has been stated the imaginary threshold is an appeal for an exceptional response.

The situation is still more complicated, however. Being embedded in various governmental mechanisms, discursive catastrophization structures certain governmental discourses and practices and often imposes its point of view. Attention is given to protracted deterioration in the living condition of given populations, in given areas, which may never be observed or experienced as a catastrophe. Attention is also given to protracted environmental, geological, or climatic changes, to epidemic patterns, or to unemployment rates and signs of economic recession. The advance, pace, accumulation, and fluctuations of various factors are monitored in relation to an imaginary, more or less explicit threshold that should not be crossed.

The situation is far more complicated, however. Being embedded in various governmental mechanisms discursive catastrophization often structures the discourse of governmentality and imposes its focal point of attention. This attention may first be classified – in a rather simplified way and regardless of the different sources of objective catastrophization – into three distinct temporal axes and modes of presence of disaster:
1. Disaster lies in the future; discursive catastrophization seeks to anticipate it and contribute to preparedness for the coming disaster. This may include natural disasters like earthquakes and flood but also the anticipation and portrayal – realistic, exaggerated, or imaginary – of imminent danger posed by an enemy, whose intention and actions are not simply negative but threaten the very existence of the group, the state, or the ruling power;
2. Disaster is unfolding; discursive catastrophization seeks to trace its patterns of expansion, help contain it and mitigate its effects;
3. Disaster is protracted and is not perceived or experienced as such; discursive catastrophization seeks to draw attention to protracted deterioration in the living condition of a given population, in a given area, articulate this deterioration as a potentially catastrophic process and cope with its results.

This typology of discursive catastrophization is indifferent to either the viciousness or the sources of destruction; it is rather attentive to its advance, pace, accumulation, and fluctuation, and more concretely to the moment when the threshold of catastrophe is crossed. Discursive catastrophization offers a perspective on human evils from which atrocities, wars, massive dislocations, plagues or earthquakes seem equally relevant, and the justifications for the actions or failure to act that have brought them about almost equally irrelevant, for what is crucial is to understand the way these different sources affect and exacerbate each other and how they may be subdued.

In a similar vein, objective catastrophization has to be analyzed independently. Disaster’s mode of presence would not be telling in this context. More important are the different sources, mechanisms and processes, involved in the production of the catastrophic conditions. A possible classification would distinguish between natural, ecological, economic, and technological sources and would insist on the fact that each of these sources is always already political as well and that it embodies discursive catastrophization. However it would be a mistake to assume that discursive catastrophization always works to counter actual processes of catastrophization. Discursive catastrophization may play at least three different roles in actual catastrophizing processes:
1. Discursive catastrophization may legitimize the political generation of catastrophe and mobilize people to take part in it.
2. Discursive catastrophization if often perceived as part of a concerted effort to mitigate the effect of an unfolding catastrophe and reallocate some of the risks which it involves.
3. Discourse may contribute to the suspension of a coming catastrophe by monitoring sources of risks and indices of deteriorating wellbeing.

The two first roles are quite trivial and straightforward and I will discuss them briefly. The third roe, suspension, is more ambiguous and calls for a careful consideration.

1. Legitimization: By portraying the enemy – be it a state, a nation, a class, or any other group of people, their land or property – as agents of potential catastrophe, catastrophizing discourse contributes to the political acceptance and even naturalization of catastrophic measures employed in order to crush the disastrous agents, be them the enemy state, its country or population. Thus, for example, race discourse may catastrophize the presence of the racialized other and legitimizes a political decision to unleash massive forces of destruction, or to naturalize genocidal policies, mobilizing the threatened population to kill everyone in its midst who has come to symbolize and incarnate the imminent danger. As we know well, a similar role may be played today by the discourse of security: the security of one group might appear as a sufficient reason for the elimination of another. Once a group is associated with an imminent catastrophe that threatens another group, the very presence let alone actions of members of that group are perceived as part of a catastrophizing process that must be stopped by all means, even at a cost of creating disastrous conditions for the carriers of risk.

2. Mitigation and Reallocation of Risks: when disaster is threatening, unfolding as a cataclysmic event or lingering as a chronic deterioration, the threshold of catastrophe is “a call for arms” for anyone who can help; it designates a new set of priorities and reshuffle resources accordingly. Discursive catastrophization is mobilized to “de-catastrophize” a state of affairs by alerts, preparedness, containment, and mitigation. And yet, demarcating the threshold often means a more or less systematic, more or less purposeful neglect and abandonment of those still living at a distance from the imaginary line and who are now “out of focus,” outside the area threatened or hit by disaster.

3. Suspension. When catastrophization becomes a set of governmental policies, a measured and restrained means of governance, the presence of an imaginary, ghost-like threshold of catastrophe often becomes a warning sign for the forces that use catastrophization as a means of governance. These forces should not cross the imaginary line lest they would loose the legitimization of those who support them, or lest they would have to take the burden of responsibility for the population they have abandoned. They catastrophize, but they wish to keep the catastrophe itself on suspense, not removing its threat or its causes and at the same time not letting something that may be grasped as a catastrophe happen either. Hence, this case – which I call “catastrophic suspense” – is of a particular interest because it creates the condition for collaboration between the actual catastrophizing forces and the agents of catatrophizing discourse that seemingly oppose them. Both parties share an interest in drawing the line and keeping it at a distance. In addition, production of disastrous conditions in a given area, for a given population is often motivated by and goes hand in hand with a special care for others who are not part of the targeted population or stricken zone and whose wellbeing and security (are said to) necessitate the governmental catastrophic policies. The concern for those whose wellbeing is (said to be) at stake shifts attention away from the area that discourse seeks to catastrophize and prevents one from grasping and conceiving the real conditions there.

While actual catastrophization is a process with one clear direction – from relatively normal conditions to catastrophic ones, discursive catastrophization may go in two opposite directions, and may do so simultaneously: creating a catastrophe and mitigating its effects. But it may also go in no direction at all, helping to keep catastrophe in suspense, collaborating, purposefully or not, with the forces that have operationalized catastrophization and use it as measured, calculated, and controlled means of governance. A paradigmatic example of this latter state of affairs is Israel’s rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where controlled catastrophization has been consistently employed by the Israeli authorities since October 2000. This strategy has not met much objection or dissent from the Israeli public due in part to a legitimizing discourse that catastrophizes the Hamas government by associating it with suicide terror on the one hand, and with the deadly threats of Hezbollah and Iran, on the other hand, and by presenting Iran as a Satanic enemy determined to destroy Israel. The rockets fired by the various Palestinian militias are thus interpreted not as a form of guerilla warfare and act of resistance to the Israeli occupation but as the spearhead of those forces determined to bring about the complete destruction of the state of Israel, a second Jewish holocaust. These assertions – true or false, it does not matter – play a significant role in producing the catastrophization of Gaza.

II The Threshold and the Exception

Discursive catasrophization should be further examined. At first it should be clearly distinguished from the act of giving an account of a catastrophe whose existence has already been established. When one counts bodies in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, the unfolding of which everyone could have watched (e.g., hurricane Katrina), tells stories from the death camps, or collect the testimonies of the genocide’s survivors (e.g., in Rwanda), one does not catastrophize but rather describes a given catastrophe. In such cases, the catastrophe has already been established as a fact and a more or less defined object of discourse, something to be observed and accounted for, explained and commemorated. One does not have to establish that a catastrophe is really taking place (or has taken place or is soon to take place), but, assuming that this has been the case, one describes and analyzes what has happened (or is happening), questions its causes or tries to comprehend the experiences it has produced. Establishing the fact that a catastrophe is actually taking place, or that it did or is about to take place is precisely what is at stake in discursive catastrophization. In other words, discursive catastrophization is a formation of discourse in which the occurrence of catastrophe is always problematized. Part of this problematization is concerned with the occurrence itself – must there be an event, clearly distinguished in time and space, in order for catastrophe to take place.

Usually, such a problematization is involved even in the most dramatic event of devastation, which multitude of people experience as a rupture of their shared and personal time, as a shattering of their shared life-world and private selves, and as a brutal de- and re- territorialization of their shared space. However, at the extremes, catastrophization and catastrophe might be rigorously separated. At the extremes, there are no catastrophes, only silent, objective processes of catastrophization, on the one hand, and loquacious discursive catastrophization of objective processes, on the other hand. On the one end of this extreme, catastrophe is reduced to nothing because it is a matter of the experience of victims whose disappearance has left no trace of and survivors who have been silenced. On the other end, catastrophization is a purely discursive matter with no corresponding subjective experiences. A catastrophe that is not constituted as an object of any discourse is what one may call the perfect disaster, which, like the perfect crime, would take place without leaving a trace. It may well be that the Nazi elite dreamt of such a perfect disaster when they contemplated “the final solution” to “the Jewish problem.” In the inverse situation, discourse and the experienced event are no less kept apart, discursive catastrophization produces no corresponding experience, and the disastrous effects may be no less “perfect”.

Discursive catastrophization takes place today in several partly related, partly overlapping discursive fields. It comes in reports and testimonies composed by individuals or commission by local and international humanitarian organizations, human rights groups, governmental and non-governmental commissions of inquiry, journalists, and other men and women of conscience and good will. The history of this genre goes back at least to the Crimean War, it covers European imperialism since then, and it has also been party to almost any significant “natural” disaster in the 20th century. But after the Second World War, and especially since the eighties, with the dramatic growth in the presence of non-governmental organizations that followed the end of the cold war, “the retreat of the political,” and the mediatization of politics, a clear change in quantity, quality, and variety of the catastrophizing literature can be observed. The reports have become more elaborated, more factors have been documented, measured, and analyzed, statistics has become a lingua franca of these reports, more risk factors have been identified and analyzed, experts and expertise of all kinds have contributed to the professionalization and de-politicization of discursive catastrophization, while new groups have been defined as “population in danger.”

The reports vary in precision and scope, depth of analysis, the use of technical tools drawn from the social sciences, and the language of presentation. There are more and less politicized experts, who take more and less reflexive and critical positions, looking at catastrophic processes from a wider or narrower perspectives. But common to most of them is a certain sense of moral urgency, which is often lacking from reports of the same kind concerning socio-economic conditions of deprived populations in “normal” situations. Sometimes only the rhetoric of urgency remains, while the detailed analysis is assumed but left inexplicit. Often acute cases of massacres, famine, dislocation, and epidemic are placed alongside “milder” cases, which show similar symptoms but spread at lower pace and smaller scale. Catastrophization would serve here two different purposes: the portrayal of a series of related events or states of affairs as a large scale disaster that demands an urgent response; the portrayal of relatively unrelated events as expression of a single, identified cause or problem whose accumulative effect demands a no less urgent response.

A quick comparison between two publications of the humanitarian organization MSF may illustrate this double sense of urgency and, by implication, of discursive catastrophization. In the introduction to the first report of “Population in Danger” published by the French branch of MSF in 1992, Rony Brauman wrote:
“Cherchant d’emblée à éviter ce double écueil, nous avons pris le parti, d’une part, de mettre sous le projectuer des population en danger, plutôt que des peoples ou des tribus, en resituant l’idnetité ethnique parmi d’autres éléments d’un contexte souvent plus vast. Et nous avons, d’autre part, choisi des situations critiques, renonçant délibérément à l’exhaustivité revendiquant comme un atout ce qui pourrait être perçu comme une lacune: le charactère évolutif des situations examinees, autant que l’existence d’une échelle de gravité des crises justifient ce choix … [Les] dix case qui nous sont apparus comme les pus grave au cours de l’année écoulée… se charactérisent pour l’essentiel par l’existence de conflits ou de violences internes, de mouvements de populations causés par ces troubles politiques et, pour partie, par l’existence de famine ou d’épidémies, toujours dans un contexte de très vive tension.”.

Five years later, the American branch of MSF started publishing an annual list of “Top 10 Underreported Humanitarian Stories” with short reports on each “humanitarian story.” The 2006 report, records violent clashes that forced 100.000 to flee from their home in the previous year in the Central Republic of Africa, alongside violent clashes in central India which forced 50.000 people to leave their homes during the last 25 years, an average of 2,000 per year, 2% of the dislocation in central Africa. Even more significant is the attempt to portray tuberculosis as a major humanitarian crisis that every year claims the life of 2 millions people all over the globe. The problem, the report claims, is lack of adequate drugs to cure the disease, lack of attention to this disease in the pharmaceutical industry, and “not seeing the necessary urgency to tackle the disease.” The sense of urgency is a pure effect of the accumulation of cases in the charts of the humanitarian organizations. Although some regions and some kinds of populations are more conspicuously hit by tuberculosis, the report does not relate to any event, dramatic or otherwise, and does not mention even the quite swarm of an epidemic. The sheer accumulation of numbers that come from across the entire globe assumes the figure of catastrophe only through, and within the realm of the humanitarian discourse. Even if no one would ever experience a situation as a catastrophe, discursive catastrophization may articulate the accumulation of evils as a disaster and would produce the emergency statements that call people to respond. This discursive effect may be the most important feature of catastrophization: to determine that intangible moment the crossing of which should change one’s attitude from ignorance and indifference to careful, interested attention, from interested attention to action, or for acting at a distance to actual intervention. This is the moment when one hears that “something (or something else) must be done”. When the threshold is crossed a true exception has taken placed.

It is therefore not by accident that “humanitarian emergency” has replaced “catastrophe” as a more appropriate term for such a situation. Humanitarian emergency may designate what happens when the threshold of catastrophization is crossed. But it may also designate a state of alert which must be declared when deteriorating conditions bring a region or a population too close to the threshold. When a sovereign Declares an emergency it means, among other things, declaring a state of alert and calling for special preparedness in order to face an existential threat. Many humanitarian organizations have adopted the same language and tend to declare emergency as a state of alert in order to avert the coming of the catastrophe itself. Sometimes they declare a “humanitarian emergency alert”, i.e., an alert regarding an emergent emergency. Thresholds multiply; for the state of alert to be declared a certain threshold has to be crossed, just like for emergency. The difference between the two is not well defined, and it changes from one organization to another and from one situation to another.

A legally, politically or governmentally declared state of exception, just like the humanitarian alert, is meant to face or preempt a true state of exception. But the threshold – of the emergency or the catastrophe – is never given; it is never a fait accompli, and the ambiguity problematizes any attempt to take it as such. Whether it is announced as a line that has been crossed or as an approaching turning point, it also appears or is pronounced as an imperative: “something must be done,” either in order not to cross it, or in order to cross it back, to “de-catastrophize” a catastrophic situation. An “indistinction” between fact and norm, similar to the indistinction between “a situation of fact” and “a situation of right,” which Agamben ascribes to the state of exception declared by a sovereign, finds here a clear expression outside the logic of sovereignty, and this is true even if the appeal “to do something” is addressed to a sovereign. The very existence of non-governmental agents of discursive catastrophization make it clear that no sovereign can claim today a monopoly over the exception. Seen from the humanitarian perspective, emergency does not refer to any authority but to the human condition as such, i.e., to the condition of living or surviving as humans. In humanitarian emergency it is the human condition itself that becomes exceptional; in fact it is then that unbearable human condition emerges.

For all these reasons it has appeared absolutely necessary to operationalize emergencies.
A systematic attempt to “regulate” the discourse of catastrophization, establish objective guidelines for discursive catastrophization, and determine the threshold of catastrophe, in a way that would be appropriate for a variety of crises all over the world, was part of an ambitious endeavor of a group of scholars working at or with the UN University in Helsinki. Raimo Väyrynen, a key figure in the group, proposed a way to “operationalize” what the group termed as “Complex Humanitarian Emergencies”. Humanitarian Emergency is a “multidimensional…social crisis in which large numbers of people unequally die and suffer from war, displacement, hunger, and disease owing to human-made and natural disasters.” It becomes complex when more than one of these types of evils co-exist and exacerbate each other. CHE is indifferent to the sources of evils and includes all their types, from war to genocide, from epidemics to famine. However, each one of the four types of evil is operationalized independently and thus CHEs can also be measured and compared. The four types of evils of which CHE consists – warfare (or violence), dislocation, famine, and disease – are easy to measure: warfare is measured by the number of deaths that can be ascribed to it; dislocation – by the number of refugees; hunger – by children underweight; and disease – by child mortality. But the classification of CEHs into types and the assessment of their severity are based on the co-existence of several types of evils. A CHE is declared as acute when the numbers are high enough in all four categories. When only three categories are involved, CHE is “serious,” and it becomes merely “violent” when it consists of two categories only (one of which is usually war).

Throughout the attempt to operationalize emergencies, one question keeps recurring: “whether the rate of [the emergency's] destruction must accelerate and pass a certain threshold before it qualifies as a crisis, or should drawn-out disasters, whose costs accumulate only over a period of time, also be included in the definition?” The solution proposed is typically ambiguous: on the one hand, a distinction should be made between protracted and accelerated emergencies, while on the other hand, one should keep in mind that acceleration itself is subject to change and thus “emergencies can move from one category of intensity to another,” and hence a protracted disaster may suddenly accelerate, cross the line and become a fully complex humanitarian emergency.” Another important feature of a humanitarian emergency is that the level and intensity of suffering departs suddenly and significantly from the prevailing standard.”

The threshold is ambiguous on at least three accounts: first, because it is not clear where exactly the line should be drawn – even the choice of a unit of measurement (a State or a region) for determining some possible standards is questionable; second, because the line may be crossed at any given moment due to accumulation or acceleration; and third because it is never certain whether the threshold is a matter of fact or duty. This ambiguity is structural and it inheres the efforts of operationalization. This effort does not (and is not meant to) fix a threshold to catastrophes; rather it only determines conventional ways to problematize such a demarcation. To operationalize means to determine what one should monitor, count, and take into account, in order to frame the question of the threshold and make possible an informed decision over the threshold, which is nothing but the governmental form of the sovereign decision over the exception. But this governmental decision also deconstructs the very structure of sovereignty, its coherency and monopolistic claims, because it is a decision given to or taken by a variety of governmental and non-governmental agents (i.e., non-governmental agents like humanitarian experts and activist that are still involved in governmentality).

It is important to operationalize emergencies – this is the basic assumption of Väyrynen and his colleagues, and the reason is obvious. The humanitarian emergencies are not those declared by a sovereign but those imposed upon him and those created because sovereign power has shrunk or collapsed altogether, and when they happen they unfold as ungovernable situations, populations, and territories. To operationalize emergencies is a first step and a condition for the re-integration of the territory and the population in the emergency zone into a governable realm. Whether the governing authorities are old or new, state authorities, international, inter-governmental authorities, or international non-governmental ones matters less than making the zone of emergency governable again. Hence CIA analysts and independent humanitarian experts may find themselves linked together, in the tables and charts drawn by emergency experts, exchanging information and insights through his conceptual scheme and form of discourse. They share an interest in making emergency zones governable in order to save lives (humanitarians) or maintain a certain world order (state agents). They all assume the uncertain, indeterminable threshold of catastrophe as that moment in which a true exception to the rules (of a political order or of a life-world) has been created in (or can be ascribed to) a given region, in relation to a given population or can be ascribed to them. They all assume that when such an exception is established, urgent need for justification and exceptional action would emerge. A license is given and an appeal is made to individuals and authorities to go out of their way. When a political sovereign declares a state of emergency he merely interprets this situation within a legal-political framework and extends his authorities accordingly. This interpretation is neither primary nor necessary.

From this perspective war may appear as a means of actual catastrophization, one among others; identifying or declaring the enemy appear as an effect of catastrophization, and the very concept of the enemy presupposes catastrophization as a special power on the use of which the sovereign might claim – but does not really have – a monopoly. A dangerous virus, environmental pollution or illegal immigrants may be declared as the enemy by experts and concerned citizens and the threshold of catastrophe may be drawn and redrawn by many social actors. This threshold is a scene of contest, struggle and dissent, and the claims of a sovereign power, however they are pronounced, are neither primary nor constitutive of this scene. In other words, in a world like ours, the sovereign is not the sole author of the exception and his word on it is not the last one, although the claim to be such a sole author and have the last word may be a good way to characterize sovereignty as a special kind of political claim.

Moreover, it is important to emphasize that it is not only the case that the sovereign has no monopoly over the interpretation of the exception but also that his interpretation presupposes the catastrophization of the exception. The sovereign decision on the exception, in the sense given to it by Schmitt, assumes and implies the real possibility of a catastrophe. When a sovereign declares an emergency he presumably responds to the fact that a true exception has taken place or might soon take place – or at least this is how the state of exception is presented to the public. The imminent danger of a catastrophe is an implicit part of the deliberation and the ruling over the exception as well as of its legitimization. In this sense, a sovereign decision on the exception is simply an authorized form of catastrophization and one of its earliest expressions, while the notion of CHE is a recent attempt to stabilize a field of action that has become rather hectic lately by introducing professional standards for dealing with catastrophes and operationalizing the exception.

The legal category of the exception is by no means the best perspective from which to understand catastrophization. It is the other way around: declaring a state of emergency has always presupposed some sense of catastrophization ¬– false, imaginary, virtual, sincere or realistic – and should be understood in its context. In today’s globalized political order – and this may be one of its novelties – only a power that has given up any kind of legitimacy (and therefore has become indistinguishable from the use of sheer force) may give up any pretext of catastrophization when declaring a state of emergency. Whenever power is not indifferent to its legitimization, some kind of catasrophization is presupposed by the sovereign decision on the exception. Hnece the changing discursive conditions of catastrophization, including the inevitable conflict of interpretations regarding the threshold of catastrophe, both precede the sovereign decision and immediately follow it, undermining its claim for spontaneity, determination, and conclusiveness. That emergency has become such a prevalent concept in contemporary political and critical theory is not a sign for the return or persistence of sovereignty; it is rather an expression of the fact that sovereigns have lost their alleged monopoly over catasrophization and that emergency can no longer be restricted to the realm of law. The partial and limited or full and straightforward suspension of the law is just one form which a response to catastrophization may take. Similarly, the state is not the only agent threatened with catastrophe or to whom a catastrophic power is ascribed. As Foucault argued years ago, these are populations which are at risk but which at the same time pose the risk.

It has always been the task of an enlightened, politically aware public to call the bluff of false catastrophization and to oppose power when it rules by manipulating fears and anxieties. Today, when catastrophization has its experts and these experts inhabit a whole cultural field (in Bourdieu’s sense of this term ) where heterodoxy regularly contest orthodoxy and power inheres in that field and does not only confront it from the outside, the task of knowledgeable citizens and responsible officials and bureaucrats has become less risky, perhaps, but much more complicated. They have to discern among the various psychological, humanitarian, and legal-political meanings of catastrophization and make sure that neither their government nor their experts (pretend to) suffer from severe “cognitive bias” and “anxiety disorder” which psychiatrists ascribe to catastrophization.

In contemporary strong states, when governments catastrophize, their discourse is often followed by decisions on exceptional measures, while the sovereign decision on the exception is usually followed by a series of governmental catastrophizing acts.

Facing catastrophization, sovereign and bio-political apparatuses in strong states must work in concert and be completely integrated at this moment. The whole population should be re-aligned according to the coming danger; populations at risk and populations considered as risky should be defined, targeted, monitored, segregated, and more closely controlled. The sovereign decision on the exception – if it has ever been anything more than a hypothetical or imaginary moment in the theory of sovereignty – is now translated into and replaced by numerous local, bureaucratic decisions, decisions on the exception are made everywhere, and the threshold of catastrophe is redrawn from all directions, in various contexts of governance and domination, aid, relief, and subjugation by governmental and non-governmental agencies alike. These different actors compete and struggle over the definition of the exception, the threshold of catastrophe, the nature of objective catastrophization and the validity of discursive catastrophization. What has always characterized Empires, according to Ann Stoler, characterizes the everyday life of any contemporary strong state, and is only most conspicuous in states with imperial tendencies.

Catastrophization has become a more or less distinct branch of bio-politics that differ from more common and less dramatic political struggles and bio-political practices due to its special concern with the moment of the exception. The “true exception” implied by the ghostly presence of the threshold of catastrophe both authorizes and calls upon governments and citizens alike to act in unusual ways. These may vary from evacuation to war, from deportation to the establishment of refugee camps, from targeted killings to heroic sacrifices. They may include dramatic changes in public and private allocations of resources, breaking contracts and alliances and making new ones, crossing borders or ignoring them altogether. A formal suspension of the law may precede or accompany such actions, but certainly this is not always the case. Exceptionality is much wider than the suspension of the law. What is common to all these forms is their temporary nature, or more precisely, the fact that they are proposed and declared as temporary, ad-hoc responses to an emergency. They are meant (or presented) as temporary injections and interventions in cases where social order has collapsed or is about to collapse and they are supposed to take place as part of an interim regime that should facilitate the restoration of an old order or the constitution of a new one. Decentered, fragmented and always contested as these moments of exceptionality are, they may still end up forming a clear pattern, leaving the impression of a clear policy, expressing a recognizable principle of governance. Moreover, in zones of emergency such principles may be more clearly recognizable, or more decisively at work than in the zones of normalcy.

If one insists on a Schmittian reading of this situation one would have to say that sovereign is he who freezes a turbulent field of catastrophization, draws clearly the catastrophic threshold, imposes an unambiguous meaning on conflicting and confusing signs, and determines a direction and a mode of response to the emergency. No such sovereign exists, however, and catastrophization has become one domain among many where this becomes plainly visible. The Bush administration’s response to the attack on the World trade Center has been nothing but a series catastrophizing acts. But there has been not a single moment since 9/11 when any of these acts went uncontested. Not one of them has been implemented without being transformed or at least affected by a lively field of catastrophization, in which many, from the Pope to Bin Laden, from the highest generals to the petty bureaucrats, from experts on Terrorism to experts on hunger and malnutrition, and from loyal citizens to lawless immigrants, have had a say. The relatively successful attempt of the US president to extract from this situation a recognition of his claim to be the ultimate catastrophizing authority, and use it in order to extend and enhance the effectiveness of some of the administration’s bio-political technologies, should not misled us to underestimate the power of all other agents in the field, where numerous local, partial, quasi little sovereigns constantly decide on exceptions. And yet this plurality may yield a result which, without being the outcome of any single decision, could seem like an expression of a certain more or less coherent policy, or of the shared interests of certain players in the field.

I started by noting that the broader context of this discussion is an attempt to construct a political theory of disaster. It is worth noting that in the history of political theory, disaster – whether man-made or natural – was often conceived as part of the circumstances in which power operates or one of the consequences of its operation, but in both cases it was conceived as external to power. Hanna Arendt may be the first to offer an analysis of catasrophization as a constitutive element of power. The two forms of power she studied in the Origin of Totalitarianism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism, may be construed as two phases in the “interiorization” of disaster within the realm of power. What has been presented here can be conceived as a new phase in the same process that characterizes a post-totalitarian, post-colonial world.

This is, I think, the epistemological condition of the contemporary notion of emergency. It is within this framework that one should understand the humanitarian, security-related, and legal aspects of emergency and grasp the way in which these different aspects are differentiated without ever being truly dissociated. This is also the context for understanding the double meaning of emergency, i.e., a response to discursive catastrophization, on the one hand, and a way to create or accelerate the condition of actual catastrophization, on the other hand. Discursive practices and bio-political technologies involved in the attempt to preempt a catastrophe or mitigate its effect might turn catastrophic themselves or be part of a politics of suspended catastrophe or controlled catastrophization.

The collaboration between the forces that mitigate disasters and those capable of or actually producing it is not a result of a neo-liberal ideology of professionals or of the tendency of humanitarian organizations to de-politicize violent crises and man-made disaster, ignore their “root causes,” or channel the energy of their professionals and volunteers from politics to medicine and other caring professions. More generally, the professionalization of the aid industry or the fact that it has become an industry and as such is now exposed to economic forces like any other market are not enough to explain this collaboration. The fault – if it is a fault at all – lies with catastrophization as a special domain of governmentality, or rather with the two tiers and double edged structure of this special domain.

III On the Verge of Humanitarian Catastrophe

I have distinguished above three ways in which discursive catastrophization may be involved in the actual production of catastrophes: legitimization, mitigation, and suspension. The third way, I’ve said, is characteristic of some contemporary zones of emergency, of which the Israeli rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the Second Intifada may serve as a clear example. Let me look briefly at this case and draw from it some general conclusions.

The Israeli government responded to the Palestinian uprising with excessive violence, generous and indiscriminate use of live ammunition and extensive destruction of houses, land and property. It was not physical violence, however, but spatial disintegration and fragmentation that emerged as the main technology of domination and control which Israel used in order to contain and suppress the Palestinian resistance and stop a stream of suicide attacks in Israeli cities west of the Green line. The effect of the new regime of movement on the Palestinian population was enormous. The situation has further deteriorated when Israel responded aggressively to a terrorist attack (in Hotel Park in Netanya on Passover eve 2002), re-conquered several Palestinian towns, crushed the security apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority and dismantled many other institutions of the Palestinian government (Operation Defense Shield). The IDF resumed the massive demolition of Palestinian houses (in order to create “clean” areas and to punish families of suspects in terrorist activity) and thousands of Palestinians have become homeless. Soon there appeared the first reports that catastrophized the conditions in the OPT. They tried to ring the alarm bells, using rhetoric of urgency that has not been used before. First came the Bertini report that insisted on the fact that “the growing humanitarian crisis” is “man made” and listed several “indicators” for the crisis: increase in malnutrition; deteriorating health; and exhaustion of coping mechanisms. The report cited a survey made by scholars from Johns Hopkins University that found “substantial increase in the number of malnourished children over the past two years, with 22.5 percent of children under five suffering from acute (9.3 percent) or chronic (13.2 percent) malnutrition,” with much higher rates in Gaza than in the West Bank.

These numbers were then cited and recycled by a few other reports that added information about unemployment, poverty, health condition, and started to analyze their causes. Jean Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food to the UN Secretary General wrote in October 2003 that “the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe,” and specified Gaza Strip again as facing “a distinct humanitarian emergency in regard to … malnutrition, the level of which had decrease so much that it became “equivalent to levels found in poor sub-Saharan countries.” Ziegler’s report was viciously criticized by the Israeli government, which with some help from the American administration, forced the Secretary General to refrain from adopting the report as an official UN document. The Israeli officials did not contest the figures, only the ascription of responsibility. Relating to their pressure Ziegler said in an interview: “My mandate is precise: the respect of the right to both solid and liquid food. That is my only concern. I saw a horrifying humanitarian disaster which worsens because of the occupation. I have carried my mandate to the letter; I have reported drastic deterioration of the dietary situation of the Palestinian population and the reasons for its being.” Similar expressions of catastrophization may be found in later reports. For example, John Dugard, special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights stated clearly: “There is a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza. It is not the result of a natural disaster. Instead, it is a crisis imposed by a powerful State on its neighbor.”

My point is not to claim that the situation in the Gaza strip did not deteriorate significantly after April 2002, but that discursive catastrophization followed the objective catastrophization, made some aspects of it visible, observable, and accountable, articulated them, and endowed then with its specific figure. The figure was neither that of a natural disaster nor that of a “complex humanitarian emergency” – the accumulated numbers of dislocated people, victims of violence, and the rate of malnutrition were too low for that – but rather that of a threshold. Ziegler was the most explicit: “the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.” He also suggested that this “fact” – or rather way to perceive the situation – was not entirely foreign to the Israeli authorities: The Israeli authorities recognized that there was a humanitarian crisis in the OPT. They did not dispute the statistics of increasing malnutrition and poverty of the Palestinians.” Despite recurring obstacles on the provision of aid by UNRWA, US Aid, and other international organizations, Israel remained committed to prevent the Occupied Territories from crossing the dangerous, imaginary threshold. “There will be no famine in Palestine,” Israeli representatives kept reiterating, as Israeli authorities kept frequent local shortages from turning into famine. The authorities also took pride in the fact that UNRWA had added iron to the flour it distributes in the OPT in order to fight malnutrition, thus maintaining the Palestinians at the threshold without letting them crossing it.

Israeli authorities were quick to adopt humanitarian discourse and share it with the humanitarian organizations. “In the protocol of every operation, the first thing mentioned after security matters is the humanitarian issue… When an operation starts we gather the representatives of the humanitarian organizations active in the area and, as long as the operation continues, we coordinate their mode of action in the area. Clearly, the army officers recognize the phenomena of catastrophization, they are even ready to observe it through the conceptual lens of the humanitarian discourse and admit that the new regime of movement and other measures taken by the ruling apparatus are the causes of catastrophization. They hardly dispute the statistics, as Ziegler reported, and see the humanitarian crisis as “regrettable, but inevitable, consequence of security measures that were necessary to prevent attacks on Israelis”. And yet at the same time, denying reports that find, for example, “a growing evidence that declining income amongst Palestinians are a primary cause of acute and chronic malnutrition in young children… Israeli officials have argued that ‘[n]o one is starving in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank’.” “There will be no famine in Palestine, no famine in Palestine,” told a chorus of IDF “humanitarian officers” to Ariella Azoulay, in her documentary short film The Food Chain (2003).

This is a consistent Israeli policy. It has not changed with the “disengagement,” when Israel has pretended to end the occupation of the Gaza Strip and dismissed its responsibility and obligations as the occupying power, and only became more blatant and explicit since the Hamas won the election in Gaza and took effective control of the Palestinian government there in June 2006. The Strip is encircled and enclosed as a camp, almost all its supplies come through Gaza Strip’s gates, which are fully controlled by Israel, and the opening of these gates for men and commodities is recognized by everyone as a humanitarian issue of utter importance and is constantly on the agenda at every new round of talks or violence. Though Israel often interrupts the provision of basic food by UNRWA and other NGOs it never does so for more than a few days. Similar “punitive measures,” like electricity shut downs and blockage of gasoline are also used in a limited and restrained fashion without ever cutting the supply of these resources completely. Israel could produce famine in Gaza by imposing complete isolation and it could add to the chaotic situation by cutting off electricity for good, but such measures are plainly not part of the Israeli repertoire. Catastrophization seems to have clear limits in Gaza.

Note, however, that what is considered as an unacceptable humanitarian condition has changed dramatically over the years, together with the means to intervene and stop the accumulation of evils. In the late eighties, during the first Intifada, any local curfew that lasted more than a week was a matter of much concern among Israelis and foreign humanitarians alike. In 2007, many weeks of cordons and closures that disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands have become the rule, while emergencies are quite rare. Before the Oslo accord there were hardly any NGO to share the burden with Israel, and UNRWA served mostly the population of the refugee camps with only 10% of its budget going to direct distribution of food and almost none of it to families outside the refugee camps. In 2007 no less than ten organizations distribute food in the Territories, UNRWA serves more than half of the population including thousands of families outside the camps, and most of its budget goes to food assistance and emergency cash assistance. And yet at the same time a threshold of a “real,” full-fledged catastrophe is still hovering and everyone is – or pretends to be – concerned about it, committed not to let it be crossed.

Israel has knowingly contributed to the catastrophization of the OT, especially through the new regime of movement established since 2000, and it has consistently refused to change its policies in order ameliorate the Palestinian living conditions. The systematic destruction of the Palestinian social fabric and the reduction of the Palestinian economy to sub-Saharan standards seems a fair price Palestinians have to pay for the security of Israelis. The occasional “humanitarian gestures” the government is willing to offer remain symbolic and would never compromise the draconian administrative-military rule of Palestinian space and movement. In other words, the Israeli government is completely aware of its contribution to the catastrophizing process and would do nothing to cope with its root causes. And yet, the same government pretends that it would go out of its way, if necessary, to avoid crossing the threshold of catastrophe. Thus, for example, when Hamas took over full control of the Gaza Strip in June 2006 the Israeli government had another opportunity to prove its commitment to the survival of Gazans. The major humanitarian organizations working in the region published emergency reports soon after the event, expecting full closure of the Strip and calculating for how long existing supplies of basic food and medication would last. Yet the Israeli government was quick to respond to the crisis, allowing the trucks of UNWRA, The World Food Program and the frozen vaccines sent by UNICHEF to enter Gaza despite the fact that these organizations had to coordinate their activity with the boycotted Hamas government, without the mediation of the “legitimate” forces of President Mahmud Abbas. While starvation has been prevented, blockade of the gates to the transport of other goods continued and has become the rule rather than the exception, causing severe damage to the faltering Gazan economy. This economy has been driven ever more dependent on international donations, on the one hand, and on the willingness of the Israeli government to open the gates every once in a while so as to put the catastrophe on hold.

Opening the gates is all Israel has to do on its own in order to prevent famine in the Gaza Strip. A bunch of humanitarian organizations, UN agencies, special delegates of the EU, and other diplomats readily place themselves as a buffer between the catasrophizing machinery of the Occupation and the catastrophe itself. They help Israel suspends “the real” catastrophe while catastophizing the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The suspension itself has become part of the machinery of catastrophization, and the suspended catastrophe has become an essential element in the machinery of the Israeli rule and domination of the Territories.

Placing the catastrophization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories in a wider context one may note that the “catastrophic suspense” is neither a result of the military operation or economic policies of a strong state like Israel, nor the effect of a weak, disintegrating state apparatuses, like those of the Palestinian Authority, which gives in to the violence of rebels and paramilitary forces. Catastrophic suspense is the result of the withdrawal of some legal and bio-political apparatuses of the strong state from a given territory and population, which is accompanied by the excessive presence and activity of military and police forces of that same state in ways that prevent other governing agents from governing effectively the evacuated zone. A myriad of regional and international forces are drawn into the zone of emergency which the dominating power has brought to the verge of catastrophe but their presence only enhances the sovereignty of the strong state. The three moments of power that characterize catastrophic suspense – withdrawal of legal and bio-political apparatuses; coercive, violent prevention of the emergence of alternative modes of governance; and the acceptance of occasional humanitarian interventions in exceptional cases – are all expressions of decisions and policies of a strong state.

A different, more prevalent pattern may be identified in other zones of emergency, especially in territories controlled by weak states, i.e. where a strong state has collapsed or has never been established. In these areas state apparatuses do not withdraw, they have rather been disintegrated, or have never been strong enough to exercise full sovereignty over their territory and population. Catastrophization in areas where states are weak is “non-governmental” in the full sense of the word. Non-state forces, tribal warlords and paramilitary groups that spread destruction may rely on the mechanism of the state, but only partly, to the extent that they can seize it from the outside and use it for the purpose of destruction. Political power in this model has to be accounted for in regional more than national or centralized terms, and be characterized by its rhizomatic rather then hierarchical structure. The de-centering of power goes hand in hand with the interiorization of catastrophe within the rhizomatic realm of power, which may be described as a deconstructed and inverted Imperialism. Deconstructed, because it lives off the ruins and debris of the long withdrawn empire and the collapse of the fragile state structure the empire left behind; inverted, because it is driven by the expansion of scarcity and usually not directly by the expansion of capital. The gains of the devastating forces in many contemporary zones of emergency are not to be measured in terms of relative positions in a global capitalist market, not even in terms of the opportunities opened for players in that market, but in terms of the capacity of the different authorities to continue the subjugation and destruction of their own populations. This means that the rhythm of catastrophization, its naturalization, and its frequent tendency to turn protracted disasters into cataclysmic catastrophes do not necessarily respond to foreign investments and interventions in the economic system and that they would not come to a halt without a radical change in the way power is structured.

We may speak then of at least two distinct models of political catastrophization in contemporary zones of emergency. The first, catastrophic suspense, is associated with strong states, and characterized by a partial withdrawal of states apparatuses and the intensification of security related apparatuses, intensive problematization of the threshold of catastrophe, systemic, unavoidable collaboration between the ruling power and the humanitarians and other professionals of catastrophization. The other model, non-governmental catastrophization, is associated with weak states and characterized by the collapse of state apparatuses, naturalization of political catastrophization, and an ad-hoc, contingent collaboration between local authorities of all kinds and the humanitarians. In the first model, “a real state of emergency” is an always present ghost; in the second, ghost-like forces create and maintain it.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 at 11:15 pm
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