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Discoursing on disaster: the hermeneutics of environmental catastrophe

Rigby, K (2008) 'Discoursing on disaster: the hermeneutics of environmental catastrophe.' Tamkang Review, 39 (1). pp. 19-40. ISSN 0049-2949

Abstract

How individuals, communities and societies respond to environmental catastrophe, whether in the event or as a potentiality, is crucially informed by the culturally mediated interpretative frameworks within which such disasters are perceived. In this regard, the challenge of confronting ecocrisis is as much hermeneutic and discursive as it is scientific and social, practical and political. Literary and cultural studies have much to contribute towards meeting this challenge through the examination of those interpretative frameworks-variously mythical, religious, philosophical or political in genesis-which could either hinder or enable our preparedness to act effectively and ethically in the face of immanent or unfolding disaster. This will be demonstrated here through a reading of Heinrich von Kleist's short story, ”The Earthquake in Chile” (1807). Although the narrative is set in Chile at the time of the massive earthquake that devastated Santiago in 1647, it responds to the philosophical and religious debates concerning the relationship of the divine to nature and society that followed the more recent Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Rather than endorsing unequivocally any one position that was taken in these debates, Kleist undertakes a narrative investigation of the practical and political implications that are shown to arise from differing discursive enframings of environmental disaster. While the catastrophe caused by an earthquake clearly differs from one that is predominantly anthropogenic in origin, such as climate change, Kleist's narrative discloses the inevitable entanglement of 'nature' and 'culture', word and world, in the context of environmental disaster.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information:

This paper was presented as a keynote lecture at the Fourth Tamkang International Conference entitled 'Ecological Discourse Crisscrossing Word and World: Ecocriticism, Crisis and Representation'. The conference took place at Tamkang University, Tamsui, Taiwan from the 23 - 24 May 2008.

Keywords: Ecocriticism ; catastrophe ; climate change ; Lisbon earthquake ; Heinrich von Kleist ; Kant ; Rousseau ; Voltaire
Divisions: College of Liberal Arts
Date Deposited: 16 Mar 2016 10:22
Last Modified: 13 Jun 2016 08:41
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