Programme du workshop "Traces of Tragedy : Reshaping Differences, Reinventing Communities and Retracing Social Ties at the Scene of Disaster" au Congrès de l’American Anthropological Association, 2011


Saturday, November 19, 2011 : 13:45-17:30
Organizer : Mara Benadusi (University of Catania), email :
Chair : Sandrine Revet (CERI - Sciences-Po), email :

Disasters give expression to the complex interaction between physical, biological, technological, and socio-cultural processes, revealing the constructed character of classical dichotomies such as “natural/cultural”, “human/non-human”, “agency/structure”, and “global/local”. Yet disasters not only produce destruction. They also leave traces and marks, such as symbols and practices, which are used by people when building narratives of what happened, giving sense to and shaping local memories of such tragic events. Post-catastrophe situations, thus, compel the researcher to follow the traces that people leave in their efforts to create new associations or re-build previously existing connections among elements that are both entirely heterogeneous and essential for human survival. In a post-disaster setting social differences are blurred and a range of values at stake. It is therefore necessary to investigate what social actors make out of collective existence, what strategies they develop to get back onto their feet and what words best define their legacies and future visions. Counting with the ethnographic capacity to reconstruct the chain of social relations that connects various times, places and actors, how can anthropology develop and reinforce methodological and theoretical tools to deepen our understanding of these processes ? Taking these impressions as a starting point, this session aims at exploring the ways in which people and institutions respond to disaster. Such responses can be defined as imaginative, active and constructive efforts which are inevitably and inescapably contingent upon shifting identities and that in turn reshape differences and relocate political and social processes in time and space. Social, political and economic interactions occur in post-disaster situations as composed by different temporal (past, present and future) elements that play out spatially (globally, regionally and locally). In these interactions diverse groups are brought together having to negotiate different ideas, interests and values. This session aims at comprehending such inherently unstable and contextual dynamics both from an empirical as well as a theoretical point of view. We invite papers to address the dynamics of social relations at the scene of disaster over time from immediate post-disaster situations to long term aftermath, intending to capture the process of how traces emerge from the pre-disaster situation or from the disaster itself, and then evolve. We welcome papers that ethnographically and theoretically analyze how such marks of disaster emerge, are used, and, for instance, how they inform the reinvention of identities and communities ; how they contribute to reshape social differences ; how they shape processes of remembering and forgetting catastrophic events ; or how they produce political and economic effects.

Simulating the Disaster : Traces, Marks, Objects and Sounds That Make the Disaster “real”

Sandrine Revet (CERI - Sciences-Po)

The broad world of disaster management and prevention is dedicated to the implementation of different kinds of actions that aim to reduce the impact of disasters. This international network is composed of a wide range of actors, from international organizations to NGO’s, governments and civil servants, researchers, insurance companies, civil defence agencies and firemen departments. The diversity of these actors raises several questions : what is the meaning of a “disaster” ? How can it be represented ? What traces, marks, objects, sounds, or facts “make” the disaster ? To answer these questions, I propose to analyse the social construction of disasters through the observation of a disaster simulation exercise. Within the diversity of prevention tools used by the disaster management world, simulations enable the different actors involved to “rehearse” a disaster situation in order to be prepared for the “real” event. This presentation is based on two ethnographic field studies, one in Lima (Peru) during an earthquake and tsunami simulation exercise in November, 2010, and the other in Vargas State (Venezuela) in 2008, where interviews and images of a flood simulation exercise were collected. I will explore what kinds of marks and traces left by previous disasters are used to represent “the disaster”, what images of the victims these traces contribute to shape, how the roles are distributed and what different elements are needed to add “realism” to the fake disaster (sounds of sirens, fake wounds, costumes, settings and accessories…).

Staging Disaster : Dirty Bombs, Homeland Security, and Weapons of Mass Disruption

Michelle L Dent (New York University)

Post 9/11 USA was consumed with establishing effective procedures surrounding issues of “homeland security.” Many of the emergent practices involved bringing together ordinary people, the press, government, theatre practitioners, and first responders to stage catastrophe and rehearse preparedness. For example, in May of 2003, the Department of Homeland Security sponsored a two-prong counterterrorism drill known as TopOff2. According to the drill’s script, Chicago airports would become the target of a simulated bio-terrorism attack, while the city of Seattle would become the target of a simulated dirty bomb attack. In "Perform–Or Else," Jon McKenzie argues that we should not only look at performance “as resistance and transgression, but also in terms of normativity and domination.” McKenzie argues that the “performance stratum” is “composed, in part, by the sedimentation of different types of performances, not only cultural but also organizational and technological” (2001:117). In this presentation, I argue that practically speaking, through distance learning seminars, and the sorts of “Performance Level” courses offered by the Office of Domestic Preparedness’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction Training Program,” government officials tapped into a logic of performativity : “We’re rehearsing one more time.” In this case, when rehearsal itself becomes the performance it morphs from dramaturgical to anthropological : behavior from different cultural fields travels—sometimes randomly, sometimes strategically—across divides that are ideological, sociological, and historical (i.e., from the mid-20th century civil defense exercises to post 9/11 Homeland Security and from the artistic and academic left to the normative power base of a conservative government).

Tracing Aftershocks : Figures of Morality and Hope In Disaster’s Wake

Alicia Sliwinski (Laurier University)

This paper seeks to establish the theoretical contours of various expressions of morality in the context of a post-disaster humanitarian response. The objective is to explain how values associated to acts of gift-giving create moral spaces that can become challenged when the modalities of action shift. Indeed as the parameters of aid and the groups involved in delivering it change over time, identities are recreated, traces of past morally-informed gestures are challenged and the ground on which previous moral embodiments were enacted becomes unstable. Furthermore, a corollary concern of this paper is to discuss what certain readings of the Maussian legacy emphasizing the politics of mutual recognition (instead of formal systems of reciprocal exchange) can tell us about the performance of moral values where hope, taken as both an individual and intersubjective collective stance, is a leading trope. The ethnographic context which informs these reflections concerns the 2001 Salvadoran earthquakes, and more precisely the trajectory of a select group of disaster-stricken families in a setting where different agents provided distinctive forms of aid that can be decomposed into three configurations from emergency to reconstruction. During each of these, specific social dynamics are enacted representing distinctive – albeit not mutually exclusive – moral underpinnings, valuations of gift and expressions of hope. However with the passage from one configuration to the next, tensions arise, thereby disrupting previously understood regimes of morality. How moral worlds collide, imprinting tidemarks on identities and social relations are the guiding questions this paper seeks to explore.

Faking the Disaster : Collective Memory, Imagination and Cunning Subterfuge In Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka

Mara Benadusi (Catania University)

The strategy of selective deployment of the past as a source of authority for partial or tendentious views is constantly available in the underbrush of social life, especially when actors seek to forge a sense of common belonging such as often proves necessary following a disaster. This paper explores how post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka functions as an ideal laboratory for reactivating strongly embedded pre-existing dynamics based on a continuous “struggle for the past” as a strategy of hegemonic control over community reconstruction on a national scale. The fieldwork is based in a residential unit that comes to be a symbol of the exemplary resilient village. Built in the country’s core of presidential power, the settlement seems to remain as a testament to the intervention’s success in the eyes of an external audience potentially interested in continuing to support Sri Lanka as an aid-recipient country. The ethnographic data, however, reveal the ambiguous and disputed genesis of the community. Through interactions with global and local actors, the beneficiaries ended up engaging in a much different task than what they had expected : an ambitious and tricky political exercise requiring that they continuously stage the catastrophe and perform the rituals of a resilient, disaster-surviving community. I argue that this process was powerfully linked to an hegemonic project to bind the people together in an imagined nation of safer, proud and faithful villages capable of participating in both the ongoing nationalist campaign and the global humanitarian industry.

Watermarks : Flooding and Memoryscape In the City of Santa Fe, Argentina

Susann Ullberg (Stockholm University)

How do communities recover from disaster ? Theories of resilience claiming that communities adapt to environmental hazards assume that there is a collective memory to draw upon. Yet what memory actually is and how it works is left largely undefined. My research is an attempt to contribute to this understanding. Santa Fe, a city located in between two mayor rivers in the northeast of Argentina where disastrous flooding has been a recurrent problem since colonial times is the case in point. The worst flood ever occurred in April of 2003, yet judging from reactions it seemed like it was the first time ever the city had been hit by a flood. Had the local history full of disastrous flood events suddenly been forgotten ? By way of translocal fieldwork between the years 2004-2009 I have explored how past floods are remembered (and forgotten) in different social and institutional contexts, constituting a particular flood memoryscape in which some floods -their causes and effects- are massively remembered, while others rather dwell in the shadows of oblivion. I argue that the unequal terrain of the memoryscape have normalised certain floods while categorising others as extraordinary. Such unequal remembering seems to add to conditions of social vulnerability more than enhancing people’s resilience and the effects are that political efforts to reduce risk are at best only technological solutions. Thus, social remembering, more than producing adaptation to a hazardous environment, risk keeping people trapped in a vicious circle of recurrent coping with crisis.

The Double Movement of War and Hauntology

Fatima Mojaddedi (Columbia University)

This paper examines the emergence of qualitatively different revenants in Kabul, Afghanistan during the tenure of the “War on Terror”. Haunted encounters and ghostly insistences are more than macabre and neurotic manifestations of traumatic memory. In this paper I argue that they offer us a robust idiom through which the nuanced interplay between the “War on Terror” , symbolic and political reconfiguration can be discerned. Specifically, I will examine and compare the idealized and lionized ghosts that dwell in Kabul’s important and revered Sufi shrines (shrines that have heretofore been exempt from the pervasive commodification of property and a volatile real estate market that is inextricable from the economy of war) ; with the more general ghosts of war that serve as flexible and fungible signifiers in ritualistic and melancholic manifestations of national mourning (Ashura) amidst exceedingly automated conditions of warfare. This disparity in ghostly memorialization is embedded within the structural, spatial, technological, and economic entailments of the war ; and revenants with distinct social and political agencies can be examined amidst these volatile conditions. While I do not tether these ghosts to a reductionist typology, I do illustrate that they are recollected differentially, that these valuations are inextricable from the transformations of the war and that they have distinct and important consequences for the ethical, political and social contestations that they enable.

Discussant : Anthony R Oliver Smith (University of Florida)

Memory Lives In New Orleans : The Process and Politics of Commemoration

Sara LeMenestrel (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique )

This presentation will explore the commemorative process that followed Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Commemorative practices constitute a highly eclectic set of places, spaces and moments where memory is convened. Whether public or private, official or spontaneous, these traces share in New Orleans an allegiance to the notion of home in all of its meanings, from the material house to the social network of interactions that it embodies. I will focus on a moment, a monument, and a ritual that shed light on the process and politics of commemoration. The first confrontation of New Orleanians with their devastated home and the grieving process that followed shows how the house acts as a memorial, embracing both remembrance and oblivion. The Lower Nine Monument used this symbol to claim the will to return for the most disadvantaged African-Americans. Its official inauguration encapsulates the contestation of meaning and the rhetoric of forgetting that predominated during the first commemoration. By contrast with this focus on homeowners, Katrina second lines have provided an opportunity to enact collective property by claiming popular ownership of public space. Acting as living memorials, they stand as a performative practice through which the dead are reintegrated into the living, contributing to the completion of the grieving process.

Voices From the Disaster : Memory, Political Voice, and Rebirth In the African American Community of Post Katrina In New Orleans

Eleonora Tartarini (University of Torino)

The paper aims at investigating the traces left in the everyday lives of the African American community, five years after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Building upon ethnographic material, I will describe how the memory of those events have been used to reconstruct the historical and political sense of individual and collective suffering. My argument is that the political interpretation of Katrina among the survivors has favoured the birth of a new historical consciousness of race and class prompted by the memories and stories of the disaster. The paper highlights the traces of Katrina as mechanisms of sense production that reveal the ongoing discrimination and marginalization processes reported by African American citizens as deeply linked with the birth of a colonial structure based on the exploitation of Africans and African American slave labour. Memory (Katrina’s memories or memories of the colonial era) and voice (political voice, chance to speak out for the community) are used by the interviewees as a means of recreating their socio-political identity, as the first step towards an individual and collective rebirth, giving a profound cultural meaning to their desire to rebuild a sense of community after the disaster.

The Fluke : The Temporal Vulnerability of Disaster Legacies

Daniel H De Vries (University of Amsterdam)

Despite increasing attention to history in vulnerability analysis, analysis of the complex cultural relationship between vulnerability and temporality—our “being in time”—has only been scantily addressed. The temporal vulnerability method presented in this paper focuses on evaluating and documenting the quality and shifts of temporal reference making practices of specific groups of practice co-evolving in hazardscapes. The approach explicitly investigates the social construction of tide markers and legacies following traces of networked forms of memory to evaluate in what way and how effectively temporal references carry historical hazard knowledge, practices and experiences through time to enable resilience, emergency preparedness, and sustainable stewardship. Based on anthropological fieldwork conducted in four United States floodplain neighbourhoods (New Orleans/LA, Savannah/GA, Kinston/NC, and Felton/CA), the paper illustrates how certain temporal situations mark hazard events as “flukes” that consequently fail to shift the legacy or baseline temporal reference and miss being interpreted as early warning signals for larger systemic changes. With a tendency to attribute causality to human error, “flukes” illustrate how larger temporally vulnerable conditions for surprise develop and consequentially lead populations in a condition of relative emergency unpreparedness. A dwelling model is proposed summarizing systemic factors that identify pathways through which temporal vulnerability may develop. The paper further illustrates the significance of surprise in shifting-down entire cultural systems to new temporal frames of reference that calibrate a renewed “legacy steady state.” It is concluded that in the context of rapid changes in socio-ecological systems, attention to temporality is a critical research need.

Tracing the Disaster and Its Oppositional Logics In North-Eastern Sicily

Irene Falconieri PhD (University of Messina)

On October 1st, 2009, the southern province of Messina (an area in north-eastern Sicily - Italy) was the scene of a flood event of exceptional proportions, followed by mudslides, debris and rocks, where 37 people were killed and extensive damage to houses, businesses and infrastructure were caused. The representations of the disaster and its management proposed by the citizens are composed of three main oppositional logics that act both at national and local level and contribute to re-modulate the relationship between citizens and institutions, and among the members of the community itself. In the paper I argue that these oppositional logics and the traces thy leave in the institutional and private rhetoric are translated into controversial practices and political strategies when the actors involved in the post-catastrophe scene negotiate their interests and rework on their individual and collective identities. I will also focus on the ways the data collection method has been strongly influenced by the particular position I cover within the study. Being myself a victim of the catastrophe and, above all, an active social actor in the field, who directly participates to the civic activities organized in the emergency phase, I was deeply involved - intellectually, personally and politically - in the processes that I am going to present. My “double” position in the field will be analyzed in this paper to convey the political and public implications of an ethnography of disaster in north-eastern Sicily.

Struggling with Ethnography In the Post-Disaster Haitian Scene

Giovanna Salome (University of Messina )

On January 12th 2010 an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale struck the Republic of Haiti. Following the disaster, authorities and local people have been forced to face a high number of dead, wounded and missing people as well as the destruction of a large portion of the houses and public buildings. The earthquake and post-disaster emergency management have revealed some progressed criticalities inscribed in the socio-political system of Haiti already stricken in the past by a series of natural disasters and characterized by a context of social instability, uneven power and "structural violence". The paper explores the concrete modalities for conducting an ethnographic research in such a complex post-disaster setting, looking at the catastrophe like a processual social reality deeply embedded in its historical and cultural frame. What human resources and technical tolls would be more appropriate for approaching the density of such an emergency context ? What position on the field should the anthropologist take in her attempt to follow the traces of the catastrophe in the chaotic political scenario of the ongoing reconstruction ? The description of my research procedure will therefore represent a tool for critically reflecting on the methodological problems involved in practicing ethnography in contexts such porous and “hyper-signified” as the globalized and medialized post-disaster Haitian scene. The complexity of the policies and practices that characterize Haiti, and in general post-disaster situations, can be returned only through a careful methodological repositioning.

Discussant : Susann Ullberg (Stockholm University),