Panel 17 – Blown out of proportion: When media, literature and popular culture scale events

Conveners: Michael Hutt and Stefanie Lotter (SOAS, University of London)

Abstract: The process of producing news and witnessing disaster has shaped how we understand and relate to natural and man-made crises and their aftermath. It is through media after all, that most of us encounter disaster. While we see the crucial need to mobilise international solidarity to create the means for post-disaster agency, we also acknowledge that the emotional discourse of disaster news can be problematic in its creation of victimhood and selective compassionate action.

Taking media as a starting point for our analysis of disaster and crisis, and contrasting ‘news’ with literary productions as well as plays or lyrics that speak of the same events, will allow us to reflect on the notion of scale in a variety of ways. Scale in the context of mediated disaster is linked to severity, scaling the event as local, national and international news. While new media subverts these categories, it is literature and popular culture that gives individual interpretation a historical dimension and an afterlife.

Rather than scientifically measuring particular disasters, this panel will address the ways in which public cultures, media and literature create and negotiate the fields in which disastrous events are communicated. Reporting and describing disaster makes use of contextual scaling to reach audiences and to make disaster globally visible. Social Media, satellite imagery and mobile phone videos have led to what Thompson termed ‘the transformation of visibility” (Thompson 2006) , a process that has shifted responsibilities as well as the measurement of accountability.

The panel aims to address the field between subjectivity and scale in the realm of media, literature and popular culture. Papers may reflect on social, political or historical scales, relating local, national and global perspectives. Papers may also conceptualise scale as disproportion, situating a single events or individual experience within any particular genre of communicating disaster.

Long Abstract:The process of producing news and witnessing disaster has shaped how we understand and relate to natural and man-made crises and their aftermath. It is through media after all, that most of us encounter disaster. While we see the crucial need to mobilise local, national and international solidarity to create the means for post-disaster agency, we also acknowledge that the emotional discourse of disaster news can be problematic in its creation of victimhood and selective compassionate action.

Taking media as a starting point for our analysis of disaster and crisis, and contrasting ‘news’ with literary productions as well as plays and music that speak of the same events, will allow us to reflect on the notion of scale in a variety of ways. Scale in the context of mediated disaster is linked to severity, scaling the event as local, national and international news. While new media subverts these categories, it is literature and popular culture that gives individual interpretation a historical dimension and an afterlife.

Media has been a biased tool ever since the first internationally mediated disaster in 1755 – the earthquake of Lisbon – struck. While this event inspired international news reports discussing relief efforts, it also prompted the production of literature. Rousseau dismissed city life as a result of the earthquake concluding that clustered living increased casualties, while Voltaire critiqued the idea of divine punishment in his earthquake poem and through the personal accounts of the fictional characters of Candide and Doctor Pangloss who experience the earthquake but – despite the disaster – adhere to philosophical optimism.

Today post-disaster media reports, literature and popular culture are no less diverse in scaling events by invoking narratives of cosmological and climatic change, assessing disaster relief needs and reporting and envisioning individual fate. Rather than scientifically measuring particular disasters, this panel will address the ways in which public cultures, media and literature create and negotiate the fields in which disastrous events are communicated.

Reporting and describing disaster makes use of contextual scaling to reach audiences and to make disaster globally visible. Social Media, satellite imagery and mobile phone videos have led to what Thompson termed ‘the transformation of visibility” (1995,2006), a process that has shifted responsibilities as well as the measurement of accountability.

Most strikingly however, social media has reintroduced the emotional discourse of disaster that had temporarily been relegated to the subjective realm of literature and popular culture while ‘news’ had scaled events and compared suffering. Bias and disproportion in the media can be seen through the discriminating lens of history that has led newspapers in 1755 to report prominently on the sufferings of royalty while contemporary news insists on ignoring black victimhood.

Today an affective public requests individual experience while social media descales previously established measures of proportion.

The panel aims to address the field between subjectivity and scale in the realm of media, literature and popular culture discussing any historical or contemporary disaster. Papers may reflect on social, political or historical scales, relating local, national and global perspectives. Papers may also conceptualise scale as disproportion, situating a single events or individual experience within any particular genre of communicating disaster.

References:

Thompson, John B. 2005. The new visibility. Theory, Culture and Society 22(6): 31-51.

Voltaire, Francois Marie. 1925. “Le Poeme sur le Desastre de Lisbonne en 1755, au Examen de cet Axiome: Tout est bien (1756)”; the text, in French, of the entire poeme is found in George R. Havens, Selections From

Voltaire (New York: Century Pub. Co., 1925), pp. 246-258.

Voltaire, Francois Marie. 1759. Candide Translation Tobias Smollett.

J. J. ROUSSEAU, “Lettre a M. de Voltaire, It 18 aout, 1756,” Oeuvres et Correspondance inedites de J. J. Rousseau.