Catastrophe Viktor Misiano

A catastrophe is a sudden violation of the order of things caused by internal or external factors, a concept that can be applied not only to natural and biological events but also to economic, social, ideological, cultural, and artistic ones. Unlike a crisis, which does not imply a chain reaction because it is born within one of these spheres, the catastrophe has the character of an avalanche in that it manifests itself in all spheres. It embraces and penetrates everything; it is inescapable.

In the sphere of intellectual and artistic production, the catastrophe has two basic forms. The first is the institutional catastrophe. This is not a crisis involving creative politics, the productive planning of institutions, a temporary break in their sphere of action or an organized evacuation, but the literal ruining of institutions and the total paralysis of their activities. However, a catastrophe is not simply an infrastructural breakdown. The essential point to recognize is that when both intellectual and artistic activities are set against a disaster, they are scandalously inadequate. What they propose to the public does not have a secondary value, but rather a nil value. In other words, an institutional catastrophe means above all the collapse of institutional culture. However much the presence of a healer, a shaman, a professional mourner, or a jester amid those going through a misfortune may be opportune, it is equally absurd in such circumstances to have a theorist of mass communications, a poststructuralist critic, or a conceptual artist. Thus, in the sphere of intellectual and artistic culture, catastrophe will take another form—that of epistemological catastrophe. Institutional culture, or what the contemporary world commonly calls culture, is scandalously unprepared for catastrophe. It is more unprepared than virtually any other sector. While it is true that there exist ways of coping with emergency situations—special safety units, fire-fighting units, supplies of food and drinking water, air raid shelters, etc.—contemporary culture has not taken any appropriate precautions. If contemporary culture has developed a strong immunity to crisis situations (starting with the modern period, which marks the start of contemporary culture), it has been in a permanent state of crisis. However, it was never prepared for the experience of catastrophe. Anything that can be adequate for calamitous situations is beyond the bounds of institutional culture (even if there is a culture of crisis), which is why culture and art, as parts of a complicated process of collective production, cease to exist when the catastrophic conditions present themselves.

However, the end of intellectual or artistic culture does not mean that there are no longer people interested in supporting it, or rather, in simulating its existence. Such people try to show that their sphere of activity still exists despite everything and that it still has an exclusive meaning. They start off from the fact that the more disturbing the context is, the more bases there are for creating high cultural values and models of great art. The exaltation of the norm is the most effective position from which to counter abnormality. However, grounds exist for supposing that these people are motivated not so much by a sincere faith in their own arguments as by their hopes of salvation. In fact, their arguments address the rescue missions sent from the “Great Land,” from territories that have not been affected by the catastrophe. The culture of the simulation of culture is a special type of culture. Since it exists when catastrophic conditions obtain, this culture does not wish to talk about such a theme and, if it does, it does not use the language of catastrophe to do so. If the main aim is salvation and obtaining a priority status during evacuation, it cannot help emphasizing its own values as a manifestation of institutional culture. As the rescuers are representatives of the “Great Land,” the world of institutional values, they will save above all that which is appropriate to themselves and not to those who have experienced the calamity. Thus, during the rescue, those who obtain privileged status are those who need it least. In other words, the culture that simulates culture is the culture of survival.

But the end of culture and art does not mean that there are no longer thinking people and creative culture. However, to preserve intellectual and artistic culture, they have to accept the end of culture and art. They must recognize that a strategy of survival is impossible because what is destined to be buried or is covered by ruins cannot survive. It is obvious to them that emphasizing the norms back to a situation of abnormality is not so much a strategy of opposition as a strategy of suction: if works of a high standard are created in a era of catastrophes, the catastrophe cannot be so catastrophic after all. It is obvious that under catastrophic conditions we must simulate not the institutional culture, but the culture of catastrophe. This is all the more reason why, if cultural activities under catastrophic conditions acquire institutional forms, the efforts of the culture of catastrophe must be aimed at the destruction of the institutions.

The culture and art of catastrophe take as their starting point the fact that they must not so much speak of catastrophe (even institutional culture likes speaking of it) as speak “catastrophe.” It is also possible to speak of “catastrophe” in two ways: the first supposes that if the only possible language today is institutional language and that we have been given no other (in fact everything that goes beyond its boundaries is no longer culture) and if this language refers to itself, is conventional and without vital content, it is not suitable for speaking “catastrophe” and therefore one must refuse to speak. This self-referencing of the language of culture must be taken to extremes, to deep subjectivity. If the communicability of institutional culture is the simulation of communication, it is necessary to completely refuse to communicate programmatically. It is important to show the impossibility of speaking: speaking catastrophe is speaking with the impossibility of speaking.

The second way of speaking catastrophe supposes that if it is not possible to speak catastrophe it must not interiorize it, but manifest it and provoke. If the first way involves extreme subjectivization and isolationism, the second assumes extreme exteriorization; if the first way is so deeply immersed in the bowels of institutional culture that it no longer submits to its laws, the second, by contrast, occurs beyond its limits. Being beyond the limits of institutional culture means being inside reality and if reality is catastrophic, it means it is necessary to be inside catastrophe, and if the task is to show oneself inside the catastrophe, it is necessary to be more catastrophic than the catastrophe.

The rejection of the ethical dimension is programmed into the culture of catastrophe; only institutional catastrophe can assume that those who suffer a disaster need to have their own woes celebrated; only the institutional church can suppose that the victims of the catastrophe need compassion. The culture of the catastrophe is a product of catastrophe, obviously. Those who survive the catastrophe think of one thing only: salvation—their own salvation, not that of their neighbors. Dialogue, compacts, communication, and decency: these are all values of institutional culture and they are out of place when the conditions of a catastrophe arise. People who propagate the culture of catastrophe are not motivated by professional routines or ethical duties but by passion for their own work. Therefore, in the full synchronicity between the two ways of expressing the culture of catastrophe, there are also two ways of understanding ethics: ethics are reduced to or consist in the awareness of the impossibility of ethical action or ecstatic love for the whole of humanity.

It is precisely because the culture of the catastrophe does not engage in dialogues that it cannot dialogue with the institutional culture. Similarly, there can be no dialogue between the norm and abnormality. When rescuers export models of this culture to the “Great Land,” they are completely useless: they would even seem out of place in an ethnographic museum. The first version of the culture of catastrophe is frustrated by its own forced rejection of the world and perceives the world of institutions as the only reality where it is possible to use the word as an absolutely ideal reality, as mythological perfection. Once it has reached the “Great Land” it can talk of only one thing: its own exalted admiration of institutional culture. The world of institutions does not need exaltation (flattering as it is) because exaltation is a deviation from the norm; it is politically incorrect. Institutional culture is ready and willing to receive criticism from the victims of a catastrophe rather than adoration or a critique of its insufficiency and partiality while help is administered to the victims of the catastrophe (or a criticism of the institutions and not a questioning of the legitimacy of their existence as such). The second version of the culture is still more inadequate and improper because it is only able to reproduce catastrophe in territories that have not yet been affected by it. It does not criticize the institutions but totally denies their right to exist. The response is that this seems not to be alienation or incomprehension but repression. And repression convinces the culture of catastrophe that its programmed catastrophism is justified.

However, the suspicion arises that the repugnance and repression of institutional culture in its dealings with the culture of catastrophe is not without a certain guile. If the modus vivendi of institutional culture is routine, pure reproduction, catastrophe is only a justification for its existence. The values of dialogue, communication, compacts, etc., are so emptied of all meaning that they can continue to be values only if there is someone who cannot or will not embrace these values. There is also another suspicion: that the culture of catastrophe, which does not want to be defined as culture but which remains a culture, unconsciously realizes that it is a cultural phenomenon only insofar as it takes account of institutional culture, of which it is a negation. It realizes that the incapacity or lack of desire for dialogue is nevertheless a form of dialogue. In other words, norm and abnormality only make sense when the one is aware of the other.

This enables one to draw the most widely differing and also contradictory conclusions: since the boundary between the norm and what is not the norm is a convention, the norm is catastrophic while the catastrophic is the norm. Thus, catastrophe is a part of institutional culture in the same way as the culture which proclaims itself part of institutional culture in a programmed manner is. The culture of catastrophe is only an image reflected in a mirror that does not want to recognize itself as such. It is difficult to break out of this loop: the first step may be for institutional culture to recognize its own catastrophic nurture while the culture of catastrophe recognizes its own normality. And finally, the last and most intransigent conclusion: that the contemporary world is so global that a catastrophe anywhere seems to be clear violation of the natural order of things, so that the event begins to affect everyone—even those far removed from its epicenter—and restoring order thus also becomes a universal cause. The new order must therefore be really new: it must neither be the one that existed before the catastrophe nor the order emerging triumphantly from its ruins.


“Futuro, Passato, Presente,” La Biennale di Venezia, exhibition catalog, Electa, Venice 1997; also published in Frakcija, Zagreb, 9 (1998), p. 86–87.