Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
The Concept of Humanitarian Disasters
A review of: Alicia Entel. The City and its Fears: The Recovery of Passion [La ciudad y sus miedos: la passion restauradora]. Buenos Aires: La Crujía Ediciones, 2007.
Korstanje, Maximiliano E.
(University of Palermo, Argentina).
Translated from the Spanish original by the author.
In recent years there have been countless natural disasters. For some devout believers these disasters are signs of the advent of the apocalypse. For many non-believers these disasters are simply the practical result of human imprudence in the administration of our planet. Disruptive natural disasters are worrisome for viewers who experience them from their sofa via the mass media. By mass-mediated manipulation, framing, and commercialization, these disasters fall into line in a way that reinforces the status-quo class rule. The televised spectacle of disasters is characterized by the convergence of entertainment and charity which has been transformed into a mass-mediated product. Yet, often humanitarian disasters in the “Third World” go ignored as part of the poverty and social exclusion experienced by millions of people (see Baudrillard, 2002).
Malinowski argued that societies can be studied by their taboos. Reformulating this classical hypothesis, we may understand how societies can be understood by their fears. In this way we understand that in Europe or America terrorism is an important source of public fear, as are pandemics and large scale nuclear accidents, whereas in Latin America the fear of crime, unemployment and social exclusion are more significant. I recall K. Erikson’s assessment (1994) of the Ojibwa people at the Grassy Narrows Indian Reserve (Canada). Erikson argued that poverty, alcohol addiction, and murder were making the reserve into a social disaster. For Erikson, social fragmentation can have as devastating an effect on a group as can a Tornado or other natural catastrophe. In the case of Grassy Narrows the problems of the people were exacerbated by the contamination of their river with poisonous mercury – a further effect of the colonization experienced by these Ojibwa. Erikson made it possible for us to question our understanding of just what a “disaster” is. In the case of these Ojibwa two human-made disasters (social disintegration and mercury poisoning) placed the people more at risk than any natural disaster could.
Similarly Alicia Entel´s book focuses on the process of resilience in emerging countries as well as how the social imaginary responds to moments of instability and uncertainty. In the introductory chapter she examines differing perspectives on: 1) the importance of qualitative-related research to how fears operate in day-to-day life; 2) the philosophical link between discrimination and the social imaginary; 3) the role played by mass media in the transmission of “a staged-reality”; 4) social policies followed by officials absorbing the negative effects of generalized panic-flight. She argues that fear works to blur people’s sense of responsibility. Her idea is similar to Freud’s understanding of discrimination is based in complex phobias which are aimed at preventing social fragmentation among dominant groups. The outsider objectified helps in the sublimation of other frustrations. Repeatedly in this valuable book we see that insecurity paves the way to the progressive declination of solidarity in modern societies. The faith people hold in institutions is inherently linked to the efficacy and efficiency of administration as are the ways that states process citizen complaints.
Entel brings together qualitative participant observation with content analysis of newspapers and magazines in her effort to understand insecurity. Nietzsche and Freud also play key roles in her thought which understands that there are two main fears which become present in moments of uncertainty: The first kind involves a collectively experienced diffusion or fuzziness of perception. This is difficult to measure and for Entel plays a pivotal role as a prerequisite for the second type of fear which surfaces when risks are materialized. For example: When a material concern such as fear of unemployment arises a profound panic can ensue which leads to the emergence of the fear of others which remain sublimated in less fearful times.
Previously in Latin America the fear of physical disappearance under military dictatorships has been replaced with the fear of poverty, social exclusion, and malnutrition. Fear of political repression has been replaced by economic fears which might end in starvation for the most disadvantaged. In the case of Argentina the fear of military dictatorship from the 1970s has been replaced by economic fears following the collapse of the Argentinean economy a decade ago. Metaphorically speaking, the former indoctrination policies linked to the disappearance of people has been changed by a symbolic way of censorship. Today many people believe that their nation-state does not provide the necessary support for the widespread satisfaction of the most basic needs.
Today, according to Entel, unemployment associated with increasing drug consumption is leading excluded sectors toward a widespread feeling of self-hatred at the time of their destruction. Starting from the premise that ethnic minorities are manipulated as scapegoats in order for societies to reduce their own anxiety, Entel demonstrates that there is a social memory of fear which can be disabled or enabled according to political interests. If in the past, the state was actively responsible for the disappearance of political dissidents, now, under democracy, contradictory policies lead to an appalling sedation of potential dissidence to poverty, violence, and political corruption.
While her assessment is interesting it is riddled with jargon and does not offer, with sufficient methodological precision, a convincing argument. Entel also does not provide enough information regarding her involved participants. Beyond gender and age she does not specify participants educational or socioeconomic background of the people she interviewed. Her starting assumption that Latin American countries are less democratic than European and North American ones is an ethnocentric and untested assertion. Entel does not understand the importance of efficacy and charisma to Latin American voters which are as important here as are Anglo Saxon perceptions of democracy as rooted in the independence of institutions such as a senate, or a justice ministry. Hispano-American voters are less interested in which institution should intervene in a case of instability as they are in the overall course of action that should be taken.
Ultimately, what is lacking in Entel’s analysis is the kind of analysis we have come to expect from “postmodern” theories in French and American universities from thinkers like Castel, Virilio, Quarantelli, Dupuy, Giddens and Bauman. These scholars have emphasized the relationship between modernity and the origin and rise of fear and risk perception.
Jean Baudrillard (2002). “La Violence du Mondial”. In Power Inferno. Paris: Galilee. English translation available at: www.ctheory.net/textfile.
A. Entel (2007). La Ciudad y sus Miedos: la pasión restauradora. Buenos Aires: La Crujía Ediciones.
K. Erikson (1994). A New Species of Troubles: Explorations in Disasters, Trauma and Community. New York: Norton.
S. Freud (1998). “Análisis de la Fobia de un niño de Cinco Años, el caso Hans”. In Obras Completas. Tomo 10. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu Editores.
M. Malinowski (1967). Una Teoría de la cultura. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana.