Oct 1 – Interrogating the “Accident”

Thinking About “Progress,” “Disasters,” and “Accidents”

Next week we start thinking about the nature of historical knowledge. Before we jump into the historical, this week we will read some recent thoughts on the very category and concept of “disaster” and “accident.” Take your time and work out how each piece sets up the problem, what concepts (categories) the author uses to look at the problem, and finally what possibilities are opened up or foreclosed by those choices. Think of these concepts as looking at something with a telescope or a microscope: each would allow you to see, and cause you to not see, different things.

Start by learning the termsWhat kinds of radiation are there?

Readings for discussion:

  1. Paul Virilio, “The Primal Accident
  2. Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents (excerpts)
  3. Francois Ewald, “Two Infinities of Risk
  4. Erikson, A New Species of Trouble, chapter 4 (Three Mile Island)

Recommended: Charles Perrow, “Normal Accident at Three Mile Island” & “Nuclear Power as a High-Risk System: Why We Have Not Had More TMIs—But Will Soon”

Writing Assignment #1

This assignment is designed to take stock of the issues we have read so far so that we can go forward in examining the enormous issue of modern disasters. Use this assignment to help you clarify your own thinking on these issues because your final project must use them effectively to be successful.

Taking the New York Review of Books multiple book review as your model, take the top three  of the following authors and choose at least one of the others and write a review paper (1500 words) centered on our question: What is the role, if any, of disasters in history? Each author has an answer to that question, explain them, and put them in conversation with each other; ie what might Nietzsche say about Erikson’s focus on dread? What might Benjamin say of Nietzsche’s “cultural treasures”? (First, he would call them monumental history not cultural treasures, etc.) What does Virilio’s “Primal,” Perrow’s “Normal,” or Hegel’s “Spirit” allow us to see? What might they obscure or erase?

Note: These are not summaries that stand on their own. You are specifically interested in thinking about history and disasters even if the thinkers themselves are not. Use the topic of the assignment as a way to read these texts—even if, as is clear—there are other ways of reading them.

Further, you are not writing a paper to get the “true” meaning or the “right” answer but to be able to stand back and explain how your authors would answer this question. These authors do not always agree and are often fundamentally opposed. It is not your job to make them agree—let them fight it out on your page. To do this you must keep the many voices, including yours, separate and clear. This can be as simple as signaling your changes: “As Nietzsche said…” or “This is not how Virilio would approach the problem….”

  • Hegel
  • Nietzsche
  • Benjamin

AND at least one

  • Perrow
  • Virilio
  • Ewald

Due in NYU Classes’ “Assignments” by 5 pm Wednesday Oct 10

Papers received after 5 pm will be “one day late” and reduced one-third of a grade, ie from B+ to B. Papers received after 11:50 pm on Wednesday the 10th will be “two days late” and reduced two thirds, ie from B+ to B-. 11:59 pm on Friday = “three days late” with further reduction, and so on.