Catastrophe Now

Literary scholar Eva Horn's The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age investigates why modern Western culture so often imagines its own end. Through insightful readings of modern literature, film, and philosophical and sociological discourses, Horn argues that our hunger for apocalypse narratives—chief among them those about the so-called Last Man—is rooted in a deep-seated but diffuse mood of risk and crisis that has been generated by contingent and often imperceptible threats, such as impending nuclear disaster and climate change. Without concrete events to anchor it, this anxiety grows and paralyzes action. Representing these possible catastrophes through fiction provides us with cathartic, vivid, and plausible depictions of discrete events. Imagining such scenarios also serves as a practical means of preparing ourselves individually and collectively for possible threats, in turn helping to make them self-defeating prophecies. One of Horn's central claims is that fiction's capacity to imagine and capture affect, nuance, and detail offers a uniquely powerful means of thinking about the future. This essay challenges that position by arguing that fiction (though it is, as Donna J. Haraway has quipped, often the best political theory) on its own lacks the capacity for critique that connects imagined future catastrophes to their latent causes in presently catastrophic social conditions. Horn illustrates that imagined future catastrophes often illuminate the latent vulnerabilities of the societies that produced them, but her focus on apocalyptic scenarios reproduces, rather than challenges, cultural patterns that obscure more quotidian and destructive forms of “slow violence” and “slow disaster.” If historians and critics are to achieve the consciousness of catastrophic threats against which Horn seeks to mobilize apocalypse fiction, such narratives must also be folded back into a critical history of the present that asks a more pointed political question: for whom is life already catastrophic?