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Then and Now and Never (Part 1)

The first part of a series on disasters, images, surveillance, and time.



Aldo Rossi, L’architecture assassinée [Murdered/assassinated architecture], March 2, 1975


The lantern that blew out

left us in the dark

when the mine exploded

and the gods took advantage of us

and demanded some glass beads from us

And since we had no glass beads

we are dead dead dead.

And me I sounded the alarm. I survived

I raised my hands without weeping

or crying for help

and because they were my friends

they let me survive.

– Malangatana Valente Ngwenya, “Survivor Among Millions” trans. Mary Hardy, in Black, Brown, and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora, ed. Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley


The future is finished. It’s finished. The future is finished.

– Marissa Di Tommaso, after the quake


As I’m writing this, the search for survivors of the earthquake in Amatrice is still underway, still prying open that slim and obstinate moment of optimism that says the search for survivors, rather than the search for the dead. Sometimes it’s rightly named, like with the 10 year-old girl found entombed but alive 17 hours after the shock, and it makes every effort necessary.  All the sifting of the dirt, all the shared silence to listen for murmurs, all the dogs who come from afar to smell life through meters of rock. But often, as happened today, when a broken chunk of city is lifted up, the survivor is revealed to not be a survivor, to not have been no matter what the search was called. The moment and its maybe slam closed, and the ex-survivor becomes a contribution to the death toll continually updated in the news.

I loathe the term death toll, how it’s trotted out every time a disaster is suffered through. When it was first used, it wasn’t applied to “acts of God,” as claims adjustors and fans of theodicy call such things. It was instead linked to death in the service of a cause, the consequence of taking one or the other side in a struggle whose severity meant death would inevitably occur. According to Michael Quinion, the first usage in English, at least that he could locate, is a report on rioting in India from 1897 (the same year as the Assam Earthquake there that killed around 1,500 people). There it marks the always latently political discrepancy at work in how, and how many of, the dead are counted: “600 to 1,000 rioters were killed during the recent rioting in the vicinity of Calcutta and it is added that native circles put the death toll as high as 1,500.” The source is the Friends Intelligencer and Journal, a Quaker publication, and though the riot is not specified in this small item, another on a following page suggests that it is the Talla riots. (In addition to noting that,”Recent outbreaks and riots in India have caused anxiety among the English population, and the London journals, a dispatch on the 2d inst. says, intimate their fear that the mass of the natives are less contented under British rule than was generally believed, and that a disturbance of unpleasant proportions may be threatening.” For more on the Talla riots, see Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Communal Riots and Labour: Bengal’s Jute Mill-Hands in the 1890s,” from Past and Present, May 1981.  One side downplaying, the other just counting. See, for instance, the the July 9, 1897 proceedings of the British parliament:Screenshot 2016-08-27 10.47.51   In the other instance Quinion cites, a 1909 Blackwood’s Magazine article on the 1842 retreat from Kabul, the toll has been flipped, describing those killed in the defense of that same colonial enterprise. There, the “gallant division [of British soldiers]… paid its toll of killed and wounded,” the deaths read as the unfortunate but nobly necessary price paid for maintenance of imperial might.  In both cases, to call these deaths the “toll” for their competing projects of colonization and decolonization makes some sense, because this is how they were explained and justified, even if it’s little stretch to imagine that for many of those who did die and for those they left behind, there was never any sense to the whole idiotic enterprise of accumulation and dominance.

The term has since drifted in meaning and become generic, used without a second thought and available for shitty puns accidental and otherwise, like the Daily Mail title, “Smartphones are blamed as death toll on our roads jumps by 13 per cent”. Yes, a death toll road, yes, how apt. Yet it’s an open question as to whether it makes sense to call the deaths in Amatrice a “toll”, even as casually as news outlets do, given the way it suggests that death caused by gravity, weight, tectonic disturbance, and the material instability of a city is a required blood payment to some thing, some movement or nation or cause, a geological antagonist that is partisan, that cares one way or another, that keeps count: 77 or 78 survivors who do not survive. 120 who could not. 239 who wouldn’t.

Screenshot 2016-08-24 08.58.15

There’s obviously nothing new in this way of dealing with disasters, treating them like the measured or careless work of a vengeful god or two. 65 years ago, in 1951, as though working through the lethal Kansas River flood of that same year by displacing it overseas, American newspapers framed the flooding of Italy’s Polesine region in just these terms. When 150,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes and the farming capacity of the region was decimated, burying fertile land under 6 feet of sand, the Chicago Tribune laid the blame on the Po River being “a bad actor for more than 2,400 years.” A strange choice of phrase, as if the problem was that the Po didn’t really sell the role, like it wasn’t method enough. In truth, it wasn’t, and some weren’t fooled, refusing the idea that, as the article put it, “all man’s efforts have been in vain; the winner is always nature.”

AFOD flood 1951The valley becomes a sea, the Polesine in ’51. Still from A Fine Thread of Deviation, with Anne Low  If interested in seeing the film, get in touch – it has particular viewing conditions that mean I haven’t put it online

Because as the left communist Amadeo Bordiga saw in that same catastrophe’s pre-history, event, and aftermath, the flooding was no more “natural” a disaster than any other. A flood, earthquake, forest fire, or tsunami may well begin as an unauthored and apparently nonhuman occasion. But it amplifies a set of specific, vicious, and entirely unsurprising social conditions that dictate just who will once again bear the brunt of calamity, even as disasters recurrently get framed as the rare instance of common purpose and national unity. Such generous collaboration and selfless work is, of course, a real and moving thing, but the ground on which it moves, and into which it digs desperate, is long marked by the patterns of what Rachel Carson, riffing off the poisoned robe of Medea to understand insecticide poisoning, called “death-by-indirection.” That indirection routes the blame and damage alike along contours of racialization and class strata that align all too clearly with what is downwind of the smokestacks or built on shaky foundations, what infrastructural maintenance gets put off year after year. It’s in this sense that Rob Nixon picks up on Carson’s wording in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, which I’d strongly recommend . A disaster seems to strike all, but it is also deictic, pointing too late to which corners were cut and expenses spared, usually in the roofs over the heads of those most precarious to start, poorly waged, if at all, and with little recourse to legal protection.


This isn’t speculative in the least, as the 2012 earthquakes in Emilia-Romagna showed. Much of the international media coverage turned its attention to the damage done to the Parmesan industry (200 million euros in lost profit) Which itself became doubly notorious because of the dish invented by Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana gets voted one of the best restaurants in the world: “I made it as a social gesture, something that featured the flavors of the region affected by the earthquake, including rice, as well as some of the nearly 1,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano that were damaged—we wanted to create a dish that would utilize them.”  and, as is happening again today, to concerns about the loss of “historical” buildings and sites deemed culturally important. (The BBC headline: “Deadly northern Italy earthquake hits heritage sites.”) What got shoved under the rug, though, was how most of the deaths occurred in recently and shoddily constructed industrial buildings that collapsed entirely, never shored up with the kind of support needed for an earthquake-prone area. Five workers on night shift, including a Moroccan national, were killed when the factories and foundry came down, and as reports noted, if the quake had happened during daytime, which it just as easily could have given that tectonic pressure is not nocturnal, it would have been a total massacre of those doing low-waged and repetitive work. In the 2009 earthquakes in Aquila, where 309 people were killed, the guilt was shoved onto scientists who were convicted on manslaughter charges (though later acquitted) for giving what was judged as an inadequately alarmist warning report after initial tremors. What never received remotely that kind of attention and attempted scapegoating was any prosecution of those – especially construction outfits managed by organized crime, along with their well-greased government liaisons – who had saved money by ignoring building standards, including the use of sand in place of concrete elements. It proved easier and somehow more comforting to blame those who did not warn in the days immediately before rather than those who had profited for decades on the ongoing construction of death traps. Already, I see these questions beginning to be posed in Amatrice, both discussing what it would take to stop mafia-tied construction firms from getting rebuilding contracts and, more generally, asking why so few buildings that had been retrofitted or constructed after revised earthquake building standards were adequately supported. There is no simple answer to this, of course, given that in many cases, the extremely high costs of retrofitting – particular to reinforce resistance to shear stress – would fall not just on landlords and real estate firms but those sharing small homes and apartments. The wider point is that an architecture devoted to the utmost care of the human body is incompatible with the open market, unless it is content to only give that care to a tiny portion of the species.

For Bordiga, these accidents are never haphazard, even if they can’t be precisely predicted. They are part of a necessary dynamic within capital, a “murder of the dead” (i.e of “dead labor,” in the form of the already made) necessary to spur new output and rejuvenated circulation, clearing the ground for large-scale investment that otherwise moves outwards in search of better returns. The devastation of large-scale war is one mode, an earthquake (or shipwreck, or urban fire) another.  In this way, “death toll” may well be the correct and bleak term, because it is a penalty paid, albeit to no subject, cause, or movement, just to the maintenance and renewal of the status quo.

Yet a disaster also points beyond the specific patterns of social power at any given moment, its arrangement of neighborhoods, roads, dams, and electrical grids. It gestures out towards some of the longest-term tendencies of the world order, ones almost too broad to take in a single view until the collapse of function and accumulation makes it possible to see what was at work, even if it means starting with the fragments and lines of failure after the fact.

AFOD wavesPlatonov on the Po. A Fine Thread of Deviation

Seeing those requires that we backtrack through a complicated mesh of decisions and actions that can’t separate the willed from the accidental, the technical from the social, the economic from the ecological, the weather from the price of cheese. As Bordiga was doing more than a half century before the word “Anthropocene” comes to haunt a thousand academic conference panel titles and job talks.  What this requires, above all, is a timescale that exceeds both easy culpability and media attention span. It is most immediately evident in the unspoken – or at least publicly unspoken – decisions made about who can afford to live where and where the emergency funds go after breakdown, if they go anywhere at all, spreading the consequences out and out into the future for those left without capacity or credit to return to previous forms of life and for whom the disaster never ends. And it is on this last point that Bordiga moves towards a thought I’ve found more and more necessary, one that exceeds his effort to see capital as the vampire of vampires, that prolific murderer of the dead, and instead works toward a slippery understanding of how our very grasp of time and loss is so bound to recognizable cycles and sites of production and valuation. Because unlike the capacity for accelerated output and mobilized industry in times of war,

a pool of hydrological and seismological organisations cannot be formed, at least not until the great science of the bourgeois period is really able to provoke series of floods and earthquakes, like aerial bombardments.

Here it is a matter of a slow, non-accelerable centuries-long transmission from generation to generation of the results of “dead” labour, but under the guardianship of the living, of their lives and of their lesser sacrifice. Full essay here 

1970 - 186991 Alluvione Bisagno Uomo su muroThe lesser sacrifice. Flood of the Bisagno, 1970

It is somewhere between fitting and perverse that Bordiga structures this particular text, like most of his Sul filo di tempo (On/along the Thread of Time) essays of the ‘50s when he roars back into critique after forced silence during the fascist years, around a stark opposition that divides the bulk of the essay under the headings of “Yesterday” and “Today.” Because despite that split, one of the prime contributions of his thinking was to work towards erasing that division, seeing yesterday, today, and tomorrow within an ongoing struggle for survival and quality of life that can no more be answered by resettlement than it can by building apartments from sand. After the flood, he wonders,

So what then if the peasant reclimbs the slope where nothing can ever take root and the very bare and friable rock strata itself does not permit the rebuilding of houses? And the workers by the sea, what will they do? Today they can no longer emigrate like the Calabrians of the unhealthy lowlands and the Lucanians of the “damned claylands” made sterile by the greedy felling of the woodlands which once covered the mountains and the trees that spread over the upland grazing. Certainly, in such conditions, no capital and no government will intervene, a total disgrace of the obscene hypocrisy with which national and international solidarity was praised. It is not a moral or sentimental fact that underlies this, but the contradiction between the convulsive dynamic of contemporary super-capitalism and all the sound requirements for the organization of the life of human groups on the Earth, allowing them to transmit good living conditions through time.

Here, then, is a different search for survivors, a search carried out by those who do survive but, in so doing, must scour the transformed landscape, the inland beach that drowns the soil, for something, anything resembling a way of going forward.

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