Representing Catastrophe in Contemporary Arts and Letters: Conceptual and Formal Reevaluation

deadline for submissions: 
January 4, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Université Jean Monnet, Saint Etienne, France

Representing Catastrophe in Contemporary Arts and Letters:

Conceptual and Formal Reevaluation

International Conference, Université Jean Monnet, Saint-Étienne (France), 18-19 May 2021



9/11 marked, in a spectacular way, the entry into the 21st century, inaugurating “the eruption of the possible into the impossible.” (Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Pour un catastrophisme éclairé) Since then, the rise of declinist theses or collapse theories has generated a proliferation of discourses and images which predict the end of our civilization, anticipate the modalities of its disappearance, and urge us to think about the notion of catastrophe along new lines. Indeed, it seems the time for conjecture or forecast is over as catastrophist discourses – in science, in the media or in politics – alert us to the multiplication of catastrophes, thereby inviting us to reexamine a notion which, until recently, was characterized by its unique, unprecedented, and unpredictable nature. The evolution of its meaning is definitely under way since ‘catastrophe’ is now seen less as a dénouement or an endpoint than as a series of phenomena which, repeatedly surging in our daily lives, place it in a state of permanent topicality. Paul Virilio noted that a society which privileges “the present - real time” and “sets immediacy, ubiquity and instantaneity to work, brings accidents and catastrophes on to the scene.” (Paul Virilio, The Original Accident)

Used in the singular, catastrophe encompasses a plurality of phenomena which may or may not be attributable to humans, including natural disasters, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks, or even pandemics. It does not refer to “a single event, but a system of discontinuities, of critical threshold crossings, of ruptures, of radical structural changes.” (Dupuy) Indeed, catastrophe is not so much regarded as an outcome or a prospect asa state of permanent alert and vigilance with regard to phenomena that are already under way. If its iteration transforms hazard into certainty, it is also because the border between the natural and the cultural, established by Western modernity, has been dissipating, more particularly since the term Anthropocene (Paul J. Crutzen) was coined within the Earth sciences to describe this pivotal moment when human beings, by their actions, have become the main generators of disasters, at the risk of  eliminating the role of contingency. In turn, arts and letters are exploring the conceptual, ethical, and practical issues raised by this “great acceleration” (John R. McNeill, The Great Acceleration), and in doing so, are encouraging a re-articulation of our relation to time, space, images, and narratives.


Catastrophe seems to be the object of a renewed desire today (Henri-Pierre Jeudy, Le Désir de catastrophe). We will therefore interrogate what is at stake in the very use of the term and how contemporary artistic practices appropriate it for reflections on catastrophe as well as through catastrophe.


Be it the continuing success of disaster movies or the growing number of “ecodystopic fictions” (Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life), the imaginaries of catastrophe seem to be proliferating, notably in the fiction industry. Quite often, they draw on a familiar dramaturgy which takes the catastrophic event as a pretext for the unfolding of a story hinging on a causal, before/after logic. How can a work of art, whatever its medium, circumvent and/or counter such dramaturgy? How to envision art not merely as translating catastrophe but as performing it? As a disruption which, however briefly, defeats intelligibility, catastrophe prompts us – compels us even – to reexamine the ways in which we apprehend the world. Beyond the topoï of the unspeakable and irrepresentable, the etymology of the term refers to morphological changes. Understood thus, catastrophe may be regarded as generating aesthetic potentialities, which can lead us to ponder the specificities of its poïetics.

Restoring the emotional and sensory charge of catastrophe, its power of stupefaction may be all the more pressing as its proliferating imaginaries seem to have resulted in a certain uniformization. The ubiquity of catastrophes is partly related to the omnipresence of images, pictures taken by witnesses and circulated on social media with increasing speed. The multiplication of possible points of view, however, seems to falter over the codes of the spectacular which give some images their iconic value – Dantesque visions of megafires, scenes of desolation after tsunamis, hurricanes, or explosions. Social media experts have tried to create “disaster emojis” (emerjis), the closest thing to a global language in their view. Underlying the project is an effort towards standardization, a desire to break down linguistic barriers in the name of communicative efficiency, both of which renew the old rivalry between text and images described by W.J.T. Mitchell as “a war of signs.” (Iconology) More broadly, intermedial studies, notably the reevaluation of the notion of remediation introduced by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in 1999, offer a lens through which the issues raised by the representation of catastrophe can be productively studied.

Reassessing the relation between catastrophe and the spectacular may also lead to reconsideration of the former’s relation to place. The importance given to ruins and memorials testifies to the intertwining of time and space, both subject to the same disruption of the sense of place. One may think of the Ground Zero Sonic Memorial Soundwalk narrated by Paul Auster. Interactive multimedia projects like this one extend the experience of catastrophe to those who were neither witnesses nor victims. One may wonder whether they participate in the monumentalizing of place: the circumscribing of a sense of place in an effort to palliate or counter the overflowing nature of the catastrophic event. The disrupting of the way we inhabit space suggests another line of enquiry. The precariousness common to the human species and all other living beings indeed raises issues relating to practices of inhabiting, and more fundamentally to habitability itself. This, in turn, calls attention to the conceptual and aesthetic approaches contemporary artists have devised to reflect those issues and reflect on them.


We are inviting papers on 21st century artistic practices. Proposals may address but are not limited to the following:

–   narratives of catastrophe (cinema, TV shows, literature): criticism and reevaluation of its dramaturgy and storytelling

–   the work of art as catastrophe: practices and reception

–   the scenography of catastrophe in photography and in the visual arts

–   media coverage and mediation of catastrophe

–   representing and reclaiming places of catastrophe (wastelands, ruins …)

–   the relations between the arts and scientific discourse

–   the language of catastrophe (linguistic evolutions and lexical creations …)


Proposals (400-word abstract + short bio) should be sent before 4 January 2021 to the organizers: Sophie Chapuis (, Anne-Sophie Letessier (, Aliette Ventéjoux (

Notification of acceptance by 29 January 2021.

Papers (presented in French or in English) should not exceed 20 min.

Given the current climate of uncertainty, we will arrange for videoconferencing if the need arises.