Overturning the Sudden End: New Interpretations of Catastrophe





catastrophe, creativity, culture

How to Cite

Taylor, J., Stevenson, K., Gardiner, A., & Ryan, J. C. (2013). Overturning the Sudden End: New Interpretations of Catastrophe. M/C Journal, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.631
Vol. 16 No. 1 (2013): catastrophe
Published 2013-03-24


Catastrophe surrounds us perpetually: from the Queensland floods, Christchurch earthquake, global warming, and Global Financial Crisis to social conflicts, psychological breaking points, relationship failures, and crises of understanding. As a consequence of the pervasiveness of catastrophe, its representation saturates our everyday awareness. On a daily basis we encounter stories of people impacted by and coping with natural, economic, ecological, and emotional disasters of all kinds.

But what is the relationship between culture, catastrophe, and creativity? Can catastrophe be an impetus for the creative transformation of societies and individuals? Conversely, how can culture moderate, transform, and re-imagine catastrophe? And in the final analysis, how should we conceive of catastrophe; does catastrophe have a bad name? These questions and others have guided us in editing the “catastrophe” issue of M/C Journal.

The word catastrophe has been associated with extreme disaster only since the 1700s. In an earlier etymological sense, catastrophe simply connoted “a reversal of what is expected” or, in Western literary history, a defining turn in a drama (Harper). Catastrophe derives from the Greek katastrophe for “an overturning; a sudden end.” As this issue clearly demonstrates, whilst catastrophes vary in scale, context, and meaning, their outcomes are life-changing inversions of the interpersonal, social, or environmental norm.  

In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon echoes this definition and argues that catastrophe “can be a source of immense creativity—a shock that opens up political, social, and psychological space for fresh ideas, actions, institutions, and technologies that weren't possible before” (23). According to Homer-Dixon and on a hopeful note, “in any complex adaptive system, breakdown, if limited, can be a key part of that system's long-term resilience and renewal” (308). Indeed, many of the articles in this issue sound a note of hope.

Catastrophe and Creativity

The impetus for this issue comes from the Catastrophe and Creativity symposium convened at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia, in 2012. The symposium brought together artists and researchers from around Australia to engage with the theme “catastrophe.” The organisers encouraged participants to conceptualise catastrophe broadly and creatively: from natural disasters to personal turning points, and from debilitating meltdowns to regenerative solutions.

As a result, the topics explored in this issue stretch deeply and widely, and demonstrate the different forms and scales of catastrophe. Many of the 24 articles submitted for possible inclusion in this issue emerged as responses to the symposium theme. Distinct moods and meanings of catastrophe reverberate in the final selection of 12. The articles that shape the issue are intimate, collective, and geographical engagements with and reflections upon cataclysm that move from the highly personal to the global and speak of countries, communities, networks, friends, families, and colleagues.

As a collection, the articles re-envision catastrophe as a pathway for creative interventions, artistic responses, community solidarities, social innovations, individual modes of survival and resilience, and environmental justices. In thinking through the relationship between catastrophe and culture, the authors challenge existing discourses and ways of knowing trauma, and offer fresh interpretations and hope. Catastrophe leads to metanoia: a change of perception after a significant crisis. The editors appreciate that there are no hierarchies between interpretations of catastrophe. Instead, the articles represent a dialogue between diverse experiences of pain, disaster, and abuse, as well as different theories about the nature of catastrophe—from the catastrophic loss of millions through genocide to the impact of trauma on an individual’s body and psyche.

Part of the challenge of crafting this issue of M/C Journal has been in delineating what constitutes catastrophe. Admittedly we end up with more questions than we started with. Is catastrophe the same as trauma? Is it disaster? When is it apocalypse? Can catastrophe entail all these things? Who is silenced, and who can tell the narratives of catastrophe? How? Despite these unanswerable questions, we can be certain that catastrophe, as described by the authors, foundationally changes the fabric of human and non-human being in the world.

The authors leave us with the lingering reverberations and resonances of catastrophe, revealing at the same time how catastrophic events can “reverse the expected” in the true sense of the word. The transformative potential of catastrophe is prominent in the issue. Some authors call for justice, support, inspiration, and resilience—on personal and community levels. The contributions remind us that, after catastrophe, the person, society, or planet will never be the same.

Responses to Catastrophe

The issue opens with the intimate nature of catastrophes. A feature article by esteemed Canadian academic and poet Lorri Neilsen Glenn takes the form of a lyric essay originally presented as the keynote address at the symposium. Composed of extracts from her book Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry (published here with kind permission of the author and Hagios Press) and reflective interludes, Neilsen combines her acute academic insights with personal experiences of loss to create evocative prose and poetry that, as she says, “grounds our grief in form […] connects us to one another and the worlds.” Her work opens for the reader “complex and nuanced understandings of our human capacities for grief.” In this piece, Neilsen speaks of personal catastrophe through lyric inquiry, a method she has described eloquently in the Sage Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research.

The second feature article is a commentary on Neilsen’s work by the equally esteemed feminist scholar Lekkie Hopkins. In her article, Hopkins explains Neilsen’s journey from literacy researcher to arts-based social science researcher to poet and lyric inquirer. Hopkins uses her reflections on the work of Neilsen in order to draw attention, not only to Neilsen’s “ground-breaking uses of lyric inquiry,” but also to another kind of communal catastrophe which Hopkins calls “the catastrophe of the methodological divide between humanities and the social sciences that runs the risk of creating, for the social sciences, a limiting and limited approach to research.”

In her article “Casualties on the Road to Ethical Authenticity,” Kate Rice applies a powerful narrative inquiry to the relationship between catastrophe and ethics. As a playwright experienced in projects dealing with personal catastrophe, Rice nevertheless finds her usual research and writing practice challenged by the specific content of her current project—a  play about the murder of innocents—and its focus on the real-life perpetrator. Ambivalent regarding the fascinated human response such catastrophe draws, Rice suggests that spectacle creates “comfort” associated with “processing sympathy into a feeling of self-importance at having felt pain that isn’t yours.” She also argues against a hierarchy of grief, noting that, “when you strip away the circumstances, the essence of loss is the same, whether your loved one dies of cancer, in a car accident, or a natural disaster.”

In an article tracing the reverberation of catastrophe over the course of 100 years, Marcella Polain explores the impact of the Armenian Genocide’s 1.5 million deaths. Through a purposefully fragmented, non-linear narrative, Polain evokes with exquisite sensitivity the utter devastation the Genocide wreaked upon one family—her own: “When springs run red, when the dead are stacked tree-high, when ‘everything that could happen has already happened,’ then time is nothing: ‘there is no future [and] the language of civilised humanity is not our language’” (Nichanian 142).

The potentiality that can be generated in the aftermath of catastrophe also resonates in an article co-authored by Brenda Downing and Alice Cummins. (A photograph of Downing’s performance aperture is the issue’s cover image.) In their visceral evocation, the catastrophe of childhood rape is explored and enfleshed with a deft and generous touch. Downing, embodying for the reader her experience as researcher, writer, and performer, and Cummins, as Body-Mind Centering® practitioner and artistic director, explore the reciprocity of their collaboration and the performance aperture that they created together. Their collaboration made possible the realisation that “a performance […] could act as a physical, emotional, and intellectual bridge of communication between those who have experienced sexual violence and those who have not.”

Maggie Phillips evokes the authoritative yet approachable voice of her 2012 symposium presentation in “Diminutive Catastrophe: Clown’s Play;” her meditation on clowns and clowning as not only a discipline and practice, but also “a state of being.” In response to large-scale catastrophe, and the catastrophic awareness of “the utter meaninglessness of human existence,” the clown offers “a tiny gesture.” As Phillips argues, however, “those fingers brushing dust off a threadbare jacket may speak volumes.” By inducing “miniscule shifts of consciousness” as they “wander across territories designated as sacred and profane with a certain insouciance and privilege,” clowns offer “glimpses of the ineffable.”

In “Creativity in an Online Community as a Response to the Chaos of a Breast Cancer Diagnosis,” Cynthia Witney, Lelia Green, Leesa Costello, and Vanessa Bradshaw explore the role of online communities, such as the “Click” website, in providing support and information for women with breast cancer. Importantly, the authors show how these communities can provide a forum for the expression of creativity. Through Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” (53), the authors suggest that “becoming totally involved in the creative moment, so as to lose all track of time” allows women temporary space to “forget the trials and worries of breast cancer.” By providing a forum for women and their supporters to reach out to others in similar situations, online communities, inspired by notions of creativity and flow, can offer “some remedy for catastrophe.”

A different impulse pervades Ella Mudie’s insightful examination of the Surrealist city novel. Mudie argues against the elision of historical catastrophe through contemporary practices; specifically, the current reading in the field of psychogeography of Surrealist city dérives (drifts) as playful city walks, or “an intriguing yet ultimately benign method of urban research.” Mudie revisits the Surrealist city novel, evoking the original “praxis of shock” deployed through innovative experiments in novelistic form and content. Binding the theory and practice of Surrealism to the catastrophic event from which it sprang—the Great War—Mudie argues against “domesticating movements” which “dull the awakening power” of such imaginative and desperate revolts against an increasingly mechanised society.

Through discussions of natural disasters, the next three articles bring a distinctive architectural, geographical, and ecological stream to the issue. Michael Levine and William Taylor invoke Susan Sontag’s essay “The Imagination of Disaster” in conceptualising approaches to urban recovery and renewal after catastrophic events, as exemplified by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The authors are interested explicitly in the “imagination of disaster” and the “psychology, politics, and morality of rebuilding,” which they find absent in Sontag’s account of the representation of urban cataclysms in 1950s and 60s science fiction films. Levine and Taylor’s article points to community ethics and social justice issues that—as they outline through different examples from film—should be at the centre of urban reconstruction initiatives. Interpretations of what is meant by reconstruction will vary substantially and, hence, so should community responses be wide-ranging.

Extending the geo-spatial emphasis of Levine and Taylor’s article, Rod Giblett theorises the historical and environmental context of Hurricane Katrina using Walter Benjamin’s productive notion of the “Angel of History.” However, Giblett offers the analogous metaphor of the “Angel of Geography” as a useful way to locate catastrophe in both time (history) and space (geography). In particular, Giblett’s reading of the New Orleans disaster addresses the disruption of the city’s ecologically vital habitats over time. As such, according to Giblett, Katrina was the culmination of a series of smaller environmental  catastrophes throughout the history of the city, namely the obliteration of its wetlands. Benjamin’s “Angel of History,” thereby, recognises the unity of temporal events and “sees a single, catastrophic history, not just of New Orleans but preceding and post-dating it.” Giblett’s archaeology of the Hurricane Katrina disaster provides a novel framework for reconceptualising the origins of catastrophes.

Continuing the sub-theme of natural disasters, Dale Dominey-Howes returns our attention to Australia, arguing that the tsunami is poised to become the “new Australian catastrophe.” Through an analysis of Australian media coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Dominey-Howes asks provocatively: “Has extensive media coverage resulted in an improved awareness of the catastrophic potential of tsunami for Australians?” After speaking with more than 800 Australians in order to understand popular attitudes towards tsunami, the author responds with a definitive “no.” In his view, Australians are “avoiding or disallowing the reality; they normalise and dramaticise the event. Thus in Australia, to date, a cultural transformation about the catastrophic nature of tsunami has not occurred for reasons that are not entirely clear.”

As the final article in the issue, “FireWatch: Creative Responses to Bushfire Catastrophe” gives insights into the real-world experience of managing catastrophes as they occur, in this case, bushfires in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia. Donell Holloway, Lelia Green, and Danielle Brady detail an Australian Research Council funded project that creatively engages with Kimberley residents who “improvise in a creative and intuitive manner” when responding to catastrophe. The authors capture responses from residents in order to redesign an interface that will provide real-time, highly useable information for the management of bushfires in Western Australia.


This “catastophe” issue of M/C Journal explores, by way of the broad reach of the articles, the relationship between culture, creativity, and catastrophe. Readers will have encountered collective creative responses to bushfire or breast cancer, individual responses to catastrophe, such as childhood rape or genocide, and cultural conceptualisations of catastrophe, for example, in relation to New Orlean’s Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The editors hope that, just like the metanoia that catastrophe can bring about (demonstrated so articulately by Downing and Cummins), readers too will experience a change of their perception of catastrophe, and will come to see catastrophe in its many fascinating iterations.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

Harper, Douglas. “catastrophe.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 22 Mar. 2013 .

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Melbourne : Text Publishing, 2007.

Kazanjian, David, and Marc Nichanian. “Between Genocide and Catastrophe.” Loss. Eds. David Eng and David Kazanjian. Los Angeles: U of California P, 2003. 125–47.

Neilsen Glenn, Lorri. Threading Light. Explorations in Loss and Poetry. Regina, SK: Hagios Press, 2011.

Neilsen, Lorri. “Lyric Inquiry.” Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research. Eds. J. Gary Knowles and Ardra Cole. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2008. 88–98.

Author Biographies

Josephine Taylor, Edith Cowan University

Josephine Taylor is a writer, researcher and educator based at Edith Cowan University, Perth. Her personal and lyric essays, drawn from her PhD thesis, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography, cross the genres of memoir, fiction and academic essay, and refer to various disciplines, including medicine, feminism, medical history, and mysticism.

Kylie Stevenson, Edith Cowan University

Kylie J Stevenson is a writer, reviewer and academic whose work has appeared in Axon online journal, Australian Book Review, Readings Magazine, Melbourne, and the poetry anthology Breath of the Sea. She is completing a PhD on the river as a metaphor for the creativity of artists in academia. She has lived in Melbourne, the United Kingdom and most recently moved to Perth, Western Australia, to undertake PhD studies at Edith Cowan University. In 2004, Kylie completed a Master of Creative Writing (novel writing) at RMIT University, where she subsequently taught creative writing until 2008.

Amanda Gardiner, Edith Cowan University

Amanda Gardiner is a PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University. Her research project, “Sex, Death and Desperation: Infanticide, Neonaticide and Concealment of Birth in Colonial Western Australia,” is an investigation into the practice of child murder in colonial Western Australia from non-Aboriginal settlement in 1829 to Australian federation in 1901.

John Charles Ryan, Edith Cowan University

John Ryan is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University. He is the author of Green Sense (TrueHeart Press, 2012), Unbraided Lines (Common Ground, 2013 forthcoming) and, with the botanical illustrator Ellen Hickman, Two With Nature (Fremantle Press, 2012). His research interests include the environmental humanities and critical plant studies.