HISTORY 215 - The History of Disaster
Section: 001 Infrastructure and Accidents in History
Term: FA 2017
Subject: History (HISTORY)
Department: LSA History
Requirements & Distribution:
May not be repeated for credit.
Primary Instructor:

This class will consider a series of industrial disasters, from the Zong massacre to the Grenfell fire. For each disaster, we will ask the following questions: what did this disaster help make; what did it make visible; and what was made in its wake? The disasters we will consider served as touchstones of their era. They were taken by contemporaries to reveal fundamental realities of their time. For this reason, they can serve as lenses through which to view modern histories, and through which to grasp frameworks of understanding held by those in the past. In studying industrial disasters, we must contend both with histories of modern capitalism, slavery, and state-making — phenomena tied up with such disasters — as well as with collective efforts to understand and to change the conditions that enabled industrial disasters to occur.

The course will begin by focusing on the Grenfell Tower fire, which occurred this past summer. Students will be asked to locate source materials that show how this disaster was interpreted by its contemporaries. In reading up on this disaster, we will see how the Grenfell fire frequently was compared to Hurricane Katrina, and thus how Katrina continues to organize our perception of large-scale industrial and infrastructural breakdowns. We will therefore prioritize a multi-sided examination of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath — an examination that will entail placing this disaster into a genealogy of infrastructural breakdown along the Mississippi River Delta, and into the context of the world-historical catastrophe that was chattel slavery. For the latter, we will examine both steamboat explosions on the nineteenth century Mississippi River, and the Zong massacre of 1781 — an event that galvanized early abolitionist energies. The Zong massacre will help us to see the close association between disaster and legal reform — an association that we will follow up through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, focusing particularly on how regular railway accidents became occasions not only for legal reforms, but for wider transformations in modes of governance and citizenship. The final weeks of the course will focus especially on questions of citizenship and self-making; that is, on how those directly and indirectly affected by twentieth century industrial disasters — from nuclear meltdowns, to gas leaks, to factory fires — survived and helped forge alternatives to the social and infrastructural conditions that enabled these disasters to occur.

Course Requirements:

Students will be expected to read approximately 50 pages per week, prepare for course discussions, and compose an original research paper on a particular industrial disaster. Students will be asked to spend no more than $25 on reading materials.

Intended Audience:

The course is designed to be welcoming and engaging for majors and non-majors alike. Students interested in science and technology studies, and in the critical study of race, class, and gender may be particularly interested in this course.

Class Format:

Involves a combination of lecture and discussion, does not have any prerequisite requirements.

HISTORY 215 - The History of Disaster
Schedule Listing
001 (LEC)
TuTh 10:00AM - 11:30AM
002 (DIS)
Th 12:00PM - 1:00PM
004 (DIS)
Th 3:00PM - 4:00PM
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