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Profs and Pints DC presents: “Confronting Catastrophe,” a historical look at how our culture has responded to huge loss, with Cynthia A. Kierner, professor of history at George Mason University and author of Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood.
It seems like every day there’s a hurricane, wildfire, plane crash, or some other calamity that kills people and destroys property. Yet we hear about few comparable events in the premodern era, despite the fact that it was obviously a deadlier, more dangerous time. Why do we hear of so few disasters in premodern times, and why do there seem to be so many now?
Join Dr. Cynthia Kierner, who teaches courses on disasters throughout history and wrote an acclaimed history of how Western societies have coped with disaster over the past four hundred years, for a fascinating look at how America evolved its current culture of interpreting and responding to destructive events.
She’ll look at the pivotal role of shipwreck stories in the popular culture of disasters, and why an earthquake in faraway Lisbon was a key moment in the history of how Great Britain and British North America dealt with catastrophic events. She’ll discuss what the massive yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s tell us about politics and culture in the early American republic, why exploding steamboats inspired the first federal disaster prevention efforts in the 1830s and 1840s, and how the federal disaster relief efforts of Cold War America came to be.
A central theme of her talk will be that events like hurricanes are objective fact, but the term “disaster” is subjective, covering how a society interprets and responds to destructive events. What stories we tell about disasters, what precautions we take in response to them, and what aid we offer to the affected all reflect the intellectual, economic, and political environments of earlier eras.
Knowing this historical context won’t shield you from disasters, but it might help you make more sense of their aftermath. (Advance tickets: $12. Doors: $15, or $13 with a student ID. Listed time is for doors. Talk starts 30 minutes later. Please allow yourself time to place any orders and get seated and settled in. Please bring proof of vaccination as it may be required in response to local infection rates.)
Image: Part of an 1890 lithograph of the Johnstown flood published by Kurz & Allison Art Publishers.