Catastrophe in Twentieth-Century European Thought. A Critical Conceptual History

This dissertation project, supervised by Anson Rabinbach at Princeton University, traces the dynamic history of the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals and responses to the Holocaust. It synthesizes conceptions of catastrophe across many disciplines and highlights the centrality of this concept in the work of some of the twentieth-century’s most important intellectuals, including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Günther Anders, and Reinhart Koselleck. Considered together, these thinkers form an intellectual network linked by responses to the cataclysms many of them experienced firsthand. Whereas, for Koselleck, crisis was a “fundamental concept” of modern historical experience, this project suggests that catastrophe superseded crisis as a fundamental historical and political concept after the rupture of the Second World War. In the course of the twentieth century, the “open horizon” Koselleck attributed to modern historical temporality became increasingly clouded by visions of catastrophe, from nuclear threats during the Cold War to the “slow catastrophe” of climate change today. With increasing consciousness of impending catastrophe, European intellectuals took up the new imperative of “thinking against catastrophe,” as Günther Anders once put it. Adorno thus remarked in 1965 that “progress today really does mean simply the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe.” Catastrophe is thus not simply a negative signifier for violence and destruction, but also played an essential positive role in reconstructing postwar thought by prompting the critical opportunity and moral imperative to imagine how society could be different.

Research Award, German-American Fulbright Commission 2019–2020
Head researcher(s): Jonathon Catlin