CATASTROPHE CALLS FOR INTERPRETATION. Over two thousand books pertaining to catastrophe or disaster have come out in the United States alone since 2000, ranging from popular genres to scientific volumes in fields as different as ethnography, geology, history, gender studies, literature studies, media studies, sociology, and philosophy. Disaster movies entertain large audiences with gripping plots and spellbinding images. Our volume investigates this fascination with catastrophes or disasters. Catastrophe and Catharsis: Perspectives on Disaster and Redemption in German Culture and Beyond explores approaches to catastrophe and its representations in Germany and neighboring countries from a variety of disciplinary perspectives within the humanities and the social sciences, drawing on literary texts, films, visual images, as well as historical documents. Cultural and political contexts determine the meaning of disastrous events and the narratives we create about catastrophe therefore change over time. Whereas the 1883 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa is commonly considered to be the first catastrophe whose effects could be measured around the globe, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster marks a shift away from local or national frameworks toward a global or transnational reception of catastrophes and their sociopolitical impact. Scholars, in turn, increasingly focus on larger historical and sociopolitical contexts as they analyze how we represent and cope with disaster in a global world. But even centuries before international disasters such as the Chernobyl reactor accident, catastrophes like the 1755 Lisbon earthquake inspired the literary and visual imagination beyond cultural or national borders. The majority of catastrophes discussed in this volume did not take place in Germany but had a strong resonance within German-speaking culture, underscoring the significance of disaster discourse at the intersection between the national and the global.
For the scholar of catastrophe and its representation the ubiquity of the disastrous presents rich material but also significant classificatory challenges, beginning with questions of definition. Following common practice in the English language, we use the terms “disaster” and “catastrophe” synonymously in this volume. What qualifies as a catastrophe, furthermore, very much depends on the context and the rhetorical intent. The terms “catastrophe” and “disaster” show up frequently in a variety of frameworks and genres, ranging from everyday speech, where they are often used in the hyperbolic referencing of comparatively minor incidents, to events resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives or quantified by an economic cost in the millions or billions of dollars.