Crisis Narratives | 2015-2016

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During the 2015-16 academic year, the Humanities Lab investigated the concept of crisis with a series of linked lectures, readings, workshops, and discussions. We explored major contemporary events that we might describe by using this term, and interrogated the narratives that emerge from such critical moments.

Part of our task is to redirect our understanding of the concept itself. In contemporary use “crisis” seems to refer most directly to disaster or catastrophe, to extreme situations or events whose impact is immeasurable. Alternatively, “crisis” is often presented as an opportunity, an opening of spaces that can be filled with our preexisting agendas and priorities. People tend to think of a crisis as a situation that is fast-paced or uncontrollable, and that requires expedient or categorical solutions. Characterized by a news cycle that seems to be addicted to crisis, our media and cultural landscapes create a public sphere that is often reeling from one grand apocalypse to another.

Do we need to assume that moments of crisis require fast thinking and fast action? Communities, governments, international governance bodies, and aid organizations have become much more efficient in deploying help and inventing solutions for different types of disasters. Emergency preparedness has become a national and international priority. But many contemporary issues require a different time frame. Responding to a dangerous situation must be quick and effective, but do decisions and actions have to be fast? Something is lost when “action” becomes merely “reaction.” And what about forethought and planning? What about the situations we know are critical, and that we have to start addressing or responding to before they erupt into a proverbial crisis?

In ancient Greek the word “crisis” (κρίσις) refers to judgement, to turning points and decisions. Thinking about crisis as a moment of reflection or decision, a moment of judgement and evaluation, might allow us to reconsider our approach.  Allowing time for reflection may bring awareness to the fact that at its core the word “crisis” also includes a slower time frame. Perhaps it is time to imagine a more deliberative, future-focused, proactive, and indeed critical response to the challenges of the contemporary world.


Fall 2015 Lecture Series

reportingBill Gentle | Reporting from Crisis Zones

We launched our series of events on the concept of crisis with the work of Bill Gentile, journalist, filmmaker and professor at American University’s School of Communication.

Gentile is the founder and director of American University’s Backpack Journalism Project. He is a pioneer of “backpack video journalism” and today he is one of the craft’s most noted practitioners. He is the author of the highly acclaimed “Essential Video Journalism Field Manual.” He engineered the School of Journalism’s 2015 partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and is the driving force behind that initiative.


FukushimaCeline-Marie Pascale | Vernacular Epistemologies of Risk: The Crisis in Fukushima

Celine-Marie Pascale, professor of Sociology and expert in the fields of epistemology and language, examined the production of U.S. media discourses regarding the public health risks posed by the massive nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Based on analysis of over 2100 media accounts, she illustrates how media discourses created vernacular epistemologies that constituted not only particular kinds of knowledge but also particular kinds of global citizens.

The earthquake and tsunami events, commonly known in Japan as “3/11,” caused dramatic transformations to the natural, built, and social environments. But as professor Pascale discusses in this project, there were also epistemic changes arising from this disaster that are less obvious but perhaps no less profound in their consequences. The discourses of risk in media provided a very particular vernacular epistemology for risk assessment, both now and in the future. Through dominant reporting practices, media did not just shape perceptions of the Fukushima disaster, they provided heuristics—a vernacular epistemology— through which the importance and risk of nuclear radiation is to be understood.


Drivingdetroit_2George Galster | Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City

For most of the twentieth century, Detroit was a symbol of American industrial might, a place of entrepreneurial and technical ingenuity where the latest consumer inventions were made available to everyone through the genius of mass production. Today, Detroit is better known for its dwindling population, moribund automobile industry, and alarmingly high murder rate. In Driving Detroit, author George Galster, a fifth-generation Detroiter and internationally known urbanist, sets out to understand how the city has come to represent both the best and worst of what cities can be, all within the span of a half century. Galster invites the reader to travel with him along the streets and into the soul of this place to grasp fully what drives the Motor City.

With a scholar’s rigor and a local’s perspective, Galster uncovers why metropolitan Detroit’s cultural, commercial, and built landscape has been so radically transformed. He shows how geography, local government structure, and social forces created a housing development system that produced sprawl at the fringe and abandonment at the core. Galster argues that this system, in tandem with the region’s automotive economic base, has chronically frustrated the population’s quest for basic physical, social, and psychological resources. These frustrations, in turn, generated numerous adaptations—distrust, scapegoating, identity politics, segregation, unionization, and jurisdictional fragmentation—that collectively leave Detroit in an uncompetitive and unsustainable position.

Cosponsored with the Metropolitan Policy Center, American University


CitizenClaudia Rankine | Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine visited American University in November 2015 for a series of events connected to her award-winning book Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014).

Citizen: An American Lyric is a cutting meditation on race and the crisis of citizenship in contemporary America. The Humanities Lab partnered with the Creative Writing Program Visiting Writers Series and the Department of Literature to discuss the book at several events.

Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry and two plays and is the editor of multiple anthologies. Citizen was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, the NAACP Image Award, the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection, and the PEN Open Book Award.


Spring 2016 Lecture Series

protestcultureegyptElliott Colla | Revolution in Verse: Protest Culture in Egypt

Professor Elliott Colla (Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Georgetown University) discussed the literary heritage of “The Arab Spring” as a way of evaluating how poetry informs activism and political protest.

When Egyptians took to the streets five years ago, they armed themselves with poems. During the initial 18-day period of revolution, the soundtrack was that of rhyming couplets and song, through which revolutionaries managed to articulate a wide range of demands, complaints and dreams. What is it about poetry that makes it so useful to protest movements? What can the study of slogans teach us about poetry and literature?

A celebrated scholar of Arabic literature, translator, and novelist, Professor Colla is currently a William Bentinck-Smith Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard University. This engaging talk on political slogans in Egypt was part of his new book in progress, The People Wanted: Words, Movements, and Egyptian Revolution.


domesticviolenceRachel Louise Snyder | Eradicating Domestic Violence

In this lecture Rachel Louise Snyder presented her groundbreaking investigation into domestic violence, and offered her insights about how new methods of evaluation and new collaborative practices can make a difference in curbing domestic homicide. Featured in The New Yorker and other major publications, her research is also informing discussions of policy, and changing law enforcement and social programs that respond to domestic violence today.



environmentalcrisisPaul Wapner | The Global Environmental Crisis

For decades, environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about the environmental “crisis.” They warn that the earth’s ecosystems are in acute danger and that injustices abound as people exploit each other through the medium of nature. How useful is the concept of “crisis” to describe environmental degradation? It is certainly the case that climate change, freshwater scarcity, loss of biological diversity, and other factors are undermining the planet’s life-support systems, and that untold numbers of people and creatures are affected. But does labeling these phenomena as a “crisis” help or hinder humanity’s ability to respond? In this talk, Professor Paul Wapner examined the relationship between crisis and response.


Jay Melder | Responding to Homelessness in DC

Jay Melder, Chief of Staff at the DC Department of Human Services, discussed the challenge of homelessness for the future of DC. Our city has experienced incredible change and growth in the last decades, but still struggles with poverty, gentrification, the displacement of long-time residents, and urban homelessness. Melder explained how city agencies, organizations, and officials take on the challenges of chronic homelessness in a city that has been radically transformed in recent years by new urban developments and changing demographics.



You can view or download the poster here:


Poster design by Devin Symons, 2015,  and Zachary Porter, 2016