Dr. Robert Ficociello, Assistant Professor of Writing for the School of Arts and Sciences, has co-authored a book titled America’s Disaster Culture: The Production of Natural Disasters in Literature and Pop Culture.
The book is built on the premise that a natural disaster is a commodity produced for public consumption, and in turn, can be used for profit. Ficociello cites examples such as the Cold War, which threatened the “natural” way of life and instated a cultural fear to destroy landscapes, ideals, and symbols. Consequently, he adds, that terrorism and immigration are the new Cold War—an external and internal threat that focuses on our "natural" day-to-day lives, which now revolves around consuming goods. Ficociello notes that in addition to Hollywood profiting from these events, social media, cable news, and politicians produce fear of disasters and reap profits in our disaster economy.
“The main point of the book is that natural disasters no longer exist,” Ficociello said. “In fact, Nature does not exist, so how can Nature cause a disaster? By these propositions, we mean to say that humans and Nature cannot be divided. In the past, these elements have been adversaries: Man vs. Nature. This dichotomy is still used in the politics and the narratives of disasters, but philosophically, we should realize that Nature exists because we have deemed it thusly—we have defined Nature over the centuries in different, fluid ways. Therefore, the idea of Nature is a construction of man—not that Nature has no meaning. On the contrary, man has imbued ‘Nature’ with such an overload of meaning that ‘Nature’ can be used for political, economic, and cultural purposes. The book looks at disasters like the Dust Bowl, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy, and we analyze how Nature—as a term and concept—is used.”
Ficociello has experienced natural disasters in the past. Having lived in New Orleans prior to and after Hurricane Katrina, as well as other disaster-related areas such as Florida and the Northeast, Ficociello and his co-author Robert Bell began noticing how the media portrayed the occurrences.
“When one experiences a disaster, one must notice how the media portrays it,” he said. “I began to see differences between these versions. My co-author, Robert Bell, still lives in New Orleans, and his relationship to hurricanes is daily—with his house, the weather, and the politics. We saw disaster studies as an opportunity to add to the scholarship and research a topic that interests us. Our loftier ambitions are set on changing how people think about natural disasters, real and fictional.”
The book corresponds with Ficociello’s junior seminar ENGL327 class on natural disasters in literature and pop culture.
“We first looked at how natural disasters are contextualized currently by writers and scholars in the discipline of ecocriticism,” he said. “Then, we analyze three disasters: the Dust Bowl, Hurricane Katrina, and the zombie apocalypse. We read fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and we have watched feature films, documentary, and propaganda. Because of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria, we dedicate part of class for discussing these tragedies.”
Ficociello is also working on a separate book, Eco Culture: Disaster, Discourse, and Narrative, due out by the end of the year, that is an extension of the group’s work in Disaster Culture.
"Eco Culture: Disaster, Discourse, and Narrative takes a global approach to the production of disasters, those considered natural and man-made. This book extends some of the conclusions in America’s Disaster Culture. However, we collapse the binary of ecology and culture into Eco Culture. Disasters, unfortunately, are the events in which ecology and culture are most noticeably superimposed. Just look at the tragic events in Puerto Rico and the subsequent political ineptitude. To me, one of the detrimental qualities of ‘existing’ in a virtual, social-media world is losing the capacity to empathize. We have the convenience to donate at Walmart or as in in-app purchase, and this commodifies our emotional response and fulfills a responsibility. But this also takes us away from the non-commodified activity of thinking—real thought about climate or energy policy. We trust Red Cross with our money, and strangely enough, we trust politicians—not scientists–with our environment.”