Scaling Disaster: Modernity and Risk in Paris, 1897–1903
Flagging events in the press as disastrous authorized public debate about assigning responsibility and designing a proper disaster response. While conservative, Catholic responses routinely explained disasters as God’s punishment for modern hubris and immorality, republicans and progressives used them to celebrate human solidarity, problem solving, and technoscientific improvement. More radical voices saw disasters as indictments of capitalism and the republican nation-state. Defining and debating disasters thus became a way for turn-of-the-century Parisians to construct the meaning of other aspects of urban modernity: technoscience, secularism, political conflict, and so on. In so doing, they were coming to terms with modern Paris’s status as what sociologist Ulrich Beck famously called a “risk society.” By using the concept of geographic scale to examine local definitions of disaster, my paper contributes to French history, disaster studies, urban geography, and the study of modernity.