Scaling Disaster: Modernity and Risk in Paris, 1897–1903

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Peter S. Soppelsa, University of Oklahoma
Disaster studies have posed the difficult question of how large, damaging, memorable or spectacular an event must be to count as a (true) “disaster.” Massive events with high mortality rates and widespread representation—recently Katrina, Fukushima, and “Super-storm” Sandy—seem obvious candidates, but what of smaller scale events? My paper investigates this question by analyzing the use of French terms like catastrophe, désastre and sinistre to describe various local tragedies that struck Paris around 1900. Most of these local disasters were human-made events like transportation and construction accidents, or fires. From the cinema projector fire at the 1897 Bazar de la Charité, through the multiple mortal mishaps at the 1900 Universal Exposition, to the catastrophic 1903 Metro accident, Parisians used a language of disaster to make sense of technology, modernity, and the risk society at the dawn of the twentieth century.

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.