Book Review: Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age


Of Divine Warning: Reading Disaster in the Modern Age
by Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon
Boulder, Colo., Paradigm Publishers, 2009

Though the May 21st Judgment Day, as predicted by Harold Camping and his cult, was a flop, it likely won't stop people from believing in "divine warnings." Zombies, vampires, monsters, mad scientists, apocalyptic thinking and the supernatural are part of a cultural continuum we must heed, argue Jane Anna Gordon and Lewis R. Gordon argue in the recent book, Of Divine Warning if we are to craft realistic and equitable solutions to social and natural problems.

Disasters and monsters provide warnings about real dangers, which to some extent are sometimes beyond human control. As the authors argue, disaster may reveal human weakness but it also demands "our agency, for a political response." We may believe that God sends us warnings about our sins in hurricanes and earthquakes, but what makes them disasters have very much to do with us, our social organization, how we respond (or fail to respond).

For at least a generation, the authors contend, right-wing policies of privatization or elimination of public services have ensured that natural events become disasters. The social inequalities starkly revealed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are only the most notorious recent example.

Natural disasters worsened by human inaction or irrational responses produce monstrous survivors, the authors contend. Because of their association with disaster, survivors appear to the dominant institutions such as media and law enforcement as kinds of monsters, especially when they are from marginalized groups, such as African Americans or the poor.

In popular culture monsters and zombies signify mass thought patterns as well as "phenomena in the social world." Monsters seem to be a reflection of social fears about the loss of control in the face of imbalances of power in the social system. They may also reflect broad anxieties about immigrants. Consider viewing the white supremacist Birth of a Nation alongside the anti-Semitic Nosferatu in this light, as the authors suggest. Both were produced in a period of serious racial, ethnic and patriarchal anxiety in the dominant social group of the time.

Another pertinent example not addressed in the book may be the first Men in Black movie, starring Will Smith and Tomm yLee Jones. About space aliens on earth and the global "border patrol," that movie opens with U.S. federal agents chasing and capturing undocumented immigrants crossing what seems to the border with Mexico.

The authors develop this connection between the appearance of monsters in the popular imagination and systemic racial and ethnic hierarchies in an absorbing chapter that comparatively reads Mary Shelly's Frankenstein with Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks. This chapter explores and links the formation of an image of the monster in the former with the construction of an image of colonized people of color.

In each narrative, the colonizer (represented by Victor Frankenstein in the novel who literally creates a monster) produces an image of the colonized which fulfills the imaginary expectations (e.g. stereotypes) and material needs (e.g. exploited labor) of the colonizer. In each narrative, the colonized (the African in Fanon and the monster in Shelly) eloquently struggles with his relationship to the monstrous image constructed by the colonizer.

While Frankenstein's monster ultimately kills himself and his creator, Fanon's colonized African through articulation and political action "hopes for recognition of the openness of his own and potentially all human consciousness." Indeed, in the post colonial world, creators of monsters have turned the eloquently verbose monster into the indiscriminate, monosyllabic zombie perhaps in response to a fear about the consequences of Fanon's vision.

Readers may find this compact book (120 pages, excluding notes and bibliography) a challenging read as it employs complex arguments and research from a variety of academic fields like cultural studies, history, philosophy, and political science. However, I found its difficulty balanced well by its discussion of entertaining contemporary popular cultural topics and issues. In addition, its insights make it definitely worth the work of reading and understanding it.

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  • Interesting article, how these folk and pop ideas and monsters are part of generalized mass working class behavior. Though I wonder if "people" are not getting a little tired of this genre esp. with the shitty movie production. Bull worth is an interesting movie. Thank you.

    Posted by Mario Calaf Rios Pinot, 06/13/2011 1:07pm (7 years ago)

  • I will buy the book.

    Harold Camping sounds like he plagiarized Jehovah's Witnesses.
    Jehovah Witnesses are a spin-off of the second Adventist which all came from the Millerite movement.American war of 1812 army captain William Miller is ground zero for Jehovah's Witnesses.
    Yes,the "great disappointment" of Oct 22 1844 has never died out... it lives on in the Jehovah's Witnesses.
    The central CORE doctrine of the Watchtower,yes the reason the Watchtower came into existence was to declare Jesus second coming in 1914.When the prophecy (derived from William Miller of 1842) failed they said that he came "invisibly".
    Watchtower reckless predictions of the (1914) (1975)..... second coming of Christ hardens skeptics in their unbelief and provides new fodder for cynics to mock the Christian faith.
    Danny Haszard been there

    Posted by Danny Haszard, 05/31/2011 2:20pm (7 years ago)

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