Joanne Garde-Hansen, Director of the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, University of Warwick
I have been reading this book recently: Disaster Writing: The Cultural Politics of Catastrophe in Latin America by Mark Anderson, partly because I am very interested in an arts and humanities approach to drought risk and resilience and partly because of ongoing research with Brazilian colleagues. The science of drought aside, what I am always reminded of when working with colleagues in Latin America, is that water scarcity is not simply a matter of policy (scientific, economic, or even public engagement) it is also a matter of cultural policy, and by extension cultural narratives (which are nationally specific but globally shared) play a significant part in perception, reception and behaviour.
The book has a very interesting chapter on ‘Drought and the Literary Construction of Risk’ and the introduction on ‘normal nature to natural disaster’ is also useful for those interested in exploring the tipping points as perceived. The drought chapter pertains to Brazil and the late 19th/early part of the 20th Century, and makes the case that as scientific data was absent then literary data, folk culture and imaginative constructions served as evidence of drought and its impacts. Before science could make drought increasingly visible art and culture served as the early warning system. Drought requires a persistence of vision that is difficult to represent through numbers alone, while stories are memorable and sustainable.
There is a through-line in this book and chapter about an over reliance on science and social science since the 1960s influenced by European thinkers permeating Brazilian academia, that places other kinds of knowledge about drought at a disadvantage. Anderson mentions several types of drought narratives at work in literary cultures that construct and ultimately institutionalise drought in the national imaginary (there was the Great Drought of 1877-1879 and the drought of 1915 as key events):
These texts reformulated the vague notion of drought as a purely natural phenomenon of incalculable destructive force into a refined system governed by the interaction of classifiable variables, including social and political factors not formerly considered. More than impartial ethnographies, these novels’ meticulous descriptions of local economic contexts, cultural customs, and political and social orders correspond to the calculated objectivity of risk assessment, with its aim of assigning contingent values to unknown quantities. (Anderson, 2011, p.66)
While working on the DRY Project, I am often struck by this ‘assigning of contingent values to unknown quantities’ that seems to be at the heart of both the science and art of drought risk and its representation. What is interesting in Anderson’s analysis that is useful for the DRY project are the following points:
- The literary formula adopted realist narrative tropes and collected the stories of ‘typical’ figures to stand in for the whole then added facts so as to account for all of the causes and impacts of drought.
- The tropes used by literary authors focus on a character whose story stands in for family, community, nation, but the writers were always outsiders to the experience of drought
- The stories show drought to ‘be the tipping point’, so it does not cause the social, economic problems but exacerbates pre-existing ones and the concept of ‘moral drought’ that precedes the actual drought plays a pivotal role in these narratives.
- Drought narratives are not playful, satirical, humorous or use language in deconstructive ways: they are often dry and desiccated
- Drought risk must be reduced to knowable probabilities (i.e. simplified) and the literary culture on drought serves the function of creating an essentialized view of drought in order for a calculation to be made. Risk must be assigned through consensus.
- The literature sets in stone drought discourses that continued to influence the national imaginary in specific ways either as a moral, racial, environmental problem or an economic, developmental, political problem, either drought is caused by the degradation of people and their knowledge or it is caused by technocrats mismanaging water. Perhaps both.
- The relationship between drought and national culture and development are key, drought is either caused by too little or too much development.
- Narratives of drought (past and present) serve to write places into a governments’ ‘geography of drought’ and in doing so those places receive funding, and thus new places may need to be written in, in order to get funding/aid
- Policy makers will make reference to narrative tropes, past representations, and stories of drought that can be so successful that they become institutionalized and thus drought becomes a political and technical problem rather than a cultural and social experience
- Before policy, institutionalization and governance, there were locals who predicted drought, assessed its severity by carefully studying their environment through rituals, observing the behaviour of plants, birds, insects and animals, even ‘numerology’ i.e. years ending in 4 and 5 have good rains, years ending in 1,2 and 3 have drought, something called ‘popular empiricism’. This is largely discredited and ignored by a science of drought.