Two articles in the Guardian on the Chilean earthquake caught my eye on Monday:
- In Chile’s earthquake was horrible – but it could have been so much worse Rory Carrol points to the material differences between the Chilean earthquake and January’s much more destructive Haiti quake. The tectonic movements that Carol points to as the determinant of a quake’s strength are a reminder of the irruptive materiality of the environment. What caught my eye in this report, however, was the reference to the manner in which the urban fabric was key to the fate of the population in both cases. The nature of materials used and their organisation via building codes led to different outcomes in both cases. Indeed, as Jane Bennett has argued, we could say that the buildings in these cases have a certain agency – for example, they are described as swaying, rather than resisting the quake in the Chilean case (and thus preventing a repeat of the catastrophic death toll seen in Haiti). As such the entity to which we must refer in any understanding of this quake and its socio-political consequences, form a complex assemblage of people and things, reaffirming the importance of according materiality its proper place when considering such events.
- Chilean military takes control of quake-hit cities [followed on Tuesday by Chile earthquake: Troops sent in to deter looting and violence], reminded me of the power of Richard Norton’s concept of Feral Cities. Norton’s essay casts the urban centres of the global south as a primary threat in the contemporary period (echoing Robert Kaplan to some extent). Norton sees these urban centres as potentially slipping back into a state of nature. On the one hand infrastructures could be overwhelmed by environmental events such as earthquakes (as in the case of Chile) or rising seas levels. On the other hand Norton perceives cities in the global south as having a propensity to lawlessness – as being on the cusp of a return to a Hobbesian state of nature. This has led to the perception that urban order and military force should be closely linked. As Steve Graham has noted, this was seen very clearly in the militarised response to Hurricane Katrina. In the case of Katrina and Chile, looting is perceived as an indicator of a dangerous lawlessness that must be met with military force, rather than a rational response to the collapse of the infrastructures of contemporary urbanity. As such, then, although we might not like Norton’s vision (and indeed it is one that – like Kaplan’s – I would prefer to read as an imaginative geography than a statement of fact) its tropes can be observed exercising a powerful grip on contemporary events.