DEFINE | Emergency

Posted on 26/02/2013


I noted Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain in my previous post, having been told about it by a friend. Upon further googling, I found a more recent work, Thinking in an Emergency, in which Scarry discusses the nature and state of emergency, including the condition of ‘chronic emergency’ in which we now live. She points to a dictatorial response to emergency, as a residue of the nuclear age, with an assertion that:

correctly understood, we collectively and thoughtfully address many forms of emergency conditions and do so by honouring – not abandoning – procedures that are legal, open, widely undestood and carefully prepared in advance of the crisis to make possible a democratic, not a dictatorial response.

While I’ve not ventured too far into this work yet, I have paused in the introduction to consider two statements about the nature of emergency and immediacy.

The first sets up a dichotomy of thinking and acting.

The implicit claim of emergency is that all procedures and all thinking must cease because the emergency requires that 1) action must be taken, and 2) the action must be taken relatively quickly. It is odd to set the first of these, the requirement that action be taken, in opposition to deliberative thinking. The unspoken presumption is that either can think or one can act, and given that it is absolutely mandatory that an action be performed then thinking falls away. But at least one whole genre of thinking – what Aristotle called ‘deliberation’ – has no other function than precisely to enable the taking of actions.

She further describes this as seductions to give up thinking – noting such seductions as problematic and not particularly creditable. The second statement seems to establish the temporal conditions for that thinking and acting in a situation of change.

The basic assumption during peace time is that the world stays the same and persons change. The stability of the world world acts as the background for the display of our changes, our circuitous throughts, our contemplative digressions. But in an emergency, this is inverted: the world is changing more quickly than we can change.

With our most recent flood, rain and fire events in Australia, I am wondering if we are becoming more aware of the world changing more quickly than we can change. Are we recognising the emergency conditions of climate change? Did the ‘build back better’ mantra really deliver? People just settled need to be resettled. Infrastructure just built needs to be rebuilt.

And then, consider the GFC and the raft of austerity measures inflicted on populations in Europe and America. The emergency is long and cruel.

Scarry goes on to make connections to to theatre – the immobilisation or obedience of audiences and the enslavement of attention. I can see this in the way the media and political process operate during emergencies.