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Preparedness and the Positivist Epistemology of Fiction

Sat, November 11, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Water Tower, Concourse Level West Tower


This paper is taken from a larger project that investigates how preparedness materials use fictionality, or the concept of fiction, to manage our responses in the present to future catastrophe. Preparedness––a national security paradigm that moved to the center of US policy following September 11, 2001––simulates future catastrophic threats in order to plan for their emergence. It emphasizes institutional readiness and emergency management, training people to handle a variety of potential catastrophic threats––terrorist attacks, hurricanes, pandemics––using the same protocols for response. The project gathers together a wide variety of preparedness materials––aimed at both governmental officials and the general public––to investigate how this training teaches people to accept future catastrophe as part of everyday life.

In this paper, however, I focus on one specific cluster of preparedness materials––the Hurricane Pam training exercise, held in southeast Louisiana one year before Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent Senate investigation into this exercise’s effectiveness after Katrina––to develop an understanding of how preparedness uses fictionality as a mode of governance. Although the Senate investigation into the Hurricane Pam training exercise was meant to determine how it could have been improved to better prepare officials for Katrina, the effectiveness of the training exercise as such was never at issue. Instead, the investigating committee focused on responders’ lack of professionalism and their inability to accurately follow the plan developed as a result of the training exercise. This is no mere rhetorical slight of hand on the part of the exercise’s defenders. Instead, I argue it reflects a larger rationality of preparedness: what I call a “positivist epistemology of fiction.” The Senate investigation report, for example, uses the term “data” to describe information about the fictional hurricane described in the Hurricane Pam exercise, meaning it focuses on this fictional hurricane as a phenomenon that we can understand empirically. To understand fiction in this way is to understand it not as representative of potential possibilities––of what could happen––but rather as actually productive of future catastrophes in the present. This does not mean, however, that preparedness materials are interested in claiming the future disasters they project are “real.” Indeed, part of the defense of the Hurricane Pam exercise articulated in the report is it is “only” a fictional hurricane. In other words, preparedness materials want it both ways: they want to understand fiction empirically while also claiming that it is unreal. This is politically efficacious for preparedness: it means that training exercises can never fail to prepare people for future catastrophes, even when they obviously do, because the catastrophes for which they prepare us always remain fictional. The paper ends by reflecting on the possibilities this positivist epistemology of fiction leaves open for resistance. If the imagination of alternative futures can be used as a tool to maintain the status quo, what avenues do we have for imagining better modes of disaster management?


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