History, Theory, and Limit Events

The historiography of natural disasters reminds me in many ways of that of trauma. Like other “limit events” of extreme violence and massive or senseless death, natural disasters present a series of conceptual difficulties for the historian. Namely, both natural disasters and trauma tend to resist single explanatory frameworks as they involve structural factors (the weather, geography, the economy, culture, society…) as well as ideological ones (specific policies or beliefs of one or several actors). Moreover, in both cases, the actual events appear profoundly entangled with the victims’ experience of these events. This means that attention to memory — to what is useful about it and what is more problematic — is also crucial.

In his engaging, provocative, and often chilling new book, Fatal Isolation, Richard Keller takes on this historiographical challenge as he offers us a fascinating account of the 2003 heat wave that left 15,000 dead in France. Rather than privileging numbers (structures) or individual policies (ideologies), Keller’s book explores three narratives: “the official story of the crisis as it unfolded and its aftermath, as presented by the media and the state; the anecdotal lives and deaths of its victims, and the ways in which they illuminate and challenge typical representations of the heat wave; and the scientific understandings of the catastrophe and its management” (4). By untangling these three narratives and exposing their limits, Keller proposes to emphasize instead the “particularities of the French experience of the disaster…, the social fault lines the disaster revealed and the historical factors that shaped its course” (9). Keller’s book reminds us that numbers, whether in the fields of biology, demography, epidemiology, or economics, are never neutral and always political. It is a beautiful example of how historical analysis, when interwoven with “interviews and observations, close readings of the press, careful analysis of visual material, and research in archives and libraries” (12) can bring to light these political stakes and denaturalize and question self-evident claims, in the tradition of what Michel Foucault has called the “history of the present.”

What, then, does the heat wave tell us about France in 2003? According to Keller, the heat wave casts in high relief two themes: “The first is the social and political marginalization of large populations in the contemporary period; the second is their resulting invisibility” (12). If citizenship is not simply limited to formal rights such as voting but requires the broader “integration of individuals into the public sphere on a community level” (168), then the heat wave reveals the difficulty of integrating the elderly, the sick, and the poor into the framework of the nation. To make sense of this “landscape of vulnerability” (13), Keller turns to the framework of biopolitics, to Agamben’s notion of “bare life,” and to Judith Butler’s concept of “ungrievable deaths” (15-16; 166-7). Although these vulnerable populations were not killed “on purpose” by the state, they were let to die because of the differential valuations of their lives.

Much of Keller’s account of why the poor, the elderly, the homeless, and the sick were the primary victims of the heat wave has to do with factors that are specifically French. With admirable clarity, Keller guides us through the history of paid vacations in France to understand why it mattered that the heat wave happened in August; through the history of architecture and urban planning in Paris, from Haussmann to today, to explain why some habitats (the chambre de bonne in particular) were most susceptible; and through the history of French family policy to show how the state progressively constructed the elderly as unproductive, useless, and burdensome, starting in the postwar period.

This redefinition of aging was not simply a consequence of the “bad economy,” of neoliberal policies, or of the destruction of the welfare state, as the left has often contended (147-8). Rather, Keller argues, it was a French cultural and political phenomenon. While I find Keller’s criticism of the economic thesis persuasive, I wonder why the discourse of “social fragmentation” was so appealing in this particular time and place (i.e. France in 2003). The population policy that focused on the birthrate and immigration, that was devised in the 1930s to remedy France’s “depopulation problem” and rethought after the Second World War in the context of Social Security, was fundamentally entangled with “the social question.” The architects of family policy believed that the family could operate as the constitutive pillar of the social order, and as such, that it could serve as the basis of solidarity, a concept especially important in republican political culture.

In recent years, family policy has been successively revised and adapted to include divorced families, single-parent-households, same-sex couples and parents. Those opposed to these changes have often deplored the “social fragmentation” that will come about if the law recognizes these new family formations. “Social fragmentation” is also routinely invoked in the context of immigration to decry the new immigrants’ inability to embrace the values of the Republic. In other words, the “social fracture” that was so often invoked after the 2003 heat wave is perhaps more historically specific: these deaths seem to expose, once again, the failures of the republican social model to integrate its citizens, the fractures of this model of solidarity that has privileged unity, cohesion, and uniformity, at the expense of difference. It is interesting for example, that Keller pauses on Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Possibility of an Island, since Houellebecq’s work has been, for the past two decades, one the most symptomatic expressions of this “crisis of the republican social model” – a crisis that according to Houellebecq was brought about by feminism, Islam, multiculturalism, and liberalism, all of which he perceives as “communitarian” and divisive. None of these factors are of course directly related to the heat wave but given their weight in contemporary French politics and culture, I wonder how much they shaped the discourse around the 2003 canicule.

But if Keller provides so much helpful context to help us grasp the significance of the 2003 heat wave, the explanatory framework that he ultimately favors remains remarkably abstract. How can Agamben’s notion of “bare life” address the historical and geographical specificity of this crisis? Historians (such as Dominick LaCapra) have strongly criticized Agamben’s work for anchoring his theoretical intervention on the case study of the Holocaust, for referring to the concentration camp as the paradigm of modernity, thus blurring crucial normative distinctions. How then, can we use Agamben’s understanding of biopolitics while remaining conscious of the temporal and regional specificity of this crisis? By raising these difficult methodological questions about the relationship between historical specificity and theoretical abstraction, Fatal Isolation is a perfect example of how history and theory can complement each other to work through these extreme and traumatic events.


Camille Robcis is Associate Professor of History at Cornell University. She is the author of The Law of Kinship: Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, and the Family in France (Cornell University Press, 2013) and of several essays that have appeared in Modern Intellectual History, Yale French Studies, Social Text, French Historical Studies, Discourse, and the Journal of Modern History.

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