The Temporality of Disaster

There have been a number of books about heat waves and disasters in the past fifteen years, paralleling the growth of the field of emergency disaster preparedness. Focusing on the event, these by and large reveal how the social dimensions of disaster have a determining affect on who lives and who dies.

By focusing on the 2003 heat wave in Paris, Richard Keller’s important and insightful book Fatal Isolation joins these books in telling us about what determines who lives and dies during disasters; but as a historian, he extends our field of vision beyond the immediate present of emergency, and beyond the future of disaster preparedness. To me, the great feat of this “history of the present” is to extend our understanding of the temporality of disaster. It opens up increasingly pressing questions about responsibility and accountability — questions that apply equally to other environmental injuries.

Fatal Isolation takes us well into the history of Paris, from the French Revolution to nineteenth-century Hausmannization, to show how inequalities were built into the urban landscape. In particular, in chapter 3, Keller reveals the vertical stratification of those affected by heat — that is, the most vulnerable were those who lived higher up, under the tin roofs of the classically beautiful Parisian buildings, in what were “chambres de bonne,” or maids’ quarters. We might have imagined a different social geography of poverty and vulnerability, centered on the infamous Parisian banlieues; but Keller shows us otherwise, and how this vulnerability is designed into the urban infrastructures. Indeed, his argument is that this type of marginalization — primarily based on age, yet combined with poverty — has been rendered invisible by being physically locked away. It is thus ungrievable. And while we might have imagined that those who died were made more vulnerable by the recent downfall of the welfare state and its related forms of isolation and neglect, in fact, Keller’s fascinating analysis shows how the French welfare state never did smooth out or regulate inequalities such as these, but literally built on them. Heat and cold regularly affect the life expectancy of those living beneath the roofs, and have for more than 150 years, due to a spatial and environmental layout that includes amplified temperatures, the lack of ventilation, no elevators (despite the often 6 or 7 flights up) and no on-site bathrooms.

This chapter, which locates the disaster’s early life in century-old urban structures, prompts us to ask when such deaths are accumulated into the label “disaster” and when they are simply part of life as usual, where some people are allowed to die. Where is the start and end of this “crisis?” What do we look at when we measure crisis — how far back do we look? And if and when we take a longer temporal view, how does this change — or force us to change — our structures of accountability? Indeed, these are questions being asked in other contexts that produce slow deaths: from cancer (Jain), to chemical industries (Murphy), and nuclear disasters (Masco; Petryna).

Keller pushes us further on this in chapter 5, in his exploration of the science of epidemiology and how it models vulnerability, particularly during epidemic or emergency periods. He analyses the practice of aggregate pictures of mortality — based on averages at the collective level — and the “harvesting effect:” the idea that heat simply hastens mortality for those in poor health, rather than causing it. Aggregate models of risk led to the view that the typical heat wave victim was elderly. Yet there were 3,000 non-elderly who died during that time — for instance, people who were drug users, HIV+, homeless, or mentally ill. Keller argues that even as aggregation can render certain patterns visible, it can render others invisible — it can expand our ignorance. In this sense, we cannot even ask whether these non-elderly were victims of the heat wave — the epidemiology says that they would have died somehow, soon, anyway. These measures do not allow for a more nuanced analysis; they refuse an analysis of the body in time and space. Keller poignantly argues that the harvesting effect renders these deaths less tragic and less substantive, by leaving the various, sedimented causes unnamed, unknown, and ultimately, therefore, seemingly unimportant.

How do we name the moment of disaster, when its beginnings may be solidly built into our landscapes, into our tools of measurement, into the very air we breathe? How do we attribute not just cause, but blame and accountability, for mortality related to environments that are compromised and toxic, yet which never erupt into disaster’s emergency framework? By shifting the temporality of disaster, by questioning its scales and boundaries, Keller’s treatment of the Paris heat wave opens up — and directs us to ask — these critical questions.



Jain, S. Lochlann. 2013. Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Petryna, Adriana. 2002. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Masco, Joseph. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands: the Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Murphy, Michelle. 2008. “Chemical Regimes of Living.” Environmental History 13 (4).

–. 2013. “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency.” The Scholar and Feminist Online 11.3.


Miriam Ticktin is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research and co-director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility. She is the author of Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (University of California Press, 2011) and co-editor (with Ilana Feldman) of In the Name of Humanity: the Government of Threat and Care (Duke University Press, 2010), along with various other articles and book chapters. She is a founding editor of the journal Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development.

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  1. Pingback: Book Forum — Richard Keller’s Fatal Isolation by Todd Meyers - Bioethics Research Library

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