Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

In the Western imagination, reason has long belonged to terra firma. Island or continent, it repels water with a solid stubbornness: it only concedes its sand. As for unreason, it has been aquatic from the depths of time and that until fairly recently. And more precisely oceanic: infinite space, uncertain … Madness is the flowing liquid exterior of rocky reason.

Dans l’imagination occidentale, la raison a longtemps appartenu à la terre ferme. Ile ou continent, elle repousse l’eau avec un entêtement massif : elle ne lui concède que son sable. La déraison, elle, a été aquatique depuis le fond des temps et jusqu’à une date assez rapprochée. Et plus précisement océanique : espace infini, incertain… La folie c’est l’extérieur liquide et ruisselant de la rocheuse raison.

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1963] ‘L’eau et la folie’. In Dits et Ecrits vol. I. Paris: Gallimard, p. 268. [This passage translated by Clare O’Farrell]

The Australian floods in 2011

In choosing a reflection by Foucault on water and madness, I wanted to mark the occurrence of the disastrous floods in Australia this January 2011. 75% of the tropical state of Queensland has been inundated and more rain is on the way. The area covered by water is larger than France and Germany combined. Currently the state of Victoria is also experiencing the worst floods on record with 58 towns affected so far. The other eastern states of New South Wales and Tasmania are also flooding. On the other side of the continent, Western Australia is suffering from extreme heat and bushfires. Australia has long been a country of environmental extremes making human habitation a challenging and precarious affair and this long before the arrival of European settlers in the eighteenth century.

People have lost their lives in flash flooding which swept away their houses while they were inside. Farmers barely recovering from a decade long drought are seeing their entire crops under water and others have lost their livelihoods, houses and all they own with many others affected to varying degrees. Brisbane, the third largest city in Australia, built somewhat riskily on a flood plain has seen its CBD, inner suburbs and many outer suburbs drowned under water and layers of silt. Two of Brisbane’s universities were closed for a week due to major flooding on their campuses.

But for all this, one of the most inspirational things to emerge from the disaster has been the extraordinary level of community spirit and the sheer efficiency of the organisational response to these events. Contemporary communications media have been key in linking people and keeping them informed. The Queensland Police Service Facebook site kept people up to the minute and quelled rumours, the Department of Transport and Main Roads website, kept people up to date on road closures and the Bureau of Meteorology website provided up to the minute warnings on weather and flood levels. Three free to air television channels broadcast flood information round the clock. People used twitter and their personal Facebook pages to keep others apprised of local and more general developments.

In 1974, Brisbane suffered an even bigger flood, but at that time, large numbers of people had no means of communicating with each other. Even landlines were a luxury, with people having to wade through flood waters in search of working public phones to inform each other that they had survived. People owned far less and were forced to simply clean and make do with what they had, whereas the tendency in 2011 has simply been to throw damaged items away. Indeed with many items -particularly electrical appliances – they have had no choice.

I live in one of the flood affected areas in inner city Brisbane right on the river. The whole street and the riverside park went under. Fortunately the block of units (apartments) in which I live is built on a small hill and although the front garages went under, the water rose to just one brick below the first floor. Sheer luck, as it seems the water in the 1974 floods had invaded the first floor of the building. All the occupants of the block precipitously left to stay with friends and family as the waters rose on Tuesday night. Last Friday as the waters started to retreat, the street was a sea of mud and huge piles of completely ruined possessions. Hundreds of people – grimly shell-shocked home-owners, renting tenants and volunteers just turned up with brooms, shovels, gloves, wheelbarrows and high pressure hoses and got to work. People literally walked around the streets, shovel and broom in hand ready to help anybody who looked as though they needed assistance. The local councillor provided a stall with a sausage sizzle and tea and coffee. A few police (part of the anti-looting taskforce) were there as well as the media and news helicopters circled continuously overhead.

Four days later, the rubbish was gone and a great deal of the mud had been swept back into the park and the river with street sweeper trucks cleaning up the residue. Workers in the park on the river contemplated the damage with park lamps completely snapped off at the base by the sheer force of the river’s current. The river level remained still well over the banks. I ran into two electricians who had seen the news and had generously undertaken the day long drive from the neighbouring state of NSW just to volunteer their help. They got the electricity back on in my block of units where the power boards had gone completely under water.

As my mention of an anti-looting taskforce indicates, there have of course been opportunists all too ready to profit from other people’s misery, humans being what they are, but this kind of behaviour has been far outstripped by those willing to help in any way they can. The Brisbane City Council which had also organised evacuation centres for flood refugees, organised pick up points and buses to send the thousands of ready volunteers out to help those affected. In some cases, so many people wanted to help that they had to be turned away and sent to other areas of need. The army helped with some of the more heavy duty lifting and cleaning. Musicians turned up in some streets to provide live music for those working and a bit of a street party atmosphere took over in spite of the devastation. Charities have been overwhelmed by offers of goods and people have been extraordinarily generous in financial donations to the Queensland Premier’s Disaster Relief Appeal.

There has also been criticism of sightseers from non affected areas driving around to look at the devastation, or lining the Kangaroo Point cliffs in central Brisbane in their thousands to watch the water rise. But in my view, people need to see events unfolding with their own eyes and not all sightseers were simply uninvolved voyeurs. Those locals I have spoken to who only saw what was happening on the news rather than in person, had quite a different and perhaps more cynical appreciation of events. Of course, the media is always prone to exaggeration and disaster mongering but there is nothing like seeing things first hand to allow people to develop a true empathy for those affected and also an appreciation and respect for continuing human vulnerability – for all the hubris engendered by technology – to natural occurrences such as these.

I also cherish the optimistic but perhaps vain hope that all of this might lead some people to reassess their participation in the excesses of contemporary consumerism and also their subjection to increasingly regulated and performance oriented work place practices which dominate workers’ lives to the exclusion of all other considerations – be those of health, family and friends or spiritual development.

And of course now party politics has already kicked back into gear, and recriminations are starting to flow. Could people have been given more warning of the flash floods, could dam overflow management been better? Why have so many houses been built in such vulnerable places in Brisbane? Why have materials that are not flood-proof been used in construction? And what about the intricacies of insurance policies which may or may not cover such events? How is Australia and how are insurance companies going to be able to pay for all of this and what of the impact on crops and food supplies?

The consequences of this disaster – which is by no means over yet – will be felt for years to come and in the instance of Brisbane will no doubt permanently change the direction of its urban development. Brisbane has undergone an unprecedented level of expansion in the last ten years, sustained by the myth that the Wivenhoe dam built after the infamous 1974 floods and completed in 1984 would prevent further flooding in Brisbane and also by the large migration of people to the city during the drought in the first decade of the new millenium: people who had little awareness of the extremes of weather to which subtropical Brisbane can be subject. Even with the worst of the flood over, severe afternoon thunderstorms continue to drench the city with trees uprooted demolishing still further houses and cars and causing local flooding. Interesting days lie ahead.

Another notable thing in all of this is that Australia is in the fortunate position of having the social, organisational, communication and financial resources to mitigate the worst aspects of this natural disaster. People in other countries such as Brazil, Pakistan, China or cities such as New Orleans, are not so lucky.

But I would like to turn to the passage I have quoted from Foucault to close these reflections. In his remarks Foucault elegantly sets out his vision of a Reason and Unreason in the Modern Age made historically into opposing binaries – the Same and the Other. People have sought to maintain rigid boundaries between the two so that the chaos of the Other cannot swamp the orderly and reasoned constructions of the Same. The untameable force of the flood disrupts the orders so carefully put in place by humans and erases the prescribed boundaries between rocky land and dangerous and uncertain waters revealing the vanity of those orders so proudly and heedlessly imposed by landlocked reason.

See here for some before and after aerial photos of Brisbane

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