Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Degree Program

Humanities, PhD

Committee Chair

Ryan, Susan

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Jaffe, Aaron

Committee Member

Bertacco, Simona

Committee Member

Roof, Judith

Author's Keywords

America; catastrophe; democracy; emergency; U.S.; heterotopia


This dissertation examines socio-cultural experiences of national disasters in the United States as they intersect with political rhetorics of democracy, to understand the forms and functions of state power as it is mediated through famous historical figures. Tracing the manifold possibilities from within and around the disruptive spacetimes of disaster, which sociologist Harvey Molotch describes in their ultimate function as societal “rationalizers” (371), I analyze catastrophes as contested spaces and histories that often get situated as variations on the “man vs. nature/god/man” binaries in public discourse. By analyzing the deployment of, and response to, such explanatory frameworks in the United States since the nineteenth century, this project complicates and exposes processes of power and transgression as they relate to democracy and capitalism. This project is divided into three chapters, to formulate a partial sketch of the modern historical trajectory of the nation as it has navigated into and out of catastrophe—each chapter dealing with a distinct disaster that resulted in large-scale public casualties that were broadcast nationally (and in most cases globally), and which dramatically altered the composition of land and the populations who inhabited it: The Civil War, The Dust Bowl, and Hurricane Katrina. Roughly 70 years spans the gaps between each of the three catastrophes, and each chapter analyzes not just historical events of the disasters themselves, but the political and cultural environments of these phenomena as they affected spatio-temporal features of society and history before and after they occurred. To explicate these relationships and to further interrogate the ways in which the markers of race and gender have figured within these dynamics and as they continue to figure today, I include contemporary sites of excavation through analysis of present-day film and television productions as they reify particular components of disaster, biopower, and capitalism as distinctly “American” democracies. I deploy these interpretations in ways that speak to historical and fictional representations of American civilization(s) but to speak as well to elements within the larger constellation of connections in this project and produce additional perspectives on ideas like citizenship, progress, democracy, and power as they have been reformulated in popular discourse.