In the vocabulary of modern disaster research, Heinrich von Kleist's seminal short story “The Earthquake in Chile” (1806) is a tale of disaster vulnerability. The story is not just about a natural disaster destroying the innocent city of Santiago but also about the ensuing social disaster orchestrated by the citizens of Santiago themselves. Three cognitive schemes play a role for how Kleist—and his fictional characters—imagines the vulnerability of human society: the theodicy, the sublime, and the state of emergency. These three symbolic forms are part of the surprisingly small and surprisingly stable repertoire of cultural concepts and images that, for several centuries now, have governed how we think about disasters and how we act when they strike. The task of cultural disaster research is to study the deep grammar of our common imagination of disaster surfacing in fictional as well as in factual accounts. Thus the recent “cultural turn” in modern disaster research must be supplemented with a cultural-historical turn in the ambition to explore how modern disaster fiction reveals and reworks the historical repertoire of symbolic forms through which we perceive disaster.

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