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<nettime> Crisis and its workings...
. __ . on Thu, 10 Apr 2003 03:01:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Crisis and its workings...

I recently rediscovered this text (at a rather unlikly place) about crisis and
found it fitting, both in the context of the ongoing wars, political battles or
the recent developments in Hongkong (SARS)...

If anybody has some other texts about the workings of crisis, I would be rather
interested in them ...




3. Crisis (full text)

GLADSTONE, UPON HEARUNG OF THE DEATH OF "Chinese" Gordon in Egypt, was reported
to have muttered irritably that his general might have chosen a more propitious
time to die: Gordon's death threw the Gladstone government into turmoil and
crisis. An aide suggested that the circumstances were unique and unpredictable,
to which Gladstone crossly answered: "All crises are the same."

He meant political crises, of course. There were no scientific crises in 1885,
and indeed none for nearly forty years afterward. Since then there have been
eight of major importance; two have received wide publicity. It is interesting
that both the publicized crises-- atomic energy and space capability-- have
concerned chemistry and physics, not biology.

This is to be expected. Physics was the first of the natural sciences to become
fully modern and highly mathematical. Chemistry followed in the wake of
physics, but biology, the retarded child, lagged far behind. Even in the time
of Newton and Galileo, men knew more about the moon and other heavenly bodies
than they did about their own.

It was not until the late 1940's that this situation changed. The postwar
period ushered in a new era of biologic research, spurred by the discovery of
antibiotics. Suddenly there was both enthusiasm and money for biology, and a
torrent of discoveries poured forth: tranquilizers, steroid hormones,
immunochemistry, the genetic code. By 1953 the first kidney was transplanted
and by 1958 the first birthcontrol pills were tested. It was not long before
biology was the fastest-growing field in all science; it was doubling its
knowledge every ten years. Farsighted researchers talked seriously of changing
genes, controlling evolution, regulating the mind-- ideas that had been wild
speculation ten years before.

And yet there had never been a biologic crisis. (...)

According to Lewis Bornheim, a crisis is a situation in which a previously
tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor,
rendered wholly intolerable. Whether the additional factor is political,
economic, or scientific hardly matters: the death of a national hero, the
instability of prices, or a technological discovery can all set events in
motion. In this sense, Gladstone was right: all crises are the same.

The noted scholar Alfred Pockrun, in his study of crises (Culture, Crisis and
Change), has made several interesting points. First, he observes that every
crisis has its beginnings long before the actual onset. Thus Einstein published
his theories of relativity in 1905-15, forty years before his work culminated
in the end of a war, the start of an age, and the beginnings of a crisis.

Similarly, in the early twentieth century, American, German, and Russian
scientists were all interested in space travel, but only the Germans recognized
the military potential of rockets. And after the war, when the German rocket
installation at Peenernfinde was cannibalized by the Soviets and Americans, it
was only the Russians who made immediate, vigorous moves toward developing
space capabilities. The Americans were content to tinker playfully with rockets
and ten years later, this resulted in an American scientific crisis involving
Sputnik, American education, the ICBM, and the missile gap.

Pockran also observes that a crisis is compounded of individuals and
personalities, which are unique:


It is as difficult to imagine Alexander at the Rubicon, and Eisenhower at
Waterloo, as it is difficult to imagine Darwin writing to Roosevelt about the
potential for an atomic bomb. A crisis is made by men, who enter into the
crisis with their own prejudices, propensities, and predispositions. A crisis
is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts

Yet underlying the uniqueness of each crisis is a disturbing sameness. A
characteristic of all crises is their predictability, in retrospect. They seem
to have a certain inevitability, they seem predestined. This is not true of all
crises, but it is true of sufficiently many to make the most hardened historian
cynical and misanthropic.


The text continues with an example, tracing the developments of a crisis up to
the point where the situation is brought to the attention of a person "both
prepared and disposed to consider a crisis of the most major proportions" - but
not prepared to acknowledge it, which provides another interesting point all by

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