Turmoil: post-pandemic paradigm shifts and elastic adaptations

Síofra Pierse is co-editor with Emma M. Dunne of Turmoil: instability and insecurity in the eighteenth-century francophone text, the May volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book is a collection of essays by international eighteenth-century colleagues, who explore instances of turmoil through study of eighteenth-century francophone texts. Turmoil(s) captured appear familiar to the modern readership: revisionism, disasters, realignment, instability, insecurity and resilience. In her introduction to Turmoil, Síofra Pierse proffers a new ontology of turmoil that has ramifications far beyond the eighteenth century. In this blog post, Síofra tests this book’s new turmoil paradigm against more recent geopolitical events such as climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, or war in Ukraine.

Sensational news stories are designed to shock. If they don’t affect us, or our environment, we simply dismiss them, barely giving them a second glance, registering that they are simply that, sensational headlines, and not something closer to home. But every so often, something terrible impinges on our lives, our world, or our consciousness. Then, the world tilts, often imperceptibly, on its axis. Suddenly, that particular headline, state, or event constitutes an instance of turmoil.

This study of turmoil and Jessica Stacey’s recent study of catastrophe narratives (also in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series) clearly capture a certain zeitgeist: that’s unsurprising, given recent global events in 2020-22. Stacey identifies catastrophe within the eighteenth century as a broad ‘meaning-maker expressing hopes as well as fears’. But the ontology proposed by this book highlights the significant difference between turmoil and its close cousins of catastrophe. As Catriona Seth writes in her preface: ‘The three stages of turmoil make it possible to distinguish this phenomenon from other forms of catastrophe studies which do not take the subsequent state into account’ (p.8, n4).

An Ontology of Turmoil

Turmoil proposes a new ontology of turmoil: any time there is turmoil, a paradigm shift subsequently occurs and ultimately there is an adaptation of some sort. Take, for example, the 1757 assassination attempt on Louis XV which did not kill the king, yet it triggered many changes, resulting in myriad instances of spin and propaganda. The significant difference between catastrophe and turmoil is that turmoil consistently manifests with a post-turmoil paradigmatic shift that reveals an elasticity of adaptation. Indeed, this book bears witness to the surprising human ability to engage in significant paradigm shifts. Even more remarkable is the incredible range and elasticity of post-turmoil adaptations. Many adaptations are affirmative ones, such as the reconstruction of post-earthquake Lisbon, or where new body burial directives emerged due to the excess of bodies needing burial during the bloodbath of post-revolutionary Terror in 1793-94.

Turmoil(s)

One of the first revelations of this book is that to analyse turmoil is to burrow into the perennially dark side of humanity, with focus on sempiternal instability, insecurity and marginalisation. Where Kate Tunstall tracks the spin doctors of Versailles under Louis XV, she reminds us that there is nothing new about fake news, beyond its name. Similarly, while the term sadism dates only from the end of the eighteenth century, studies in our book reveal how the images so brutally practised by Sade in fact long predate the marquis and his century: infanticide and feminicide will, sadly, always be headline material. Similarly, turmoil narratives of eighteenth-century natural disasters connect directly to contemporary geopolitics. Most of all, eighteenth-century global turmoil awakens us to our deep, transnational interconnectedness: it was in the wake of the Napoleonic wars that Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich made his infamous quip about France sneezing and the rest of the world catching a cold.

The Paradigm Shift

Where Voltaire considered war as an inevitable curse on humanity, Turmoil addresses war from the perspectives of problematic narrative bias and the unreliability of memory. For anyone who has grown up in the luxury of relatively stable world peace, the invasion of the Ukraine on 24 February constituted a significant instance of turmoil. Perceptions of western stability were rocked by shocking images of bombardment, basement shelters, forced emigration, conscription, and the decimation of a modern European neighbour. Where elasticity of adaptation may permit engagement in local actions to help Ukrainian refugees, we are exposed to a barrage of new discourses around war ‘norms’, while absorbing good/bad dichotomies of cruel exaggeration within the recently-exhumed conventional rhetoric of international warfare. When perspectives shifted irrevocably on 24 February 2022, the complexities of post-invasion reinterpretation and revision became infinite.

Elasticity of Adaptation

The crucial final identifier within our ontology is that of post-turmoil adaptation, exemplifying the incredible elasticity of humanity. Turmoil focuses on many eighteenth-century manifestations of resilience such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s reinvention of self during the Revolution, or Isabelle de Charrière’s snappiness with discontent émigré-e-s. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided us with endless recent examples of post-turmoil adaptations and resilience: where government lockdowns engendered everything from shifts in perspective to epiphanies, the world quickly coined the telling term the new normal, and snapped into a universe of masks, hand sanitiser and vaccination certs. To study turmoil is to reveal the perpetual elasticity of the human world and its striking adaptability. This book highlights and celebrates humanity’s dramatic ability to adapt, to repair, to forge on. But it also exposes a new dark side, which must surely become the focus of a future study on humanity’s concomitant ability to swiftly blank the turmoil within its serially new adaptations or accommodations: we suffer, we adapt … and we ultimately forget.

– Síofra Pierse (University College Dublin)

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