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Walt Whitman’s Equivalencies: Rupture and Catastrophe in Memoranda

19 April 2024

Walt Whitman’s Equivalencies: Rupture and Catastrophe in Memoranda
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Walt Whitman by Samuel Murray, 1891"; Image credit: The Walt Whitman Archive

Parts of this article were delivered at the 13th International Whitman Week & Symposium, held at Sapienza University of Rome, on June 16, 2023. More theoretical sections were added to the text throughout the revision to help clarify the concepts. However, the intention is to keep the text's oral nature and not make many alterations in this regard.

The Apocalyptic Genie

One of the most exciting and divisive subjects in critical philosophy for a long time has been the notion of apocalypse and disaster. The concept that everything would turn out well following the fall of the Berlin Wall, as per the dominant ideology, revealed its meaninglessness with the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the financial collapse in 2008. Disaster and ruin, on the other hand, had already occupied a considerable portion of radical thought (Walter Benjamin being the most prominent example on this subject).

There are numerous jokes about disaster and the planet's ruin, but one of the most well-known and intriguing jokes in this category for me is the one about disaster and yearning for the good old days: 

Three guys run into a museum to hide from the hoard of zombies coming down the road. While looking for something to eat and drink one of the survivors finds a golden lamp and out pops a genie roaring out.

“You can have three wishes. So what is the first wish?” One man says” I want to go back to my family before the zombie apocalypse and want it to never happen” The second man says “that sounds great I wish for that too” And puff! the two men were gone.

The front door of the museum just broke in with the weight of all the zombies pushing on it. Now the museum is filling up fast with zombies the genie asks the last man what he wishes for. He thinks about it quickly and says, "I wish my two friends were back here to help fight off all these zombies.”

Our dominant approach in facing various financial, health and climatic disasters revolves around this axis of fetishist disavowal. It's as if creating a new world is more difficult than futilely attempting to regain what has long been gone, and everything is centered around the foolish determination of the good old days and the inanimateness that results from that. My goal here is to present a different perspective on disaster and how to respond to it  by analyzing and comparing one of the most important poets of the nineteenth century in English, Walt Whitman, and one of the first manifestations of modern barbarism, the American Civil War.

Talking about Walt Whitman is not an easy task. On the one hand, there are many diverse interpretations of his works that range from right to left and attempt to glean a certain deployable notion from this American poet. On the other hand, the ambiguity of Whitman's writing and poetry makes it difficult to analyze, but perhaps this difficulty is also part of the work's secret allure.

However, I am attempting to demonstrate Whitman's strengths in narrating the American Civil War, as well as his weaknesses, when he was able to use his clear and intelligent vision and when he prevented himself from having an authentic understanding of the situation.

I aim to show that on the hand Whitman attempted to demonstrate an awareness of the catastrophe that has always been with us and that we only perceive as impossible because of our blind indifference. On the other hand, I believe that he did not have a thorough understanding of the origins and nature of the American Civil War, and therefore his interpretation of narrating a disaster is not accurate. Instead, I propose that we need a fresh understanding of time and should consider the hypothesis that facing such a disaster we might be being exposed to a catastrophe of meaning. 

In December of 1862, having read his brother's name in a casualty list, Walt Whitman rushed from Brooklyn to the war front, where he found his brother wounded but recovering. But Whitman also found there a "new world," a world dense with horror and revelation. During the Civil War, from 1862-1865, Walt Whitman spent much of his time with wounded soldiers, both in the field and in the hospitals. The 40 notebooks he filled became the basis for the extraordinary diary of a medic in the Civil War. The results of these adventures were two remarkable pieces of work, namely "Memoranda During the War" and "Drum-Taps". My intention is to focus on the first book and to elaborate on its relation with catastrophe, capitalism and its ontological fissure. To put it another way, my purpose here is to show how Walt Whitman would respond if he encountered the genie from the joke above. Would he choose to return to the good old days, or would he prefer to change the very framework that led to the zombie apocalypse?

Whitman's Memoranda During the War is a mixture of fiction and history. His point of view constantly changes between subjective impression and journalistic-style reportage, filled with dialogue and symbolism. “I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil'd and creas'd little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten'd with a pin”, writes Whitman at the beginning of Memoranda (1). One can see that this piece of work, however inadequate it might be, is not just a mere report contaminated with ideology written at the behest of a specific front, but, as I show, a reinvention of war, an analysis of the nature of a disaster and the examination of its various dimensions.

It’s worth mentioning that Memoranda is the plural of memorandum. The root meaning of memorandum is to be remembered. Its Latin etymology (memorare) refers to something to be brought to mind. And isn't that what we do in the aftermath of a disaster, trying to recall what happened before the catastrophe in order to comprehend the nature of the event that changed everything? Isn't it true that calamity and apocalypse have always been associated with judgment day, with the hope that one day everything will come to an end with a fatal blow and we will be able to start over, a revisionism of history itself, as Jean Baudrillard once said? (2)

Civilization and Its Discontents

Of course, Whitman had been terrified by the idea of Civil War—he hated the thought of the states being at deadly odds with each other (3). However, he paid little attention to what caused this catastrophe in the first place. It’s worth mentioning that from the etymological perspective, "catastrophe" comes from Ancient Greek katastrophḗ which comes from katá (down, against) and strophē (turning), meaning turn against or overturn. Every catastrophe or crisis is thus a reaction or overturn to a set of various factors and agents that must be mapped and recognized in order to gain a better understanding of the circumstance.

The advancement of modern technology, in Whitman's opinion, was the most significant human achievement. The United States underwent enormous industrial growth during Whitman's lifetime. As Farid Ghadami has elaborated in his article “Celebration and the Road: The Holy Calculator of Walt Whitman” (4), technological advancements contributed to the evolution of global communication channels which for Whitman meant the emergence of democracy. It is no secret that Walt Whitman saw the glory in “the great achievements of the present” (5). The years from 1846 to 1876 were three decades of tremendous industrial development in the United States, when the expansion of new generations of steam engines and the massive industrial production of steel gave an extraordinary impetus to the construction of roads, railroads, and buildings. 

Steam railroads began to appear in the United States around 1830 and dominated the continental transportation system by 1850s. The railroads with steam locomotives offered a new mode of transportation that fascinated citizens, buoying their optimistic view of the possibilities of technological progress. At the same time, the expansion of internal American trade greatly increased with the adoption of canals, steamboats, and railroads. These collective advances in technology became known as the Transportation Revolution. (6) 

The developments during the 1800s had other aspects as well. The weapon industry also witnessed many changes during this period. This was highlighted by a changeover in shoulder-fired weapons from smoothbore firearms that had to be loaded through the muzzle each time a shot was fired to rifled-barrel firearms, some of which loaded at the breech. Five types of rifles were developed for the war: rifles, short rifles, repeating rifles, rifle muskets, and cavalry carbines.

To put more precisely, it’s not true that technology was only linked to destructive metamorphosis in the mid-20th century. Instead, one should put more emphasis on the fact that various developments in science and engineering even in the mid-19th century signaled the failure of the Enlightenment; the Journey of Modernity, as Marshall Berman portrays in his "All That Is Solid Melts into Air", inevitably leads to the Tragedy of Development. (7) 

Jacques Derrida began his “No Apocalypse, Not Now” with an interesting phrase: "At the beginning there will have been speed" (8). One can argue similarly for the American Civil War; at its beginning, there was speed! In the decades before the Civil War—a period sometimes dubbed the First Industrial Revolution—a significant number of inventions and innovations appeared, transforming American life. A transportation system based largely on steam power allowed goods to be shipped across great distances at reduced expense. Also of great consequence was the development of the American System of Manufactures which helped make store-bought goods more affordable. As a result, people began to buy goods from stores rather than making them; in short, the American consumer was born.

In examining Whitman's writings, the significance of change and progress, as well as the relationship between technology, democracy, and literature, has been noted numerous times. But is there another way to look at this matter? Whitman was a great admirer of developments during his lifetime. But at the same time, he was turning a blind eye on the discontents of these achievements. For him, any form of change was adequate.   

Gaza’s forced starvation crisis; image credit: Al Jazeera
Gaza’s forced starvation crisis; image credit: Al Jazeera

One concern with addressing the idea of change in Whitman is that it might entice us to believe that change and transformation are always good things. As if newer means better. But depending on the very mode of change, transforming stuff can simply be a way to reproduce what you already have. Whitman did not pay much attention to this trivial but at the same time very important point that if you change things constantly, you can rest assured that nothing will ever change. This indicates that the true question of change is how to imagine a mode of transformation that, while changing things as much as possible, relies on something that remains static across all transformations. 

From Catastrophes to Equivalencies… And Back

As early as 2002, the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy had highlighted that what binds the growing normalization of both civilian nuclear power and the sense of imminent nuclear catastrophe is some form of “equivalence”—one that ties the notion of catastrophe as possible to its necessary occurrence precisely because it is possible. Studying new way of thinking about the future while examining catastrophe and the human response, Dupuy surveys different kinds of catastrophes that range from natural (e.g., earthquakes) to industrial (e.g., Chernobyl) and concludes that the traditional distinctions between them are only becoming blurrier by the day. As a result, one not only does not believe that the catastrophe will occur while having all of the reasons to assume that it will, but after it occurs, it looks to be originating from the regular order of things, thereby calling its occurrence "banal.” In other words, as Dupuy puts it, the world is “perfectly willing to take on the job of transformation without our help! What is needed in the first place is a theory that explains the etiology of the dangers we face, and why the sky suddenly seems poised to fall on our heads"(9).

By trying to radicalize Dupuy's reading, Jean-Luc Nancy tries to offer a more serious reading of the concept of disaster and its socio-economic and political roots. Nancy argues in his After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes (10) that global capitalism is threatening to make every catastrophe in the world homogeneous, if not equivalent, to another. Nancy argues that Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 risks being rendered homogeneous to every catastrophe from Auschwitz and Hiroshima, to Chernobyl—According to him, these are equivalent despite the very great differences that distinguish them because they are always the effects of a techno-economic control that has no other master than the extent of its means. This is also how the “after” in the phrase “after Fukushima” marks its distinction from any equivalence to Theodor Adorno’s question about whether poetry is possible “after Auschwitz.” For Nancy, the “after” in Adorno’s phrase signifies some sort of “succession” or “anticipation,” while Nancy seeks in his “after” a “rupture,” a “suspense”, precisely in the present.

Thus, like Dupuy, Nancy criticizes the concept of equivalence, but goes further by proceeding from a Marxist point of view. In Nancy’s analysis, the equivalence of catastrophes comes about as a result of global capital attempting to tie everything in the world together—that is to say, to make everything predicated, if not dependent, on capital. Marx argues in Volume I of his Das Kapital that in the fully developed form of value, all commodities are equal to each other as abstract labor insofar as they express their relative value in a general equivalent, which is “one single kind of commodity set apart from the rest” (11). In other words, a generic equivalent (money) represents an equivalence relationship between different elements and thus describes a social value system. 

Memoranda During the Catastrophe

According to Nancy, in this social value system natural catastrophes are no longer separable from their technological, economic, and political implications or repercussions; or, put another way, we cannot “deny the inextricable tangle of technologies, politics, and economies with the movements of [telluric and meteorological] forces” (12). Nancy warns us, then, that after Fukushima, “there are no more natural catastrophes” (13); what remains “is only a civilizational catastrophe that expands every time” (14).

And within such a context, one can read Walt Whitman's works written during the American Civil War. One thing that might fascinates us in Whitman’s reading of the civil war is the “the militarization of the world”, namely gathering all the resources of nature and mankind to abolish the enemy. Whitman saw his world in decline, a world of technological strife for territory and resources, a world in which every disaster is possible and every form of killing is imminent: 

“The dead line, over which so many brave soldiers pass'd to the freedom of eternity rather than endure the misery of life, can only be traced here and there, for most of the old marks the last ten years have obliterated.” (15) 

Nancy argues that part of the devastation wrought by the technical organization of advanced capitalist societies (state or private capitalism) lies in the isolation of the individual in its very death and thus the impoverishment of that which resists any appropriation or objectification. In Memoranda Whitman was little concerned with the public events of the war and instead focused the narrative on his personal experiences with the soldiers he had met in the Union hospitals. Whitman's emphasis on the individual dimension of war and the individual stories of soldiers on the battle fronts could be interpreted as a substructure on which the individual is deprived of that unnamable core that binds him to the community. It also can be argued that Whitman himself, while not paying attention to the roots of the civil war and its connection to technological developments, somehow made this catastrophe equivalent to other examples in his era: Slavery, The Mexican–American War and so on, and all in the name of change and progress. Whitman, unlike Heidegger and Benjamin, believed that modernity and modern innovations are not a departure from values but a means to achieve a new kind of ethics, which is often referred to in the academic space as the ideal of equality and fraternity; the point that I am trying to show is that this view is far from reality and Whitman's work ultimately remains within the framework of the aporia that it aims to transcend.

Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, philosophers of the subcontinent, in their book Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics put forward an interesting concept that can be useful in the context of analyzing Whitman’s conception of catastrophe: Calypsology. According to Dwivedi and Mohan, “calypsology is the conversion of a being into another through the exchange of one comprehending law for another such that the ends of that being are enclosed in the means” (16). Calypso in the Greek myths cast a spell on the adventurer Odysseus such that he was immured on her island and forgot that he could have other ends beyond the island and could invent different means towards them. Calypso according to their book means the one who hides. Interestingly, the word calypso means “to cover” in Greek, from which we get “apocalypse”. For Dwivedi and Mohan, the caste system is one of the exemplars of a calypsological system which after all is what the term ‘Hindu’ designates. Divya Dwivedi writes: 

The caste order works to convert all men and all means into one sole end—perpetuation of the caste order. Like Calypso in the Greek legend, it seeks to hide or avert everyone who is on and from the subcontinent from actualising the fundamental homological powers of humans to become something different from what they are or what they are born as. It is stasis—a conversion to end all conversions—it interns and inters. It is the most perfected calypsology known in history, the longest lasting form of racism. (17) 

So, in short, Calypsology is a process of theoretical immurement through denying the creativity of varying means and ends, uses of things and possible laws. Such an approach can also be recognized in Whitman's notebooks, where he writes: 

" I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves

I am the poet of the body

And I am

I am the poet of the body

And I am the poet of the soul

I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters 

And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,

Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike. " (18)

Here the slave and the master are placed on par with the duality of body and soul; the first is a physical element and the second is a spiritual one, a body which, although its existence is mandatory, is ultimately subordinated to reason and wisdom and has nothing to do but obey the center of commanding neurons. Here, Whitman uses the same logic as Calypso, because he seeks to establish the same mask of death, which is supposed to keep everything in a state of pure stasis. Mohan and Dwivedi's definition of calypsology allows us to see that the usual readings of Whitman, who consider him a poet of freedom and equality, are nothing but the result of pervasive intellectual laziness, which itself is the result of neoliberal and homogenizing stasis. Here too, we see that Whitman's calypsological approach is a programme "governed by the passive forces”. (19) At the same time, Whitman's disregard for the roots of the American Civil War, the inevitable discontents of civilization and progress, his emphasis on liberation through union and technological innovation, as well as the ontology of the disaster of the Civil War itself, are another sign of the calypsological worldview system of this 19th century American poet.

One thing that should not be forgotten is that, contrary to Whitman's idea, technological innovation and progress could not destroy the nature of slavery, nor could they create the union that he was so attached to. In the end, not much changed and the hideous aspects of modernization persisted, which is of course characteristic of all ceremonial societies: according to Mohan and Dwivedi, “Ceremonial societies do not change in any essential sense, instead they repeat themselves year after year, faithfully. Their repetition is made possible through a peculiar logic – they identify means with ends, and vice versa.” (20) Whitman’s blind love for technology, as a form of calypsology, keeps the processes of a society within the realm of the actual and the possible. Therefore, when we read these sentences at the end of Whitman's Memoranda, we should not be too surprised: 

The final use of the greatest men of a Nation is, after all, not with reference to their deeds in themselves, or their direct bearing on their times or lands. The final use of a heroic-eminent life—and especially a heroic-eminent death—is its indirect filtering into the nation and the race... Then there is a cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying, than any thing in written constitution, or courts or armies—namely, the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people, at its head, and for its sake. Strange, (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense—perhaps only really, lastingly condense—a Nationality. (21)

After all, Whitman, like other wretches of this pitiless world, believed in a hero, whether it was technology or his beloved President Lincoln. Unlike Günther Anders, he believed in the Apocalypse with Kingdom (22), in the Second Coming, which dissolves all difficulties and antagonisms, like a lightning bolt, and establishes democracy with all of its inherent tensions. Perhaps Whitman's dilemma was that he did not believe in total obliteration of the world.

8-inch siege mortar, Model 1841, Detail of photograph of Broadway Landing, Richmond, Va., 1865; image credit: Wikimedia
8-inch siege mortar, Model 1841, Detail of photograph of Broadway Landing, Richmond, Va., 1865; image credit: Wikimedia

Catalogs of War

There are at the same time moments in Memoranda which show a different reading of war and catastrophes. Undoubtedly, the American Civil War was a complete disaster for Whitman; not only was the country torn apart, but all the technological advances that Whitman had hoped would be tools to improve the human condition were now turned into merciless killing machines.Whitman's reading of the Civil War also makes sense in such a background: 

“And everywhere among these countless graves—everywhere in the many Soldiers Cemeteries of the Nation, (there are over seventy of them)—as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositories of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles—not only where the scathing trail pass'd those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land—we see, and see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word UKNOWN.” (23) 

For Whitman, as for Nancy, the only way beyond this aporia of destruction is the incommensurable quality of a cataclysm. To reject catastrophic equivalence, Nancy proposes to intercalate within the existing condition of equivalence what he terms the incommensurable. A distinction must be made here between the incommensurable and the incalculable, because according to Nancy, the latter “remains within the order of calculation, even if it is out of reach” (24), which includes the incalculability of the consequence of war and the global dependence on capital dominance. In short, what the incommensurable does is to bring to any relation the dimension of being absolutely not equivalent to the other, resisting any final or projected equation where everything adds up or balances out.

The absolute remainder of calculations in this bloody equation is a dark and incommensurable place that no calculating machine has the power to quantify. "And everywhere among these countless graves," Whitman writes toward the end of Memoranda, "we see, and see, and again yet may see... the significant word Unknown," reminding us that the dead of this war lie beyond memorialization.



1. Whitman, Walt, Memoranda During the War, Ed. Peter Coviello, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 4. 

2. Baudrillard, Jean, The Illusion of the End, Trans. Chris Turner, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.  

3. Without doubt, Whitman was not unaffected by his country's march to war. His letters and manuscripts reveal the poet's active participation in the early Civil War and his shock at the horrors of war. For instance, see Ted Genoways, Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America’s Poet during the Lost Years of 1860-1862, Berkeley (Calif.): University of California Press, 2009.

4. Ghadami, Farid, “The Holy Calculator of Walt Whitman”, Philosophy-World-Democracy Journal 2.12 (December, 2021):

5. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1892), New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 315.

6. On the other hand, while the agricultural, slave-based Southern economy was devastated by the war, the Northern economy benefited from development in many of its industries, including textile and iron production. 

7. See Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, London: Penguin Books, 1988.

8. Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now: Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives” (1984), Trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, Ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007, p. 387.

9. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, How to Think About Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened Doomsaying, Trans. M. B. DeBevoise and Mark R. Anspach, Michigan State University Press, 2023, p. 7.  

10. Nancy, Jean-Luc, After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, Trans. Charlotte Mandell, New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. 

11. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Trans. Ben Fowkes, London: Penguin Books, 1976, p.158. 

12. Nancy, After Fukushima, p. 4.  

13. Nancy, After Fukushima, p. 34. 

14. Nancy, After Fukushima, p. 34.

15. Whitman, Memoranda During the War, p. 104.  

16. Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics, London: Bloomsbury, 2019, p. 128. 

17. Divya Dwivedi,  “The Macabre Measure of Dalit-Bahujan Mobilisations”. NewsClick (October 2020):

18. Walt Whitman, Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume 1, Ed. Edward F. Grier, New York: New York University Press, 1984, p. 67.

19. Mohan and Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy, p. 192. 

20. Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, “Romila Thapar: The Modern Among Historians”, The Wire, (September 2019):

21. Whitman, Memoranda During the War, p. 156. 

22. Günther Anders, “Apocalypse without Kingdom”, Trans. Hunter Bolin, e-flux (February 2019):  

23. Whitman, Memoranda During the War, p. 103.  

24. Nancy, After Fukushima, p. 27.  

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