by Susan Amussen
I have been following the coverage of the shootings in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the aftermath somewhat obsessively. But The New York Times headline jumped out at me. We have spent the last year and a half in our seminar examining the idea of the world upside down in multiple forms. A few times we have approached the pain and grief that caused this exclamation, but as in most academic contexts, we tend to distance ourselves from it. It also stood out because when weighing whether to choose this focus for our first two-year cycle, I made the decision when I heard a reporter after another tragedy – the shootings of school children at Newtown, CT, in December 2012 – say, “The world is upside down.”
In sixteenth and seventeenth century England, the period I study, the phrase and concept of a world upside down has many uses. It’s used in comedy, in lawsuits, in politics. The idea of inversion, a world upside down, is everywhere. It happens when women boss their husbands around, when inferiors challenge their betters. Witches turn the world upside down, but it is not used for the impact of war, or natural disaster: these are visitations of God. The death of a loved one is a source of grief, but it is not evidence of an upside down world. An upside down world is, instead, the result of human beings who disrupt the natural order.
The two recent uses I’ve highlighted suggest that we don’t use it now for everyday life, but to respond to tragedies and disasters. An upside down world comes from crisis – events that turn our lives upside down. We may not have the same vision of a hierarchical society that made the world upside down so potent an idea in the seventeenth century, but we do have a sense of how life ought to go. The first page of the google books search for the term includes a book on children in war zones; another on “the global battle over God, truth and power;” one on the work of William Golding; and one on globalization. Globalization and war are turning things upside down. The last year of results for the phrase from The New York Times includes a book review that notes that Primo Levi “said that the concentration camp was ‘a world turned upside down,’” but also trailers for movies where love turns someone’s life upside down. 
It appears that we have come – at least in advanced industrial societies – to be insulated from certain kinds of tragedy. We don’t expect people to die young, or terrorists to shoot things up. We even seem to think that war is an anomaly. And those things now upend our understanding of the world, and force us to see things in a new way.
But the movie trailers which talk about people’s lives being turned upside down by love remind us that it is not only disasters that change how we see the world. And it raises a question for each of us to ponder: what have been the events, experiences, or maybe ideas that have changed the way we see the world?
 Erlanger, Steven. “Days of Sirens, Fear and Blood: ‘France is Turned Upside Down.’” The New York Times. 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Jan. 2015.
 Neil Boothby, Alison Strang, and Michael Wessells, Eds. A World Turned Upside Down: Social Ecological Approaches to Children in War Zones. (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2006).
 Phillips, Melanie. The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power. (New York: Encounter Books, 2010).
 Crawford, Paul. Politics and History in the Work of William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002).
 Jones, R. J. Barry. The World Turned Upside Down? Globalization and the Future of the State. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/martin-amiss-zone-of-interest.html accessed Jan. 15 2015: other references included a discussion of the Hunger Games, the Syrian war, and film reviews.