The Politics of Everyday Fear


Brian Massumi

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Fear is a staple of popular culture and politics. There is nothing new in that. In fact, a history of modern nation-states could be written following the regular ebb and flow of fear rippling their surface, punctuated by outbreaks of outright hysteria. No doubt several parallel histories could be written, so copious is the material. One might begin with witch-hunts accompanying the national unifications of the early modern period and end with gay bashing and violence against women at the close of the cold war. This perspective on gendering as a matter of national concern would be well complemented by a look at the body as fright site from the point of view of its medicalization. Its starting point might be Renaissance syphilis and its end point the mid-1980s shift from herpes to AIDS as privileged locus of biofear production. Then there is always horror at the body as pleasure site: from opium to Ecstasy, from temperance to the war on drugs, from chastity movement to chastity movement (some things never change). These histories might combine into a genealogy of the modern self as seen through the social technologies mounted for its defense and care. A racial-ethnic perspective could follow periodic crime scares, accounting for the variation of the criminalized group: from "Indians," to Irish, to Jews, to blacks and Hispanics. This could find a parallel history in the story of anti-immigration campaigns, leading up to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Yellow Peril, and English-only laws. A class history would find much common ground with the racial-ethnic narrative as it followed the trajectory from "dangerous classes" to the Reagan specter of drug-addled welfare cheats. The surveillance, policing, and intelligence-gathering procedures of the national security state itself have their own voluminous history. The list could go on. Natural disasters, transportation accidents, spies, famines and droughts, serial killers, sex addiction, fluoridation, terrorism, rock music, assassination, global warming, Willie Horton, wrinkles, ozone depletion, Satanism, aging... What aspect of life, from the most momentous to the most trivial, has not become a workstation in the mass production line of fear?

As originally conceived, this volume was to serve as prolegomena to these social histories of fear, with a special focus on the United States, where the tools of the organized fear trade seem to have undergone a particularly complex evolution adapting them to an everwidening range of circumstances. The emphasis was to have been on charting the saturation of American social space by mechanisms of fear production, with special attention to the role of the mass media. The regularity, perhaps cyclic nature, of media scare campaigns would have been emphasized. A central concern would have been to highlight the materiality of the body as the ultimate object of technologies of fear, understood as apparatuses of power aimed at carving into the flesh habits, predispositions, and associated emotions--in particular, hatred--conducive to setting social boundaries, to erecting and preserving hierarchies, to the perpetuation of domination. Although the organizing concept would have been low-level fear--naturalized fear, ambient fear, ineradicable atmospheric fright, the discomfiting affective Muzak that might come to be remembered as a trademark of the late-twentieth-century America--special attention would have been given to fear to the extreme, to the great symphonies of collective hysteria, panic, and national paranoia.

Many of these issues are addressed in the present volume. But the project's overall orientation changed. Part of the reason for its reconception was the sheer mass of available material. No single volume could do justice to the number and variety of fear mechanisms at large in American society. Beyond that practical problem, it soon became apparent that the original design, which was to follow frightful lines of continuity through history, glossed over an issue of tremendous importance: rupture. There was no reason why the history of popular fear production should be unaffected by the kind of epistemic breaks privileged by Foucauldian analysis. A new set of questions came to the fore, revolving around the likelihood that the social landscape of fear had been fundamentally reconfigured by the cultural break that many commentators identify as having occurred after World War II. The volume is not meant to address itself to issues of periodization per se: if, at what point, and in what way a break between "modern" culture and "postmodern" culture, between "industrial" society and "postindustrial" society may have occurred. Rather, it asks what rethinking of fear-functioning is necessitated by the hypothesis of such a break. The volume shifted from social history to political philosophy. The Politics of Everyday Fear can be read as a contribution toward a political ontology of fear, post-"post-."

Many of the recurring questions addressed implicitly or explicitly by the essays gathered here concern the consequences of saturation of social space by fear. Have fear-producing mechanisms become so pervasive and invasive that we can no longer separate our selves from our fear? If they have, is fear still fundamentally an emotion, a personal experience, or is it part of what constitutes the collective ground of possible experience? Is it primarily a subjective content or part of the very process of subject formation? Is it ontic or ontogenetic? Empirical or virtual? If, in a sense, we have become our fear, and if that becoming is tied up with movements of commodification carrying capital toward intensifying saturation of the same social space suffused by fear, does that mean that when we buy we are buying into fear, and when we buy into fear we are buying into our selves? How does capitalized fear circulate? Implant and reproduce itself? If we cannot separate our selves from our fear, and if fear is a power mechanism for the perpetuation of domination, is our unavoidable participation in the capitalist culture of fear a complicity with our own and others' oppression? If we are in collective complicity with fear, does that mean that fear no longer sets social boundaries, but transcends them? If so, how does domination function without set boundaries? If not, how can the boundary be reconceptualized to account for the confluence of fear, subjectivity, and capital? Most of all, how, now, does one resist?

The pieces in this volume address questions such as these from many different perspectives, often obliquely. There is, however, a general consensus that we cannot in fact separate ourselves from fear, thus that it is necessary to reinvent resistance. This orientation is expressed in the performative nature of many of the texts. For if the enemy is us, analysis, however necessary, is not enough to found a practice of resistance. Fear, under conditions of complicity, can be neither analyzed nor opposed without at the same time being enacted. The decision to include graphics and "contributions" from "primary" sources such as Aryan Nations, Hitler, Charles Manson, and the government of Canada followed from the conviction that the volume as a whole had in some way to perform its object of inquiry.

The contributions to Fear are grouped under a number of headings. Essays under the same heading do not necessarily share a theoretical approach or topic. The methods are many; the topics overlap. Rather than delimiting a fixed intellectual territory, the headings invite the reader to invent an itinerary through possible landscapes of fear whose contours they minimally suggest.

Never fight fear head-on. That rot about pulling yourself
together, and the harder you pull the worse it gets. Let it in
and look at it. You will see it by what it does.

--William S Burroughs

fearbutt.jpg - 8.34 KTable of Contents for The Politics of Everyday Fear