Fear and uncertainty


I really enjoyed Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Fear. It is, as you might suppose, a discussion of ‘fear’ and it presents a number of interesting arguments which could be really useful in literary studies (I’m thinking of my interests in representations of violence and of the city). Anyway, here are a couple of quotes from his Introduction, though it is best recommended just to read the book:

“We have all heard stories about cowards who turned into fearless fighters when they were faced with a ‘real danger’; when the disaster they had been expecting day in, day out, but had tried in vain to imagine, finally struck. Fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen. ‘Fear’ is the name we give to our uncertainty; to our ignorance of the threat and of what is to be done – what can and what can’t be – to stop it in its tracks – or to fight it back if stopping it is beyond our power.” (p.2)

“The experience of living in sixteenth-century Europe – the time and the place when and where our modern era was about to be born – was crisply, and famously, summed up by Lucien Febvre in just four words: ‘Peur toujours, peur partout’ (‘fear always and everywhere’). Febvre connected that ubiquitousness of fear to darkness, which started just on the other side of the hut door and wrapped the world beyond the farm fence; in the darkness anything may happen, but there is no telling what will. Darkness is not the cause of danger, but it is the natural habitat of uncertainty – and so of fear.
Modernity was to be the great leap forward: away from that fear and into a world free of blind and impermeable fate – that greenhouse of fears. As Victor Hugo ruminated, wistfully and waxing lyrical on occasion: ushered in by science (‘the political tribune will be transformed into a scientific one’), a time will come of an end to surprises, calamities, catastrophes – but also of an end to disputes, illusions, parasitisms… In other words, a time free of all that stuff of which fears are made. What was to be a route of escape, however, proved instead to be a long detour. Five centuries later, to us standing at the other end of the huge graveyard of dashed hopes, Febvre’s verdict sounds – again – remarkably apt and topical. Ours is, again, a time of fears.
Fear is a feeling known to every living creature. Humans share that experience with the animals. Students of animal behaviour have described in great detail the rich repertoire of animal responses to the immediate presence of a menace threatening their life – which all, as in the case of humans facing a threat, veer [-p.3] between the alternatives of escape and aggression. Humans, however, know in addition something else: a sort of ‘second degree’ fear, a fear, so to speak, socially and culturally ‘recycled’, a ‘derivative fear’ that guides their behaviour (having first reformed their perception of the world and the expectations guiding their behavioural choices) whether or not a menace is immediately present. Secondary fear may be seen as a sediment of a past experience of facing the menace point blank – a sediment that outlives the encounter and becomes an important factor in shaping human conduct even if there is no longer a direct threat to life or integrity.
‘Derivative fear’ is a steady frame of mind that is best described as the sentiment of being susceptible to danger; a feeling of insecurity (the world is full of dangers that may strike at any time with little or no warning) and vulnerability (in the event of the danger striking; the assumption of vulnerability to dangers depends more on a lack of trust in the defences available than on the volume or nature of actual threats). A person who has interiorized such a vision of the world that includes insecurity and vulnerability will routinely, even in the absence of a genuine threat, resort to the responses proper to a point-blank meeting with danger; ‘derivative fear’ acquires a self-propelling capacity.” (pp.2-3)

Dangers one is afraid of (and so also the derivative fears they arouse) may be of three kinds. Some threaten the body and the possessions. Some others are of a more general nature, threatening the durability and reliability of the social order on which security of livelihood (income, employment), or survival in the case of -[p4] invalidity or old age, depend. Then there are dangers that threaten one’s place in the world – a position in the social hierarchy, identity (class, gender, ethnic, religious), and more generally an immunity to social degradation and exclusion. Numerous studies show, however, that ‘derivative fear’ is easily ‘decoupled’ in the sufferers’ awareness from the dangers that cause it. People it afflicts with the sentiment of insecurity and vulnerability may interpret a derivative fear by reference to any of the three types of dangers – independently of (and often in defiance of) the evidence of their relative contributions and responsibility.  The resulting defensive or aggressive reactions aimed at mitigating the fear may be therefore targeted away from the dangers truly responsible for the presumption of insecurity.
For instance, the state, having founded its raison d’être and its claim to citizens’ obedience on the promise to protect its subjects against threats to their existence, but no longer able to deliver on its promise (particularly the promise of defence against the second and third types of danger) – or able responsibly to reaffirm it in view of the fast globalizing and increasingly extraterritorial markets – is obliged to shift the emphasis of ‘fear protection’ from dangers to social security to the dangers of personal safety. It then ‘subsidiarizes’ the battle against fear ‘down’ to the realm of individually run and managed ‘life politics’, while simultaneously contracting out the supply of battle weapons to the consumer markets.” (pp.3-4)

“What the millennium bug affair demonstrated and what [Catherine] Bennett discovered in the case of one miracle fear-defying cosmetic device may be seen as a pattern for infinite numbers of others. The consumer economy depends on the production of consumers, and the consumers that need to be produced for fear-fighting products are fearful and frightened consumers, hopeful that the dangers they fear can be forced to retreat and that they can do it (with paid help, for sure).” (p.7)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Zygmunt Bauman (2006) Liquid Fear. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK


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