This is an excerpt from Robert Nelson’s essay, “Naked Fear: A New Chapter in the History of Anxiety”, which was printed as part of the 2010 issue of Antithesis Journal. To hear more about Robert Nelson’s work, read his interview in the 2018 issue of Antithesis, launching October 9th!
Naked Fear: A New Chapter in the History of Anxiety
Aristotle famously defined tragedy in terms of catharsis a purging of the soul by means of pity and fear. In the tragedy, the audience entertains a painful mixture of these emotions, terrified in anticipation to think that a grave and divine mishap will befall the hero and, perhaps witnessing the punishment, the audience is consumed with sympathy, identifying with the fate of the hero who comes undone.
Fear is among the most destructive of emotions and its socialisation yields cultures of neurotic form. It is not only uncomfortable but intensely disempowering. Toward the history of fear, we would have to note the centrality of the emotion to all strategies of bullying. It is a core value of every military campaign ever waged: to instil fright in the adversary and weaken the enemy’s nerve so much so that the battle is fought more favourably. Warfare was carried out with terrible engines of bloodshed, to be sure, but spearheading these were the physically harmless engines of fear, the drums, the bizarre discordant whistles, the shouting, the dire tones of loud horns that cast a spell of imminent death upon the enemy.
To menace is to gain power. If I can weaken your confidence, I can gain privileges and dominate you. And so, in mixtures of dismal threat and a caricature of intimidation that is no longer believed, Giambattista Marino represents what we have to fear in the underworld, personified as Hades or Pluto, the Tartarean Jove, who rules souls with ‘tremendous laws’ and any number of ministers, all with their horrid inventions to torture the hopes of the damned, which we have already encountered.
“To menace is to gain power.”
Baroque poets, I suppose, grew up on a diet of Hellfire and fear of divine torment, as did most Europeans until the denunciations of this religious educational practice in the late twentieth century. Among writers like Richard Dawkins, the doctrine would be classed as child abuse.
Few baroque poets would have escaped such child abuse. So the question was: how to overcome it? Or: how to cope with it? Their response was to handle the motif ironically, as inventions, as poetry which is clearly artificial and manipulative, mostly handling the order of belief from antiquity which had been obsolete as a faith for almost two millennia.
The greatest fears in world literature are on the imaginative side. In Marino’s time we do not read so much about the fear of nasty little rats who have bubonic fleas and who contribute thus to wiping out large parts of the population in an agonised death. Instead, we read about the bizarre details of the chimeras, monsters of ancient typecast, grand pedigrees of malignancy or just severity. There were so many premodern realities about which legitimate fears might have been entertained, such as tyranny, where you find yourself and your children starving to death because you have been disenfranchised by a lord whose patronage you need. It would be hard for us to countenance a week of baroque life amongst the reasonable anxieties that any good citizen in that stressful epoch might have experienced.
Let me jump from the baroque to a period equipped with fewer ironies. | want to come to our own century in which fear is a commodity, promoted and traded for commercial gain, and where anxiety is structurally embedded in the fabric of capitalism as an essential ingredient in national growth.
We are, I believe, in the middle of an anxiety revolution, in which a va st array of goods and services are promoted by stimulating anxiety. Anxiety is commercialised from beauty magazines to health insurance, from the marketing of body products and clothing to the marketing of private schools, from heavy motor vehicles to schemes for monitoring adolescents in a panorama of drug and sex hazards.
“Anxiety is structurally embedded in the fabric of capitalism as an essential ingredient in national growth.”
In our culture, only one emotional stimulant for boosting sales is as powerf ul as sex, and that is fear. It began with fundamentalist religion and reactionary politicians and it has spread virally throughout the fabric of institutional life. It is the most common commercial strategy because, once you have inseminated fear, you can sell security. Business was never simpler: identify risk, conflate it with great emotion and then sell solutions. So who would be without a marketing plan that does not propagate fear?
The strongest purveyors of fear are the media because, before selling products and services, they have to sell themselves and their stories to wrest your attention from the complacency of changing the channel. TV could not live a day in its competitive environment without promoting fear in the community. In its news and current affairs programs, it thrives on predators, on cases of people not being sufficiently guarded and falling prey to villains or bad luck. There is always a coda implying that superior levels of security should have been provided. It is a mad spiral, a constantly worsening manipulation of public perception toward insecurity by the most influential instrument of opinion.
“Fear is intimately a part of the rhetoric of mainstream culture”
Little effort is required to boot an anxiety discourse because all anxiety discourses not only pre-exist but are agglutinative in structure. The one anxiety stimulates another and attaches to its sentiment, even though the subject matter might be radically different; and so terrorism, swine flu, break-ins, drug abuse, violence, road trauma, child pornography, social imbalance caused by ugly minorities, your child’s education, and the risk to your superannuation all form various links in a consistent chain that binds anxiety to mainstream management, authority, security, social responsibility, astuteness, righteousness, power.
The cultivation of anxiety for commercial purposes is damaging on numerous social and environmental levels, encouraging paranoiac expenditure, moral panic, exaggeratedly restrictive regulatory frameworks, authoritarian zeal for control and ever more discouragement to creativity.
We think of art generally belonging to the same energy as education: to reduce fear and anxiety in the psyche in order to facilitate curiosity, learning and creative thought. But to do this is never simple because fear is intimately a part of the rhetoric of mainstream culture, and the avant-garde can never ignore or stand outside this rhetoric if it is to provide resistance. Historically, art has been involved in fear, both cultivating it and diminishing it. Both motifs will persist; just as artists inseminate doomsday fear, albeit legitimately, over greenhouse gas emissions in order to achieve a greener planet, as if the community is a child who has to become fearful of tooth-rot in order to remember to brush their teeth. We can appeal to reason in every case if anyone will listen; but ultimately, the best test of the legitimacy of a fear is whether or not it gives in to a sense of self-determination as opposed to coercion. Only when it provides that sense of self-determination can we rest assured that the fears are legitimate.
Image by David Flores, used with permission.