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positions: east asia cultures critique 13.1 (2005) 31-48

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Fear (The Spectrum Said)

That momentary paralysis of the spirit, of the tongue and limbs, that profound agitation descending to the core of one's being, that dispossession of self we call intimidation.... It is a nascent social state that occurs whenever we pass from one society to another.
Gabriel Tarde
The future will be better tomorrow.
George W. Bush

In March 2002, with much pomp, the Bush administration's new Department of Homeland Security introduced its color-coded terror alert system: green, "low"; blue, "guarded"; yellow, "elevated"; orange, "high"; red, "severe." The nation has danced ever since between yellow and orange. Life has restlessly settled, to all appearances permanently, on the redward end of the spectrum, the blue-greens of tranquility a thing of the past. "Safe" doesn't even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception. Insecurity, the spectrum says, is the new normal.1 [End Page 31]

The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public's anxiety. In the aftermath of 9/11, the public's fearfulness had tended to swing out of control in response to dramatic, but maddeningly vague, government warnings of an impending follow-up attack. The alert system was designed to modulate that fear. It could raise it a pitch, then lower it before it became too intense, or even worse, before habituation dampened response. Timing was everything. Less fear itself than fear fatigue became an issue of public concern. Affective modulation of the populace was now an official, central function of an increasingly time-sensitive government.

The self-defensive reflex-response to perceptual cues that the system was designed to train into the population wirelessly jacked central government functioning directly into each individual's nervous system. The whole population became a networked jumpiness, a distributed neuronal network registering en masse quantum shifts in the nation's global state of discomfiture in rhythm with leaps between color levels. Across the geographical and social differentials dividing them, the population fell into affective attunement. That the shifts registered en masse did not necessarily mean that people began to act similarly, as in social imitation of each other, or of a model proposed for each and all. "Imitation renders form; attunement renders feeling."2 Jacked into the same modulation of feeling, bodies reacted in unison without necessarily acting alike. Their responses could, and did, take many forms. What they shared was the central nervousness. How it translated somatically varied body by body.

There was simply nothing to identify with or imitate. The alerts presented no form, ideological or ideational and, remaining vague as to the source, nature, and location of the threat, bore precious little content. They were signals without signification. All they distinctly offered was an "activation contour": a variation in intensity of feeling over time.3 They addressed not subjects' cognition, but rather bodies' irritability. Perceptual cues were being used to activate direct bodily responsiveness rather than reproduce a form or transmit definite content.

Each body's reaction would be determined largely by its already-acquired patterns of response. The color alerts addressed bodies at the level of their dispositions toward action. The system was not in any direct way a subjective positioning device. It was a body-aimed dispositional trigger mechanism. [End Page 32] Bodies would be triggered into actions over the exact nature of which the governmental emission of the perceptual cue had little direct control. Individuals would inevitably express their attunement to the affective modulation in their own unique ways. It was in a second moment, through the diversity of the resultant actions thus triggered, that each would position him- or herself subjectively in relation to others. Any moment of reflection that might come would come after, in discussion or retrospective review. The system addressed the population immediately, at a presubjective level: at the level of bodily predisposition or tendency—action in its nascent state. A color shift would trip each body's tendencies into an unfolding through which its predispositions would regain determinate...


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