- The Economy of Fear1
In the symptomatology of contemporary societies, we would have to say that fear ranks among the least understood of emotions—as well as the most in need of critique. The emergence of twenty-four hour news cycles, travel advisories, and terror threat levels, which claim to reflect the ever-changing landscape of risk, have produced and perpetuated a culture of fear whose full extent we have only begun to envision. Beyond any phenomenology, we require a critique of the history of values and ideas, of technology and politics, within which fear is now aggressively (over)determined and distributed. Today, Lars Svendsen writes, we are experiencing “the colonization of our life-world by fear” (7), and it’s in this sense that his recent A Philosophy of Fear raises the hope that this critique has been undertaken in earnest. Drawing on his earlier book, A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), Svendsen argues that fear has become broadly characteristic of Western European and North American societies; but for all that, he suggests, its logic remains obscure. Inasmuch as “we are living more securely than ever before in human history,” the tendency—or even desire—to “consider all phenomena from a perspective of fear” cannot be explained rationally: in Svendsen’s words, “we voluntarily expose ourselves to [fear] in an attempt to transcend a banal, boring everyday existence” (7).
Broadly construed, A Philosophy of Fear delivers a humanist account of this dilemma, ultimately retaining the promise of a rational subject-citizen and a liberal-democratic society. In so doing, however, this book threatens to denude the questions that make its study so urgent: how can we understand the symptomatology of a subject, and the institutional structures of a society, organized around fear? Whether we consider it a feeling, a signifier, a sign, or a concept, the problem of fear today entails the transformation of both sides of this Janus face: on the one hand, the production of fear signifies the transformation of the subject and the production of a new kind of symptomatology, without which we would not hazard to speak of the predominance of this emotion; on the other hand, the production of fear signifies the transformation of the institutions and practices of a new kind of society, without [End Page 333] which we would not hazard to speak of the prevalence of this emotion. In this light, the first half of A Philosophy of Fear constitutes a rather underwhelming analysis of the culture of fear that rests on a fundamental distinction between the “emotion” itself and the culturally conditioned “habit” that bears its name. By mapping the relation between fear and risk, Svendsen generates an aesthetic and philosophical account that claims to outstrip the explanatory power of neurophysiological, phenomenological, and existential approaches. Whereas the latter resolve the supposition of a “strong, overwhelming fear,” Svendsen argues that today’s cultures of fear actually entail a kind of “lowintensity fear”—the habit or mood “that surrounds us and forms a backdrop of our experiences and interpretations of the world” (46).
A Philosophy of Fear duly takes “the war on terror” to task for the promotion of such fear. In the complicity between the mass media, military (mis)information, and political strategy, the prospect of dire outcomes have been relentlessly inflated. The result is the widespread (if diffuse) sense of fear that increasingly permeates contemporary life. Svendsen’s point is that, despite the events of 9/11, our fears are as misplaced: the vast majority of us will not be done in by terrorists but, rather, by the comparatively mundane means of traffic accidents, heart disease, and cancer. Of course, this is true, but Svendsen offers it into evidence as if this were a case that could be adjudicated, when the whole problem of fear is that it defies rational logic. Most of us will never encounter terrorism, but what’s most interesting (and alarming) about fear is that this truth is utterly irrelevant. The disproportion between the statistical improbability of such a threat and the pervasiveness of a real affect constitutes the very space in which the problem of fear emerges. And...