Why do we fear?

Theo Parker (Geography BSc) challenges the prevalence of fear in our society.



Introduced by the Bush Administration in the frantic aftermath of 9/11, the Homeland Security Advisory System indicated the level of threat of terrorist attack to the US public, using a simplistic spectrum of colours. In its decade of existence until 2011, the colour never dropped below the ‘significant risk’ of yellow. According to the system, the USA was always ‘at risk.’

In his work on fear, Political Philosopher Brian Massumi has suggested that this system is the epitome of increasingly pervasive phenomena of modern society: the modulation of fear in the population.

Various effective technologies of fear are responsible for this: the media, governmental policies or the installation of CCTV. We are continually conditioned to be afraid.

Fear is increasingly permeated into our bodies. We fear climate change, terrorist attacks, unemployment…the list of fears is endless.

But how do we best understand the process of becoming fearful?

I am interested in using the lens of Deleuzian affect in an attempt to explore the saturation of fear in modern society. I suggest that fear is an affect that is constantly being produced, experienced and activated, even without obvious threat triggering this fear.

The word limits prevent me from going into too much detail, so instead, I will leave you with an argument by philosopher and psychologist William James. I hope his idea might make you reconsider how you view fear. To paraphrase:

Do we really run from a bear because we are afraid of it?
We are afraid, we feel fear because we run.


For further interest, I would highly recommend this article by Brian Massumi.

Feature photograph, an adaption of 1984 by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. 

This piece was originally published for Helicon Magazine’s weekly Features column

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