In the Bosom of Fear

Posted on March 24, 2011



Fear can be quite a warm and comfortable place to be. It might not seem like it when we fear arrest in the kettle, when we fear losing our job or fear being snubbed by a stranger when we ask for the time. But it can be a safe haven compared to the overwhelming anxiety we sometimes feel at night, when what drains us of energy during the day seems meaningless at best.

What are fear and anxiety, and how do they shape who we are? It seems clear that fear and anxiety are related but not the same. Fear is always determinate, it has an object, it is a fear of something, of losing our job, of not making it, of rejection or ridicule. Fear, even if it is unfounded, is inherently meaningful.  If there was a bogey man under the bed, you’d be quite right to fear him. Fear is a part of a system of meaning.

Anxiety is indeterminate and has no concrete object. Anxiety is the affect proper of the collapse or breaking up of meaning. If the fearful fears to lose, the anxious is uncertain of what there is to be lost or gained. What is lost in anxiety is meaning itself. We fear unemployment, but become anxious when we find unemployment unlivable and employment undesirable.

Some will say anxiety relates to nothing (like a fear of the unknown).  But this is not just any nothing – it is an insisting and relevant nothing. Like the noise of silence, it shouts at us, and cannot be ignored.

When we are anxious our world of meaning cracks or crumbles, we are face to face with the possibility of giving direction to our whole existence. Anxiety is the point of our emergent and yet indiscernible desire, the moment before we cross the line and find ourselves establishing a new space of meaning and practice – or before we return to the bosom of fear, to the security of the law-abiding and timid.

The escape into Fear

How reassuring it is then, to have something to fear when the alternative is to face the meaninglessness in our lives and our society (and in the oh so many cheap fears they have on sale!). In this way the fear of something can be a postponement or placeholder for anxiety. If this is so, our task then is to distinguish between fear-as-placeholder-of-anxiety and fear-plain-and-simple.

When we don’t tell our boss to shove it, when we stay out of Millbank, or when some were too fearful to show their soles to Mubarak, there are two dimensions to fear.

On one hand we fear something real and concrete – the risk of being sacked, or pushed onto the tarmac, hands tied behind our backs, then locked up in a cold cell, charged and abused. On the other hand, our fears may be quite groundless or exaggerated. When we stand together in solidarity, in workplaces or unions, or when we are thousands together in disobedience, they can’t simply sack or arrest us all (or they risk the rage of us all). When we fear arrest we calculate our actions in relation to the law and in doing so we submit ourselves to the system of legality. Whether or not we break the law, we somehow act as if we’re guilty, as if we are being watched. They don’t need to use force when we use the force of our own fear on ourselves – or against each other. These fears too often amount to escapes for us, masks of our anxiety. They give us an easy escape from the disturbing feeling that there is no sense to their system of meaning and law and from the arduous task of finding ways to live beyond it.

It happens…

When we create new spaces and ways to live and struggle, fears will still be there. Some fears will be dissolved as we stand together with courage, when the police and public opinion turn out to be paper tigers. But other simpler fears will still be there; fear of the concrete threats to our livelihoods and bodies, to our solidarities and collective experiments. This kind of fear has its own intelligence, the intelligence of self-preservation and strategy, a fear that helps us navigate between courage and care.

When we turn our backs on the fear that controls us, when we stand with those who’ve left the suffocating bosom of fear, we face anxiety, the moment before the event. It is not merely a question of courage, but of setting our own ‘laws’, our own meanings and practices. It happens when we stop using the fear of arrest, loss and ridicule against ourselves. When we start to say: we do this not because it is legal or illegal, proper or provocative, but because it is right.

Posted in: 3. Ed One