Through my boyhood days and even later, my mother made life miserable for me. She had a long list of possible, mostly intangible, sources of danger for her son and never lacked the energy to warn against those till she was no more and I was past 50. If she ever found me reading a book lying down, she would begin: “Boi khola raikha ghumaite nai, bhute aisha poira loibo (Don’t sleep with your book open, ghosts will come and read it)”. When did the ghosts become such avid knowledge-hunters, I wondered. But the prospect of a whole battery of ghosts tromping on the open pages of my book, Mickey Mouse-style, and having a merry time must have provided rich fodder for my dreams that night.
As I grew up, school textbooks assured me that science explains irrational fears, exposes their groundlessness and thus puts them to rest. Alas, the more I entered into adult life, the more I seemed to notice a strange bonhomie between the mushrooming of fears and a scientific worldview that an average educated citizen is expected to have. Of late, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, what we are experiencing is nothing short of a festival of fears — indeterminate, omnipresent fears, threatening from every corner, begging explanations which are coming in plenty but of which no one seems to be sure. “Fear is a poor advisor” says the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, “but it causes many things to appear that one pretended not to see.”
The outpouring of instructions increases anxiety and an elongation of the risk spectrum, causing a generic form of insecurity. The individual is thus placed in a loop of self-referentiality, where the only logical thing to do is to focus on one’s own security. We are caught in the thickets of our fears. Fears reside no farther than our minds, where they take as many forms and colours one can imagine. Fear without a specific object is an all-embracing fear, taking hold of everything we see and do. We start fearing the surface of our bodies as it signals our finitude. In a world characterised by mass individualism, our bodies become the final rampart.
The present crisis finds its own physiognomy in differentiating itself from similar medical crises of the past. Past and present telescope into one another. The result is an imbroglio that makes fear the master key to existence. The estimated 50 million people who perished to influenza epidemic a century earlier (1918–1920) and even the countless who lost their lives in Europe and North Africa back in the 14th century to the surge of pestilence come together in a ballet of death and dying. What counts as real are death and its numbers, the rest is ephemeral.
With neoliberalism, humanity has entered a “new government of social insecurity”, when governance is a matter of churning out fears of illusory enemies to create an obedient biopolitical populace. Sovereignty’s function increasingly is not to create order but guide the citizens through disorder. Hence, even as air traffic resumes service haltingly, crowds start gathering at the beaches, markets tentatively reopen, a deep sense of futility does not seem to leave us. A lurking sense of doom seems to have permanently settled in. Humanity’s sense of reality in the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene is all about the prospects of living in a thoroughly damaged planet. Could this be the root cause of the jouissance that took over within days of lifting the lockdown, a stoic desperation albeit fuelled by consumerism? The more difficult it becomes to read the future, the more blurred seems the past. The more instantaneous became information, more synchronised were human emotions, producing an unprecedented spiritual dread.
Politically speaking, this is the era of techno-scientific domination and propaganda where speed is of pivotal importance. “Terror,” says Hannah Arendt, “is the realisation of the law of movement.” In today’s world, the import of science and technology, especially communication technology, has taken speed to an altogether different stratosphere. Fear attains a new life in the acceleration of speed. Acceleration makes reality virtual. If fear was the master metaphor in the so-called state of nature, so it is now in the era of hyper-advanced technologies.
Media creates its own time, one that is cyclical and repetitive. Attacks on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001, and the bomb attack in London metro on July 7, 2007, came with repeated viewings of the same images — in the case of World Trade Centre, the gushing out of a huge pile of smoke from the first tower as a plane was about to smash into the second tower, and in the London attack, a middle-aged woman emerging from a hospital, her head bandaged and an arm in sling. The images were repeated so often that they took allegorical dimensions, allegories of West vs. East. Imperialism, as went the popular quip during the students’ movement in the 1970s, does not need any propaganda; its ideology is sealed in bottles of Coca-Cola.
In a pandemic, mega sanitary and security fears combined with small personal fears to create panic across the population. Medicalisation of fear is not new in modern history. Plague and syphilis not only created huge panic but altered medical science as well as urban space planning and how humans lived their lives in renaissance Europe. Closer to our times, after Spanish influenza at the beginning of last century, the mid-1980s was witness of a major panic in the form of AIDS, while the turn of the millennium focus was on the bird flu, SARS and Ebola. The current preoccupation is, of course, COVID-19. Every aspect of life seems to have become “a workstation in the mass production line of fear” (Brian Massumi).
Consequently, our daily lives become a crisscross of fears preventing which becomes an attractive market proposition. In today’s life, fear is no fear if it remains merely empirical and not transformed into the virtual. As mass murders and police killings, gang-rapes and stealth burning of corpses blur into a series, everyday transactions acquire strange forebodings, a queasy feeling that anything can happen at any moment. With our reality principle becoming suffused with fear, commodities become the only signposts of hope. Modern humanity needs cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), one and all. If nothing else, it would at least free those unfortunate lives caught in the insidious discourse of psychiatry.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 13, 2020 under the title ‘ A year of being afraid’. The writer is former professor in cultural studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.
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