"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

On “Fear: A Cultural History”

Last night, I started reading Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke. I’ve had my eye on the book for a few weeks now, and finally picked it up at Borders yesterday. It’s the type of book I like, because I enjoy writing that confidently integrates history with cultural studies. It also has some relevance to my History of Science and Technology in Western Culture class, as it discusses fears of science, technology, medical advancements, and military machinery. I’m only on page 50, and have already come across some fascinating ideas.

Bourke devotes the first section of the book to describing the fear of death and how it affected individual lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She illustrates how fear of death was intertwined with a fear of being prematurely buried – that is, buried alive. At the same time, she explains how closely fear of death was related to fearing poverty; and she notes how social welfare targeted at reducing poverty didn’t eradicate the fear, but only diluted its effects and changed in focus:

Rather than trembling about the effects of absolute privation, people shuddered to think about the consequences of relative impoverishment, such as being rehoused in a rougher area or forced to sell prized possessions. The providers of public assistance were determined to retain (indeed, even boost) this element of fear. After all, they reasoned, public assistance should not be made too easy in case people jettisoned all economic anxieties, thus damaging the economy. As a consequence, moral panics arose around unscrupulous individuals and groups who did not feel sufficiently apprehensive of the stigma attached to the receipt of poor relief. – pg. 27

Describing the use of fear as a public policy tool, and explaining how its boundaries were altered to reflect public reaction to policy or manipulate society, strikes me as a fairly unique perspective. I’m curious about the extent to which Bourke keeps these themes out in front, as she continues the discussion of the cultural parameters of fear.

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