"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.

Blogging as an Imagined Community

In early 2006, I completed a class on American Intellectual History, where the first book I read was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. The course – an independent study course where I worked directly with a mentor to define its content and purpose – was intended to help me understand intellectual history and the different ways it can be approached. Anderson’s book describes the emergence of the idea of a nation as a imagined construct, and his book covers an incredible amount of intellectual territory.

As I was reading the book, I made several notes at the time about blogging as an imagined community, and have since discovered that at least a few others have considered that idea also. One notable essay along these lines is Imagining the Blogosphere: An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant Publishing (pdf) by Graham Lampa – which does a fine job of describing blogging in terms of Anderson’s thesis.

There were a few finer points in Anderson’s book, however, that I found compelling to consider with respect to blogging, all potentially worth exploring from the perspective of intellectual history. Anderson anchors much of his thesis around the impact of the emergence of print publishing, and the spread of newly published material to masses of people as a result of the logic of market capitalism. Anderson goes on to relate this to new conceptions about time, describing how the conceptual experience of time changed to one where we can grasp the idea that there is a distinct past and present, and more importantly that there are people engaging in actions (and there are events taking place) outside our (approximately) immediate perceptual awareness. Anderson states, as an example:

An American will never meet, or even know the names of [most] of his fellow Americans. He has no idea what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity. – pg. 26

Anderson goes on to explain this by describing the experience of reading a newspaper, in which all the news stories are connected first by coincidence of time, and second by their immediate obsolescence:

The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing … creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (“imagining”) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that…. The significance of this mass ceremony … is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life. – pg. 35

If you find these ideas difficult – as I did at first – try to imagine not having an awareness of this simultaneous activity. That is, try to imagine how differently you would look at the world, if you didn’t have an awareness of a distinct past and present, and of human beings engaged in simultaneous activity. While you won’t really achieve that state of mind, you might begin to grasp what sort of intellectual revolution occurred in human thought for the shift toward this awareness to take hold.

As Anderson also describes, this intellectual revolution occurred within a historical context where existing social and political power structures began to crumble. Blogging is often described as democratizing, in the sense that it moves some control over information from traditional institutions to anybody who has enough interest, and takes enough time, to post their thoughts on a web site. While there are certainly questions to be raised about the efficacy or value of the information on a typical blog site, the fact that blogs even exist – and that they are written and managed by individuals often working on their own – has implications for human intellectual development that, I think, have yet to be considered. Their potential influence is dramatic; the potential of that influence to effect political, cultural, and social change is also dramatic. And if Anderson’s thesis is true, or even mostly true, then they even have the potential – at least partly because of their immediacy and the speed with which information now travels – to permanently alter some elements of the way human beings think.