Facing Fear: The History of an Emotion in Global Perspective

Facing Fear: The History of an Emotion in Global Perspective

Facing Fear: The History of an Emotion in Global Perspective

Facing Fear: The History of an Emotion in Global Perspective


Fear is ubiquitous but slippery. It has been defined as a purely biological reality, derided as an excuse for cowardice, attacked as a force for social control, and even denigrated as an unnatural condition that has no place in the disenchanted world of enlightened modernity. In these times of institutionalized insecurity and global terror, Facing Fear sheds light on the meaning, diversity, and dynamism of fear in multiple world-historical contexts, and demonstrates how fear universally binds us to particular presents but also to a broad spectrum of memories, stories, and states in the past.

From the eighteenth-century Peruvian highlands and the California borderlands to the urban cityscapes of contemporary Russia and India, this book collectively explores the wide range of causes, experiences, and explanations of this protean emotion. The volume contributes to the thriving literature on the history of emotions and destabilizes narratives that have often understood fear in very specific linguistic, cultural, and geographical settings. Rather, by using a comparative, multidisciplinary framework, the book situates fear in more global terms, breaks new ground in the historical and cultural analysis of emotions, and sets out a new agenda for further research.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Alexander Etkind, Lisbeth Haas, Andreas Killen, David Lederer, Melani McAlister, Ronald Schechter, Marla Stone, Ravi Sundaram, and Charles Walker.


Fear is everywhere, it is measurable, and it is reportable. Or so the viewer is apprised in countless media broadcasts designed to draw one in to the latest fragmentary and predigested roundup of global news. Such certainty about an omnipresent and scalable emotion seems to accord with the consensus of the analyses now available that ruminate on the supposed failure of the Enlightenment project to free us from so elemental a condition. As Jan Plamper has noted, fear sells, and this marketability, which apparently reflects the daily concerns of the modern consumer, meshes with Zygmunt Bauman’s observation that we choose stubbornly to fear everything, from the weather to strangers and even our own memories. Life surely abounds in peril, and terrors can be racked up, one upon the other, to create a hierarchy of worry to be treated both by the technicians of modernity—particularly the psychoanalysts and insurance agents whose industries are examined by Joanna Bourke—and by the more traditional religious mechanics of destiny.

Even if it is experienced in the present moment, one might argue that fear is inherently of the future; that it is the pervading sense of uncertainty about an inherently unknowable condition that could potentially visit pain on the body or loss of what one holds dear. As a result the modern subject is potentially rendered utterly insecure, perhaps more so than her/his ancestors. After all, it has even been observed that the states that can claim the most sophisticated security systems are those that identify the greatest number of threats. Yet has it always been thus? If the Enlightenment was supposed, by the inculcation of universal reason, to free everyone from fear and thus remove the Divine as an imagined agent of history (which so clearly has not happened), then how different have the fears of the past been? Is the overwhelming and constantly reiterated Islamophobia of today the same as that of previous epochs? And how, and indeed whom, might we fear in times to come?

These seemed but a few of the potential questions to be posed when, in October of 2006 and under the direction of Gyan Prakash, the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies issued a call for applications from scholars working on the subject of fear in all its manifestations. Over the course of the 2007–8 academic year, a wide-ranging set of conversations explored specific histories of fear in various settings. In many instances the discussions did indeed proceed from debates over the meaning of . . .

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