What, exactly, is fear? How can the same term be used to describe the panic passengers experience when severe turbulence hits their flight and the alarmist narratives that surround the arrival of increasing numbers of refugees upon European shores? How does fear operate as a political instrument, or rather, how does one become “afraid” of the vulnerable, in the same way one might be afraid of spiders, a cancer diagnosis, or walking through a graveyard at night?

One could ask how emotions are fixated as social forms. In other words, how does affection or love turn into a nuclear family or how does anxiety turn into immigration policy? How do we learn to – as Lauren Berlant put it in Cruel Optimist, (Duke University Press, 2011, [pdf]) to attach our identities to abstractions such as nationality, sexual identity, forms of political economy, or ultimately to a “way-of-life no one remembers ever consenting to?”
Addressing the entanglements of emotion and ideology, Sinan Antoon, the first speaker at the event Fear at HKW, spoke against the essentialization of identities, like Islamic, Muslim, or Arab. Framed as a clash of civilizations rather than as the effect of geopolitical frictions, 9/11 and the ensuing “War on Terror” perpetuated a description of Islam that revolves around cultural and civilizational terms, completely void of political specificity.

Feeding off age-old orientalist tropes, Islam became a cipher for everything brutal, backward, and unhinged; everything inimical to “our way of life,” even in spite of the fact that Jihad for instance was largely a product of CIA intervention in Afghanistan. From 1979 to 1989, the agency provided training, armament, and funding to the Mujahideen; and in addition, the Afghani jihadists were glorified by Western media, either explicitly in Rambo III (1988) or allegorically in Dune (1984).

As a result of these chauvinist narratives and the racial stereotypes that are bandied about in them, Middle Eastern culture became, in Antoon’s words, a “crime-scene”: an object of “forensic interest,” the “essence” of which is said to contain the keys to unravel the murderous intent of fundamentalists and terror suspects, who are virtually everywhere. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group estimates that around 99,000 Pakistanis have been wrongly classified as terrorists by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) SKYNET program, to give but one example. And since there is no such thing as “an essence,” the core of Islamic/Arab/Muslim culture remains elusive, unattainable, and indecipherable, hence eternizing the “War on Terror”—the war that produces the conditions that create what it purports to destroy.

Arabic words, Antoon argues, are typically transliterated but left untranslated in the Western media or entertainments industry, adding to a sense of estrangement and alienation – for example in the word “Allah”, which is simply the Arabic word for God, used equally by Arabic speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews. This is complemented by an outright criminalization of Arabic script. Rather than analyzing foreign policy and geopolitical strategy, the “War on Terror” generalized and normalized the slippage between paranoia and racism or nativism.

Thinking through the relation between power and fear, Allen Feldman sustains, has often paired affect with virtualization, which tracks fear from material genesis to immaterial mimesis. Referring to Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel’s “master–slave” dialectic and to Simone Weil’s The Iliad [pdf], or The Poem of Force, Feldman describes fear as that which has the power to turn man into a thing. Whereas for Hegel, the sovereign represents the fear of death for another who becomes the living archive of said subjugation, in Weil’s writings, war appears as a structure of virtualized fear, which functions as a de-subjectification mechanism.

At present, Feldman suggests, new forms of executive power are reworking these phobogenic regimes: from sensory-deprivation torture techniques to a generalized dematerialization of force, e.g. the violence of blanking out violence. Operating a disjunction between “factuality” and “actuality” from which surplus political value is extracted, war-time is lived as a “time out of time.” Jacques Derrida referred to this temporal dimension as a contretemps, typically translated as a setback, but literally pointing to an experience of time that runs counter to unidirectional progression or is essentially “out of joint.” Trump’s electoral victory was, in Feldman’s terms, a contretemps, a setback, or counter-time, entailing a reversal of the factual and a phobia of actuality, breaching both moral order and social syntax.

As made manifest in the rhetoric of collateral damage (as accident or setback), the contretemps stands for the actions of non-action, and the rupturing of a single and organized temporality undermining our ability to “catch causality in the act.” Speaking of civilian casualties in Gaza, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained that these do not express the volition of the striker (Israel) but of those who were struck (Palestinians, eager for telegenic corpses). Here, the contretemps exemplifies a “ballistic of innocence,” but it can also refer to extra-judiciary disappearance as a form of quiet or low-intensity genocide. The political usage of enforced disappearance, Feldman contends, from deportation and abduction to the covert disposal of mortal remains, attacks “the right to appear on the earth,” instituting a phobogenic (in)visibility, i.e. a “public secret.” The regime of vanishment could be described as a form of political cannibalism insofar as cannibalism could be construed as an allegorical expression of the xenophobic fear of being consumed by difference: orchestrated disappearance points to a pre-emptive consumption, to the erasure of difference.

Returning to the question of temporality and pre-emptive policy, Joseph Vogl thematized the practice of profiling as a model which is irreversible but not necessarily progressive and within which the past is a standing reserve of information, waiting to be mined. Here, fear is neither emotion nor affection, but a systemic operator, at once medium and compass for political decision-making processes.

Fear, according to Vogl, is also a resource, which cannot be legally regulated, disproved or disputed: fear is always authentic, it resists criticism. Fear translates the uncertainty of facts into the certainty of fear, hence it harbours the potential to become the ground for political action, which frees itself from the burden of rationales, as expressed in the catchphrase “one needs to take people’s fears seriously.” In other words, a paradoxical and self-reinforcing cycle of fear is triggered: the anxious prospect of uncertain threats makes the uncertainty of threats ever more threatening. Modern societies and their sciences of prediction are predicated on fear, and on the increasing criminalization and subsequent sanctioning of pure possibility rather than concrete action. Within our planetary fusion of surveillance and spectacle, communication is increasingly a source of control. The appeal to a “danger” that, however intangible, is said to be “looming and imminent” justifies the pre-emptive deprivation of freedom, or the ex ante legalization of custodial torture and degrading treatment. Security and insecurity (terror) do not annul one another, rather they become a mutually reinforcing and ever-expanding dyad, or mutual antagonism.

The phobogenic potential of pre-emptive forms of power operates a set of protocols, through which privacy and autonomy are traded for security. Tyranny, according to Hannah Arendt, is predicated on fear: the recurring anti-political principle at the core of democratic politics. Fear is, from this perspective, the privileged instrument of anti-political policy. But fear, to quote Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh University Press, 2014), also secures forms of the collective: it aligns bodies with and against the bodies of others. Individual subjects come into being through these alignments, through the operation of distinctions between those who are under threat and those who threaten.

The putative hyper-mobility of those who threaten (terrorists) provides the grounds for restricting the mobility of refugees and migrants, instituting a global economy of detention, of all bodies fear sticks to, and circulation (of capital and information). Within this economy, Ahmed argues, any asylum seeker is a potential terrorist and continual surveillance is “sustained as an ongoing project of survival.” The “survival” of some, at the expense of others, the individuals suffocated in shipping containers or discovered dead beneath lorries and cargo trucks.