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Fear: Different Kinds and Differences in Kind

Updated: Feb 15


In constructing my definition of fear, I draw primarily from Sara Ahmed’s texts such as: The Politics of Fear in the Making of Worlds (2003); Affective Economies (2004); The Affective Politics of Fear (2015); and Living a Feminist Life (2017).


I also turn to contributions from historian Joanna Bourke (2005) and academics Hisham Ramadan and Jeff Shantz (2016) who share that fear can be taken up in any number of ways and through different disciplines and genres. Fear is observed differently by different people as well as across various cultures and time periods (Bourke, 2005). Historically and to date in Europe and North America, fear has been understood through a host of articulations. What was constructed as fearful in the past may not resonate in the same way in a contemporary setting (Bourke, 2005).


For instance, during the 1860’s French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne connected fear with facial expressions and the muscles and neurons regulating them (Bourke, 2005). For de Boulogne, facial expressions signaled emotion which aided in human communication (Bourke, 2005). For example, tightening of certain neck muscles accompanied with a grimace indicated to others that an individual was in extreme pain, what de Boulogne equated with fear. Charles Darwin on the other hand, refuted this argument, arguing instead that facial expressions served nothing more than a biological function (Bourke, 2005). Rather, for Darwin, fear was a matter of human survival (Bourke, 2005). He believed that “the species which ‘feared rightly’ increased its chances of survival” (Bourke, 2005, 16).


Others such as psychologist Knight Dunlap writing in the 1930’s negated fear (and emotions in general) as psychological or as affect (Bourke, 2005). For Dunlap, emotions were not located in facial expressions nor were they biological or necessarily even about survival (Bourke, 2005). Instead, Bourke (2005) shares that Dunlap found emotions to be located in the theological, something humans merely spoke about rather than an internal attachment or affect that moved us. That de Boulogne, Darwin and Dunlap each had their own interpretation of fear is typical for how constructions of fear emerge.


As Bourke (2005) poses in Fear: A Cultural History, “was what people in the 1970s called ‘fear’ the same thing as it was in the 1870s? Probably not” (6). Bourke (2005) adds, “more accurately, many historians feel that they have no way of knowing. Looked at historically, subjective feelings are invisible. We can identify publicly choreographed panic reactions but how do we know what individuals ‘really felt’?” (6). This ambiguity points to the evolutionary nature of fear and its meanings and representations that shift over time, making fear a cultural artifact (Bourke, 2005; see also, Cvetkovich, 2003; 2011). But more on this later.


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Until next time, in solidarity.




Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan


Image Description: Two green cactus like plants against a cream/beige concrete wall.


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