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What is fear? – Giorgio Agamben

Supported by the announced figures of positive cases of COVID-19, for health reasons there have been imposed since September new measures, further restricting human rights and compromising human links. If demonstrations are increasing, especially in Europe, to protest against decisions deemed disproportionate, or even completely inadequate, it is surprising that the polls, in France as in Italy, reflect a fairly broad acceptance of a government by unprecedented coercion. Commenting on Heidegger’s 30 and 40 developments in ‘Being and Time’, Giorgio Agamben goes back to both the psychic and the political root of the current state of bewilderment, which seems to allow the advent of a bio-security society. Man is emotionally in tune: the fundamental anguish that arises in him, opens him and delivers him to the world, he can fall by crystallization on an object which then makes the cord of fear vibrate.

Already active in the state of emergency justified by the terrorist threat, is fear not, more than ever, the force that governs us, at the very foundation of power?

What is fear? by Giorgio Agamben

What is fear, into which men today seem to have fallen so much that they forget their own ethical, political and religious convictions? Something familiar, certainly – and yet if we seek to define it, it stubbornly seems to escape comprehension.

On fear as an emotional tone, Heidegger gave an exemplary development in paragraph 30 of ‘Being and Time’. It can only be understood if we do not forget that Dasein (a term which designates the existential structure of man) is always already arranged according to an emotional tone, which builds his original opening to the world. Precisely because, in the emotional situation, is in question the discovery originating in the world, the consciousness is always already anticipated by this situation and cannot consequently dispose of it or believe that it can control it as it pleases. The emotional tone cannot, in fact, in any way be confused with a psychological state, but it has the ontological meaning of an opening which has always already unfolded the man in his being in the world and from which only are possible experiences, ailments and knowledges. “Reflection can meet with experience only because the emotional tone has already opened up the Dasein.” This assails us, but “it does not come from outside or from inside: it arises in the human being in the world itself as one of its terms”. On the other hand, this openness does not imply that what it opens up to be recognized as such. Rather, on the contrary, it shows only a naked factuality, a pure “there” is manifested; “the where and when” remain hidden. For this, Heidegger can say that the emotional situation opens Dasein to “being thrown” and “consigned” to its own “there”. The openness that takes place in the emotional tone, has, in other words, the form of a being surrendered to something that cannot be assumed and from which one seeks – without succeeding – to escape.

This is evident in a bad mood, in boredom or in depression, which, like any emotional tone, opens Dasein “more originally than any self-perception”, but also closes it “more firmly than any non-perception”. Thus in depression “Dasein becomes blind with regard to itself, the surrounding world with which it is concerned is veiled, the prediction about the surrounding environment darkens”; and, however, here also Dasein is consigned to an opening from which it cannot in any way free itself.

It’s on the bottom of this ontology the emotional tone which should be placed on the development of fear. Heidegger begins by examining three aspects of the phenomenon: the “what-for” (Wovor) of fear, the “being-afraid” (Fürchten) and the “why” (Worum) of fear. In the “what-for”, the object of fear, is always an inner-worldly being. What scares is always – whatever its nature – something which presents itself in the world and which, as such, has the character of threat and harmfulness. It is more or less known, “But not as much reassuring” and, whatever the distance from which it comes, it is located in a determined proximity. “Being noxious and threatening, isn’t remotely controllable yet, but it’s getting closer. As it gets closer, the harmful becomes threatening, we may or may not be struck by it. By becoming closer increases this “it is possible but maybe also not”…, the fact of approaching what is harmful makes us discover the possibility of being spared, that the thing moves away, but this neither suppresses nor diminishes fear, on the contrary, develops it ”(140-141). (This character, so to speak, of “certain uncertainty” which characterizes fear is also evident in the definition given by Spinoza: an “inconstant sadness”, in which “one doubts the outcome of something that one hates”).

As for the second character of fear, to fear him (“being-afraid” itself), Heidegger specifies that a future evil is not first rationally foreseen, which then, in a second step, is feared: from the start, rather, the thing that approaches is discovered to be formidable. “Only by being afraid can fear, by observing expressly, become aware of what is frightening. We notice what is scary, because we are already in the emotional situation of fear. Fearing it, as a latent possibility of being-in-the-world emotionally disposed, the being-susceptible-to-fear, has already discovered the world in such a way that something frightening comes from it ” (141). Being susceptible of fear, as an opening originating from Dasein, always precedes any determinable fear.

Finally, as to the “why”, to the “for whom and for what” thing fear is afraid, is always in question the being himself who is afraid, Dasein, this determined man. “Only a being for whom, in his existence, his very being, can be afraid. Fear opens up this being in its being in danger, in its being abandoned to itself ”(ibid.). The fact that sometimes one feels fear for his own house, for his property or for others is not an objection against this diagnosis: one can say “to be afraid” for another, without really be frightened and, if we do experience fear, it is for ourselves, in so far as we fear that the other will be torn from us.

Fear is, in this sense, a fundamental mode of emotional disposition, which opens the human being in his being to already and always be exposed and threatened. This threat will naturally give different degrees and measures: if something is threatening, that comes back with its unexpectedly “for the moment not yet, but however at any time”, and the fear becomes fright (Erschrecken); if the threatening is not yet known, but has the character of the most profound strangeness, the fear becomes horror (Grauen). If the fear unites these two aspects in himself, then fear becomes dreadful (Entsetzen). In any case, all the various forms of this emotional tone show that man, in his openness to the world itself, is constitutively “afraid”.

The only other emotional tone that Heidegger examines in ‘Being and Time’ is anguish, and it is anguish – not fear – which is assigned to the rank of fundamental emotional tone. And, however, it is properly in relation to fear that Heidegger can define by its nature, distinguishing first of all “that in front of which anguish is anguish and that in front of which fear is fear” (186). While fear always has to do with something, the ‘before-what’ of anguish is never an innerworldly being. Not only does the threat which is occurring here does not have the character of a possible damage to the work from the threatening thing, but “the ‘before-what’ of the angst is completely undetermined. This indeterminacy not only leaves it completely undecided as to which the inner-worldly threat comes from, but it means that the inner-worldly being is, in general, “irrelevant” ”(ibid.). The “before-what” of anguish is not a being, but the world as such. Anguish is, in other words, the original opening of the world as a world (187) and “only because the anxiety already and always latently determines the being in the world of man, and this one … can experience fear. Fear is an anguish that has fallen into the world, inauthentic and hidden from itself ”(189).

It has been, not without reason, observed that the primacy of anxiety over fear, asserted by Heidegger, can be easily reversed: instead of defining fear as an anxiety diminished and fallen into an object, we can also legitimately define anguish as a fear deprived of its object. If fear is removed from its object, it turns into anxiety. In this sense, fear would be the fundamental emotional tone, into which man is already and always at risk of falling. Hence its political significance, which constitutes it as that in which power, at least from Hobbes on, has sought its foundation and its justification.

Given the originary character of fear, it could be overcome only if it is possible to access a similarly originary dimension. Such a dimension exists and it is the same openness to the world, in which only things can appear and threaten us. Things get scary because we forget their co-belonging to the world which transcends them and, at the same time, makes them present. The only possibility to cut the “thing” from the fear from which it seems inseparable is to remember the opening in which it is already always exposed and revealed. Not reasoning, but memory – remembering ourselves and our being in the world – can restore access to a thing free from fear. The “thing” that frightens me, although invisible to the eye, is, like all other intramundane beings – like this tree, this torrent, this man – open in its pure existence. Only because I am in the world, things can appear to me and possibly scare me. They are part of my being in the world, and that – and not an abstractly separate thing and unduly erected as a sovereign value – given the ethical and political rules of my behavior. Certainly, the tree can break and fall on me, the torrent leaves its bed and floods the country and this man suddenly strike me: if this possibility suddenly becomes real, just fear suggests adequate precautions without panic and without losing your mind, letting others base their power on my fear and, transforming urgency into a stable norm, decide at their discretion what I can and cannot do and erase the rules that guarantee my freedom.

From the text published on July 13, 2020, on the Quodlibet site – Che cos’è la paura?

  • Translated