You are here

Do You Fear Fear? Docile Bodies and Fear of the Other

Fear is both the justification that drives the disciplinary apparatus of the nation-state and the intended effects on the body politic.
Arturo J. Aldama

Issue #50, June 2000

On the eve of the twenty-first century, hatreds explode in such places as Sarajevo, Argentina, Chechnya, Rwanda, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City. The hatred embodies a complex set of fears about difference and Otherness. It reveals what some people fear in themselves, their own "differences." Hatred forms around the unknown, the difference of "others."
— Zilah Eisenstein

When bodies feel sudden fear, the adrenaline curve in the nervous system spikes in the first milliseconds, provoking a fight or flight response with varying intensities in the physiology of the individual. Unlike the spontaneity of an individual lashing out, pushing off and running away fast, or the collective adrenaline surges of crowds in protests (e.g. the WTO demonstrations), the sustained proliferation and normalization of fear in the "nervous system" of the body politic has different effects. The propagation and internalization of fear in the social body attempts to keep people docile, numb, silent, and afraid to challenge the status quo of racist, sexist and global capitalist orders in the United States and other Euro-western nation-states.

Fear of non-conformity, fear of race, fear of disease, fear of touch, fear of blood, fear of non-straight sex, fear of workers, fear of women, fear of subaltern rage, fear of color, fear of desire, fear of crime, fear of "illegals", fear of uprising. Fear is both the justification that drives the disciplinary apparatus of the nation-state (police, INS, military, schools) and the intended effects on the body politic. Fear drives the repression, containment, co-optation, torture, and annihilation of "unruly" subjects whose class, race, sex, ideological and religious differences, for example, are threats to bourgeois, capitalist, patriarchal and neocolonial orders. Fear drives the militarization of borders, anti-gay violence, abortion clinic bombers, the CIA, NSA, xenophobia, the denial of imperial guilt, enslavement, lynching, police, the Christian right, Bush's presidential campaign, anti-affirmative action policies, California's Proposition 187, and migra shootings, to name a few.

Fear, The State and Race

In reporting their versions of state violence towards Others, police shootings and beatings of suspected "illegals," "gang-bangers," an African-American woman asleep in her car, or Mario Paz, a Mexican grandfather asleep and gunned down in his home — "officers of the law" justify their actions with fear. In arrest reports where lethal violence has been used it is common to see the following cited: "I thought the suspect had a gun"; "I saw him reach in his pocket/her purse"; "He/she ran away". In these scenarios, the sudden movements that fear in "suspects" produce, an understandable physiological response, become justifications for the exterminating fear of the officers. When officers prove "fear" of bodily harm to their persons by a suspect — proved usually by the corroboration of other officers who refuse to challenge the blue wall of silence — then they have a "clean" shoot, another justified homicide. A maddening logic if you think about it?

In The Scriptural Economy, Michel de Certeau writes: "There is no law that is not inscribed on bodies. Every law has a hold on the body". For de Certeau, in "order for the law to be written on bodies, an apparatus is required" whose tools or instruments of inscription "range from the policeman's billy-club and handcuffs and the box reserved for the accused in the courtroom." So for those who are criminalized and racialized by dominant bourgeois discourses, the bullet-ridden, handcuffed, kicked, stun-gunned and baton-beaten bodies become examples to teach fear to the subaltern communities in the US. At the same time, these desecrated bodies serve to appease white middle-class panic about surging crime perceived to be rooted in communities of color.

other The intended effects of the fear-driven desecration of subaltern bodies by the State in the late twentieth century echo the flayed and torched bodies of women, Jews and other "heretics" of the Holy Inquisition; the decapitated heads of "criminals" beneath the kings and queens of medieval Europe; the severed heads of revolutionary leaders of Mexico's war of independence from Spain; and the pickling of Joaquin Murieta's head during the California Goldrush of 1850 for daring to confront growing racism. These spectacles of state terror from previous centuries put into practice a psychic campaign whose purpose is to spread the fear of insurgency to enslaved and oppressed communities: "How dare you ... Look at the consequences ... This could be you."

However, in the 1990s, these spectacles of terror, where "criminals" get what is coming to them, are now televised in such reality programs as COPS and LAPD: Life on the Beat, which encourages a voyeuristic approval between the use of technologically sophisticated disciplinary violence on racialized and poor bodies. Sloppy pan shots of run-down trailers, unkempt children, inner-city communities, and general squalor are meant to illustrate the "natural" linkages between poverty, white trash, welfare families and crime. Close-up shots of tattoos on the hands, arms, legs, necks and backs of hog-tied Chicanas/os, bound face down on the pavement, provide the officers of COPS the opportunity to narrate directly to camera, "Just as I suspected ... another gang member." These "signs" of criminality on subjects already negatively racialized as bandidas/os, pachucas/os and cholas/os further provokes the signifying practices of the Law and its violent apparatus.

Fear and Desire

In patriarchal family systems, young women are taught to fear their desire and feel shame about their bodies while at the same time seeking the "validating" gaze of appropriate young men. Men are taught to be fearless in their pursuit of desire. The rescue of desire by those seen as objects of desire invokes a desire that does not have to colonize and subjugate bodies to controllable fantasies of seduction, redemption, and disavowal.

In the horrific spectacles of racial lynching, castrated limp bodies of black/brown men evidence the "blood erotics" of racial fear — the eugenic purity of the inheritors of America must be protected at all costs. In colonial America, children produced through rape of women of color on the other hand, represent an increase in slave stock, a profitable investment. The fear of African, indigenous, and Mexican women at being raped with impunity and without recourse does not count: it was irrelevant to the operation of white patriarchal power in colonial America. In the case of the genocide of Native Americans, Louis Owens comments that this manifested "the erotic nature of Euro-America's desire to simultaneously possess and destroy the Indian" and argues that "[it] is nothing less than the indigenous relationship with place, with the invaded and stolen earth, that the colonizer desires".

Fear in the New Millennium:
Human Rights and Workers Rights?

As we move into the new millennium, Western nation-states are attempting to seduce citizens into believing that they live in a borderless cyber "utopia," a free market of e-commerce, and anonymity. However, the degree and sophistication of surveillance, popularized in the recent film The Enemy of the State, starring Gene Hackman and Will Smith, invites the question: Who is watching who? How? Is there something to the "paranoid" fantasy of being watched every time you turn on your computer and television? The supposed anonymity of the Internet allows individuals, mainly men, to act out their predictable cyber-fantasies and fulfill the "repressed" psyches of libidinal desire: to cross-dress, cross-age, cross genders, and cross ethnicities. Tom Brown, a car salesman in Akron Ohio, now becomes "China cheetah girl: seeking spanking" in chat rooms, fulfilling an Asian fetish and inverted Lolita-like S/M fantasies.

The cyber-consumers and fantasists in the "fearless" cyber-world propagate the false magic of global capitalism, marking further the distance between consumers and producers. You add to your "shopping cart" the latest and best DVDs, digital zoom-cams, and $49.99 "Abernathy and Co." khakis. However, who makes them and under what conditions? What happens to the eco-systems strip-mined, clear-cut, and irradiated by toxic waste? What happens to workers' children who drink water contaminated by unregulated industrial waste produced by the maquilodoras on the US/Mexico border? What happens to the young women in El Salvador, Honduras, and the Philippines who are fired, beaten, raped, and made to disappear for protesting the horrific work conditions of "free trade" zone factories of the GAP, Old Navy, and Nike? What happens to the software production ghettoes of South India? What happens to social responsibility towards the hyper-exploitation of subaltern workers, mainly women and children? Do they disappear with a click of a mouse? The "fearlessness" of cyber-wealth as the fruition of the "free market" mythos and phantasm is the new violence of predatory capitalism.

Are you afraid of "fear"? I am.

Arturo J. Aldama is an Assistant Professor in the Chicana/o Studies Program at Arizona State University. He is currently a fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Collage © 2000 by Dani Eurynome.

Copyright © 2000 by Arturo J. Aldama. Collage 2000 by Dani Eurynome. All rights reserved.