The phenomenology of fear illustrates the kind of society in which we live.
Sociologists have long been interested in the relationship between the self and society. This topic aims at asking the question of how the self interacts with society, how it is shaped by larger societal forces. I just finished reading the book Society of Fear by Heinz Bunde, a sociologist at Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung that examines the question of the self and society in the current era. This book is a collection of essays that are loosely connected by the theme of fear, and anxiety. At the heart of all the essays are why and how different types of fears affect us individuals and collective well beings in our current era? These questions bring out the fundamental fascination about the self and society that has fascinated sociologists for more than a century. Furthermore, this book also highlights various philosophical questions from existentialism and phenomenology about freedom and constraints. After reading the book, I recognized that there is an underlying connection between the book I read last week: At the Existential Cafe, and this book. The authors in these two books are fascinated with the question: how do societal forces shape individual lives?
Following are a few passages that I really enjoy:
Anxiety in a shrinking world:
When population growth declines, the countryside becomes a suburb, and the conquest of the world reaches its limits, then interpersonal relations becomes tighter and more inescapable, and the self must try to adapt to others and come to terms with them in a “shrunken and agitated” world. Then individuals are no longer rewarded for their obsession with proving themselves, but instead for their ability to adopt the perspectives of others, respond resiliently and flexibly to changing situations, and find compromises through teamwork. The psychological gyroscope that maintains internal equilibrium is replaced by a social radar that registers the signals sent by others. The self becomes a self of others – and then faces the problem of forming an image of itself from the thousands of images reflected back at it.
Bunde argues that the self in our time is not referenced to any higher being. Now we have relational self: that is it is defined in relations to others.
On love, and partnership in modern society, Bunde raises a similar question to those that Sartre asked more than half a century ago:
It seems that the self cannot get by without attachment. But attachment is frightening because the freedom of the self becomes dependent on the freedom of the other. The formula of this paradoxical situation is freedom through entanglement.
Sartre was motivated to interrogate the extent and limits of individual freedom, given certain social constraint. Bunde uses the case of partnership to argue that freedom in love and freedom to choose one’s partner is paradoxical. One is not entirely free if one chooses to have a partner because then one’s freedom is dependent upon the other person’s freedom. One’s freedom to choose another is dependent upon the other person’s freedom to choose. Thus it is an entangled situation.
Bunde spells out his social theory here:
Anxiety [is] perhaps the only a priori principle in modern society about which all members of society are in agreement. It is the principle that applies absolutely when all other principles have been qualified.
We are all united in the sense that we are anxious. Modernity brings with it deep psychological fear that we do not know where it comes from. It is so pervasive, and it defines who we are in relations to others:
Through concepts of fear, the members of a society come to an understanding about the conditions of their co-existence: who moves forward and who is left behind; where things break and where chasms open up; what is inevitably lost and what might yet survive. It is through concepts of fear that society takes its own pulse.
As human beings, we are constantly looking for meanings of our social lives, and it is stressful:
Anxiety springs from the knowledge that everything is open but nothing is meaningless. Our entire lives seem to be on the line at every single moment. We can take detours, take breaks or shift our focus, but these actions must make sense and contribute to the fulfillment of our life’s purpose. The fear of simply drifting through life is hard to bear. The stress of anxiety is the stress of the search for meaning, and this cannot be alleviated by any state or society.
He then goes on examining different social types such as social climber, statesman.
On no account does the social climber want to appear narrow-minded, provincial, or stressed. But cosmopolitanism, ease, and self-confidence are not so easy to learn. This is the source of the deep-seated alarm we feel when we see how casually and tastefully someone can decorate a home, how affectionately and purposefully they can raise their children, and how they can be so mindful and disciplined toward themselves…While the old-style social climber fights against a crowd of others whom he believes want to see him brought low, the new social climber quarrels with himself because, for him, the journey is the destination.
In the age and time when social mobility is such a rare thing to find, social climbers, those who actually move up from his social position, are more anxious than ever because the process of moving up itself has now come to define who he is.
On politics and emotions:
Politics without passion, without emotional energy, without the dynamics of psyches encountering and repelling one another, and without fear and desire is no politics at all.
He reiterates the message: in our modern time, we would expect that our society to behave rationally, yet we see over and over again primordial instincts such as fear, and anger to be the main driver of our collective endeavors.
On women’s empowerment, and men’s masculinity:
The more secure the new woman was within herself… the greater her understanding for men and their fears. And men also had to realize that they would often construct a “false self” as part of their defense against emotions, fears, and desires for dependence.
Women seem to gain more power all over the world, while men are going through various kinds of masculinity crisis. It seems necessary now more than before that we need to learn how to reconcile the new image of men in relations to the new woman. Who could the new man be when we know for sure that the new woman is more empowered, more sure about herself, knows more about the world? This question circles back to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, in which she argues that a generic woman is defined as the other of the default typical human: a man. Since Beauvoir’s writing, a generic woman has become more heterogenous. She comes in different size and shape. She is now able to exercise her agency a lot more. Yet the default image of a man has not changed so much. Why is it the case? If the two are relational – one cannot exist without the other – then why don’t an average man change? Isn’t it be natural to ask that the first sex should also evolve accordingly because at the end of the day we are social and relational beings?
This book gives much food for thought. It is typical of German academia when the author presents constructed theory, and exploration. Yet as an empiricist, I cannot help but ask how can one construct a case study of society of fear? How can this book turn into a research agenda? How can we examine the degree of anxiety in our age?