Coming Soon to Beams and Struts- The Museum of Fearology

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"The 17th century was the century of mathematics; the 18th century that of physics; the 19th of biology; and the 20th century is the century of fear". - Albert Camus, c. 1943-44.


It was just over a year ago now- April 30, 2011 to be exact- that one R. Michael Fisher popped onto a piece of mine called Marx Reloaded, and asked a bunch of us embarking on a reading of Marx's Capital to "keep an 'eye' on how Marx and others along that line would construct a society that is no longer based on "fear"dont-feed-the-fears-1 (i.e., a "culture of fear")--that is, "blue pill" culture. Does Marx et al., have what it takes to seed the re-make of a "red pill" culture?". Intrigued, I followed Michael's links to his work and discovered he was a self-described "fearologist", a scholar whose been studying fear- what it is, how it's used and exploited by powerful forces, how it impacts contemporary society- for over 25 yrs. I asked Michael if he had a short post that could serve as an introduction to the field of fear studies, or if he wanted to write one for Beams. He responded that he'd be willing to do an interview on the topic, sensing this would be a more accessible entry point into the subject. So we started that process. And we're still going a year later, with several twists and turns along the way. It's been quite a journey. More on that in a moment.

I was first introduced to the importance of fear and it's impact on the human psyche via the existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger and Kierkegaard, who looked at it in conjunction with concepts like anxiety, dread, angst, fear and trembling and so on. I was drawn to this work because I had experienced the 'death fear' from an early age, with thoughts of 'nothingness' being an unsettling companion of mine for a long time. My interest in the topic was amplified after reading Ken Wilber's book Up From Eden, in which he draws off of various seminal figures on the subject of fear- such as Ernest Becker and Norman O. Brown-  and incorporates their findings into the heart of his interpretation of history. From there I moved to the existentialist psychologists such as Rollo May and Irving Yalom, where death fear in particular plays a central role in their understanding of the psyche. Here's Irving Yalom:

The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as does nothing else; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark and unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness....The terror of death is ubiquitous and of such magnitude that a considerable portion of one's life energy is politics-of-fearconsumed in the denial of death...The social ramifications of fear of death and the quest for immortality are widespread. 

I was also struck by an interview Michael Moore did in his film Bowling For Columbine with Culture of Fear author Barry Glassner. It was there that the political uses of fear began to dawn on me; this was deepened by a viewing of Adam Curtis' three-part documentary The Power of Nightmares- The Rise of the Politics of Fear. So it was with all this background that I jumped headlong into my engagement with Michael; I knew this was a topic that needed a deeper public hearing, and I wanted to add the fear 'beam' to the project here at the site. So we started our exchange with an interview that lasted several months and ballooned to some forty odd pages, which we scrapped because it was way too long to publish. But we got to know each other through the process (and even had a tussle when the Occupy movement broke out!). I've since done a pair of psychological tests (designed by Michael) to access our relation to fear, and I went step by step with him through an art project on fear that he presented at the University of British Columbia a few years back. I've been reading books, articles and more on the subject. And recently Michael and I have been doing bi-weekly Skype calls to help me process my burgeoning understanding of these readings. The scholar and Occupy_Fear_poster1-1the apprentice have been hard at work.

But we still needed some kind of form with which to present our co-creative/investigative project on the study of fear. What might that look like? Well, what we've come up with is The Museum of Fearology. Michael and I are going to present a ten part series on fear here at Beams, with each one exploring a different topic/angle on the subject. We're going to look at the aesthetics, geography, cultural studies, architecture, ecology, psychology, politics, economics, philosophy, theology, sociology and anthropology of fear, and we're going to present many of the cultural artifacts through which our relationship to fear gets expressed in these domains (hence the Museum metaphor). Michael and I will be the curators and tour guides of this museum and we sure hope you will be joining us on this journey.

But one last thing- we won't just be exploring the topic of fear, but also that of fearlessness. Michael has also long been studying the world's spiritual traditions and their teachings around moving beyond fear, so once we've taken our long walk through the halls of fear, we'll also be delving into this rich and important territory.

So Exhibit A will coming down the line in a few weeks time, and the rest will follow over a period of many months. We hope to see you there.


"Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared- this someday must become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth too". - Friedrich Nietzsche


Warren Zevon, You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared



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  • Comment Link David MacLeod Thursday, 03 May 2012 23:10 posted by David MacLeod

    Trevor, I look forward to the tour. This creative approach sounds very interesting, and I'm sure it will be enlightening.

    "The psychic task which a person can and must set for himself is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity."
    - Erich Fromm

  • Comment Link R. Michael Fisher Friday, 04 May 2012 23:33 posted by R. Michael Fisher

    Thanks David for the enthusiastic 'bump' and 'jump'... as we, as co-curators, really do want a "creative approach" as you say; because fear (and all its cousins) can be a tad intimidating to even want to hang out with for more than a few seconds. Let the aesthetics and art lead, and criticality will follow--something like that.

    I'm fascinated with Fromm, and that quote will be one to return in future exhibits at the museum-- like a 'ghost' that cannot quite make it to the 'otherworld' yet... humans, and transitions across thresholds-- this is where fear arises and fear tests, and fearlessness emerges-- something like that. Fromm and quotes and issues like security and insecurity cannot be ignored. That's not to say Trevor and I are into 'ghost-busting' and any of that.

    Relevant to the Fromm quote you posted here: there was a talk by some fairly famous tv comedian-based actress on NPR (radio in the US) the other day, where the host was asking her if she was "insecure" in her roles at times (she starred on Seinfeld, which I admit I didn't watch). Anyways, she hesitated in responding. Then it leaked. "Who isn't insecure" she blasted out, and repeated "who, who, tell me, who isn't insecure?" The host was silenced and so was the audience, I imagined.

    I found it fascinating. Then I wondered, what did it mean, and what was she (it) defending so strongly? Even though, after the blast out, she said more calmly, "Sure, I'm insecure acting."

    Until later...

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