Tuesday, 22 March 2011


Readers may be interested in a new journal that has just appeared, Lumen (edited by Edwin Mak & Matthew Flanagan). The first issue is dedicated to the theme of forests and, in addition to some fascinating content, is beautifully designed. Among other papers, there is an article by me on Herzog, Merleau-Ponty, and the flesh of the forest.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Anxiety as Atavism

“You made it real, you can make it unreal.”
(Altered States, 1980)

If Freud is right—and I think he is—to claim that we never truly rationalise our anxiety over supernatural entities, such that despite the “rationality” of thought, the “old [beliefs] still live on in us,” then what can be said about anxiety as an expression of the body’s refusal to accommodate rationality? From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety has a legacy attached to it that has remained untouched since the Stone Age. Because the structure of anxiety has remained intact since primate hunters were roaming the planes of Africa tens of thousands of years ago, its persistence through time is literally ill-at-home in the world.

Of course, from an existentialist view, anxiety retains an ethical value and its philosophical significance cannot be overstated. But this ethical dimension is really an afterthought to the experience of anxiety itself. The biology of the human body does not seek a way to redeem itself from an inauthentic mode of being-toward-death. Anxiety is there all along: it occupies a history “more ancient than thought.”

In its history of finding a home for anxiety, phenomenology may have been misguided. After all, what phenomenology presupposes in its treatment of anxiety is that contains a teleology peculiar to human beings of a particular era. For Kierkegaard, anxiety’s calling was faith; for Heidegger, it was authenticity; for Sartre, it was freedom. In each case, anxiety is being summoned in a specifically personal fashion, as though anxiety can lead an individual from a nadir in their life to a state of redemption. In each case, philosophy seeks to justify the ethical existence of anxiety, and thus confer upon it a rational teleology.

Yet if the distance between the modern era and the Stone Age is, considered in evolutionary terms, minute, then would it be possible to plot the moment at which anxiety became less concerned with the actions of our ancestors hunting in the planes of Africa and more with modern human beings confronted with post-industrial societies? To establish a division whereupon anxiety gains a new teleology at odds with its history would be arbitrary and absurd. After all, given that human beings have spent 99.5% of their time as hunter-gathers, it is hardly surprising that much of the body’s genetic structure fails to reconcile with the world in which we accidently find ourselves.

To this end, it seems to me that the anxious body carries with it an atavistic quality to it that is played out in the materiality of the living world. I would even go so far to suggest that the body’s anxiety in the world can be deciphered as transmissions of a prehistoric era, which, through accident and persistence, have survived in the phobic personality. This, of course, is a speculative thought, but there is some empirical research that backs it up (cf. R. Nesse. “An Evolutionary Perspective on Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia,” Ethology and Sociobiology, 73-83, 1987). Freezing with impending doom in the supermarket aisle, crossing a bridge with extreme vertigo, feeling a violent urge to flee from an office block, and experiencing a loss of directional clarity while being on public transport may appear emblematically banal as “symptoms” of modernity, but the structure is prehistoric rather than an idiosyncrasy of personal “neurosis,” and that alone.

Indeed, it would not be farfetched to construct a series of corresponding parallels between contemporary phobia and the threats faced by hunter-gathers in Stone Age, with each interwoven by genetic memory. If the agoraphobic anxiety concerning getting from one place to another and then back again lacks logic, then this is only because we are forgetting that for our ancestors being lost in-between places would have meant certain death. Similarly, if the phobic body feels the world closes in with imminent darkness while on a train from one city to another, then this is only because we are forgetting that the body’s primal mode of orientation is with respect to light and the earth’s magnetic field. For this reason, the compulsion to resist fleeing from such surroundings, banal as they may be, would literally be going against nature. The body’s deep history is immune to the logic of natural reason.

From the wilderness of prehistoric Africa to the aisles of urban supermarkets, the human’s "phylogenetically endowed" (Freud) anxieties materializes as remnants of a lost world. All that has (largely) changed from the Stone Age is the objective absence of danger: what remains in place is the body’s attunement to threat, its commitment to fight or flight in the face of a threat that is no longer there. Heidegger was right on one thing, therefore: anxiety discloses the fact that not-being-at-home is primordial. Only his neglect of the body led his reason astray. The anxious body is the principle manifestation of a body that is responsive to a phantom world, stored deep in the anonymous structure of its genetic history and thus resistant to cultural and sociological changes, yet never immediately accessible to the experiencing self. For the phobic, anxiety is an outgrowth of a response that no longer serves any strict purpose. To phrase phobia as a “pathology,” therefore, is patently absurd: it is not that the experience of phobia or panic is somehow “irrational” or “illegitimate.” Rather, if “healthy” anxiety corresponds to tangible threat, then what is “atypical” about phobic anxiety is that it corresponds to a no longer existing world. This is the uncanniness of the uncanny body: uncanny because the experience of anxiety is both of the body but simultaneously other than the body.