A Review of Landscapes of Fear

Michael Kimaid, Bowling Green State University

Fear is a universal tool of control. Fear shapes perception and conditions habits, which in turn influence thoughts and actions alike. Hierarchy in any form depends on an element of fear to maintain its authority. Political fear breeds contempt for the other, economic fear produces docile workers, and social fear results in feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Over the temporal course of history, and across the spatial plane of geography, fear is one of the primary forces that shapes the world we inherit. While it is often marginalized in analytical discourse as a result of prevailing conditions, Yi Fu Tuan sets forth a consideration of fear as a central subject of inquiry in his book Landscapes of Fear. Originally published in 1979, the 2013 reissue may be even more timely than its original publication, given that so much of our present circumstance depends on fear as the foundation upon which hegemonic systems of control can be both justified and constructed.

Tuan’s principal argument is that fear is either an implicit or overt theme in world history, and that its prehistoric origins in external circumstances are both projected onto landscape and internalized in the mind. Much of this plays out in the dichotomy of order and chaos: we fear chaos and seek to project order upon it. In doing so, institutions of incarceration and segregation order the unknown by imposing control over its various manifestations. These designs and understandings change over time, both in people as individuals and in societies on a whole. Tuan considers both the psychological and sociological implications of fear in his work, following the growth of an individual and the growth of societies in the process. Whether an individual seeks to control their immediate environment to minimize their own personal fears, or an urban community or even a nation does the same, the imposition of order through control to minimize the variables which represent chaos is a common theme throughout Tuan’s exploration of the subject.

Childhood is a central theme in much of Tuan’s work; a point of beginning. Landscapes of Fear is no exception. Tuan begins his analysis of the subject by considering the origins of fear from birth. According to Tuan, only fear of animals, heights and darkness are universal; all other fears are learned. Here, Tuan demonstrates that fear is largely a social construct. Self-consciousness and fear of violence are both internalized and projected over space. There are places we won’t go, people we seek to avoid. Once fear is a developed concept in a child’s mind, adults use it as a tool of control. To this point, Tuan explains that early modern/western fears of chaos brought adults to use fear as a way to condition children into becoming orderly, predictable adults. Children’s bodies and minds have been disciplined by fear for centuries, and Tuan leaves us wondering if the accumulated anxiety is at all necessary for anything beyond the production of obedient subjects.

Building on this idea, Tuan demonstrates how this constructed fear is projected onto the landscape, exploring the historical underpinnings of our civilization’s tenuous relationship with the natural world. In doing so, he is quick to challenge the romanticized view of premodern life. Ancient living, according to Tuan, was likely not as idyllic as we might like to think. To make this point, Tuan considers the ways the fear manifests in Eskimo, Mende, and Tarongan societies. He demonstrates that anxiety and fears are often more immediate, more pressing and more pervasive in these cultures. Despite what appears from an outside perspective to be the appearance of simple tranquility, an immediate relationship with nature is often full of uncertainty and stress.

Civilizations have mitigated their connection to nature over the course of history, and in doing so have discovered that the forces of the natural world can undermine the imposed order of things through natural disasters and famines. Power over nature doesn’t always produce security, and the inconsistency of nature remains a source of fear today. Over time, religion and science have competed for mastery over the natural world, and in the process economies of surplus have developed to insulate humanity from the cyclical variability of nature. Rituals, technology, and markets have all played a part in disconnecting humans from the ecosystem, but their inability to completely account for its fluctuations remains a significant source of fear.

Fear of terrestrial nature and human nature was very pronounced in the medieval world, where both seemed to be principal sources of cruelty and evil. Tuan uses this period to explore the foundations of modern fears, and in doing so exposes a great deal about our present condition. The omnipresence of the supernatural mixed with premature death, disease, and corporeal violence to produce a world filled with nightmares and visions. These fears manifest in immediate temporal terms, related to the cycles of seasons as they affected seasons of agriculture and war, and in more long ranging terms, related to the eventual death and judgement of the soul. Spatially, fear of natural geography created a worldview where witches and heretics dwelt in mountains, and monsters and beasts inhabited forests. The environment could create chaos, and civilization could break down as a result. The idea that the inhospitable geographical periphery is inhabited by equally frightening populations, both of which threaten the internal order of security, informs aspects of both present day foreign and domestic policy.

From there, Tuan explores the origins of our fear of disease. His argument is that doing so exposes a wide range of other fears and anxieties. Most of his consideration of medicine here explores the question of class; specifically how upper and lower classes came to understand and deal with the reality of biological disease. In exploring the origins of Chinese medicine, Tuan argues that the upper classes considered sickness to be a result of the imbalance between the afflicted and the cosmic forces which surrounded them. The common folk view was less theoretical and more immediate, pronounced by a belief that events caused disease, and other events could change disease. The dichotomy in western medicine was between professional and folk wisdom. In both analyses, Tuan demonstrates that human response to disease is usually a combination of good sense and superstition. When we cannot control the outcome, fear results.

Fear of failure is another resonant and persistent theme in western thought. What we cannot control, we often ascribe to external circumstance. To explore this concept, Tuan chooses the interesting and controversial subject of witchcraft. Here, Tuan argues that witches have been scapegoated over time to explain the unpredictability of misfortune. Witches are chaotic, “out of control” individuals, who in turn spread chaos and inflict it on others. To counter these impositions, people initially sought to protect themselves with talismans as a measure of control over these agents of chaos, and eventually organized witch hunts that resonate with the questions of sexism, classism and other injustices that shape our understandings today. Ultimately, these were orchestrated attempts to reassert control over situations that threatened hierarchical order.

Next, Tuan explores the subject of ghosts, explaining that attitudes towards ghosts vary. A ghost may be an unknown spirit terrorizing a particular place, or the gentle presence of a deceased loved one who offers advice or warnings about future events.   Ghosts can be good, evil or ambivalent, but it is ultimately our lack of ability to control the terms of interaction (ghosts come and go as they please) that roots our fears. By categorizing the supernatural, we can begin to rationalize the unpredictable. His point that we fear other people both in life and in death, and as with witches, we engage in a variety of rituals to retake control over whatever chaotic circumstances their presence brings with them.

From these supernatural considerations, Tuan shifts his attention to the ways in which fear manifests geographically, exploring how fear manifests in the countryside and the city. Countrysides, Tuan explains, were historically dangerous, lawless places where violence was omnipresent both from above (local magnates who were above the law) and from below (brigands and highwaymen who were beyond the law). Here Tuan draws from English history in particular to consider the subject at hand. In exploring the sources from which violence originated, Tuan explains that most of it arose from economic circumstances as the hierarchy that came with the imposition of enclosures benefitted a few at the expense of the many. To alleviate fear, the very authorities who imposed inequality used their power to subject perpetrators of violence to brutal public punishments, framing the institutionalization of these new terms and conditions as a way of bringing order to a chaotic situation. Tuan points out that idyllic representations of the English countryside omit the “geography of death” that was omnipresent. Dead bodies swung from trees, mutilated corpses were strewn about crossroads, and the heads of accused criminals lined the highways. The ordering of the countryside was a product of harsh, visceral, and often chaotic impositions of officialdom.

By contrast, the origins of cities lay in ceremonies and rituals, and were initially planned as representations of cosmic order. That order, however, is betrayed by the chaos that accompanies such concentrations of populations that the modern city accommodates. From the city’s roots as an aspiration of spatial and social order that mirrored cosmic conditions, economic and commercial activity soon disrupted the founding concept. From there, noise, lack of symmetry, and the sheer number of people have turned cities into perceptually chaotic places. Fear of other people in cities manifests itself in five distinct ways according to Tuan: fear of violent conflict among urban magnates, fear of strangers, fear of public disorder, fear of the poor and fear of immigrants. All of these fears have led to various forms of control over the course of history, and continue to be used as explanations of political, economic and social control to this day.

The ultimate form of controlling fear is eliminating or otherwise regulating its source. Historically, the roots of criminal justice come from this idea. Tuan explores public execution and humiliation, exile and confinement as he begins to draw his exploration to a close. Here, the advance of corporal punishment from the 14th-17th centuries was imposed from above as a way to mitigate fears and impose particular social, economic and political orders. The geographical expansion of official death marked the expansion of the hegemonic order that sanctioned it, with the conflicting message that order would alleviate fear, but at the same time that order ought to be feared in and of itself. When questions about the obvious duplicity inherent in that system of control began to threaten its viability, the state moved toward more subtle and pervasive means: confinement.

The age of confinement began in the 15th century according to Tuan, with origins in medicine both physical and mental. Leper colonies and hospitals were an attempt to isolate the biological infection. Confinement became a way to isolate and treat a problem to established order that continued to hold a place in the arsenal of control after the epidemic fell of. Workhouses were a place to control, motivate, and monitor the behaviors or the poor, and asylums quarantined those whose mental make up did not conform to the prevailing expectations of society. The penitentiary system came from the idea that people could be instilled with those expectations. These ideas faded by the end of the 19th century as the enfranchised elements of American society came to see the presence of immigrants and newly freed African Americans as more of a threat to the existing order of things than an opportunity for progress and advancement. The rise of the prison industrial complex of the 20th century is a direct result of these basic elements of fear and control.

Tuan concludes by suggesting that we are haunted by fear in the modern, affluent world. Questions about violence, the future, and decline loom like specters over the gleaming, engineered landscape. Human achievements are often attended by feelings of unease and worries about unintended consequences. However, Tuan points out that the seemingly stable past, which we often idealize and romanticize as “simpler,” was also fraught with uncertainty. To this point, he suggests that an emancipation from systems of control that prey upon fear is an ideal worth pursuing, though maybe not entirely possible. Every society, and every person within that society, must come to find a balance between curiosity and security. We can try to control and triangulate every variable to alleviate fear, or we must come to terms with the fact that we simply cannot control everything. There is danger in such a realization, but also liberation.  

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 2013. Landscapes of Fear. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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