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Paul Virilio says the title of his book The Administration of Fear "sprang to mind right away as a direct echo of the title of Graham Greene's well-known book, The Ministry of Fear... I use the expression "administration of fear" to refer to two things. First, that fear is now an environment, a surrounding, a world. It occupies and preoccupies us... [it] also means that States are tempted to create policies for the orchestration and management of fear... When I read Graham Greene's book, I found the expression "ministry of fear" to be particularly well chosen because it carries the administrative aspect of fear and describes it like a State."

Fear, then, is a product of the State, part of the modern mood; something the State contributes to, sustains and extends through its activities - and often especially through the activities it pursues to counter fear's epiphenomena. The administration of fear, then, is the administration of fear that the State causes and makes perpetual by its actions. The administration of fear pace Graham Greene is a Catch-22 situation.

Asked by his interlocutor Bertrand Richard "isn't it inappropriate to use the same expression for both the tragic historical events of the Second World War and what we Westerners are experiencing today," Virilio replies that he does not think so. A brief discussion of Hannah Arendt and an overview of his dromology, his politics of speed, is followed by a fascinating thought: when "Henri Bergson, the theorist of duration, and Albert Einstein, the inventor of relativity" met in Paris (in April 1922) they were not able to understand one another - a unique rendez vous, a moment of fate, happened but did not take place. Science became part of the "military industrial complex" and philosophy failed to think a political economy of speed.

Dissident Trotskyists once argued that the Second World War never really ended, just morphed; certainly, today, war is ubiquitous. The war on terror was a response to fear that has created an ever-present climate of anxiety, the administration of which only makes more plain to its makers the need for it - and clearer to the rest of us that the situation is both manufactured and all too real: this is hell, nor are we out of it.

Virilio takes a novel to furnish him with a metaphor with which he can think about the present. This is one of art's tasks. Perhaps another, however, is the administration of fear itself. Art doesn't just provide metaphors. As a matter of actuality, it works with words to administer, to oversee, to organise fear. Fidelity to our metaphor must make us ask, however, whether, as with the homologous activity of the State, the very fact of this administration doesn't itself add to and extend the reign of the regime of fear art portrays itself as the antidote to. What if The Ministry of Fear ministers to fear, furthers fears aims and objectives? What if The Ministry of Fear is not only the name of a novel but a name for what novels are?

A novel organises material to augment itself, prove the worth of its story, prove the fact of its own requirement, prove the worth of its own solution (a novel is the answer to its own question). Or it subverts itself, shows the worthlessness of its form and instantiates, in that move, the humanity of its humility (refuses to answer the question it has itself posed). A novel administers fear, pretends lack away, narrates with hubris, brings up the bodies and declares that all shall be well - narration as order, as good governance - or it dismantles itself, not allowing itself ever to be itself, allowing itself only to be the motor of its own disruption: not to be the sum of its parts, and to have parts that disrupt its sum.

Crudely stated, Virilio thinks that speed equals terror: "the question of global finitude... the enclosure of consciousness is happening in a world limited by the immediacy of nano-chronology - the acceleration of reality is a significant mutation of History." The novel has always concerned itself with time. Virilio believes only a meeting of new Bergsons and new Einsteins can save us. Perhaps...

American poet Ben Lerner's overpraised debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, has its hero, Adam Gordon, an American poet on a year out in Madrid, wonder whether, on seeing someone weeping in front of a painting, he has ever himself had "a ‘profound experience of art’". In such a mediated world is an authentic, immediate, profound experience even really possible? At the beginning of Leaving the Atocha Station the thrill for the reader is whether Lerner can sustain this investigation into the administration of, the separation from, authentic feeling that Gordon is trying to work through, in his poems and his life, in the novel. But it soon becomes clear that the investigation - which if it is authentically to be a process of thought about the way thought can preclude authentic feeling - has to fail to succeed. Sadly, it only succumbs to its own logic. After a promising start, Leaving the Atocha Station becomes a dull book about a rather precious young American poet abroad. The question, at whatever 'meta' level it is pitched, of whether it is possible to have a profound experience of art was rightly joined, in the novel, to the question of how to make the art of having a profound experience of one's own life without becoming an alienated spectator of it. The novel fails, however, not because it sets that existential question against the backdrop of the profound and real tragedy and crime of the bombing of the Atocha Station, but because it loses its nerve and becomes merely a bildungsroman.

The fear that Adam Gordon - has he ever had a ‘profound experience of art’? - and our own experience of the novel are weakened by the inability of Lerner to communicate the alienation his hero feels because the novel he writes is itself so very sure of itself. In a world where a bombing like the one that killed 191 people and wounded 1,800 at the Atocha Station can occur, we're served badly by a novel that doesn't recognise that the disaster is not something a novel reports on - however well, however badly, however obliquely - but something that structures and disrupts its very being. To have a profound experience of art is not possible inside the administrative space of the contemporary novel of fear - most especially because the contemporary novel is not nearly afraid enough of what it can do, of what it is.

The Ministry of Fear could very well be the title of Kafka's collected works. For Graham Greene it was the title of a novel of war and faith - great narratives both. For Lerner, ennui and irony - late capitalism - stop Adam Gordon from feeling. But perhaps ennui and irony are already profound experiences of their own. Only a novel could explore that, but only if it didn't administer the answer.

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