Anxiety: Term – Discourse – Medium

Root Event

Werkleitz Festival 2010 Angst hat große Augen
Anxiety: Term – Discourse – Medium

Anxiety is hard to define. Anxiety rarely crops up as a scientific term in cultural and humanistic lexica. Only in the field of psychology has “angst” – the original German word for anxiety – become an established term. If anxiety is addressed theoretically at all then in particular disciplines such as anthropology or phenemonology, which are however, only special variants of cultural scientific work. In contrast to its ubiquity in the media and the journalistic realm, anxiety has been unable to assert such a universal presence in the world of science. Anxiety may be the predominant response to every crisis and catastrophe and its respective medial dissemination yet this almost weekly cycle of crisis-ridden events, reported widely in the media to far-reaching effect, appears to make little impression on theories. Alongside this overdeterminacy of the “Angst-Angst”1 of an “Angst-Kultur”2 stands the latter’s theoretical underdeterminacy and, in consequence, anxiety has been able to attain only marginal ranking in the ensemble of scientific terms worthy of serious attention. The phenomenon and the term, the discourse and the medium are incompatible: their relationship is contrary and convergent.

On the other hand, Hans Blumenberg has lent philosophical weight to such indeterminacy in that he saw the modern era dominated by under-determined and fleeting concepts and, therefore, held a metaphorological “theory of nonconceptuality” to be necessary. Literary metaphor in the novella The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty by Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke acquired a real dimension when goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide in 2009, an event that was widely discussed in the media – with recourse also to the “Werther effect”.3 This precarious interdependency of phenomenon and word, of object and term is the major focus of the following enquiries: How is the ubiquitous, medial and popular phenomenon, anxiety, verbalised and rendered serviceable as a theoretical term? What impact does this term then have on the medial reality of the phenomena or, does the word itself play a role in generating such phenomena? As a media event, anxiety is determined not only by audiovisual imagery but also by attendant discourses and reflections. Media and cultural scientist Miriam Meckel thus combined the medial exposition of her own physical burnout with a discursive treatment of the latter and its documentation in book form.4

Nonetheless, the term has a history that can be reconstructed. Anxiety is embedded in a discourse that has its own grammar and (scientific) history. This history partly explains the difficulties inherent in determining the meaning of anxiety precisely. The philosophical disciplines that have endeavoured to define anxiety are anthropology and phenomenology. In Norbert Meuter’s Anthropologie des Ausdrucks (“Anthropology of Expression”) we find reasons for the precarious conceptual concision of anxiety. For anxiety is firstly, an emotion, affect or feeling and, secondly, this feeling is realised neither as a conceptual distinction nor as verbal rigour but as a physically expressed phenomenon: “I am concerned first and foremost with physical expression or, to be more precise, with the pre-verbal expression of basic emotions. Feelings such as joy, grief, shame, anger, surprise, disgust and others besides, [including anxiety], are accompanied ­ – in any case generally – by physical forms of expression. Sometimes our whole body participates in giving expression to these feelings yet they reveal themselves above all in the face, with its complex, mimetic, expressive potential”.5 Anxiety as an emotion eludes exact conceptual definition and reveals itself instead in physical expression. Verbally, anxiety can be connoted but not denoted. It is not a sign but an expression. Its career has unfolded since 1800 in the course of a crisis of representation that both generates and popularizes such non-conceptual phenomena.

Anxiety thus subverts the established principles of philosophically precise conceptual definitions in that inner and outer spheres, sign and meaning cannot be differentiated from one another. Insofar as the phenomenon anxiety as a word is identical with its visual-physical appearance and mode of expression, it abrogates the, for concepts otherwise usual and necessary separation of sign and meaning, letter and import, signifier and significatum. While this abrogation is at the root both of the problematic conceptualisation of anxiety and the exceptional academic position of those theories that address anxiety, in a second phase the qualities of this distinction become apparent: “What, in philosophical terms, is interesting about physical expression is firstly, its anti-dualistic potential; for example, it subverts the Cartesian distinction between body and soul respectively the inner and outer spheres. […] This is true also of the other basic emotions. Joy, anxiety, surprise and so forth elude categorisation in a pure realm of ‘inner’ (psychological) perception, for the physical expression characteristic of each of them appears also to be of constitutive significance to perception: expression is part and parcel of the emotion itself. Accordingly we are dealing here, with a unitary phenomenon, in contrast to which the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ spheres represent a subsequentabstraction”.6

A central element in the grammar of those rare discourses that seek to address anxiety is the parity of the inner and outer spheres, of soul and body, which is manifest in physical expression. Now any talk of a discursive grammar will prevent respectively facilitate two things: it is possible to pinpoint this discourse historically and hence to transcend the timeless truth claim regarding the fundamental parity of the inner and outer spheres, of the soul and body. This fundamental parity emerged thus within the anthropology of the “whole human being” in the late eighteenth century and subsequently developed a not wholly unproblematic yet very successful effective history. Charles Darwin proceeds in 1872 in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in the manner sketched above: “[others have stated] that this muscle is strongly contracted under the influence of fear; and Duchenne insists so strongly on its importance in the expression of this emotion, that he calls it the muscle of fright”.7 A causal and analogical relationship exists between the soul and the body and the inner and outer spheres, and prescribes Darwin’s method. He meanwhile expands this approach to embrace a further important aspect.

For the visible rendering of emotions by means of physical expression is complemented by its photographic and literary representation, for example by the photographer Duchenne, a colleague of Darwin’s who stimulated muscles electronically in order to change their expression. (Fig. X, p. X). Darwin draws in his treatise on literary descriptions of affective physical expression to which his own descriptions also bear a resemblance. Insofar as anxiety reveals itself in physical expression, literary or visual media are the means to represent this relationship. Even though Darwin’s account seems somewhat strange to us today, this epistemological connection of a feeling of anxiety, physical expression, and visual and literary media has a considerable impact. For Gilles Deleuze, the face and cinematic close-ups of the face are fundamental to depicting emotion; from this arises in the work of Bergman and Wenders the “cinema of angst project”.8 The “regime of the gaze” imposed by the cinematic medium rests on the physical interaction of the viewer and film and on sensory perception, and it thereby generates or communicates anxiety.9

For Darwin, anxiety comprised a sub-category of fear – a distinction that can be valorised in conceptual-historical terms. It signalizes the underestimation of anxiety in the theoretical canon derived from classical antiquity. For, while fear and dread were leitmotifs of the tragedy theory in antiquity, discussion of the “bourgeois tragedy” by Lessing, Mendelssohn and Nicolai put an end to that tradition (especially at the conceptual and poetological level), in that not fear but compassion came henceforth to dominate the bourgeois tragedy. Lessing accomplishes this shift in genre, from the classical to the bourgeois tragedy, by newly translating into German certain Greek concepts such as pathos. His new translation served to establish anxiety as a modern concept. While, in the Aristotelian tradition, fear had been defined mimetically as fear of an object such as nature (personified by the Alps, storms or gods), the modern concept of anxiety is defined poietically or self-referentially to mean “concern for oneself” (Foucault). In Prozeß der Zivilisation (“The Civilizing Process”), Elias addresses the transition from proto-history to the modern era as follows: while, in pre-modern societies, struggle and violence led to actual physical injury and natural menace, such external physical violence cedes place in the modern era to man-made fears of a more psychological type. Once the state of fearing something specific disappears or subsides, anxiety is no longer determined by nature, which cedes in turn to historical and socio-cultural contexts and other defining factors: “[…] the extent to which the anxieties that drive human beings are man-made becomes all the more evident […] the type and structure of anxieties […] never depend exclusively on [human] nature nor, at least in differentiated societies, on the natural surroundings in which man lives. Ultimately they are determined always by the history and current structure of [man’s] relationships to other people, by the structure of his society”.10

Anxiety’s dependence on physicality remains. Yet Elias replaces its objectification by means of physical expression with the habitus, posture or attitude. Anxiety thereby becomes a behavioural mode and a mask – a social role. While fear was bound mimetically and physiognomically to the natural or physical object, anxiety is bound poietically to the subject: object-referentiality becomes self-referentiality. Luhmann had defined love similarly in terms of self-referentiality, as a historically modern conception of a “symbolically generalized medium of communication”. In Foucault, anxiety and love or anxiety and sexuality exist in tension as opposite poles, as emotions and concepts characteristic of the modern era. If anxiety is (auto-) poietic, its mediatization in film and literature, which are means of representing anxiety, is implicit. Thus, in the horror film genre, anxiety is not so much visually depicted but is generated rather, by the technical and aesthetic potential of film itself. In reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Shining – the best possible realization of the horror film genre and simultaneously the visual rendering of Foucault’s discourse theory – Lorenz Engell notes: “Power and desire, anxiety and violence, knowledge and delusion are for [Kubrick] unimaginable without cinema and, above all: they are effective. They are not merely represented by Kubrick’s images but directly engendered by them. So, just as Foucault identifies the sources of power and desire, knowledge and delusion in complicated configurations that he classifies as ‘discourses’ and ‘archives’, Kubrick identifies their source in the constellations of movement, gaze, image and light from which they ensue, at least as cinematographic values. […] Accordingly anxiety and violence, knowledge and delusion are produced and reproduced by and in the cinematic arena itself. They emerge – independently of one another – from the synergy of image, movement, gaze and light […] and are not simply givens [i. e. premised as anthropological constants]. [….] There is no escape from dread: not because it lurks somewhere ‘out there’ nor, conversely, because we carry it within us – but rather, because it has always telescoped and irrevocably interwoven the outer in the inner sphere, what went before in what comes after, and the Other and the Self”.11

The conceptual distinction – between the fear that is bound to a natural object shaped by external forces and the anxiety that is coupled with the creative subject – characterises attempts to explain the term, from Kierkegaard through Heidegger to Sartre. Of interest here, is that anxiety thereby becomes a threshold phenomenon that mediates between rationality and irrationality, between nature and culture, which may also explain its (post-) modern prominence and popularity. While the “logic of emotions” describes this paradoxical transitional form, the latter manifests clearly in conceptual indeterminacy as well as in concrete body language: “Physical expression subverts not only the Cartesian distinction between the inner and outer spheres but in a certain sense also that between nature and culture. Physical expression plays an important role already in animal behaviour. […] Physical expression is, one might say, the very phenomenon that prompts the initial development of any distinction between nature and culture”.12 Two things are of interest and relevance here: on the one hand the discursive affinity inherent to this definition and on the other, the medial dependency of anxiety on “physical expression.

For not every branch of theory devotes itself to such bipolar threshold phenomena. Anthropology and, in part, phenomenonlogy do so in particular yet other discourses refuse to do so, or fail to regard anxiety as an object and term worthy of serious consideration. While Michel Foucault in reference to the links between sexuality and anxiety had emphatically described this “discursification” of phenomena and emphasized that discourse itself influences the emergence and representation of a phenomenon, this coupling of anthropological insights and a popular phenomenon generates a certain categorical order, in and with which it is possible to discuss anxiety, for example, in the discourse on lived body and body, on the Self and the Other. The world of serious science does not take anxiety seriously, precisely because it is a popular and medial phenomenon. Insofar phenomenology, premising a distinction between fear and anxiety, declares the latter to be a phenomenon dependent on physical communication while the former is defined by object-referentiality, a factor that also facilitates symbolism and conceptuality (a “specific problem”): “Heidegger speaks explicitly of a ‘Wofür der Angst’: anxiety about something that I am unable to define. Accordingly Heidegger differentiates between anxiety and fear, asserting that fear turns anxiety into a specific problem: I am afraid of this or of that. […] Anxiety, in Heidegger’s terms, has to do with the situation of man as a free being, one without firm ground beneath his feet and who cannot adequately reason why things are as they are. This contingency gives rise to [an] anxiety about something that I am unable to define and that, were I able, I would already have assigned to a specific schema”.13

Anxiety generates the schema and discourses of its own description for it is a phenomenon that cannot be integrated in or grasped or described by present established discourses. This is because anxiety about something renders necessary a communicative situation comprising questions and answers, a medium comprising physical “communicativeness and responsiveness”.14 It requires new forms of discourse that can do justice to this non-conceptual physicality of anxiety, as phenomenology and anthropology do. Psychoanalysis too is such a discourse, one that distanced itself from physiological discourses of the nineteenth century, such as those of Darwin, and established another form of theory based on hysteria and anxiety. In 1925, Freud also premises a distinction between fear and anxiety and points out the problematic nature of this distinction at the symbolic and conceptual levels. If anxiety has no object and becomes self-referential then the phenomenon ceases to fit the established semiotics of signifier and significatum, of sign and object. Anxiety is not a sign; rather, it comprises (physical) expression. Freud devotes a great deal of attention to this question of the symptoms and definition of anxiety, even though he no longer understands the symptoms of anxiety to be exclusively physical: “The affect of anxiety exhibits one or two features the study of which promises to throw further light on the subject. Anxiety has an unmistakeable relation to expectation; it is anxiety about something. It has a quality of indefiniteness and lack of object. In precise speech we use the word ‘fear’ (Furcht) rather than ‘anxiety’ (Angst), if it has found an object.”15

That new names are required for things and that phenomena elude traditional, systematized concepts suggests one might well rearrange and reappraise this conceptual system in the form of discourses and theories. Freud remarks on the deficit and the need for discursification: “So little is known about the psychology of emotional processes that the following tentative remarks I am about to make on the subject may claim a very lenient judgement”.16 Like sexuality, anxiety has been subject since the eighteenth century to a “proliferation of discourses” that serve to control the body and emotions.17 As the “heuristics of fear” (Hans Jonas), these discourses initially engender the phenomenon by verbalization and medialization but also give rise simultaneously to the conceptual distinction problem.

Insofar the difficulties inherent to conceptualizing and defining anxiety inform its medialization and literary treatment, as Freud remarked in his essayThe Uncanny from 1919: a precisely translatable definition of anxiety cedes place to literary paraphrase – as in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short stories, for example. Anxiety is conjured by literary or medial means in film; it does not exist as a natural object that can be simulated. The modern explosion of anxiety is coupled therefore, with the means or media that engender anxiety or render it visible: “Only rarely does the psychoanalyst feel impelled to engage in aesthetic investigations […] as relating to the qualities of our feelings. Yet now and then it happens that he has to take an interest in a particular aspect of aesthetics and then it is usually a marginal one that has been neglected in the specialist literature. One such is the ‘uncanny’. There is no doubt that this belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread. […] Yet one may presume that there exists a specific affective nucleus, which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One would like to know the nature of this common nucleus, which allows us to distinguish the ‘uncanny’ within the field of the frightening”.18

As a physical phenomenon, anxiety is perceptible by the senses: it has an aesthetic form – a medial format; likewise, this medial format reveals it to be a modern phenomenon, the description and explanation of which calls for new forms of discourse such as psychoanalysis or media theory. McLuhan, arguably the co-founder of the latter, accordingly draws not only on psychology, phenemonology and anthropology, for media and anxiety interact in a close relationship constitutive of theory, which also in McLuhan’s work is focused on the body and the senses. For McLuhan, a medium is a physical and sensory “extension of our own person”;19 such physical replacement and amputation by the media is a source of anxiety, in that a prerequisite of the medialization of the body is the latter’s fragmentation and prosthetic renewal: “We have to numb our central nervous system when it is extended and exposed, or we would die. Thus the age of anxiety and electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition”.20

Serious attempts to define the term thus first take place as part of a wave of modernisation around 1800 and above all around 1900. Helmut Lethen provides evidence of this with regard to the Weimar Republic, the literary epoch of Neue Sachlichkeit, asserting that this era gave rise to the poetics of anxiety in the work of Franz Kafka. The metropolis as the epitome of modernisation has its own specific medial, literary and theoretical forms of generating anxiety. In Heidegger’s Being and Time from 1926 one finds a conceptual definition rooted in the modernity of the phenomenon. If media are first and foremost mass media, the discourse on the masses that gradually establishes itself as of 1900 is always also a discourse on anxiety, as in Freud, Riesman, Canetti, Broch and others besides. In such discourse, dissolution of borders between the inner and outer spheres and the body and soul is the decisive and central theme of the new anthropological approach emerging at that time.

While anthropology had hitherto been premised on the apparent parity of the inner and outer spheres, of body and soul – as in Darwin’s work on the physical expression of the psychological feeling of anxiety – the new anthropology discovers as of 1900 a division or border between the inner and outer spheres as well as the dangerous, angst-ridden transgression of this border. As a distortion of the natural body, the prosthetic mask of anxiety is divided from the inner sensation: anxiety no longer becomes visible and perceptible in the face but in medial masks. The “prodigious plasticity of the human being” (Iser) constantly generates – medial, literary and discursive – masks of anxiety. Anxiety is no longer bound naturalistically to the body and face or authentically to the object; rather, the subject is now able to form and perform it. It becomes an attitude, a mode of behaviour that must constantly mediate between the inner and outer spheres. As a social mask and mode of behaviour, anxiety is malleable and can be repressed, unlike its naturalistic expression, which depends on the body. Lethen deciphers the “cold persona” engendered by the discourses and media of the 1920s as a literary and theoretical figure able to overcome anxiety. This extrovert, carefree figure stands in polar opposition to the angst-ridden, psychologically driven “creature” – and each figure can turn into the other. “When, in the following, the fictional characters ‘cold persona’ and ‘radar-type’ are described, I see symbolic charms in both images, which were created as a means to ensure that man might approach the process of modernisation without anxiety and to construct some leeway for liberty. They are simultaneously schema for a ‘lifestyle’ in which behaviour is reflected as expression and the expressive dimension of the figure may be fulfilled in his behaviour. The anxiety of which the ‘cold persona’ has been rid returns in the figure of the ‘creature’. […] The particular revaluation of the creatural in this decade, during which, under the banner of Sachlichkeit (objectivity), variants of Homo faber (‘Man the Maker’) predominate, constitutes a ‘side exit out of history’. ‘Aspects of naturalness’ suddenly occupy the foreground and direct attention to the underbelly of the historical process”.21

While, fear and dread were natural or god-given phenomena and insofar insurmountable, anxiety can be formed and suppressed. Authoritative anxiety theories have emphasized this potential for modification by considering anxiety in relation to freedom, as Sartre did, or, like Herbert Marcuse, by entertaining the possibility of a “society without anxiety”. In contrast to a superhuman fear’s inflexible dependence on nature or a specific object, the alterability of anxiety is linked to its dependence on the media. Whether film or discourse, the media are self-generating, auto-poietic. The e-motion anxiety is mobile and mutable, as films – the movies – are, while fear wasrepresented in immobile and static photographic images and could be manipulated in this medium only when the photographer Duchenne exerted violence. Anxiety as a mask is flexibly mimetic while fear as a facial expression is inflexibly physiognomic.

If the creature that Darwin still saw as an animal, analogous and related to the human being, becomes surmountable in the course of modernisation, owing to the plasticity of the cold persona – and anxiety likewise, in consequence – such transitions can be found also in the anxiety poetics of Kafka. But diagnosis of modernism also by Adorno and Horkheimer culminates in a work such as Dialectic of Enlightenment, in a shift from civilisation to barbarism, from rationalism to irrationalism. There too, the inclusion of anxiety is decisive for the diagnosis. Philosophically or epistemologically, anxiety owes its chequered career to this key position at the interface of nature and culture, the Self and the Other. In spite of the following post-modern diagnosis, it appears that this constellation, so characteristic of modernity, has remained wholly unchanged even in the twenty-first century. In the light of the medial constitution of the twenty-first century and the anthropological discursive tradition, the founder of the actor-network-theory (ANT) Bruno Latour presents the following findings, in regard to which – given that the history of terminology is pivotal to my approach – I must once again point out that the English language has adopted the German word angst to describe psychological anxiety. “The postmodern condition has recently sought to juxtapose these three great resources of the modern critique– nature, society and discourse– without even trying to connect them. If they are kept distinct, and if all three are distinct from the work of hybridization, the image of the modern world they give is indeed terrifying: a nature and technology that are absolutely sleek; a society made up solely of false consciousness, simulacra and illusions; a discourse consisting only in meaning effects detached from everything; and this whole world of appearances keeps afloat other disconnected elements of networks that can be combined haphazardly by collage from all places and all times. Enough, indeed to make one contemplate jumping off a cliff. Here is the cause of the postmoderns’ flippant despair, one that has taken over from the angst [sic] of their predecessors, masters of the absurd”.22 Accordingly anxiety owes its prominent standing as a modern phenomenon also to an epistemological crisis or a revival of those discourses which realign the traditional distinctions made between nature and culture, subject and object, object and sign in the framework of a “third figure”, representing “destruction” (Heidegger) or “deconstruction” (Derrida).23 Luhmann and Foucault have described the modern signature of love and sexuality as the polar opposite of anxiety and insofar the interference of an “anxiety-desire” of “pleasant horror”,24 which has replaced the older affective culture since the eighteenth century by a new one based on medial hybridisation.

Andreas Käuser

1 Hartmut Böhme, Vom Phobos zur Angst. Zur Begriffs- und Transformationsgeschichte der Angst. In: Michael Harbsmeier/Sebastian Möckel (eds.), Pathos, Affekt, Emotion. Transformationen der Antike. Frankfurt 2009, p. 154-184, p. 175.

2 Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, no. 12, 28.03.2010, p. 11.

3 The “Werther effect” is a reference to Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, publication of which was followed by a massive wave of “copycat suicides”.

4 Cf. Miriam Meckel, Brief an mein Leben. Erfahrungen mit einem Burnout. Reinbek 2010

5 Norbert Meuter, Anthropologie des Ausdrucks. Die Expressivität des Menschen zwischen Natur und Kultur. Munich 2006, p. 25.

6 Meuter, p.25–26.

7 Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Oxford University Press, USA; 3rd edition, 1998, p. 355.

8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image. University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 101.

9 Thomas Elsaesser/Malte Hagener, Filmtheorie zur Einführung. Hamburg 2007, p. 103–187.

10 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Vol. 2, trans. copyright: Basil Blackwell, 1982, p. 442–443.

11 Lorenz Engell, Stanley Kubrick: The Shining. Szenographien des Schreckens. In: ibid. Playtime. Münchner Film-Vorlesungen. Konstanz 2010, p. 253–276, p. 254–255.

12 Meuter, p. 26.

13 Bernhard Waldenfels, Bodily experience between selfhood and otherness. Springer Netherlands, 2004.

14 Waldenfels, ibid.

15 Sigmund Freud, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, trans. James Strachey, W. W. Norton and Co., The Standard Edition (1990), p. 100.

16 Freud, ibid, p. 105.

17 Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge. History of Sexuality 1, trans. copyright: Random House Inc. 1978. Penguin Books reprint, 1998, p. 18.

18 Freud, The Uncanny (1919), trans. David McLintock, Penguin Classics, 2003, p. 123.

19 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1st Ed. McGraw Hill, NY, 1964; reissued MIT Press, 1994, with introduction by Lewis H. Lapham; reissued by Gingko Press, 2003. p. 7.

20 McLuhan, ibid, p. 47.

21 Helmut Lethen, Verhaltenslehren der Kälte. Lebensversuche zwischen den Kriegen. Frankfurt 1994, p. 43–44.

22 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. p. 64–65.

23 Dieter Mersch, Medientheorien zur Einführung. Hamburg 2006, p. 132.

24 Böhme, p. 172.