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Reith 2004: The Climate of Fear: The Changing Mask of Fear

Updated Tuesday 9th March 2004

Lynda Morgan responds to the first of Wole Soyinka's Reith Lectures, where he drew on his experiences as an activist to chart a world changed since the Cold War.

Wole Soyinka Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

'Soyinka's life is inseparable from his work, much of which arises from a passionate, almost desperate, concern for his society. This concern is apparent in his poetry, drama and essays, but is not merely literary. It shows itself in his letters to the Nigerian papers which can always be relied upon to rouse enthusiastic support or bitter opposition. Indeed it is this very concern, and the speed with which he translates ideas into action that puts him so often at odds with institutions and governments.' - Eldred Durosimi Jones

This year's Reith lecturer, the Nigerian writer and Nobel prize-winner Wole Soyinka, is a playwright, a poet, a novelist and a critic; but, as Durosimi Jones shows, his literary work cannot be separated from his political activism. For more than forty years he has spoken out against brutal regimes, and is apparently better known in Nigeria as an activist than as a literary figure. For his refusal to remain silent in the face of atrocities he was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement from 1967 until 1969. This experience resulted in his prison notebooks, The Man Died (1973): a powerful testimony not only to his own suffering, but to the suffering of thousands of people who, unlike Soyinka, did not have famous names to ensure that their experiences would receive world-recognition. His belief in the moral duty to resist brutality is stated explicitly in The Man Died, as this extract demonstrates:

'These men are not merely evil, I thought. They are the mindlessness of evil made flesh. One should not ever stumble into their hands but seek the power to destroy them. They are pus, bile, original putrescence of Death in living shapes. They surely infect all with whom they come in touch and even from this insulation here I smell a foulness of the mind in the mere tone of their words. They breed themselves, their types, their mutations. To seek the power to destroy them is to fulfil a moral task.'

His collection of poetry, A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), also addresses this period of his life, vividly describing his experience of solitary confinement, which he likens to a living death in a metaphorical 'crypt'. Moreover it bears witness to the atrocities carried out in the prison. For example, in the introductory prose section to the sequence Chimes of Silence Soyinka records the horrifying ritual of execution that he cannot see from his cell, but reconstructs from what he hears.

'Five men are walking... slowly, wearily, with the weight of the world on each foot, on each step towards eternity. I hear them pause at every scrap of life, at every beat of the silence, at every mote in the sun, those five for whom the world is about to die.'

Climate of Fear, Soyinka argues that it is not brutal regimes such as the one he fell foul of that are generating today's particular climate of fear. Instead, today "the fear is one of furtive, invisible power, the power of the quasi-state, one that is not open to negotiating structure." The greatest fear is generated by "those that have repudiated the norm, [those that] refuse to be bound by the code of formalised states".

The idea of the 'quasi-state' is developed in Soyinka's second lecture, and I shall return to it in my second essay. Here, however, I concentrate on what Soyinka says about fear itself. It is created, he argues, either by subjection to the forces of nature, or by subjection to human forces. The loss of self-esteem and dignity are the prime casualties of fear. When one feels fear, "part of oneself is appropriated".

So what do we understand the self to be, and what does it mean to have part of oneself appropriated? We all have the sense of a self within, what the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin calls a "person's singularity"; a "historical being that preserves its history in the unconscious." Yet, natural as a sense of self may appear to be, its definition is not as uncontroversial as we might assume. Judith Butler, for example, refers to this sense of self as "'the illusion of substance" (my emphasis), arguing that there is no "point of agency" that "'is not fully determined by... culture and discourse."

Intelligibility of the subject is only made possible by "the structure of signification." Benjamin does not dispute the idea that the subject's positions are constructed, but argues that even so "psychoanalysis must imagine someone who does or does not own them." It is this imagined psychological subject that I refer to here as the self: a subject that is determined by culture and discourse, but that is experienced by both the subject and others as "singular." The arena of the cultural and the arena of the individual psyche are felt as continuously interacting, and thus cannot be meaningfully separated out at the experiential level.

Army chemical gear Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

How, then, does psychoanalytic theory imagine this singular 'self' developing? And what does this 'singularity' consist of? Different theorists of course explain it in differing ways, but at the heart of all such explanations is a notion of the self as fragile and subject to collapse.

Freud, for example, in his essay on 'The "Uncanny"', writes about the importance of the double in the early development of the self. This he regards as "a preservation against extinction", as "an insurance against the destruction of the ego": in other words, the belief that one might have a 'double' shores up belief in one's own (fragile) existence. An example of this can be seen in children's development of imaginary friends: a kind of repetition of the self that confirms the existence of the child and supports it in situations of psychological threat. The psychological helpfulness of such doubling is short-lived, however. Freud goes on to argue that for the development of a secure adult self the double must eventually disappear. If identification with it continues, the subject will eventually be "in doubt as to which his self is." From having been "an assurance of immortality" the double becomes "the uncanny harbinger of death."

In a rather different way of explaining the development of psychological identity, Jessica Benjamin, developing her ideas from the work of D.W. Winnicott (which she describes as "one of the most radical reformulations of psychoanalytic thought in [the twentieth] century") focuses on the way in which a sense of self develops when the child has to become separate from its mother. For normal development the child must achieve an objective view of the mother, recognising her as a separate but equivalent centre of self.

However, this objective view will always co-exist with a continuing subjective view: a fantasy of the mother as a continuing part of the self. In an ideal resolution of the imperative to recognise the self and the mother as independent and equivalent subjects, the mother would be perfectly recognised as "other." But, as Benjamin states, "recognition is a capacity of individual development that is only unevenly realised." To be a subject is to be in a state of continuing negotiation between self and other. However, Benjamin's theoretical perspective and Freud's work 'The "Uncanny"' suggests the potential for collapse of the self, and this is the point at which I return to Soyinka's definition of fear.

To experience fear is to experience threat to the sense of self, to return to the fragility of subjectivity that always shadows us: to feel, in Soyinka's words, that part of oneself has been appropriated. As he writes in his poem 'Purgatory':

'The mind retreats behind a calloused shelter
Of walls, self-censor on the freedom of remembrance
Tempering visions to opaque masonry, to rings
Of iron spikes, a peace of refuge passionless
And comfort of a gelded sanity.'


Here, through fear and the necessary strategies for survival, 'sanity' is 'gelded' - that is, neutered - and the mind is stripped of part of itself. The sense of self is weakened, confined behind limiting walls.

To have a sense of self also means being able to enter into dialogue with other separate and distinct beings. But dialogue, Soyinka argues, is no longer possible when the enemy is furtive and invisible. This leads to the even greater fear that he associates with 'quasi-states'. This is explored in the second lecture.


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