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Fear: A Cultural History


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About the Author

Joanna Bourke is Professor of History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, where she has taught since 1992. She is a Fellow of the British Academy. Her books range from the social and economic history of Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to social histories of the British working classes between 1860 and 1960s, to cultural histories of military conflict between the Anglo-Boer war and the present. She explores history through the lens of gender, ivtersectionalities, and subjectivities. She has worked on the history of the emotions, particularly fear and hatred, and the history of sexual violence. In the past few years, her research has focused on questions of humanity, militarisation, and pain. She wrote a book entitled What It Means to Be Human. In 2014, she published two books: Wounding the World: How Military Violence and War Games Invade Our World and The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers.


From death and disaster to dangerous technologies, the number of things out there to fear is countless, argues British historian Bourke (An Intimate History of Killing), who surveys a pitted landscape of dread and panic over the past two centuries in this imaginative social, psychological and cultural history. She traces how what we fear changes over time as a function of broader social anxieties and stresses. In the hierarchical Britain of the early 20th century, for instance, a lower-class accent was regarded with unparalleled horror; today, no one cares. The Victorians were terrified of sudden, natural death; today, at a time when people worry about "the excessive prolongation of life after all pleasure has been removed," being killed instantly and without warning is for many the preferred way to go. For us, the most feared thing of all is the terrorist, the "equivalent to the plague of earlier times or the Satan of religion." Though Bourke performs sterling service, painstakingly picking over usually bypassed sources and materials for hidden clues as to what scares us, she indulges the fashionable fallacy that because some fears-of terrorism, for example, since 9/11-have been exaggerated and even occasionally exploited, there is therefore nothing at all to fear but, presumably, fear itself. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Originally published in Britain, this book considers things that go bump in the night and why they scare us from a social sciences perspective. Burke (history, Birkbeck Coll., London; An Intimate History of Killing) looks at our reactions to death, disasters, nightmares, combat, and nuclear threats, both real and imagined. The author uses a half-dozen or so very effective illustrations to document her discussion, including an early drawing of a "security coffin" with a cord and bell inside in case of premature burial. There is also a cartoon vision of "Panic on the Titanic," a harrowing photograph of a woman being restrained as she is taken to be lobotomized, and a child's use of a grinning devil to render terrorism. While the title and a glance at the table of contents might suggest a broad treatment of fear among different peoples through the ages, the focus is actually limited to British and American people from the 20th century to the present. Given the events of these past 100 years, however, this well-written discussion of fear and trembling is not unwelcome. Recommended for all libraries.-Ellen D. Gilbert, Princeton, NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

"YBourke raises a wry, cool eyebrow at the hyperbole of hysteria. She assesses risk rather than quavers before it. She puts fear in its proper place--as part of our pattern of life. . . . This is a journey full of wit and scholarship, an enthralling read that makes you inspect your own psyche. . . . Turn inwards and you may never be quite so afraid again."
"YThis book considers things that go bump in the night and why they scare us from a social sciences perspective. . . . YA well-written discussion of fear and trembling."
"Bourke performs a sterling service, painstakingly picking over usually bypassed sources and materials for hidden clues as to what scares us."

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