In the Grip of Dread

By David Theo GoldbergSeptember 9, 2018

In the Grip of Dread
WE AWAKEN EACH DAY to the question: what horror faces us now? And we struggle to put our collective finger on the feeling of this moment, the gnawing sensibility of our time.

Political depression is too common a phrase to capture it. This is not the momentary defeat of a political party. There is something else at work now, responding to larger, more tectonic shifts.

The quality of “dread” has become a driver of our time. Prolonged dread is the mark of this moment, of its seeming inscrutability, its illegibility, where the improbable has become likely. Dread has many overlapping, interactive sources.



We live now not only in a constant state of war, but of its more or less undiminished and continual dread. Of war as such, conventionally comprehended as violence, but more generally of a war on everything: on the environment/nature/the climate, on neighbors, on immigrants, on refugees. We have come to live, then, in proliferating dread, even of dread itself.

There is a conceptual distinction to be drawn between wars over resources and wars about forms of life. Many wars of course involve an interactive dynamic of both elements. Civil wars tend to be thought of generally as internal to states, but insofar as they combine the drive to exercise control over resources and how to be in the world, they don’t simply stop at the border. Civil war has morphed from the politics of extreme exception or occasional outburst to that of the everyday. It is the point at which politics and war are indistinguishable.

Civil war is no longer the end of politics but its normalized expression. It is overdetermined too as a function of social inscrutability in the name of transparency, and of proliferated paranoia, unsafety, and insecurity in the service of the technologics of security. According to John Rogers, more than half of public high school students in the United States today are reporting stress and anxiety, much of it racially and gender driven, up from just seven percent in the years prior to Trump’s election. The agitation is intensified, even exaggerated, first by the proliferating threat of gun violence and then by the incessant social media engagements making up everyday life, and in the case of youth pretty much of every waking moment.

Societies find themselves slipping into civil war when within or between them they are wrought by irreconcilably contesting conceptions of life. Living is largely made unbearable. Those at least nominally controlling the state apparatus insist on obedience and deference to its way of being, on pain of erasure for refusal or resistance. Civil wars become struggles over contesting ways of being in the world. They are struggles over their underlying conceptions, ways to live, and over control of the state and its apparatuses to materialize and advance these commitments. As Ionesco once quipped, God is dead, Marx is dead, and I’m not feeling so well myself.

The unsettling of presumed ethno-racial commonality is driven by (civil) war. The line keeping outsiders at bay operates in terms of the racial determination of immigration, and the technologies of segregation, separation, and bordering. The preclusions are enacted in the name of maintaining historical homogeneity in the face of its undoing. But the maintenance — first of the fantasy of differentiated being and capacity, and then of its enactment — is possible only by the compulsions of make-believe. This conservation requires force and forced constraint of thought and deed, of compelled movement and sedentarism.

Temporary encampments and border walls perhaps collapse the two. “One way or another,” Trump has repeated perhaps only half-misleadingly, “Mexico will pay for the wall.” Dread is a function too of being forced despite oneself into reactive mode, into contesting on the terms of the belligerent and the bully.

A politics of dread flourishes exactly when such a push flies in the face of the driving heterogeneities all about. A recent study by Diana C. Mutz concluded that white men who voted for Trump in 2016 did so far less out of “economic anxiety” than they did out of driving concern that their long presumed racial power and privilege were under threat. The same could be said of Brexit, LePenisme, Generation Identitaire, Israel’s push to legalize its proposed segregation law. Dread as such reflects, without (fully) reflecting critically on, a society of the new (totalizing, global) enclosure act, of closing off to the different. This is a closing off and a pushing out that can only be effected, in the final act, as a politics of purification.

A couple of points must be underlined. That demographic and cultural homogeneity needs to be maintained speaks to its artifice. Presumed natural, it is anything but. And that maintenance requires force, intrusion, fraud. “Make-believe” brings force and fraud explicitly into play with each other in its drive to realization. It requires repression, if not a purge of the supposedly polluting ideas and then the people who are drawn to them. The racial wall, whether ideational or material, is either material expression or outcome of the social warring at work. It is at once symbolic of the boundary lines and cementation of who is made to be a welcome social member and who is lacking social standing, even as (fully) human.

Digital technologies, algorithmic speed, spiraling artificial intelligence developments, and proliferation of social media have transformed our worlds. We write, read, compose, create, produce, generate wealth, learn, recreate, and interact dramatically differently than we once did. Our modes of social relation have shifted notably. The speed and social upheavals exacerbated by these developments have helped to prompt the sense that worlds have turned topsy-turvy. The centrality of work to human life and dignity is being sapped, with predictions that by midcentury something like 60 percent of current work occupations will be robotically performed. Even our experience of time, of immediacy and futurity and to a degree the eclipse of the past as an indication of ways forward are no longer as recognizable as they have long been taken to be.

It is no wonder then that the ineffability of dread has come so readily to inhabit these spaces of disruption, unpredictability, uncertainty, doubt, confusion, and denial.



We tend to be in denial both of the occurrence and the causes of dread. For Kierkegaard, dread as a psychic or affective condition arises from the absence of the possibility of forgiveness for or redemption from sin should God fail to exist.

Less like fear and more in keeping with melancholia, dread has no defined object. It follows from lack: of possibility, of predictability, from denial of principle. Dread emerges out of an unpatchable tear in being, existential or social. It always seeks out that which will increase its own velocity, deepen its hold, magnify its unsettlement.

The affect of dread is unfathomable torment. Dread is depthless, bottomless, lacking insight. It is an agony with no single definable object giving rise to it. It expresses a general anxiety the prompt of which is indefinable, a nagging sense that has no singularly compelling explanation. Dread freezes out all other feeling. It is world-surrounding, world-infusing. Vulgarity and violence, bigotry and brutality against the vulnerable become the bitcoin, the stealth cryptocurrency, of the politics of dread.

Dread tends to fixate, to fix in place, to render the dreading subject immobile in the face of the dreaded. It manifests in delirium, tending to manic expression (witness Attorney General Sessions’s giddy demeanor in biblically defending the child removal policy). It is a dance macabre in the production of disaster. Death is the inevitable end of this dance.

The paranoia represented by “ethno-differentialism” is produced by the dread of the unknown. The dread of a future “overrun” by those taken to be “not-us,” those not sharing a way of life, common values, common sense. The “dread of the Negro,” as Baldwin once characterized it, more generally today of the Black-Brown-Muslim Planet.

By contrast, black and brown folk suffer dread — and in a white world have pretty much always — as a lived condition of their constraints. The dread takes on the specificity of fear as the prompt hardens into palpably identifiable objects of concern. The police stop-and-frisk, the official knock on the door, a burning cross on the lawn, the tearing apart of families, children ripped from parents with no guarantee or plan to reunite them. The racist remark out of nowhere followed almost inevitably by the denial of its racist intentionality, the silent presumption of white innocence and black guilt. The fears of those constituted as not white are set in relief against a canvas of accumulated experiences; the dread of self-defining whites is predicated overwhelmingly on make-believe.

Dread, in short, envelops. It inhabits the world it comes to constitute, to define. That world becomes at once, and interactively, dreadful and dreaded. So much so that the dread itself becomes preoccupying, all-enveloping, claustrophobic. We have shifted, perhaps, from the condition of planetary fear in the wake of Hiroshima to planetary dread today.

Planetary dread, I am suggesting, is unleashed and licensed in the face of generalizable, globally distributed forces ranging from weaponized destruction to viral technological displacement, cross-generational and constitutively gendered sexual molestation and violation, soaring precarity for most with outlandish wealth for the few, and a rampant politics of alienation, elimination, erasure.

Dread is the sense that there is no truth in the matter, nothing to know or grasp. Dread trades on the reduction to absolute absence: no-knowledge, no-truth, non-relation, nothing left to lose. Dread, in short, is unspeakable. Or more precisely, the urgent reach for a truth incessantly evaporating. Dread is a “community of emotions.” Where dread privatizes the affective, isolates it as discrete individualized feeling, all that is left to this communality of feeling is pure futility.

Dread is the affect of the nihilistic. Everything now falls under suspicion, including claims of or by government. Skepticism has given way first to denial and then to fabrication, to denial as the gateway to make-believe. It’s not so much that anything can be true. It’s that truthfulness itself has become so denuded of value that pretty much any make believe can be assumed to fill the void left in its wake. Truth is just another word for nothing left but fabrication, to update Janis Joplin.

In this suspicion of any and all truth, claims are deemed optional. Truth is activated only as another bullet in the arsenal of make-believe opinionating. Alt-facts, alternative truths, and alternate realities have become the porous ontology of our moment. One simple example, at once everywhere and nowhere: “Make America Great Again” caps, themselves declarations of the civil war striking across the land and planet, tend to be made anywhere but in their place of declaration. Vietnam seems to have acquired the largest contract for these hats, no doubt at the lowest cost because produced by labor paid less than a living wage. The site of the United States’s lost war has been turned into that of its fabricated resurrection by a president who went out of his way to evade conscription. The politics of make-believe has but dread at its core.

Where “greatness” amounts to the capacity for unbridled self-assertion, “Making America Great” conjures an apocalyptic nuclear war, rampant poverty and inequality, accelerated global warming, catastrophic weather events, and so on. Acceleration has collapsed time and space to the point of instantaneity, to the here-now, economics to algorithmic calculability. The more instantaneous, the less controllable, the less regulable, heightening anxiety in the face of instantaneous futurity for a governmentality predicated on sustained domination and control by the make-believer-in-chief.

A politics of dread is reactive, acting out of dread rather than against it. Dread combines gloom with anticipation, retrospective pessimism with anxiety about the threat (next) to-come. Dread today is extended and sustained by a political theater of incendiary and hostile pronouncement followed by immediate denial, even partial erasure of the offending expression. Trump famously stood beside Putin and said he saw no reason why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 election. The following day, in the face of generalized outrage, Trump declared baldfacedly that he had misspoken, that he had meant to say that he saw no reason why Russia would not have interfered. Dread spreads as a function of indiscernibility. It emerges and spreads in the terrain of un-reasonability, of the incapacity or refusal to give reason.

The policeman who shot therapist Charles Kinsley in Florida while Kinsey was trying to help a distressed young autistic man thought to be suicidal admitted that “I don’t know why I shot him.”

Dread manifests in conditions of rampant unknowability. The refusal of reason and the celebration of unreasonableness are effectively the weaponizing of dread. Dread takes hold where evidence is refused and explanation is made to collapse. It proliferates as much concerning the anxiety of being touched by the distasteful indignities as by the nastiness itself.

The affectivity of dread, then, tends to make of it an insistently reductive condition, undercutting political possibility. The contagion is socially produced and spread, but individually experienced. As with contagion more literally, the response tends to target addressing — curing or purging — the individuals infected, one by one. At best, it only indirectly seeks to address the underlying structural conditions giving rise to the outbreak. Dread reduces to an immunological politics, an anti-politics, in short. The undertaking is to keep at bay the fabricated disease, the projected toxicities, and their attendant dis-ease. Build the wall.

Dread is a function not of the recoil from one individual, no matter how awfully powerful, but from the corruption of a system that unleashes the possibility of such figures as symptomatic of the structures driving the desperation. A politics in refusal of dread, by contrast, involves renewing commitments to the constitutively relational condition of all social life. The sustainable well-being of any individual, group, or species is conditional upon the sustainable well-being of all. It is driven by the recognition that relative disability and challenge rather than the artifice of perfection are common to all life, of things, animals, people. The key to a politics of multi-species commons, of the in-common, is the recognition that the sustainability of one within and across species is relationally conditional on that of all.

The dread fueled by persistent injustice is to be faced down by acting in concert for the sake of the commons, of the shared, crucial to the mutual survival and flourishing of all.

Living creatively together in the messy and mixed-up worlds we collectively and interactively inhabit takes work. This is the labor of creating together, of using wisely and caringly the available resources from the things of the world we inhabit to the enabling labor of our co-habitants, of being disposed to others respectfully, sensitively, as dignified beings. It is this calling to creative, interactive, collaborative efforts to make our complicated worlds come together across boundaries and walls and borders that is our imperative today.


David Theo Goldberg has written extensively on race and racism, social, political, critical theory, digital technology and higher education. He grew up surfing in Cape Town, came of age making movies and music videos in New York, and has lived, worked, and surfed in Southern California for the past two decades.

LARB Contributor

David Theo Goldberg is Director of the systemwide University of California Humanities Research Institute and Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Anthropology at UC Irvine. His most recent book is Are We All Postracial Yet? (2015). He is currently at work on a book on Dread: The Politics of Our Time (2021).


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