The Truth Is out There: Conspiracy as a Mindset in American High and Popular Culture

By Kravitz, Bennett | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Truth Is out There: Conspiracy as a Mindset in American High and Popular Culture


Kravitz, Bennett, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The United States, clearly the first postmodern nation, has been fascinated with the idea of conspiracy as a fact of life both on the private and public levels since the conclusion of World War II, perhaps because of the postmodern horrors of the Holocaust. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1954) is, to the best of my knowledge, the world's first postmodern novel in English, and engages conspiracy at both levels. Since the 1960s, every generation of Americans has grown up on conspiracy theories, many of them immortalized in Catch-22 and later continued in Michael Herr's "real-life" war journal, Dispatches-and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (a conspiracy of numbers?). Heller's novel seems to describe, in retrospect, the atmosphere of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, something, of course, that had not yet occurred at the time the novel was written. Literature as prediction might be viewed as the ultimate conspiracy. And the manipulations of big business presented in an amusing fashion in Catch-22 come back to haunt the reader-and author-as prediction fulfilled in the conspiracy of the late capitalist war machine presented in Dispatches. In similar fashion, the very plot of Pynchon's novel, focusing on Oedipa Maas's quest, seems to be one grand media conspiracy possibly assembled by the demi-god persona of Pierce Inverarity, the ultimate revealer of truth or untruth, depending upon his mood and Oedipa's interpretive abilities.

The literature of conspiracy has continued to grow in the 1980s and '90s, and is perhaps best exemplified by the works of Paul Auster and William Gibson, the former representative of high culture, with the latter firmly entrenched among the leaders of popular culture. Auster presents the conspiracy of an absurd universe, plotting against the individual either through malevolence or the mindless evil of chance, a Kafka for the '90s. Gibson, in his cyberpunk genre, engages the conspiracy of technology that rules the lives of those who live in a world always already "five minutes into the future."1 Despite the many technological wonders of that world, blue jeans cost a few hundred dollars a pair, hotel bills are so expensive that they are presented by teams of lawyers, and the new homeless take up residence within the structure of abandoned city bridges. Society, quite literally, to paraphrase Emerson, is conspiring against every one of its members.

The final vehicle of conspiracy we will mention here is perhaps America's most potent version, The X Files. It is from FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, after all, that we learn "the truth is out there," even if it can never be revealed wholly or satisfactorily. Here we have three different types of conspiracy: first, the old-- fashioned "big brother" conspiracy of government against citizen (however, this is perhaps not as old-- fashioned as it first appears, since in The X Files the conspiracy is perpetuated by a shadow government whose members dress and act more like a late capitalist board of directors than a group of conspirators); second, a variation of the first, whereby the government suppresses knowledge that alien life is already present on earth; and finally, the conspiracy of the paranormal, often brought on by the destructive potential of late capitalism, hence the idea that the paranormal of earlier times is nothing more than the norm of today.

I will discuss briefly the various types of conspiracy I am able to identify, if a straightforward definition is too elusive, and present an example of their appearance in high and popular American culture from the end of World War II until the present.

The problem with defining conspiracy arises because it is no longer adequate to talk about the earlier modern version, where we have a plot that can be thwarted by the ubiquitous hero or detective, or the simple legal definition, which has two or more people planning secretly to break the law. Although it may be beyond our ability to pin down conspiracy, each variation does share something with all the others.

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