Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America

Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America

Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America

Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America

Synopsis

Why, Melley asks, have paranoia and conspiracy theory become such prominent features of postwar American culture? In this work, Melley explores the recent growth of anxieties about thought control, assassination, stalking, surveillance, etc.

Excerpt

Conspiracy theory has a long history in the United States. It has animated our political culture from the early Republican period to the present, at times powerfully swaying popular opinion. But its influence has never been greater than now. Since 1950, an extraordinary number of writers have used expressions of paranoia and conspiracy theory to represent the influence of postwar technologies, social organizations, and communication systems on human beings. Writers as different as William S. Burroughs and Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon and Joan Didion, and Kathy Acker and Don DeLillo have depicted individuals nervous about the ways large organizations might be controlling their lives, influencing their actions, or even constructing their desires. The same concerns are reflected in postwar films, television shows, and other media, which routinely posit conspiracies of astonishing size and complexity. And as sociological studies have shown, many Americans now assume that such plots are not only possible, but operative and determining forces in their own lives.

Why, then, has conspiracy theory become such a fundamental form of American political discourse? And why is this way of thinking about political power common to both marginalized and relatively privileged groups? While paranoia and conspiracy theory are often seen as marginal formsthe implausible visions of a lunatic fringe--their ubiquity in contemporary American culture suggests that they are symptoms of a more pervasive anxiety about social control. Indeed, their popularity can only be explained by examining what they have in common with mainstream narratives and ideas. It is no accident that so many cultural expressions--from Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders to postwar addiction discourse, and from David Riesman Lonely Crowd to the Unabomber "Manifesto"--have lamented the "decline" of individual self-control and the increasing "autonomy" of social structures, especially government and corporate bureaucracies, control technologies, and mass media. Despite the diverse contexts in which these anxieties appear, they take a remarkably consistent form, which I call agency panic. Agency panic is intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the conviction that one's actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been "constructed" by powerful, external agents. Empire of Conspiracy traces this fear through postwar American culture, concentrating on its often melodramatic expression in fiction and film and revealing its importance to nonfiction genres, including cybernetics and systems theory, popular sociology, medical discourse, business and self-

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