Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Paranoia in Post-9/11 American Fiction

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Paranoia in Post-9/11 American Fiction

Article excerpt

How do we assess the effects of 9/11 nearly 10 years later? Even if we think and speak about the terrorist attacks less than we once did, American culture over the last decade has been deeply affected by the fear and anxiety raised by them. The misinformation about weapons of mass destruction that led to war in Iraq has made Americans suspicious. Military outsourcing has prompted Americans to question whether the principles of free enterprise are at odds with the public good. In the name of security at home, Americans have yielded to ever-increasing government surveillance in areas once considered private. Not for the first time in national history, Americans have come to fear an enemy they can't identify and to suspect what the government says.

This suspicion has led to a fear that Americans are vulnerable, as individuals and as a society, to unforeseen and, so far, unknown powers. Freud coined the term "paranoia" to explain individual psychosis, but Americans have increasingly used it to describe their collective anxiety. While historian Richard Hofstadter argues that American politics since the Puritans has been driven by a paranoid worldview, where American "good" perpetually battles some "evil" other, in recent decades the idea of collective, or cultural, paranoia has expanded. Critic Patrick O'Donnell, in "Engendering Paranoia in Contemporary Narrative," from National Identities and Post-American Narratives, edited by Donald Pease (Duke University Press, 1994), concludes that such paranoia involves seeing "the multiple stratifications of reality, virtual and material, as interconnected or networked."

But something about paranoia has changed after 9/11, or at least that is what recent popular American fiction suggests. While experimental postmodern fiction often involves complex plots and counterplots that themselves seem paranoid, recent mainstream works reveal something simpier: the responses we might think of as paranoid are not signs of psychosis or existential alienation. Instead, they are logical and rational responses to contemporary life. Americans are in fact being lied to and watched; the institutions charged with protecting national interests are (in some instances) corrupt; people are constantly exposed to misinformation via the Internet; and, worst of all, many are complicit in this surveillance, corruption, and fear.

Novels offer a distinctive vehicle for exploringpost-9/11 paranoia because they efficiently pull together the collective and the individual, the political and the domestic. They deliver cultural commentary through stories about characters that readers care about. Perhaps more importantly, novels, like paranoia, offer a "system"--the plot--where contingency is eliminated and every action is meaningful. For this reason, novels are especially able to depict paranoid constructions of reality. Post-9/11 fiction does this in a range of ways: Genre fiction explores American vulnerability to a new enemy and the implications of a paranoid worldview in global terms, while domestic fiction considers the effects of paranoia and surveillance on individuals.

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Genre fiction

Given post-9/11 anxieties about the end of American hegemony, it makes sense that recent genre fiction--spy novels and science fiction--explores America's vulnerability to new enemies. In these fictions, the control of information is key to global dominance. The slipperiness of the post-9/11 enemy--unbounded geographically and eschewing traditional geopolitical power--jars against the conventions of the Cold War genre and its recognizable targets. Therefore, post-9/11 spy novels challenge their protagonists to interpret and neutralize these new threats. Science fiction, in turn, considers how this same physical and political landscape leads to a cataclysmic, post-apocalyptic future.

William Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition evokes and recasts the Cold War-era spy thriller through a protagonist, Cayce Pollard, who channels the lessons of her cold warrior father to fight a different enemy: emergent global capital. …

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