Opus Heyday

The success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code excites interest in a secretive Catholic lay group—and further notes on the culture of conspiracism

In an introductory essay, Peter Knight, editor of the 2002 collection Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America, attributes modern conspiracism to "the pervading sense of uncontrollable forces taking over our lives, our minds, and even our bodies." He writes that "conspiracy thinking has become not so much the sign of a crackpot delusion as part of an everyday struggle to make sense of a rapidly changing world." In effect, individuals are losing their sense of agency in a period of political chaos and technological overload, compulsive consumerism and fear of the future, experiencing a loss of self and a sense of interchangeability with other digitized and horrifically surveilled humans, unable to get the big picture into focus and hence fixating on an idea of the world itself as a vast, impenetrable conspiracy. The worst thing about the above catalog of alienation effects is that it seems irreversible and inescapable.

Knight's book is well worth reading, as its contributors differentiate critical inquiry and skepticism from "paranoia." They problematize the friction between conspiracism and contingency theory, and the way these opposites interpenetrate; they deal with American pop culture far more knowingly than Barkun; their references encompass Lacan, Jameson, Althusser, and Zizek, among others. Especially worthwhile are Skip Willman's "Spinning Paranoia: The Ideologies of Conspiracy and Contingency in Postmodern Culture," Ingrid Walker Fields's "White Hope: Conspiracy, Nationalism, and Revolution in The Turner Diaries and Hunter," and Eithne Quinn's " 'All Eyez on Me': The Paranoid Style of Tupac Shakur." The tendency to pathologize vigorous opposition to the status quo crops up here and there more as a reflex than a position.

Similarly, Timothy Melley's 1999 Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America illustrates "agency panic" as woven into post-war American fiction and nonfiction—Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, and works by Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, Don DeLillo, and many others. He acknowledges the establishment bias of traditional conspiracy critique, yet often brings to mind Mary McCarthy's remark that criticizing Burroughs's style is like criticizing the sartorial manifestations of someone banging on your door to tell you your house is on fire.

"Because the convictions I have been describing usually arise without much tangible evidence," Melley sensibly writes, "they often seem to be the product of paranoia. Yet they are difficult to dismiss as paranoid in the clinical sense. . . . As Leo Bersani points out, the self-described 'paranoids' of Thomas Pynchon's fiction are 'probably justified, and therefore —at least in the traditional sense of the word—really not paranoid at all.' " While dutifully noting the wide influence of Richard E. Hofstadter's seminal 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," which rather broadly identified conspiratorial thinking as a misreading of chance and contingent events, Melley is loath to automatically apply Hofstadter's axioms to the more complex realities of postmodern culture. Still, he invokes them ambiguously, enough so that Empire of Conspiracy becomes an exercise in ambivalence about consensus politics and a meandering soliloquy about what is and isn't pathological.

Mark Fenster's 1999 Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture is easily the best recent addition to the literature of what radio and TV host Long John Nebel used to call the Way Out World. (Nebel's wife, Candy Jones, revealed under hypnosis that she had been brainwashed by the CIA and operated for it as an assassin without her wet work leaving any conscious residue in her memory.) For starters, Fenster tears much of Hofstadter's Cold War assumptions about the vitality of the American mainstream to shreds, noting that Hofstadter "applied a theory of individual pathology to a social phenomenon—an interesting, perhaps productive exercise for an analogy, but problematic if . . . one is attempting to produce a concept that can be used across history to explain, for example, populist political dissent in the 1990s." In Fenster's view, conspiracism is a direct effusion of the failures of the political system, which are at least as much "conspiratorial" as "contingent" or unintended.

There is, of course, another way of considering this: Contingency and lack of intention may often constitute an unplanned, collective conspiracy dictated by historical events and their inevitable repercussions. The essential guide to this notion can be found in Eric Hobsbawm's 1994 Amnesty International lecture, "Barbarism: A User's Guide." Hobsbawm doesn't call the historical process conspiratorial, but many of the opportunities it activates certainly are.

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