A review of John Farrell’s magnificent Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau, in light of contemporary literary criticism: Where Brian McHale declares an end to postmodernism, and where many discount paranoia as a passing literary interest, reviewer Tim Melley sees postmodern paranoia everywhere. As long as corporations are regarded by law as ‘individuals’ and conspiracy is the preferred way of understanding political and social systems, it seems that we’ll remain in the longue duree of the postmodern moment.
Paranoid Modernity and the Diagnostics of Cultural Theory
Paranoid Modernity and the Diagnostics of Cultural Theory
Thomas Pynchon gave paranoia one its most memorable definitions when the narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow called it “the leading edge of the discovery that everything is connected” (703). A quarter of a century later, Don DeLillo elevated this view into something like the official slogan of postwar paranoia by using it repeatedly in Underworld. In doing so, DeLillo’s novel also documented the cultural transformation of paranoia from a side-effect of Cold War to a more general attitude, perhaps even the distinctive mindset of the contemporary scene. As his most paranoid character, Sister Edgar, surfs the internet to icons of Cold War paranoia - images of hydrogen bomb explosions and J. Edgar Hoover - she begins to sense that
There is no place or time out here, or in here, wherever she is. There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyperlinked… . [S]he feels the grip of systems… . She senses the paranoia of the web, the net. (825)
Significantly, this paranoia is stimulated not by Cold War iconography but by the online experience itself. If the postwar period is the time in which “paranoia replaced history in American life,” as DeLillo has remarked elsewhere, then the replacement seems to have been accelerated of late, for our ways of knowing - the institutional frameworks for connecting everything - now stimulate paranoid suspicion in their very structure (qtd. in Knight, 226).
This view of the contemporary scene has become remarkably widespread. In Is Oedipus Online: Siting Freud after Freud, Jerry Anne Flieger notes the “pervasive climate of paranoia” (5). The “sheer number of commentaries on ‘paranoid,’ ‘manic,’ and ‘panic’ culture today,” she argues, “suggest we are living in an age where Freudian terms still have resonance” (6). To make the point, Flieger reproduces the “paranoia-inducing” list of books on paranoia that an online book seller recently assembled “just for her” (6-7). The flowering of paranoia, Flieger believes, is largely a product of our “millennial era” and its propagation of visual knowledge and surveillance. “Just as our age is para-sitic, it is also literally para-noiac, the era of the hyperconscious human mind beside itself” (5). Wendy Hui Kyong Chun agrees. In Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, Chun finds that the “end of the Cold War has not dispelled paranoia but rather spread it everywhere: invisibility and uncertainty - of the enemy, of technology - has invalidated deterrence and moved paranoia from the pathological to the logical” (1). From a markedly different perspective, the political scientist Isaac Balbus makes a similar claim. In his Mourning and Modernity - a collection of loosely-related essays on the “psychoanalysis of contemporary society” - Balbus argues that “computer-mediated communication dramatically accelerates the compression of time and space endemic to modernity” and thus “powerfully promotes and reinforces the grandiose fantasies of omnipotence that mark the infancy of modernity” (117). While Balbus’s larger project is to demonstrate that modernity is a defense against mourning, it seems significant that he associates modernity with the narcissistic grandiosity long understood to be both the major symptom and the underlying cause of paranoia. And while Balbus sees this grandiosity flourishing in contemporary, networked culture, he goes a step further, suggesting that its roots lie not in the contemporary situation (“all human knowledge gathered and … hyperlinked”) but in modernity itself.
This, finally, is the view offered by John Farrell’s magnificent Paranoia and Modernity: Cervantes to Rousseau, which traces contemporary paranoia not to the features of late capitalism and mass culture but to the very “infancy of modernity.” “Don Quixote,” Farrell writes, “is the first great modern paranoid adventurer, and Cervantes’ treatment of him, with its astonishing minuteness and delicacy of observation, remains the most penetrating and influential portrait of madness in Western literature” (3). Beginning with this premise, Farrell follows the trail of suspicion, grandiosity, and compromised human agency not only through the religious reforms of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Bunyan but also through the giants of modern rationalism: Francis Bacon, Descartes, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Swift, Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, and the great-grandadddy of paranoid political economy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While Farrell’s study halts in the nineteenth century, he sees paranoia as increasingly central to twentieth-century critical figures like Nietzsche, Freud, Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Fredric Jameson, and Foucault, whose thinking is colored by a sweeping sense of diminished human agency.
The rise of paranoia as symptom of postmodernity is not exactly new. Over the past decade, a growing body of work has made the case for such a view (Fenster, Knight, Marcus, Melley, O’Donnell). Paranoia and conspiracy theory are now ubiquitous features of contemporary film, television, and genre fiction. These themes are central to the work of a surprising number of postwar literary figures - Pynchon, DeLillo, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Kathy Acker, Allan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Ralph Ellison, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, Diane Johnson, and Norman Mailer, among others. The paranoid view has, in fact, become so commonplace that people now routinely label their own ideas “paranoid” without any sense of self-criticism or pathology. And conspiracy theories are not just populist rants but increasingly the explanatory tools of the powerful. (Hillary Clinton, for instance, famously called the efforts against her husband a “vast, right-wing conspiracy”).
Whether or not we wish to accept the particulars of such accounts, it is impossible to deny their cultural power, which lies in their articulation of two crucial intellectual problems of the late twentieth century. The first is an epistemological problem - a sense that it has become difficult to know what is real and true in the world. The other is a problem of agency - a sense that that complex institutions and forces are arrayed against us, that they manipulate and control both our action and our thinking. Paranoia and conspiracy theory articulate the relation between these two crises. In doing so, they often echo influential postwar social and cultural theory. It is, in fact, the uncanny relation between popular paranoia and serious social theory that drives much recent scholarly interest in paranoia. Farrell is exactly right to trace the paranoid mindset to “the problem of agency itself in the intellectual development of the West, a history that shows the principled denial of agency and its displacement to be two of the deeply rooted impulses in modern culture as it emerged out of the modern framework” (6). In a critical climate dominated by the likes of Althusser, Lacan, and Foucault, claims that we are the victims of unseen powers no longer seem patently crazy, for they echo the poststructuralist attribution of power to ideology, language, and discourse. “Once a belief in diminished agency pervades our thinking,” writes Farrell,
we have passed the point at which it is possible to make a distinction between paranoia and anything else to which the term could be meaningfully opposed. The sense that we are being manipulated and controlled cannot be labeled false because we are indeed, according to this view, the victims of social relations of unfathomable and inescapable manipulative power; nor can it be labeled true because that would be to fall back into the myth of the plenitude of metaphysical discourse that is one of the effects of power itself” (4).
Of course, most conspiracy theories part company with poststructuralist social theory in their attribution of intention to specific agency. Whereas Foucault, for instance, urges us not to “look for the headquarters” of power, conspiracy theory does precisely that (95). Nonetheless, popular paranoia and academic social theory tend to share a view of limited human agency.
Despite all the recent study, however, a number of questions still confront the mainstreaming of paranoia. First, how do we historicize the astonishing centrality of suspicion, paranoia, and conspiracy theory in contemporary culture? Are these mental habits best understood as products of postmodernity or are they hard-wired into modernity itself? Second, are expressions of suspicion a pathological or a logical response to contemporary society? And third, what does the flowering of suspicion tell us about ourselves and the state of contemporary culture? The final two questions, it is important to see, flow from the first, for if we view paranoia as a general feature of modern thinking, this view is likely to affect both our tolerance of it and our sense of its cultural import.
To these questions, which animate many of the studies I have mentioned, I want to add one more. Why are modernity and postmodernity so frequently explained via the diagnosis of individual human mental states in the first place? Paranoia is obviously not the only “signature” disorder associated with the modern or the postmodern. For many critics, hysteria, neurasthenia, and anxiety are the essential modern illnesses. Recent studies have identified trauma as the contemporary mental illness par excellence and have begun to see the burgeoning “post-traumatic imaginary” as a hallmark of postmodernism (Elias ix). A quite different line of thinking has followed Durkheimian anomie through the “generalized autism” of Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle” (153) and eventually into postmodern “schizophrenia” and “affectlessness.” This line of thought informs Pynchon’s central opposition of apathy and paranoia, the latter of which emerges as the only imaginable mode of resistance to the zombifying power of postwar consumer culture. Whether paranoia or trauma is the essential psychopathology of the age, however, it seems important to ask what underlies the impulse to understand social and cultural transformation through what Balbus calls “the psychoanalysis of contemporary society” - through, that is, the diagnosis of individual affect, personality, or psychopathology? Why does the intellectual work of defining modernity so frequently require citation of the Diagnostic Standard Manual of the American Psychiatric Association?
I will return to this question later, but I pose it here because it informs my approach to the questions preceding it. Ultimately, I will show, there is a connection between the diagnostic and the paranoid impulses. This connection stems from the most important feature of “paranoid” thought: its status as a (sometimes crude, sometimes brilliant) form of social theory. It is no accident that the kinds of paranoia interesting to cultural critics have been not quirky personal visions but rather political statements, attempts to trace the flows of power in complex social networks. As aggressive (perhaps too aggressive) interpretations of the largely hidden social forces that may govern human thinking and behavior, these accounts are often a form of popular sociology. At their best, they are ambitious social theories in their own right - critiques of ideology, attempts to describe the social control of human knowledge, identity and action.
It is largely this feature of paranoia that explains its astonishing metamorphosis from mental disorder to mainstream attitude. Pynchon’s notion of “operational” and “creative paranoia” are now celebrated models of resistance to power, and the paranoid stance now has a chic caché in popular culture (25, 638). More notable still is the transformation of scholarly discourse on the subject. All of the books I have cited thus far are distinguished by their rejection of the pathologizing impetus of Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1963 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” While there are still those (Pipes, Robbins and Post) who feel it is easy to sort out the crazies from the rest of us, most cultural criticism has moved paranoia from “the pathological to the logical,” as Chun puts it, viewing it as a potentially insightful form of political thinking about secrecy, power, and the conditions of knowledge in contemporary society. Chun, in fact, bases her analysis on Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “control society,” which Deleuze purportedly derived from postwar America’s paranoiac-in-chief, William S. Burroughs, and which Chun herself calls “persuasive, although arguably paranoid” (9). For her part, Flieger notes that Žižek, Baudrillard, and Lyotard “adopt the near-paranoid perspective that appears to permeate so much theory in this transitional age.” This is not a criticism. Like Chun, Flieger deems a certain type of paranoia both unavoidable and salutary.
This is not to say that we are seeing something like a revival of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, in which figures like Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing reframed madness as a form of liberation from social conditioning. Most contemporary studies are careful to articulate the differences between paranoid acting out and something like healthy suspicion. Farrell separates pathological paranoia - the clinical suspicion marked by over-interpretation, grandiosity, and feelings of persecution - from its “metaphorical extension” in various forms of social analysis (5). While he explores the personalities of all of his subjects - some of whom (Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau) exhibited clinical symptoms of paranoia - he is primarily interested in “accounts of the human situation … that aim to undermine our ability to distinguish our thought from coherent delusion or manipulative contrivance” and that, in so doing, highlight what is “normative or universal” about certain features of clinical paranoia (5). He is careful, however, not to confuse this “metaphorical” paranoia with mere suspicion or skepticism. Whereas the skeptic expresses “methodological caution and an unwillingness to go beyond what the evidence strictly allows,” the paranoiac expresses certainty in his ability to see behind “false facades … to find the hidden truth” (64). It is, for instance, the confident interpretation of hidden signs that delineates the paranoia of both Luther and Quixote:
When the paranoid Don Quixote was confronted with evidence that threatened his sense of perfection, he resorted to a hermeneutic system of transformation by which the obvious meaning of experience could be converted into its opposite. Evil became appearance, good reality. Here we see Luther doing the same, preserving the excellence and goodness of the creator with whom he identifies by converting evil appearances into their opposites; they are all part of God’s ultimate plan. This is suspicion with the values reversed; the appearance of fault masks a hidden good, apparent hostility conceals hidden love. (70)
While skeptics such as Plato and Augustine saw the world as only a shadow of some truer existence, they nonetheless saw the visible world as a dim reflection, not a complete distortion, of the true. What makes Quixote and Luther paranoid is their near total refusal to accept appearances at face value.
Flieger makes a similar distinction between paranoid psychosis and “resourceful” or “reasonable” paranoia, suggesting ultimately that the “difference between health and psychosis” is a matter “of degree” (87-88). Using Žižek’s notion of “looking awry,” Flieger argues that a certain kind of paranoid knowledge can actually help us “escape from the wheel-spinning of paranoia proper” (88). Doing so means recognizing the divided way in which Lacan viewed paranoia - on the one hand as a psychotic unmooring from human connection and, on the other, as the unavoidable “grounding of intersubjectivity” (86). It is, ironically, a kind of paranoid projection - “occupying the space of the other in one’s own field of vision” - that actually keeps us from becoming psychotic (80). As Žižek puts it, “the paranoid construction is … an attempt to heal ourselves… We must not forget Freud’s warning and mistake it for the illness itself” (Looking Awry, 19). The illness, by this account, is atomism - the refusal to imagine the world from another’s view, to engage in the psychic projection that Freud saw as the basis of paranoia. As Flieger puts it in her wonderfully creative explanation of Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” “The only way not to be duped is to err, to look awry, to give oneself up to the tortuous possibility of being seen, of being objectified … This reading of paranoia as episteme … enables us to get out of the closed narcissism of the full-blown psychotic. Projective identification is the field of insight, rather than oversight” (86-87). Yet, there is a danger in looking awry, too, for the skewed view reveals that the symbolic Other (the guarantor of meaning) “does not ‘really’ exist” (82), and this discovery can be overwhelming if it we overinvest it with significance. Ultimately, what inoculates us against full-blown paranoia, in Flieger’s view, is a willingness to be seen and a refusal to know it all. “Like Dupin, and like Oedipus after the fall, Freud (as the non-duped analyst) knows that he doesn’t know… Schreber on the other hand, is full-blown psychotic, precisely because he knows that he is right” (86).
If “resourceful paranoia” has found a place in contemporary social theory, what is less clear is whether paranoia has always been akin to rational cognition or whether it is a particular response to the features of the present age. While both Flieger and Farrell see paranoia as a major element of contemporary culture, they emphasize its transhistorical features in the manner of Lacan and Freud. Freud, the subject of Farrell’s previous book (Freud’s Paranoid Quest), frequently acknowledged the structural relation between his own thinking and that of paranoiacs. Lacan went further, seeing paranoia as a basis of human knowledge, since knowing requires the very psychic projection that Freud called “the mechanism of paranoia.” If Flieger’s account is a Lacanian argument for resourceful paranoia, then Farrell’s is something like a prehistory of what Paul Ricoeur famously called the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” the tendency of thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche and Freud to unearth “hidden” meanings in order to reduce “illusion and lies of consciousness” (33-35).
Most recent accounts of paranoia, however, tend to emphasize its contemporary sources. Chun, for instance, connects the growth of paranoia to the purported shift from a Foucauldian “disciplinary society” to a more flexible “control society” (a story akin to David Harvey’s account of a move from rigid, “Fordist accumulation” to postmodern, “flexible accumulation”). Chun situates this argument in a nuanced explanation of computer technology, but unfortunately her central concepts are muddled and her analysis is perplexingly uninformed by existing scholarship. Without a solid philosophical or historical context, even her primary terms - control and freedom - get fuzzy and she anthropomorphizes them, describing their “aims” (9) in vague and sometimes circular ways. “The subversion of freedom,” she writes in a typical passage, “does not forever render freedom innocuous, for if anything cannot be controlled it is freedom” (2). Indeed.
More helpful approaches to the flourishing of paranoia and conspiracy theory tend to link it to sharper historical phenomena. “Conspiracy,” in Fredric Jameson’s oft-cited explanation, “is a poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is a degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system” (“Cognitive Mapping” 277). Patrick O’Donnell insightfully calls paranoia both “the last epistemology” in a culture that incessantly converts knowledge into mere information and “the last refuge of identity” in an age that forever exposes identity as a construct (9). These assessments usefully articulate the contemporary sources of paranoia without ignoring its transhistorical features: its status as (“degraded”) social theory and its defense of old-fashioned notions of identity.
Given the relation between postwar social formations and an older habit of modern suspicion, it seems wise to explain the recent flourishing of paranoid thought as a dramatic postwar acceleration of older habits of mind. This is not to deny the historically specific causes of this acceleration in the postwar period, only to recognize that expressions of paranoia tend to reassert Enlightenment ideas of individual autonomy and agency. Indeed, its specific content aside, paranoia can be seen as a panic-stricken defense of liberal individualism in the face of evidence for a more sociological account of human action. When a deeply held commitment to the liberal view of individual agency is shattered by the discovery of social influences, the result is often an all-or-nothing reaction in which the paranoiac magnifies the rather mundane fact of social influences into a nightmarish vision of total external control.
This dynamic is thus rooted in modernity, though it has been dramatically exacerbated by many features of postwar culture. Three strike me as particularly worthy of note. First, as I have already noted, a wide range of postwar social theory has seen individuals as substantially constrained by social institutions and discourses - a powerful attack on the Enlightenment concept of autonomous individualism. Second, the astonishing growth of mass culture has reorganized the way we know the world. Mass media inundate us with information from increasingly distant sources. The networks that allow us to know the world are now astonishingly complex, and because media literally mediate between our senses and the world, the knowledge they provide requires us to trust the authority of vast, and largely invisible, networks of agents who supply, gather, filter, certify, and transmit information. At the same time, the growth of the internet has decentralized authority and authorship both - allowing all of us to diagnose our own illnesses, research our own pasts, write our own history. This democratization of authority and authorship is refreshing, but it comes at a cost, too, because it invites us to make interpretations in areas where we have little expert training. Finally, since the Cold War we have seen the growth of a Covert Sphere - the secret counterpart of the increasingly embattled public sphere. Comprised largely of the clandestine services, a parallel secret government paradoxically claims to guarantee the existence of our democracies by operating outside the purview of democratic oversight. The covert sphere is not secret; it is akin to what Michael Taussig calls a “public secret.” We know it exists and generally what it does, but we also disavow specific knowledge of its activities. In accepting this arrangement, we tacitly acknowledge that our leaders will regularly lie to the public about the activities taken on our behalf. The growth of this arrangement during the Cold War, and its reinvigoration during the “War on Terror,” institutionalizes deception and suspicion as part of our political culture. If the government admits that some of its work is “top secret,” the suspicion that we are being kept in the dark - that political outcomes are shaped by powerful, invisible agencies - is entirely reasonable. “Paranoia,” in other words, has become a condition of good citizenship.
Despite these changes - perhaps even because of them - it is essential that we understand the relation between paranoid suspicion and social knowledge more generally. No critic has better connected the transhistorical qualities of paranoia to its contemporary conditions than Slavoj Žižek, who explains the contemporary popularity of paranoia this way:
The belief in the big Other which exists in the Real is, of course, the most succinct definition of paranoia; for this reason, two features which characterize today’s ideological stance - cynical distance and full reliance on paranoiac fantasy - are strictly codependent: the typical subject today is the one who, while displaying cynical distrust of any public ideology, indulges without restraint in paranoiac fantasies about conspiracies, threats, and excessive forms of enjoyment of the Other. Distrust of the big Other (the order of symbolic fictions), the subject’s refusal to “take it seriously,” relies on the belief that there is an “Other of the Other,” a secret, invisible, all-powerful agent who effectively “pulls the strings” behind the visible, public Power. (Ticklish Subject, 362)
The essence of paranoia is its reification of the symbolic order into a real agent. It is the belief in such an agent that in turn makes us cynical about the apparent trappings of power (the institutions of our democracies, for example). It is important here to recognize that, in Lacan’s psychology, the big Other is both a social formation and “somewhat the same as God” - albeit, Žižek notes, a God “dead from the very beginning, except He didn’t know it” (325). It is no accident then, that the mother of all modern paranoid delusions - Schreber’s belief that God was persecuting him through an elaborate system of nerves and rays - is frequently seen as a compelling model of the social order itself. Louis Sass, for instance, compares Schreber’s delusion to Foucault’s brilliant account of panopticism and Chun calls it both a “literalization of ‘enlightenment’ ” and a prefiguration of fiber-optic networks (299).
Crucially, it is the connection between divine agency and the social order that permits paranoid thought to operate as a critique of ideology. The modern paranoiac, shot through with cynicism, converts a complex system of social symbols into a powerful locus of intentionality and control - a quasi-divine plot to limit individual thought and action. “The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy,” wrote Žižek in the immediate wake of 9/11/2001, “is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show” (“Welcome” 385). Žižek’s central examples of this fantasy are the fiction of Philip K. Dick and films like The Matrix (1999) and The Truman Show (1998). Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 (1966) would perhaps be the ultimate literary example, but what makes Žižek’s choices so apt (though he doesn’t say so) is their use of elaborate religious allegories to portray modern Americans life as a thoroughgoing delusion. The Truman Show depicts the enlightenment of a man whose artificial world resembles the domelike firmament of Genesis, behind which sits the string-pulling Hollywood deity, Kristoff. In The Matrix a Christ-like savior demolishes a similarly false world. The same themes punctuate much of Dick’s fiction. These narratives are emblematic, then, not just because they posit vast, malevolent simulations designed to control their inhabitants but because they allegorize ideological control - and they do so not only in the insane paradigm of Schreber but also in that of Jean Baudrillard, for whom “America is a giant hologram” (29).
For Žižek, these stories help explain the American bewilderment, narcissism, and aggression in the wake of 9/11. “It is the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe,” he notes, “which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction” (“Welcome” 387). The fear of such threats can in turn lead to dangerous forms of aggression.
Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude, “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!” - leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out - or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from “Things like this should not happen here!” to “Things like this should not happen anywhere!” (“Welcome” 389)
For Žižek, the fantasmatic screen of ideology is “not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality” (Sublime 45). Rather, it is a “fantasy-construction” that serves to “offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel” (ibid.). In the current conflict, Žižek suggests, the structure of our reality - which is quite different from the Lacanian Real - protects us from facing the cost of our own privilege. This avoidance of social conflict generates a naïve self-involvement that can easily lead to paranoid hypervigilance, grandiosity, and aggression. And yet Žižek’s formulation and his selection of examples also imply that another sort of paranoia might be part of the solution. After all, it is only through a total distrust of their senses - a belief that the entire world might be a lie - that the protagonists of The Matrix, The Truman Show, and most of Dick’s fiction actually break through the ideological shells containing them.
For all its contemporary trappings, it is ultimately this vision of the social order as a delusion that John Farrell traces back to the birth of the modern. An astonishing number of influential western thinkers articulate this idea. Indeed, in spite of its scope and rigor, Farrell’s book even manages to generate suspense as the reader wonders how he can sustain his account of early modern suspicion - Luther’s view, for instance, that “everything which is believed should be hidden … under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it” (70) - into the burgeoning rationalism of the Enlightenment. But Farrell does so brilliantly, pushing a bit too hard only in the catch-all chapter on Marx, Locke and Smith, which bridges superb studies of Swift and Rousseau.
From the beginning, Farrell shows, critical thought has involved imagining the world as illusory and riddled with error. Thus, although he doesn’t say so, what Farrell actually documents is something like the critique of ideology before the letter. Don Quixote, for instance, does not simply mock its protagonist; it uses Quixote’s complaints to mount a vigorous critique of mass media and the ideology of chivalry. Cervantes mocks Quixote’s absurd sense of victimization to show that he has been “victimized, not by enchanters, but by the authors of the books of chivalry who furnished him with his ideal” (46). While the novel begins by showing Quixote’s submission to this ideal, it eventually shows how “Quixote’s delusion itself magically became a public commodity” through the circulation of certain socially powerful narratives (46). Thus both “Quixote and his creator were warring against the evils of enchantment, but whereas Quixote’s enchanters were impossible to locate outside the world of books, the enchanters who became the targets of Cervantes’ attack were all too real… They are all, he says, ‘fictions, fables, falsehoods, and dreams held by men asleep, or rather still half asleep’ ” (Farrell 46-47). Cervantes here is not far here from Engels’ notion of “false consciousness” or Marx’s view of religion as “the opiate of the masses.” Interestingly, what is particularly modern about this critique is not simply its attack on fable - an attack central to the modern shift from narrative to scientific knowledge - but its view of social control, the implication that discourse has a powerful ability to control human consciousness, to keep “men … half asleep.”
It is this interest in smashing a delusive worldview that links the paranoid impulse to the growth of modern thought. Luther and his followers, Farrell shows, painted history as a “parade of innovation, falsity, delusion” and undertook to “awaken” Christians from this historical nightmare so they could “free themselves from corrupt institutions and false idols” (91). Francis Bacon later converted this religious impulse into a form of scientific ideology, a proto-objectivist desire to “separate oneself from all influence of tradition, all concern with the thoughts of others, all self-concern, and all natural inclination, in order to devote oneself entirely to the facts themselves” (96). To do otherwise, in Bacon’s view, was to set one’s “own intellectual creations above the works of God” (98). And yet this intellectual task was heroically difficult, because “the facts constitute a natural world framed not in attunement with the human mind but, as Bacon puts it, like a labyrinth, full of ‘deceitful resemblances’ and ‘ambiguities of way’ ” (96). While Bacon’s critique of the intellect provided a welcome critique of his peers, it also reduced their arguments “to wish-fulfillments either social or personal, to what later theoreticians would label ‘ideology’ or ‘narcissism’ ” (104). Bacon’s “paranoia” was an attempt to “save modernity from this ‘dictatorship’ of delusion and slavish imitation” (103).
Once the theme of delusion had been detached from the agency of the Devil and associated with rationality itself, it became central to western thought. Descartes’ whole philosophical system, for instance, rests on a paranoid thought experiment. Moving beyond the critique of received opinion, Descartes puts all sensory evidence in doubt by wondering what would happen if “not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external thinks are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgment” (Meditations 2:15, qtd. in Farrell 114). “It is impossible,” writes Farrell, “to read this seventeenth-century text without connecting the notion of an all-powerful deceiver to the God of Luther and Calvin” and it “requires no stretch of the imagination to describe the hypothesis of the malicious demon as a paranoid fantasy” (114-15). Or, to put the matter in Lacanian terms, as Flieger does, “The realm of otherness (small o) is the realm of simple consensus based on what we all agree that that we know; but the realm of Otherness ushers in the possibility of deceit (the warden [in Lacan’s parable of the prisoner’s game] may be cheating, or - as Descartes asserts, in a paranoid moment - the God who guarantees reason may be an evil genius)” (85). That this particular suspicion is arguably the founding gesture of modern, Western philosophy shows just how central the paranoid impulse is to modernity.
Hobbes pushed the matter even further by asking what might happen if unanchored belief became widespread. “What was for Luther a conspiracy of demons,” Farrell writes, “became for Hobbes a conspiracy of madmen” (137). For Hobbes, opinion was capable of producing a generalized social madness. “From the viewpoint of Hobbes, Quixote’s condition can no longer be thought of as a private aberration. Rather, it becomes the explanatory principle that unlocks most of human behavior … The grandiosity and suspicion of the paranoid are slowly becoming the norm of human expectation” (146). If Hobbes is like Bacon in this regard, he greatly extends Bacon’s antidote to collective delusion - surrender to the authority of civil government. For Hobbes, only the absolute power of the state, Leviathan, keeps us from a grim state of perpetual strife.
As Farrell moves from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, we see Pascal critiquing a similar parade of Quixotic folly - albeit a folly not of “fools” but of “the wisest” (qtd. in Farrell 154). Swift, similarly, casts history as a series of lunatic fantasies forced upon public reality by the force of imagination. The Tale of a Tub is a “vision of history as the competition of egotistical megalomaniacs driven by explosive and uncontrollable forces of the inner psyche,” and Gulliver’s Travels depicts the transformation of a naïf to “an opposite state of paranoia and misanthropy” (201). At least Don Quixote wasn’t cut off from humanity. So great is Swift’s contempt for “the absurdity of human vanity and of the arbitrary and fanciful distinctions upon which it depends” (216) that Gulliver is essentially banished without a chance at redemption or reintegration.
By the time we arrive at the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the critique of social control has developed into a “great anti-social revelation” (252). Assuming the basic good of human beings, Rousseau envisions society as utterly corrupting and evil. Humans, he believes, are “ ‘happy slaves,’ living in a herd, in ‘vile and deceptive uniformity.’ The need for duplicity makes society into a vicious parade of uncertain appearances disguising unknowable characters” (253). This antisocial vision has roots partly in Rousseau’s own sense of victimization - which, by the time of his Confessions, became a “paranoid delusion” (301) subjecting him to increasing isolation and ridicule. Yet, Farrell makes clear that Rousseau’s notion of an essentially good human agent beset everywhere by a dangerously controlling society is “no mere private form of projection” but a result of the “mutilated form of nationalism Rousseau inherited and was seeking to defend” (263).
It should thus not be surprising that modern paranoia should eventually spawn a full-blown, Romantic anti-socialism - a fear that “Society” acts as if with a single will to corrupt the inherent goodness and freedom of individuals. This view would come to dominate nineteenth century American thought and continues to thrive in American political culture. “Society,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (261). It was partly this thesis that Emerson’s disciple, Henry Thoreau, would attempt to demonstrate at Walden Pond. Rousseau, however, did not advocate fleeing society. His paradoxical solution was for individuals to “abandon their particular will altogether and adopt the ‘general will’ of the state as their own…. Society, thus becomes a single will” (269). Whereas Hobbes saw the sovereign as an individual, Rousseau imagined the social as a transcendental agency with whom we must align our own desires. Tellingly, Farrell notes in passing that the notion of the volonté général “has a long history among French thinkers” and is traditionally understood to be “God’s will as he makes the laws” (272). Rousseau’s volonté général, in other words, is a version of Lacan’s Big Other - the social formation that stands in for a deceased God and that, in the truly psychotic social imaginary of a paranoid like Schreber, is God himself.
Here, then, is the repeated upshot of the paranoid approach: it theorizes social power by transforming the vast web of social relations into a monolithic agency - Leviathan, “invisible hand,” volonté général, “Them.” It conceives of this agency, moreover, as an individual, albeit a transcendent and supremely powerful individual. But there is more, for it is this very maneuver - the condensation of the social order into a representative individual - that defines the diagnostic impulse in recent cultural theory. The analogy of the social to the individual is certainly not new. The reduction of the social to a “body politic” is in fact the oldest technique in political economy. But it becomes increasingly strained when monarchy (the literal embodiment of the general will) gives way to modern democracy. “In political thought and analysis,” reminds Foucault, “we still have not cut off the head of the king” (88-89). Perhaps this is why the conception of the social-as-individual has become increasingly psychodynamic over the course of modernity. “Writings are the thoughts of the state and archives are its memory,” Novalis suggested in 1798 (qtd. in Debord 96). In his 1930 version of the same idea, Freud noted, “the process of human civilization and the developmental or educative process of individual human beings … are very similar in nature, if not the very same process applied to different kinds of object” (104). Given the power of such views, it is easy to why social theory still requires something like a psychoanalysis of the “social mind.”
It is this very analogy, in fact, that underwrites the study not only of paranoia but also of its chief rival for postmodern psychopathology par excellence: trauma. The flourishing of trauma studies relies in particular on the notion that history is a form of collective memory. In his powerful critique of this notion, Walter Benn Michaels reveals its sometimes “exotic results,” such as the fantasy that we can “remember” events that happened to our ancestors but not to us (133). Without here entering the debate about this historiographical idea, I wish merely to make the obvious point that its surprising popularity reveals a deep commitment to seeing the social as a big individual. In trauma studies, this view permits a psychodynamic theory of history in which the erasure of marginalized histories is figured as collective “repression” or “cultural amnesia.” Indeed, the astonishing rise of trauma studies has been driven not so much by its application to individual victims as by its status as historiographical model. Individual psychic trauma is now a widespread figure for the cultural repression of social conflict or shameful (national) conduct as well as of the “return of the repressed” in the form of revisionist or “secret histories.” It is vital to recognize that this conception is essentially a psychodynamic model of ideology. Its primary purpose is to reveal and reverse the process by which hegemonic social narratives are sustained and contestatory narratives are pushed from cultural circulation.
Such thinking has little to do with paranoia per se. Yet is not the structural reduction of social to psychodynamic processes and the critique of ideology through cultural “diagnosis” the essence of the paranoid impulse? And is not the study of cultural pathologies a way of registering a vast array of social forces in the comforting form of individual mentality? Whether its object of attack is collective repression or collective delusion, whether the control of knowledge is imagined to be intended or structurally determined, the diagnostic impulse is at bottom a tool for ideology critique. And this, finally, is the most important feature of the paranoid impulse, too. Not only is paranoia a critique of ideology, but it explains ideological control through the individualist rhetoric of intentions, agency, and will. The diagnostic impulse adds unconsciousness forces to the mix but keeps the individual front and center. In this post-Marxist age, in a profoundly anti-Marxist society, it seems no accident that paranoid rhetoric everywhere articulates a critique of ideology in the dominant terms of western individualism. Our diagnostic criticism, in harnessing sociology to individual psychology, does largely the same.
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In his review of Mark Fenster’s Conspiracy Theories for ebr, Melley argues that Fenster takes conspiracy theory seriously, regarding it as a “populist theory of power.”