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Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America
     

Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America

by Timothy Melley
 

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Why, Timothy Melley asks, have paranoia and conspiracy theory become such prominent features of postwar American culture? In Empire of Conspiracy, Melley explores the recent growth of anxieties about thought-control, assassination, political indoctrination, stalking, surveillance, and corporate and government plots. At the heart of these developments, he

Overview

Why, Timothy Melley asks, have paranoia and conspiracy theory become such prominent features of postwar American culture? In Empire of Conspiracy, Melley explores the recent growth of anxieties about thought-control, assassination, political indoctrination, stalking, surveillance, and corporate and government plots. At the heart of these developments, he believes, lies a widespread sense of crisis in the way Americans think about human autonomy and individuality. Nothing reveals this crisis more than the remarkably consistent form of expression that Melley calls "agency panic"—an intense fear that individuals can be shaped or controlled by powerful external forces. Drawing on a broad range of forms that manifest this fear—including fiction, film, television, sociology, political writing, self-help literature, and cultural theory—Melley provides a new understanding of the relation between postwar American literature, popular culture, and cultural theory.

Empire of Conspiracy offers insightful new readings of texts ranging from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 to the Unabomber Manifesto, from Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders to recent addiction discourse, and from the "stalker" novels of Margaret Atwood and Diane Johnson to the conspiracy fictions of Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs, Don DeLillo, and Kathy Acker. Throughout, Melley finds recurrent anxieties about the power of large organizations to control human beings. These fears, he contends, indicate the continuing appeal of a form of individualism that is no longer wholly accurate or useful, but that still underpins a national fantasy of freedom from social control.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Since the 1950's, paranoia and conspiracy theory have increasingly surfaced in not only avant-garde literature, but marginal political discourse as well. Timothy Melley . . . calls these expressions of anxiety about the loss of personal control 'agency panic.' . . . He draws connections between . . . Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and others to explain the culturewide significance of this syndrome."—Publishers Weekly. January 3, 2000.

"Melley identifies an emerging irony that a 'supposedly individualist culture conserves its individualism by continually imagining it to be in imminent peril.'. . . Melley's commentary on the new significance of the corporation in the postwar period makes up one of the most interesting sections of his study. . . Empire of Conspiracy makes an important contribution to the current re-examination of Cold War culture, especially to the debate over human agency."—David Seed, Liverpool University. Journal of American Studies, 36 (2002), 2.

"The myth of 'individualism' rests as clearly fixed in Melley's sights as the Kennedy limo was in Oswald's. . . .Melley highlights the power and significance of 'Gravity's Rainbow' in its historical moment. . . .In demonstrating how extensively 'Gravity's Rainbow' chronicles the dissolution of human bodies in the corpus of information, and in connecting this dissolution to postwar agency panic, Melley is also restoring to the novel a much needed sense of its historicity. . . ..What should I make. . . of the fact that when I was halfway through the writing of this essay, I received a second copy of 'Empire of Conspiracy' sent to me ostensibly out of the blue, by Melley himself? What did Melley know, and when did he know it?"—Alan Nadel, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Contemporary Literature XLIII, 2, Summer 2002

"In Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America, though, Timothy Melley asks good questions. Deftly bringing together concerns about subjectivity and social control that proliferated in the 1950s and that have continued through to the present, Melley surveys diverse manifestations of this phenomenon. . . . Blending insightful literary analysis with skillful theoretical reflection, Empire of Conspiracy is both an important contribution to American studies and an enjoyable read."—Robert Holton, Carleton University, Psychon Notes

"Empire of Conspiracy has much to offer its readers. The topic is central to contemporary fiction. Timothy Melley writes with truly admirable lucidity. He supplies theoretical background when it is useful, but retains his focus on literature. This is an extremely teachable book that opens many discussions and gives a useful entry into what may be meant by postmodernism."—Kathryn Hume, Distinguished Professor of English, Pennsylvania State University

"Empire of Conspiracy brilliantly diagnoses the dynamics underlying the proliferation of conspiracy theories in contemporary American society. 'Agency panic' is the paradoxical formation that tries to salvage liberal individualism by reinvesting agency in a malign super-force. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary American literature and culture."—N. Katherine Hayles, University of California at Los Angeles

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801486067
Publisher:
Cornell University Press
Publication date:
02/28/2012
Pages:
264
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Timothy Melley is Professor of English, Affiliate of American Studies,and Director of the Humanities Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America and The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State, both from Cornell.

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