Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U. S. Narrative

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Latent Destinies examines the formation of postmodern sensibilities and their relationship to varieties of paranoia that have been seen as widespread in this century. Despite the fact that the Cold War has ended and the threat of nuclear annihilation has been dramatically lessened by most estimates, the paranoia that has characterized the period has not gone away. Indeed, it is as if—as O'Donnell suggests—this paranoia has been internalized, scattered, and reiterated at a multitude of sites: Oklahoma City, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Bosnia, the White House, the United Nations, and numerous other places.

O'Donnell argues that paranoia on the broadly cultural level is essentially a narrative process in which history and postmodern identity are negotiated simultaneously. The result is an erasure of historical temporality—the past and future become the all-consuming, self-aware present. To explain and exemplify this, O'Donnell looks at such books and films as Libra, JFK, The Crying of Lot 49, The Truman Show, Reservoir Dogs, Empire of the Senseless, Oswald's Tale, The Executioner's Song, Underworld, The Killer Inside Me, and Groundhog Day. Organized around the topics of nationalism, gender, criminality, and construction of history, Latent Destinies establishes cultural paranoia as consonant with our contradictory need for multiplicity and certainty, for openness and secrecy, and for mobility and historical stability.

Demonstrating how imaginative works of novels and films can be used to understand the postmodern historical condition, this book will interest students and scholars of American literature and cultural studies, postmodern theory, and film studies.

About the Author:
Patrick O'Donnell is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Michigan State University. He is author of Echo Chambers: Figuring the Voice in Modern Narrative

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Latent Destinies provides a smartly informed paradigm for understanding postmodern U.S. narratives, both aesthetic and theoretical. Examining a representative sample of these, O’Donnell finds that they indulge a cultural paranoia that wags the tail of their late-capitalist bête noire.”—Louis A. Renza, Dartmouth College

“Latent Destinies provides a careful, lucid, insightful analysis of a number of works of contemporary American authors and filmmakers, and situates their work within a complex theoretical matrix of social connections that enhance our understanding not only of the works under discussion but also of the conditions of contemporary American culture in which those works circulate.”—Alan Nadel, author of Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822325871
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,548,303
  • Product dimensions: 6.09 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick O’Donnell is Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Michigan State University. He is author of Echo Chambers: Figuring the Voice in Modern Narrative and Passionate Doubts: Designs of Interpretation in Contemporary American Fiction.

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Read an Excerpt


Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2587-1

Chapter One

Postmodernity and the Symptom of Paranoia

A paranoid is someone who has possession of all of the facts. -attributed to William Burroughs

The truth is out there.... Trust no one. -X-Files

* The Symptom of Paranoia

If, as various takes on the subject suggest, fear and panic are the most evident somatic responses to the fragmentations and decenterings of the so-called postmodern condition, then paranoia can be viewed as the reaction-formation par excellence to the schizophrenias of postmodern identity, economy, and aesthetics. Visible in every aspect of late capitalist culture-from the hermeneutic posturings of high postmodernist texts such as Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, to the latest episode in the chain of CNN scenarios that unfailingly dramatize the constants of nationalism and individuality in the ongoing historical miniseries-paranoia manifests itself as a mechanism that rearranges chaos into order, the contingent into the determined. As such, it is a means of (re)writing history. Doubly confronted with "the disappearance of external standards of public conduct when the social itself becomes the transparent field of cynical power" and"the dissolution of the internal foundations of identity ... when the self is transformed into an empty screen of an exhausted, but hypertechnical, culture," as the Panic Encyclopedia puts it, the paranoid subject resurrects these standards and foundations by taking advantage of the very fluidity of relations and contingency of events that mark the postmodern. Through the arbitrations of narrative, the subject restructures the real as the historical; using the very materials, as it were, that cause paranoia, s/he converts the arbitrary and contingent into the determined fatalities of "history" and the stories of the nation.

The evidence of this tautological narrative process at work is (paranoically) omnipresent and painfully obvious. Contrary to projection, our paranoia seems to have intensified in the wake of the cold war's supposed denouement. As the "post" cold war reflections of Eric Santner, Daniel Pipes, and others have demonstrated, it appears that the trilateral paranoia of the cold war is now in the process of being internalized, scattered, localized, and reiterated at a multitude of sites-from Oklahoma City, Waco, and Ruby Ridge, to Bosnia, the White House, and the security fire walls of the Internet-giving rise, as Santner observes, to a perverse nostalgia "for a paranoia in which the persecutor had a more or less recognizable face and a clear geographical location." The narrativizing-the "story"-of contemporary cultural paranoia in the United States reflects the investments and economies of postmodern identity, in Zizek's term, as "the form of subjectivity that corresponds to late capitalism." What can be characterized as the recurrence of variously displaced scenarios indicate that the cold war can now be seen as a sequencing of events and geopolitical relations to be set within the larger framework of the ongoing globalization of capitalism, which for Santner, reveals a "far more disturbing pathology" (x)-one not deflected by the fall of the wall. The critical narratives of paranoia examined in detail here divulge this pathology in the social identifications and historical investitures of deeply conflicted postmodern subjects, who celebrate fluidity, schizophrenia, and deterritorialization-who, as Brian Massumi notes, live off of these as commodified subjects that are "determined ... through the serial commission of the act of groundless consumption"-yet whose obsession with boundaries and boundary crossing suggests a collective nostalgia for the old binaries, economies, orders, and nations.

Contradictions, of course, underlie the formation of a postmodern identity within various frameworks during a time when identity as such-with the symbolic orderings of gender, race, sexuality, nation, historical epoch-is at odds with the compelling desire to be free of these orders, to live out their alterities. Cultural paranoia can be seen as a symptomatic response to these contradictions, operating through an elision of temporality and a fantasizing of historical centrality in which, for example, self and nation become one. In the identificatory fantasies of cultural paranoia, history becomes the conspiratorial siting of the confluence of destinies where the latent omnipotence of the "individual"-an empowerment underwritten by the availability and flow of capital-becomes storied into the narrative of nation or its displacements in other narratives of identity. As mentioned earlier, I approach the issue of cultural paranoia in this chapter by considering it as a symptom of postmodernity and, specifically, as symptomatic of postmodernist materializations of history and temporality; to elicit its movements and effects, I discuss in ensuing chapters a number of literary and cinematic representations of paranoia in contemporary U.S. culture. The choice of venue is significant, for however variously these works address the "contemporary" historical moment and "American" setting, they commonly regard the United States as the visible site where the incongruities of subjectival fluidity operating within the prefigurative historical order of a national destiny are negotiated in the epoch of late capitalism and the attendant phantasmic remapping of national onto global orders and agendas. In the works I discuss, cultural paranoia is not projected as an existentially specific social dis-ease nor a pathology that subtends a universally conceived "American way of life" but as a certain suturing of individuals to the social imaginary in which crucial differences between agency and national or other identificatory fantasies are collapsed. The representations of interpellation to be found in these works compel us to consider the ways in which cultural paranoia is a problem related to constructions of postmodern identity as symptomatic of late capitalism, its enjoyments and its discontents.

Usually employed as a term for individual and, increasingly, collective psychosis, paranoia commonly refers to the pathological condition of individuals who exhibit a host of familiar symptoms, many of which derive from Freud's classic study of the Saxon supreme court judge Daniel Paul Schreber. These symptoms include megalomania; a sense of impending, apocalyptic doom; racist, homophobic, or gynophobic fear and hatred of those marked out as other deployed as a means of externalizing certain internal conflicts and desires (the scapegoating of otherness thus is essential to the ongoing work of paranoia); delusions of persecution instigated by these others or their agents; feelings of being under constant observation; an obsession with order; and a fantasizing of the reviled, abjected self as at the center of intersecting social and historical plots. When not limited to the symptoms of individual psychopathology, paranoia is often viewed either as a universal personal condition (one available to individual subjects across history, as much to Julius Caesar as to Lee Harvey Oswald) or a mindset that, like a contagion, can temporarily afflict a nation or a people (the United States during the Salem witch trials; Germany during the Third Reich).

In departing from these familiar senses in the present study, I argue that the classic, universalized symptoms of an individual pathological condition can be seen as symptomatic of a collective identity when we regard those contemporary events and narratives that reveal paranoia as a kind of narrative work or operation that articulates the "individual's" relation to the symbolic order: the stories that emerge from this are narratives of identification with the cultural imaginary. Paranoia as manifested in contemporary narrative can be further considered as the multifarious contradiction of a postmodern condition in which the libidinal investment in mutability, in being utterly other, contests with an equally intense investment in the commodification of discrete identities: this contradiction pertains both to the formation of individual subjects and to the national and political bodies into which they are interpellated as collective subjects. The works examined in this book, written and filmed under this condition, are thus representations of identities called to order within the historical framework of late capitalist postmodernity, where desire and capital are knit together and, concomitant with "technological advances," globalized. More specifically, what is being globalized can be viewed as acutely symptomatic of contemporary U.S. culture (postmodernism being our highest-grossing intellectual export), which exhibits the conjunction of any number of conflicting, yet often conflated, pressures and forces: the emergence of new world orders amid recursive obsessing over national identity; the cults of renewed individualism coming in the age of the cyborg and postmodern modularity; the United States as the site of historical centrality in its role as arbiter of a (now global) manifest destiny or the site of historical exceptionalism and a separate peace; the United States as the fount of late capital or, contradictorily, as anachronistic junkyard of a Fordist economy.

To historicize cultural paranoia in this manner is to consider it as conjoining a series of related trajectories: the psychopathology of individual paranoia; the cultural pathology informing the recurrences of social paranoia in the United States; the multiple crises animating postmodern identity formations and deformations under late capitalism; the paranoia of narrative formations per se in their mania for plots and endings. The work of Zizek, which everywhere informs this study, has been crucial to enhancing our understanding of how such personal, collective, and narrative constructions both overlap and offer resistances to each other, and how they can be read symptomatically in order to come to terms with the culturally specific locations of our avoidances and elisions of the "real" of history. Yet, though the work of cultural paranoia evidences the deep contradictions within postmodern identity, I refrain from claiming for it historical certainty or referentiality. To assume that we can know paranoia from the outside, even if we are "in" it, that it is a disease that may have a cure, even if the cure is paranoia itself (as suggested by versions of so-called redemptive paranoia often attributed to writers such as Pynchon), is merely to mirror paranoia. To even begin with the assumption that we are paranoid in a nonsymptomatic sense presumes a totalizing, paranoid, critical formation that is characteristic of discussions of paranoia-that it exists, that it is real, that it is obvious and everywhere. To construct a paranoia based on historical certainty is at once to generate a phantasmic secret history whose labyrinthine contingencies and mysteries are known only full by the paranoid. The paranoic condition of what O. K. Werckmeister terms "citadel culture" in his iconoclastic study of postmodernism is such that certainty about the obvious historical conditions of a Manichaean cold war and post-cold war United States vie with critical doubts about the reality of those conditions-doubts generated by the paradoxical reflexivity of cold war culture. This is one of the self-generated contradictions of cultural paranoia: a processing of the real wherein the apprehension of a source or cause of paranoia becomes the means for questioning its existence. Was there, for instance, really a plot to kill Kennedy, or does the insistence on figuring assassination plots around the historical accident called "Lee Harvey Oswald" mark an obsession with historical and political plots as such, regardless of the actualities that are orchestrated through them? If Oswald did not exist, wouldn't we have to invent him as, indeed, it appears we have done according to the Oswald-fictions of Mailer's Oswald's Tale (1995) and DeLillo's Libra (1988)?

The initial question, then, for the study of cultural paranoia is not "what is paranoia?" or "where is it?" but "who is paranoia for?" Framing it in this way allows us to view paranoia as mediated by postmodernist conceptions of history where "history" as understood under Jean-François Lyotard's "postmodern condition," rather than being seen as the grand narrative of major events or the national story, is an aggregate of minor narratives, each arising from an assemblage of perspectives, experiences, and vested interests. This is to regard paranoia not as an episteme or a hermeneutic-simply one available way of seeing or organizing reality in a pluralistic menu of perspectives-but as a symptom of a detotalized postmodern culture, part and parcel of our suspicion of the overview, the national epic, the official history. Equally, paranoia can be viewed as symptomatic of what Fredric Jameson describes as the spatialization of temporality under postmodernism. For Jameson, the compression of time and space to be observed in the spatial organization of postmodern architecture materializes the repression of the "real" of history in late capitalism. It is a symptom, precisely, in the sense that paranoia is an alibi, a form of accommodation for the loss of those grand narratives along with the temporal depth and sequential ordering that founds a putative collective historical belonging.

Cultural paranoia is a compensatory fiction that binds individual subjects to identificatory collective bodies such as those of the nation, class, gender (when articulated according to the logic of compulsory heterosexuality), and the "human." It operates under the rubric of a postmodern cynicism that, in Peter Sloterdijk's analysis, wavers unevenly between skepticism about Enlightenment values and rationality (even as revised by Jürgen Habermas in "the unfinished project of modernity") and full investiture in the Deleuzian "postsignifying regime" of bodies without organs and deterritorialized subjectivities. For the paranoid, identity, knowledge, and history are validated by what is out there, and only hidden to the eyes of those who cannot see the formal relation between dispersed signs and objects. To employ the kind of tautology that typifies paranoia in the works to follow: the signs and objects of the world are dispersed because this, supposedly, is the ruling condition of a decentered and detemporalized postmodern reality. And to indulge in the kind of paradox that is equally typical of paranoia: for the paranoid, the relation between the dispersed manifestations of the real to be woven into narratives of cultural identity is hidden to others because they either have not come to terms with the explosion of the subject under this regime (they are not schizophrenic enough), or they do not retain a belief in the capacity of the now-exploded subject to remap itself onto the real by uncovering the hidden relation between things that have always been there for us to see (they are not paranoid enough). Who is paranoia for? It is for us, as national, corporate, historical subjects in a time when these formations are beset by questions about their cohesion and continuance.

It is within these terms that we consider paranoia as a symptomatology indicative of specific relations between postmodern identity and the formations of history in contemporary U.S. culture. In tracing the genealogy of the concept of "symptom" from the early to late Lacan, Zizek writes that Lacan's most radical postulation of it was as "sinthome," or "a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment." Zizek elaborates on "the radical ontological status of symptom" viewed in this way:

Symptom, conceived as sinthome, is literally our only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject. In other words, symptom is the way we-the subjects-"avoid madness," the way we "choose something" (the symptom-formation) instead of nothing (radical psychotic autism, the destruction of the symbolic universe) through the binding of our enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic formation which assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world. (Sublime Object, 75)


Excerpted from LATENT DESTINIES by PATRICK O'DONNELL Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Entry: The Time of Paranoia 1
1 Postmodernity and the Symptom of Paranoia 11
2 Head Shots: The Theater of Paranoia 45
3 Engendering Paranoia 77
4 Criminality and Paranoia 111
Exit: Under History: Underworld 147
Notes 161
Bibliography 183
Index 191
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