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Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative
Theory and Cultural Studies
Patrick O'Donnell. Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. xi + 193 pp.
As a counterintelligence officer in the US Army stationed in West Berlin in the 1950s, my father was not surprised when a young, attractive German woman whom he had met in a café managed to reach him via the supposedly secure line at the unit's office. One had good reason to be concerned that They were watching; but it was fairly obvious who They were. With the fall of the Berlin wall--Ronald Reagan's exhortations notwithstanding--much of the enthusiasm for cultural and geopolitical paranoia has dissipated. Patrick O'Donnell admits that he began his study of the "paranoid school of American fiction" within the context of the bilateral opposition of the cold war. The usual suspects--Thomas Pynchon, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo--are given extended and canny readings by O'Donnell. But the thesis of his study lies not in the binary opposition between "paranoid rigidity and postmodern multiplicity" but in the "complicitous relation between postmodernity and paranoia." Invigorated by the work of Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson, O'Donnell recognizes that in the post cold war period, paranoia is "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." Whereas the classic paranoid case, Tyrone Slothrop, suffers a scattering throughout the Zone in Gravity's Rainbow, now it is the object of our anxiety that can no longer be positively identified and detained. [End Page 1059]
O'Donnell describes a shift in the analysis of paranoia from that of an individual pathological condition (such as Freud's famous study of Daniel Schreber) to one of collective psychosis. He posits the existence of a "cultural paranoia" that is "related to constructions of postmodern identity as symptomatic of late capitalism." This expansion of the domain of paranoia allows O'Donnell to read a variety of literary and cinematic works in contemporary US culture not as isolated deviations expressive of homophobic fear, persecution anxiety, or delusional suspicions of intricate plots, but as representative analyses of a culture busily engaged in the "back-formation" of the burdens and responsibilities bestowed by the triumph of global capitalism, our "latent destiny" revealed at the close of the millennium. Cultural paranoia presents itself as the "complex symptom of complicity between capitalism" and a fluid, hybridized identity. But one must ask whether the cultural paranoia that we find in DeLillo's Libra, Mailer's The Executioner's Song, and Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 operates under the logic of late capitalism, and if so, whether, these works are still capable of resisting or critiquing the hegemony of the multinational corporate ethos? Are Lee Harvey Oswald, Gary Gilmore, and Oedipa Maas indeed the "patsies" who take a fall so that we might overindulge ourselves in a consumer economy?
O'Donnell takes aim on the Kennedy assassination in a triangulation of "head shots" involving DeLillo's Libra, Oliver Stone's JFK, and Mailer's Oswald's Tale. Figured by the Zapruder film, the most obsessively examined piece of historical evidence in our time that nevertheless fails to reveal the underlying reality of the assassination, history is shown to mark the crossing of contingency and conspiracy. O'Donnell's grouping fascinates because it accentuates the irresolution between those who believe that the path of history has been tragically skewed by an individual's pathological actions ("the lone gunman" theory upheld by the Warren Commission Report) and those who insist on a hidden agency that acts to undermine the social system for its own ends.
Finally, O'Donnell turns to "engendered paranoia," including a superb discussion of the anti-oedipal critique of biological identity and patriarchy in Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless. In...