Paranoia and the Delusion of the Total System
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Paranoia and the Delusion of the Total System

Post-World-War-Two American society is popularly and frequently defined by the symptom of paranoia. The paranoia which pervades the McCarthyist witch hunts, the “duck and cover” policy of civil defense, and postwar representations of the alien invader characterize late twentieth century perceptions of 1950s America. Science fiction is the genre most commonly invoked now to represent 1950s paranoia and within 1950s culture it stood as a genre conducive to expressions of fear and paranoia. Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb gave rise to numerous cultural texts which attempted to represent what was frequently perceived as the unrepresentable—atomic power. The prehistoric monsters, giant ants, pod people, and other horrors which people 1950s science fiction films attest to what had already been a strong interpenetration between physics and science fiction. The fact that science fiction and paranoiac discourse have affinities becomes manifest in 1950s popular science fiction. Yet the links between the totalizing, systematic worlds of science fiction and the delusional systems constructed by the paranoiac have more subtle connections. Science fiction authors construct comprehensive worlds much as Daniel Paul Schreber creates a complete delusional world in his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903). 1 Yet our very conception of paranoia emerges from a discourse located on the boundary between science and fiction—psychoanalysis. In fact Schreber’s most famous interpreter, Sigmund Freud, notes the uncomfortable similarities between Schreber’s theory and his own. 2 In this study I focus on a postwar American text in which issues of science (represented by the atomic physicist), science fiction, paranoia, and psychoanalysis converge: Robert Lindner’s fictionalized account of his analytic sessions with a Los Alamos physicist, “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” contained in his collection of “true psychoanalytic tales,” The Fifty Minute Hour [End Page 15] (1954). 3 Lindner’s science fiction coincides with postwar science fiction per se through its analysis of paranoia as a symptom of the atomic bomb project and ultimately through its replication of the very disease it seeks to diagnose. I argue that paranoia may be read as a symptom of a culture in which the totalizing scientific systems characteristic of Newtonian physics continue to haunt an increasingly multiplicitous and non-totalizing view of the world which is emerging in the twentieth century.

In Order Out of Chaos Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (1984) argue that classical Newtonian physics rests on a world view in which the scientist is conceived as “the potential holder of a universal key to all physical phenomena, thus endowed with a potentially omnipotent knowledge” (21). Classical science hence relies on a view that one totalizing system can explain the universe. Prigogine and Stengers trace developments in nineteenth and twentieth century science which point to the limits of classical science. The emergent world view as they see it allows for the replacement of the monolithic Reality of the Newtonian system with realities: “as randomness, complexity, and irreversibility enter into physics as objects of positive knowledge, we are moving away from this rather näive assumption of a direct connection between our description of the world and the world itself” (54–55). What I want to propose is that paranoia is a psychosis intertwined with the Newtonian world view and one which ultimately points to the limits of the totalizing classical system as the dream of the classical scientist emerges as delusion.

Lindner’s tale focuses on a research physicist in his 30s working at Los Alamos—named “X reservation” in the text—in the 1950s. Kirk Allen, the pseudonymous name of the physicist in Lindner’s account, was drafted into working at Los Alamos upon completion of his doctorate. At the end of the war he was discharged, studied abroad for a year, then returned to work at Los Alamos. Allen is referred to Lindner, who is practicing psychoanalysis in Baltimore, by a Los Alamos military official who tells Lindner over the phone that Allen is “perfectly normal in every way except for a lot of crazy ideas about living part of the time in another world—on another planet” (156). [End Page 16] In the course of his...