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Bad Timing (A Sequel). Paranoia, Feminism, and Poetry
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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001) 1-46



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Bad Timing (A Sequel). Paranoia, Feminism, and Poetry

Sianne Ngai


woman is the screen
vulnerability and
-ieties, women have
humiliated mem-
-ation are the lot
male reference

(Ward, "Imaginary Movie, Imaginary Movie )

these are things people can do to
themselves
they are:
leave molotov cocktail on own yard
set fire to own house
leave a glass of urine on own porch
leave an envelope of feces outside
own door send a butcher knife to self at work
send letter to health department that
self is spreading VD
stab own back

(Spahr, "thrashing seems crazy," Response)

The enemy is no longer outside. Increasingly, the enemy is no longer even identifiable as such. Ever-present dangers blend together, barely distinguishable in their sheer numbers. Or, in their proximity to pleasure and intertwining with the necessary functions of body, self, family, economy, they blur into the friendly side of life. . . .Fear is not fundamentally an emotion. It is the objectivity of the subjective under late capitalism.

(Massumi, "Everywhere You Want to Be" 10-12)

Has "conspiracy theory," both in its academically legitimized and pop-cultural manifestations, been quietly claimed as a masculine prerogative over the last decades of the twentieth century? Think of television's pairing of Mulder and Scully, a speculative paranoiac and a rational empiricist, as an example of how the sexual polarity of a traditional Enlightenment dualism seems to have been reversed, though with the male term--now coupled with intuition rather than science--remaining privileged.1 Named as if in a bequeathal of patrimony after the telecommunications network on which he appears, "Fox" Mulder, as X-Files viewers know, is not only the one of the two agent-intellectuals more [End Page 1] nobly committed to identifying and pitting himself against wide-ranging, even transglobal technological and political structures, but unlike his pragmatic, positivistic, and more locally oriented female partner, he is always right. Think also of the numerous conspiracy films analyzed by Fredric Jameson in The Geopolitical Aesthetic as allegories for the attempt--and failure--on the part of subjects to grasp the social totality that is global capitalism in formal or representational terms.2 All of the films read as uniquely forefronting this dilemma center on the knowledge-seeking trajectories of male protagonists who, like the conventional noir detective, belatedly find themselves small subjects caught in larger systems of relations extending beyond their comprehension and control. Though this situation might be described as a relatively normal state of affairs for all late-twentieth-century subjects (and Jameson sees a political necessity in illuminating it as such), a feminist attentiveness to the persistence of sexual hierarchies requires noting that the narrative tradition delineating this representational problem is a conspicuously gendered one--as if "conspiracy theory" itself, an epistemology underpinned by the affective category of fear, becomes safeguarded through the genre of the political thriller as a distinctively male form of knowledge production. As Jameson himself suggests in using the political intrigue film's knowledge-seeking protagonists as figures for the postmodern intellectual, and the conspiratorial plot these protagonists attempt to analyze and expose as an allegory for the "potentially infinite network" of relations constituting our present social order (9), the male conspiracy theorist seems to have become an exemplary model for the late-twentieth-century theorist in general, and conspiracy theory a viable synecdoche for "theory" itself.

In this manner, the disposition to theorize finds itself aligned with paranoia, the affective complex underwriting the conspiratorial imagination, which Cyndy Hendershot has usefully described in shorthand as the belief in a total system. Defined not as mental illness, accordingly, but as a particular species of fear based on the dysphoric apprehension of a holistic and all-encompassing structure,3 this coupling of paranoia with theory comes to the fore in the rhetoric Jameson uses to make an acute point in an entirely different essay:

Ours is an antitheoretical time, which is to say an anti-intellectual time; and the reasons for this are not far...