In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Strategies of Deterrence and Frames Of Containment: On Critical Paranoia And Anti-Conspiracy Discourse
  • Keith Goshorn (bio)
Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theory: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (University of Minnesota Press).
Timothy Melley, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Conspiracy in Postwar America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).
George Marcus, ed., Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
Jodi Dean, Aliens In America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

“The Law no longer needs to be written or recognized since it is being made everywhere. ...The Law disappears by spreading over everything. And as it’s absent, it’s always right.”[1]

“The generalized secret stands behind the spectacle as the decisive complement of what it displays, and, if one gets to the bottom of things, as its most important operation.”[2]

I. Cultural Studies and “Controversial Subjects”

In the last two years several consecutive academic publications have rather suddenly, or finally, appeared, all of which address in one way or another the highly controversial phenomena of “conspiracy theory and paranoia.” One question that I would like to pose for the background of their discussion is this: does the acceptance and use of this existing conceptual framing of a public controversy already in process, and already commercially commodified, unwittingly result in a certain critical containment mirroring that in which the public debate has already been molded and limited? The titles of the most prominent works speak for themselves: Conspiracy Theory: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Conspiracy in Postwar America, Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation, and Aliens In America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace. (Showalter’s Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media is related but belongs to a different category, and will be discussed separately.)

In evaluating these works one cannot avoid another particularly delicate but necessary question: in what ways are scholars, and especially scholars engaged in the study of contemporary culture vulnerable to the more subtle restraints and constraints imposed by that very culture they are studying and in which they also reside? A routine ethnography question perhaps, but one which here has concrete political significance. To what extent are even the most “progressive” academic critics still partially constrained by some forms of local disciplinary control (in both of its current uses), and broader institutional forms of internalized, semi-conscious fears of vague reprisals for drifting too far from the parameters of the formally acceptable? Here we must consider not only the perpetual barriers of normativity functioning in all cultures, but the ultimately political/ideological processes of deterrence and dissuasion operating within the more subtle prohibitions and seductions through which subjects are recuperated via internalization of the reigning system of relations, values, and worldview within which they find themselves. This complex, intangible process was visible in the early sketches of DeBord’s La société du spectacle (1967), and has been further defined by Baudrillard and other familiar theorists of the postmodern condition, and has been differently elaborated by thinkers as different as Alex Carey, Noam Chomsky, and Herbert Schiller, as among the unique features of social engineering reconceived as a self-monitoring form of “population control.” The continual refinement of deterrence, dissuasion, and recuperation can be seen as one of the great achievements of late-capitalist media culture for the creation of managed democracies, long-envisioned by its elite planners as a corrective to what were perceived by them as the “excesses” of popular democracy.

Addressing the closely-related question of critical containment will go some distance towards defining an important distinction between the practice of cultural studies and the practice of cultural criticism, in particular criticism of one’s own contemporary culture, and the role of critical theory in both. This in turn may involve a more difficult distinction between critical theory as an autonomous force within the “object world” (acting as an object itself rather than a subjective practice) and critical theory as formalized self-referential ritual, or what some have identified as merely ludic theory.[3]

The pursuit of cultural studies showed evidence from its inception of being...