- Epistemologies of State, Epistemologies of Text. A review of Timothy Melley, The Covert Sphere:Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State
Richard J. Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1952) provides the classic framework for any scholarly discussion of conspiracy and paranoia in the United States. In his essay, Hofstadter reminds us of the self-assured heroism implicit in the conspiratorial mindset—how the paranoiac understands conspiracy solely in “apocalyptic terms,” and how he “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds … manning the barricades of civilization” (29-30). Scholarship on conspiracy is thus an exceptionally tone-sensitive genre. Write too modestly and the argument will fail to catch; write too strongly and you risk enacting the same paranoia you seek to gauge. Restraint can make for unconvincing prose, but even worse, discernibly paranoid criticism can end up, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has remarked, “blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand” (131). In The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State (2012), Timothy Melley manages these demands deftly.
The conspiracy theorist, as Hofstadter notes, aims toward the reduction of global systems into sinister, coherent plots managed by a handful of individuals “not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history” (32). Melley, however, is more interested in explicating discursive processes than in pinning major cultural and political developments on a few persons or sources; he defines “the covert sphere” as “a cultural imaginary shaped by both institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state” (5). Melley contends that the US government’s efforts to silence or censor journalism after WWII implicitly authorized only select, speculative media—postmodern fiction, in large part—to probe the covert action of the state. This, however, would begin a vicious feedback loop. While writers such as Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood, Robert Coover, Tim O’Brien, Joan Didion, and E.L Doctorow would deploy “postmodern epistemological skepticism” to critique state secrecy (10), so too would the Cold War US state erect comparable “epistemological barriers to knowing the work of the state” (105). By investing his prose in this intricate, two-way relationship between state and text—rather than proposing a model of cultural and social development engineered only from highest government offices—Melley effectively evades the self-aggrandizing, me-against-the-world stereotype of thinkers involved in conspiracy theories. Claims that could easily come off as conspiratorial—for instance, that “geopolitical melodramas” such as Fox’s 24 underlie the twenty-first century discourse on national security (219)—are rendered reasonable and compelling. Readers hardly suspect the author as paranoid himself.
Melley’s text seamlessly weaves together decades of American studies scholarship on the Cold War and its sociological and aesthetic repercussions. In the context of current scholarship, one might think of The Covert Sphere as a companion to and even an expansion of Daniel Grausam’s On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War (2011), which investigates what exactly the fictional narrative can and cannot articulate in the context of mutually assured destruction. Comparatively, one can think of The Covert Sphere as an institutional parallel to Tobin Siebers’s Cold War Criticism and the Politics of Skepticism (1993), an analysis of the ways that theorists (as opposed to novelists) offer a cult of personality and power over knowledge in response to a world that could, at any given moment, erupt into nuclear warfare. Melley’s work follows another acclaimed historicization of fiction in the Cold War era, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009), which chronicles the advent of American MFA programs in the mid- to late-twentieth century. While McGurl speaks mainly to the ways in which the Cold War allowed universities to both philosophically and financially seize on “the linked values of fictionality and creativity” and thus mark their investment in “vivacious American individualism” (McGurl 265), Melley sketches the overarching, epistemological structures that govern such transactions. Indeed, one of the most admirable features of Melley’s...