Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (background)

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Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (background). Ithaca, Cornell UP, 2000. This very rich book is annotated more with different and more specific emphases under Literary Criticism and Film Criticism.

Melley cites Ralph Waldo Emerson's "classic American account of self versus society" in Emerson's "Self-Reliance" essay of 1841, quoting Emerson's statement that "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members" (EoC 10). TM also contextualizes his argument with Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Max Weber on bureaucracy, Norbert Wiener on Cybernetic, and the critique of technology and technocracy found in Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society (see in this Category)—etc., for a long and useful "Works Cited."

In part, EoC fits in with debate we cross-reference in this Category under Descartes, Réne (mechanism: cosmological, biological) and continue in the citation for K. Marx on machine vs. workers as subject/object, and continue further under B. F. Skinner and M. Foucault (q.v.). The debate may extend back to the Greek Stoics — certainly in America to Ralph Waldo Emerson on "Self-Reliance" (1840s) and Mark Twain's observation that "We are creatures of outside influences" ("Corn-Pone Opinions," ca. 1900) — but after World War II, American thinkers became concerned about the real possibility of the rise of a new kind of American: other-directed, an agent not as an autonomous self but in the sense of a factor for other people or forces. Melley traces this concern from David Riesman and William Whyte to Herbert Marcuse and J. Edgar Hoover and sees a rise of "agency panic" and an answer to it in the near-hysterical reassertion of the traditional liberal autonomous individual (usually Man).

"Agency panic" is an elegant and highly powerful theory for analyzing much discourse in post-War North America and more generally (e.g., the great 20th-c. dystopias: Y. Zamiatin's We, A. Huxley's Brave New World, G. Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four); and Melley is eminently sensible in seeing human beings as deeply involved in various kinds of structures and somewhat free. For further contextualizing agency panic and the re-assertion against strong evidence of the free individual, see Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Mouches, 1943 (The Flies 1946, 1947). For a summary of Franz Fanon on reassertion of autonomy through violence, and a defense of the "human faculty for action" against the apparatus of the state, see Hannah Arendt, On Violence (cited in this Category). For more positive possibilities for assertions of individual responsibility in the postwar period, see Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963; rev., enlarged edn. Harmondsworth/New York: Penguin/Viking, 1965), esp. end of "Epilogue," 278-79. See also Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951; New York: Harper, 1966), esp. § 27 on Nazi joy "to be free from freedom."

RDE, Title, 28Aug19