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

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Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca, Cornell UP, 2000.

An important work we cite under Literary Criticism, Film Criticism, and Background. The war referred to in the (publisher's) title is World War II, and "America" = USA + Canada.

EoC deals with "agency panic": the fear that one is not an agent in the sense of "autonomous actor, choosing significant actions" but in the sense of "factor"—an agent of the will of persons or forces outside oneself (as with someone in S. Milgram's "agentic state." See Milgram's Obedience to Authority under Background); also note relevance for such classic take-over stories as R. A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1951), with the motif mechanized in K. Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan (1959) and William Cameron Menzies's INVADERS FROM MARS (1953). See Empire of Conspiracy ch. 3 for surveillance and discussion of body and disembodiment in the work of Margaret Atwood and others. See also for William S. Burrough's Soft Machine, Ticket that Exploded, and some essays in The Adding Machine; Don DeLillo's Libra and White Noise; P. K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; William Gibson's Neuromancer; Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Something Happened; Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. EoC is very useful for imagery of containment within machines and systems, so see also for E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops"—a pre-World War I British work TM does not discuss—and its literary and film progeny. See esp. "Epilogue" (185-202) for the Cyberpunks and, indirectly, the possibility of a straight-line connection from Foster's "Machine Stops" (§ III) to "the Mayan control machine" of W. Burrough's Soft Machine (SM 95) to the job of Case in Neuromancer (EoC 192).

Empire of Conspiracy can profitably be put into dialog with other works. For some, but not much, exculpation of K. Kesey et al. on TM's legitimate charge of misogyny in feminizing entrapping system, see theory of all things Other as feminine to a male Self, summarized in Linda Bamber's Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1982). For an epitomizing moment in an SF/Utopian work of some of TM's concerns, see K. Vonnegut's Player Piano, ch. 30, on Alfy Tucci: "Lasher smiled sadly. 'The great American individual […]. Thinks he's the embodiment of liberal thought throughout the ages. Stands on his own two feet, by God, alone and motionless. He'd make a good lamp post, if he'd weather better and didn't have to eat" (281-82). Also note Vonnegut's Paul Proteus in Player Piano on "The main business of humanity" as "to do a good job being human beings" and "not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems" (297; ch. 31).

(RDE, 18/03/01, 12June15) RDE, Title, 28Aug19