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Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America Paperback – January 6, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Since the 1950's, paranoia and conspiracy theory have increasingly surfaced in not only avant-garde literature, but marginal political discourse as well. Timothy Melley . . . calls these expressions of anxiety about the loss of personal control 'agency panic.' . . . He draws connections between . . . Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and others to explain the culturewide significance of this syndrome."―Publishers Weekly. January 3, 2000.

"Melley identifies an emerging irony that a 'supposedly individualist culture conserves its individualism by continually imagining it to be in imminent peril.'. . . Melley's commentary on the new significance of the corporation in the postwar period makes up one of the most interesting sections of his study. . . Empire of Conspiracy makes an important contribution to the current re-examination of Cold War culture, especially to the debate over human agency."―David Seed, Liverpool University. Journal of American Studies, 36 (2002), 2.

"The myth of 'individualism' rests as clearly fixed in Melley's sights as the Kennedy limo was in Oswald's. . . .Melley highlights the power and significance of 'Gravity's Rainbow' in its historical moment. . . .In demonstrating how extensively 'Gravity's Rainbow' chronicles the dissolution of human bodies in the corpus of information, and in connecting this dissolution to postwar agency panic, Melley is also restoring to the novel a much needed sense of its historicity. . . ..What should I make. . . of the fact that when I was halfway through the writing of this essay, I received a second copy of 'Empire of Conspiracy' sent to me ostensibly out of the blue, by Melley himself? What did Melley know, and when did he know it?"―Alan Nadel, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Contemporary Literature XLIII, 2, Summer 2002

"In Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America, though, Timothy Melley asks good questions. Deftly bringing together concerns about subjectivity and social control that proliferated in the 1950s and that have continued through to the present, Melley surveys diverse manifestations of this phenomenon. . . . Blending insightful literary analysis with skillful theoretical reflection, Empire of Conspiracy is both an important contribution to American studies and an enjoyable read."―Robert Holton, Carleton University, Psychon Notes

"Empire of Conspiracy has much to offer its readers. The topic is central to contemporary fiction. Timothy Melley writes with truly admirable lucidity. He supplies theoretical background when it is useful, but retains his focus on literature. This is an extremely teachable book that opens many discussions and gives a useful entry into what may be meant by postmodernism."―Kathryn Hume, Distinguished Professor of English, Pennsylvania State University

"Empire of Conspiracy brilliantly diagnoses the dynamics underlying the proliferation of conspiracy theories in contemporary American society. 'Agency panic' is the paradoxical formation that tries to salvage liberal individualism by reinvesting agency in a malign super-force. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary American literature and culture."―N. Katherine Hayles, University of California at Los Angeles

About the Author

Timothy Melley is Professor of English and Director of the Humanities Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America and The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (January 6, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801486068
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801486067
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #138,690 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 43 people found the following review helpful By J. Beckstrand on April 10, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is merely a response to counteract the review given by the only other reviewer of this book.

"Epistomonical" is not a word. I think there was a gesture at "epistomological." But not to nitpick...

This book is an exploration of the way paranoia in post-WWII America functions, specifically citing literary case studies. It is not concerned with reconciling conspiracy theories with mainstream historical accounts, or anything of that nature.

In the author's own words, "this book is concerned with a broad cultural phenomenon, a pervasive set of anxieties about the way technologies, social organizations, and communication systems may have reduced human autonomy and uniqueness."

And the way "conspiracy theory, paranoia, and anxiety about human agency, in other words, are all part of the paradox in which a supposedly individualist culture conserves its individualism by continually imaging it to be in immminent peril."

It is not a book of conspiratorial intrigue. It is, however, academic. Boring? No. Just academic (is there a difference? sometimes...sometimes not). The "trite and utter nonsense" and "pseudoscientific" quality of the book results from exhaustively situating paranoia and conspiracy with the work of Saussure, Althusser, Foucault, Freud, Lacan, Baudrillard, Derrida and a host of other post-modern/structural thinkers and other conspiracy theory scholars. So i guess it really depends on your understanding/appreciation for their work. And familiarity/love of post-modern fiction--which is really what the book is about anyway.

I'm not really here to recommend this book--just to give it a somewhat fair representation.

Thanks for your time.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Michael A. Rinella on November 1, 2011
Format: Paperback
Melley points out, for example, that Derrida's reading of the Phaedrus draws Plato into the present, arguing the same Platonic fantasy consisting of "the dream of a self hermetically sealed from the external world" is reflected in the "contemporary American logic of addiction" (Page 171).

I see bad reviews all the time. One of the classic forms is "I hate this because they didn't write the book that I wanted them to write."

If that "one-star" reader had wanted to read a work on conspiracy panics that digs more deeply into the conspiracy theories themselves he ought to have read the book by Jack Z. Bratich "Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture." Bratich argues that conspiracy theories are portals into the major social issues defining U.S. and global political culture. These issues include the rise of new technologies, the social function of journalism, U.S. race relations, citizenship and dissent, globalization, biowarfare and biomedicine, and the shifting positions within the Left. Using a Foucauldian governmentality analysis, Bratich maintains that conspiracy panics contribute to a broader political rationality, a (neo)liberal strategy of governing at a distance through the use of reason.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By worcblue on April 24, 2014
Format: Paperback
This book is a brilliant inquiry into the presence of conspiracy theory in American culture. Melley demonstrates how fear of control and manipulation is ultimately due to a certain conception of personhood: the discrete, autonomous individual of liberal ideology.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jeff on August 10, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've had this book for a number of years and have made several attempts to read it. I'm happy that J. Beckstrand, Dr. Rinella, and worcblue were able to get some value from reading it. I totally understand the frustrations of the other two posters, who gave up before finishing the book. I did too. It isn't apparent to me from reading the one-star comments whether or not those commenters have an academic background. Certainly, the first three mentioned readers do. I do have a college degree, but it isn't in literary theory, post-modernist studies or philosophy, all areas that you need to have a solid grounding in to understand what Melley is writing about. Melley has written an academic book, filled with nearly impenetrable academic jargon, that is largely incomprehensible to anyone outside of academia. That's a real shame, because I really like his concept of "agency panic" and would like to see someone delve into that idea in a more reader-friendly manner. Dr. Rinella suggests reading Jack Bratich's book, "Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture." Perhaps Bratich deals with what Melley terms "agency panic" in a more approachable manner. I'll have to investigate that book. Worcblue writes that "Melley demonstrates how fear of control and manipulation is ultimately due to a certain conception of personhood: the discrete, autonomous individual of liberal ideology." I don't doubt that is true, but only a person with an academic background could come to that conclusion. "Liberal ideology" is academic-speak for the Enlightenment emphasis on individualism, which underlies the explosive growth of capitalism in the last few centuries.Read more ›
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