Our particular moment in history has been witness to a good deal of conspiracy theorizing. Nearly all of us have seen, read, and even speculated about the theories surrounding John F. Kennedy and the wave of political assassinations in the 1960s. More recently, of course, we’ve been privy to countless theories concerning terrorist conspiracies, government conspiracies, and corporate conspiracies. Perhaps, during the various salvos of the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” it might even make sense for us all to imagine that conspiracies do abound throughout our community, our country’s administration, and our globe. After all, we have grown quite accustomed to the assorted terms and expressions that accompany and inspire conspiracy theorists. In fact, when we encounter statements on the evening news that regularly include claims such as “the F.B.I. has determined that the suspect acted alone,” or “the suspect has committed suicide” as we have recently regarding the 2001 Anthrax postal scare, it almost feels natural to be suspicious, to imagine that some vast and nefarious network of multi-national corporations and government operatives moves behind the scenes to defraud and subdue an unwitting populace. Adrian Wisnicki’s thoroughly researched and reflective study of the evolution of conspiracy theory fiction, which traces the genre from its birth-pangs in early detective stories through its fully self-aware modernist realization in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and into the paranoid, recursive style of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, engages with the peculiar and obsessive feelings of distrust and fear that seem to have infected so many of the citizens of our contemporary world.
Conspiracies certainly aren’t the particular province of modernity, of course, and Wisnicki is quick to distinguish between what he calls traditional “conspiracy narratives” (like those we see in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Julius Caesar) and “conspiracy theory narratives,” which turn on the “conspiracy-centered ‘paranoia’ of their protagonists” (2). Tracing this distinctly modern literary phenomenon back to its ground zero in Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories; through Victorian novels such as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White; and into the early modernist writings of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, G.K. Chesterton, and Proust, the study provides a series of tightly constructed and judiciously crafted close readings that detail precisely how the basic story of detection developed into the full-blown paranoid fiction of a Pynchon, Franz Kafka, or Jorge Luis Borges. Wisnicki begins, however, by describing what he refers to as the key “conspiricemes” of the Anglo-American and European novelistic traditions. Following Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics, which breaks language down into phonemes (the smallest particles of distinctive sound meaning) and morphemes (the smallest units to contain semantic meaning), Wisnicki’s fundamentally structuralist approach works to isolate the central components, the conspiricemes, of the conspiracy theory narrative.
Wisnicki describes these conspiricemes through his often shrewd readings, and, eventually, he examines the several ways that they were sewn together by the fiction writers of the early twentieth century. The conspiricemes enumerated in the study include “The Subject Who Knows” (e.g., Auguste Dupin), “The Subject Who Tries to Know (e.g., Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone), “The Hidden Hand Conspiracy” (e.g., the Magwitch narrative in Great Expectations), “The Conspiracy to Defraud” (e.g., Fosco and Glyde in Woman in White), “The Paranoid Subject,” (Walter Hartright in The Woman in White), “The Inaccessible Authorities,” (in Brontë’s Villete and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish), “Revolutionary Fiction” (the anarchists in Conrad’s Under Western Eyes), “Early-Modernist Espionage” (Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday), and “The Criminal Mastermind” (Moriarty in “The Final Problem.”). Though Conspiracy, Revolution, and Terrorism draws very openly on both Saussure and a good bit of recent affect theory, the style and the principle theory of literary evolution animating the study seem more akin to that of the Russian Formalist/Structuralist writers, Roman Jakobson, Yuri Tynjanov, and Vladimir Propp. Like Propp, for example, Wisnicki has a talent for demonstrating how disparate literary devices, tropes, and plots can blend together to create a new generic species of fiction. In fact, at its finest points, Conspiracy, Revolution, and Terrorism argues that once the seemingly incongruent conspiricemes meet, as they do in “The Final Problem” when Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, unambiguously a “subject who knows,” runs into Moriarty, an archetypical “criminal mastermind,” they tend to destabilize each other and to create in the reader a sense of suspicious immediacy, a kind of paranoid affect realized through the clash of literary devices and then mimetically reproduced by the anxious process of reading.
The fifth chapter, “From Conspiracy to Conspiracy Theory,” makes the book’s most innovative claims. By bringing together insights culled from Barbara Arnett Melchiori’s Terrorism in the Late Victorian Novel (1985) and Stephen Arata’s “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization” (1990), Wisnicki argues that the dynamite, invasion-scare, espionage, and anti-colonial narratives of the fin-de-siècle and Edwardian periods became “entangled” in a way that produced the heavily ironized fictions we have come to recognize as conspiracy theory narratives (144). For Wisnicki, this mode of writing anticipates the subversive, satirical voice of an author like Pynchon. At the dawning of the twentieth century, as European conceptions of state and nation began to undergo rapid—sometimes revolutionary—transformations, Wisnicki argues, the literary “subjects who try to know” invariably collided with an assortment of inaccessible authorities, criminal masterminds, and conspiracies to defraud. In weaving together familiar anarchist-era texts like James’s Princess Casamassima and Conrad’s The Secret Agent with novels such as Dracula, War of the Worlds,The Man Who was Thursday, and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the study makes a cogent argument about literary form, subjectivity, and the post-imperial anxiety that preceded World War I.
Throughout, Wisnicki casts a rather cold eye on the idea of conspiracy itself. Early on, in the midst of a reading of Pynchon that sets up The Crying of Lot 49 as the conspiracy theory text par excellence, Wisnicki argues that the novel’s main character, Oedipa Maas, displays the” hyperalert,” “hypersensitive” characteristics of “clinical paranoia” (24, 25). Though these insights seem almost undeniable, they also appear a bit too certain, a bit too self-assured. One of the more remarkable elements of Pynchon’s novel, and I believe that this holds true for many of the novels that concern Wisnicki, consists in its ability to destabilize our capacity to judge the conspiracy—the plot—in anything like a self-assured manner. Oedipa may be paranoid, but she may also be correct in spying a plot concealed within and guiding the history of communication in the Western world. We cannot really determine the truth based on the meager, often delightfully ambiguous information with which we are presented by Pynchon’s wily narrative voice. Wisnicki is firmly a skeptic about conspiracy. He sees it in the literature and diagnoses it as a socio-cultural problem. In other words, the desideratum of the study seems to be to convince us to doubt the conspiracies that we encounter in literary texts, and by extension, in the world that produced those texts. It seems to me that suspicion, and perhaps even a touch of hypersensitive paranoia, are central to the act of reading itself, central to the meaning-making process that writers like Pynchon, Kafka, and De Lillo at once assemble, explore, and deconstruct. In Conspiracy, Revolution, and Terrorism any thoroughly suspicious theory—including critical theory—becomes, for lack of a better term, suspect. The study’s tendency to distrust such theorizing also limits it capacity to draw ideological conclusions about the potential causes and effects of the rise of conspiracy theory narrative. Wisnicki admits as much when he asserts that in deploying affect-theory, he intends to “shift from paranoid assumptions to an anti-paranoid approach” (12). After all, the ideas propagated by philosophers and theorists like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, a writer who, coincidentally, becomes particularly representative of the “paranoid style” for Wisnicki, certainly contain elements of paranoia. Does it follow that the critique of ideological state apparatuses is wrong, that Foucault’s conception of constructive power goes too far, or, for that matter, that thinkers like Karl Marx, Luce Irigaray, or Walter Benjamin must be read as clinically paranoid? Perhaps they are paranoid, but, like Oedipa Maas, they might also be right. These are minor quibbles, of course. Wisnicki’s text makes for compelling reading, and it is sure to prove useful both to those intent on researching the paranoid style in fiction and to those interested in engaging with his readings in a classroom setting.
Jim Hansen is an Assistant Professor of English and Critical Theory at the University of Illinois. His articles have appeared in New Literary History and Mosaic, and he has published on writers ranging from James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and C.R. Maturin to Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man. His book, Terror and Irish Modernism: the Gothic Tradition from Burke to Beckett, is forthcoming from SUNY press.
- Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization." Victorian Studies 33 (1990): 621-45.
- Melchiori, Barbara Arnett. Terrorism in the Late Victorian Novel. London: N.H. Croom Helm, 1985.
- Wisnicki, Adrian. Conspiracy, Revolution, and Terrorism from Victorian Fiction to the Modern Novel. New York: Routledge, 2008.