Deconstructing Paranoia: An Analysis of the Discourses Associated with the Concept of Paranoid Delusion

David J. Harper PhD Thesis June 1999

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Chapter 2

Paranoid positioning: The discursive construction of paranoid

and conspiratorial positions in popular culture

Harry Wyckoff: He's probably just paranoid. Yeah, he loves a conspiracy.

Paige Katz: Don't we all?

Wild Palms (Stone, 1993)


In chapter 3 I will describe how paranoia can be seen as structured around a number of implicit dualities or oppositions. In this chapter I examine the place of 'paranoia' in contemporary Western culture and will, to some extent, anticipate the analysis of the next chapter by developing the concepts of dualism and opposition to show how the 'paranoid' position itself is constructed in two main ways: by being construed as either an individualistic (and intra-psychic) or as a societal phenomenon (what might be termed an individual/social opposition); and by being seen as either an illegitimate and unwarranted manifestation of paranoia or as an example of a legitimate and warranted albeit conspiratorial theory (what might be termed a normal/pathological opposition). These two dualities map onto each other, of course, with, for example views regarded as illegitimate by some being treated as a symptom of an intra-psychic state of paranoia. Moreover these dualities also map onto whether or not the paranoid position is being adopted by 'us' ourselves -- in which case we are likely to construct it as legitimate and plausible -- or whether we are positioning another -- in which case we are likely to de-legitimise their views (what might be termed a self/other opposition). The rhetorical strategies used to construct these respective positions and the different discursive effects of these positions will be discussed. To some extent the concerns discussed here anticipate the issues raised in my analysis, in chapter 5, of how plausibility was addressed in the interviews.

I will begin by placing paranoia in its wider cultural context, noting the theoretical and analytical framework I will be using (positioning theory in particular) before moving on to examine what might be called one of the major conditions of possibility for the development of the concept of paranoia: panoptical culture. Following this I will describe how paranoia is discursively rendered in various ways which gives a clue to how it can be seen as structured dualistically. I then move on to describe each side of the dualism, focusing both on the rhetorical strategies used to construct those positions, using examples from popular culture and on the different effects and consequences of that positioning.


Paranoia has long been an object of fascination for both popular culture and what Rose (1989) terms the 'psychological complex'. Concepts like paranoia serve both as psychiatric and everyday categories thus an investigation of such categories needs by definition to be inter-disciplinary. As Curt (1994) notes:

even a cursory glance through the literature of our collectivity reveals that many of the ideas we have about madness are informed by, and inform, a rich and varied collection of presentations of the mad -- in painting, photography, film, popular fiction, theatre and song


The work of science-fiction writers like Philip K. Dick (see for example Freedman, 1984; Parker, 1996; Sutin, 1995), together with crime and spy writers has contributed to the embeddedness of conspiratorial narrative in modern culture. O'Donnell (1992) has traced some of the contours of this fascination, arguing that the work of a variety of recent authors evidences the rise of a 'cultural paranoia' flowing from the construction of a 'knowing' subject, noting that 'paranoia, like power after Foucault, ranges across the multi-discursivity of contemporary existence' (1992, p.181).

To take film as one example, we have a range of 'conspiracy movies' from Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966), to The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), to Network (Lumet, 1976) to Three Days of the Condor (Pollack, 1975), to Blow Out (de Palma, 1981). Perhaps the doyen of conspiracy directors, Alan J. Pakula, has brought us his 'paranoid trilogy' (Ryan & Kellner, 1988) of Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976), to which we must now add The Pelican Brief (1993). Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) and Wild Palms (1993) TV serial and Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory (1997) have continued the trend into the 1990s.

In this chapter I want to explore some of the cultural forces which shape both the world of the conspiratorialist and of those who position others as paranoid since the enterprise of psychopathology and the concerns of wider culture are not separate but deeply interwoven (Parker et al., 1995). These are far from fanciful concerns. Young (1990) has described how many of the 'theopolitical' organizations loosely termed the Identity Movement are organized by conspiracy theories many of which came into more public circulation following the Oklahoma bombing in the US in 1995. Indeed, following that bombing, the media were awash with accounts of conspiracy theories associated with the far right. The headline to Freedland's (1995) article notes 'the anti-government paranoia of the militias' (p.25). This was transformed into an interest in conspiracy theories more widely. Thus Spayd's (1995) headline reads 'welcome to the state of paranoia. Liz Spayd looks at why America wallows in Waco and Whitewater' (p.21). Conspiracies have become entertaining reading for many through the World Wide Web. Thus Grossman's (1996) article (entitled 'trust no one') comments 'whether it's bombings or alien invasions, there is a conspiracy for every occasion on the internet' (p.4)(1). There are also a wide range of books focusing on conspiracy theories -- for example 50 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (Vankin & Whalen, 1995).

Reactions to movements seen as conspiratorial and paranoid can be as overwhelming as the groups' rhetoric. Moreover, such moves themselves can become characterised by a paranoid narrative. Shaw (1994) notes how religious cults' 'paranoia about the outside world feeds on the outside world's paranoia about cults' paranoia which feeds on cults' paranoia' (1994, p. 204). A traditional response to such concern is to pathologise those seen as dangerous by calling them paranoid (see, for example, Silke, 1998) -- a strategy that Shaw reveals to be double-edged. Rather than follow the pathological imperative here, I want instead to question the taken-for-grantedness of paranoia by placing it itself within a zone of suspicion. Paranoia serves always as a touchstone of the reasonableness of suspicion. It is this reasonableness that I wish to disrupt by attempting to breach the duality often found in accounts of conspiracy and of paranoia and proposing that a discursive framework provides a more unified understanding of both.


As with the other chapters, the theoretical orientation of this work is primarily social constructionist, following a discourse analytic methodology in focusing on the variability of discourse, its construction and the consequences and interests of accounts. As Edwards (1995a) has noted, discursive modes of enquiry can be seen as 'a kind of cultural psychology, insofar as both are concerned with psychological issues and with culturally embedded social practices' (1995, p. 55). Moreover, social constructionism has been seen as an ideal framework for analysing culture (Gergen, Gulerce, Lock & Misra, 1996). Rather than attempting to offer intentionalist or functionalist explanations, the aim here is to describe a range of rhetorical strategies and demonstrate some of the effects of accounts. Parker has suggested one definition of discourse analysis which may be relevant here:

Collections of texts define symbolic arrays which are the cultural niches we inhabit, and discourse analysis traces the threads which run through those niches meshing them together into 'society'.

(1992, p. 96)

Texts serve to position objects and subjects in particular ways and this analysis will be attentive to the powers and rights to speak afforded by discourses (Parker, 1992). One approach to this orientation is that of what has become termed positioning theory. Davies & Harré (1990) offered a detailed account of this approach borrowing it from marketing and military language, using Hollway's (1989) notion of subject positions. A position's content is defined in terms of 'rights, duties and obligations of speaking' (Harré & Van Langenhove, 1991, p.404) whilst positioning is described as:

the discursive process whereby selves are located in conversations as observably and subjectively coherent participants in jointly produced storylines. There can be interactive positioning in which what one person says positions another. And there can be reflexive positioning in which one positions oneself. However it would be a mistake to assume that, in either case, positioning is necessarily intentional

Davies & Harré (1990, p.48)

As a result 'with positioning, the focus is on the way in which the discursive practices constitute the speakers and hearers in certain ways and yet at the same time is a resource through which speakers and hearers can negotiate new positions' (Davies & Harré, 1990, p.62). Thus Stenner (1993) describes how research participants, in talking about their views of jealousy, position each other in certain ways which have a variety of effects. This theory has since been developed through work by Harré and his co-workers (Harré & Van Langenhove, 1991; Van Langenhove & Harré, 1994) and others (Tan & Moghaddam, 1995; Howie & Peters, 1996). It has been seen as a useful theoretical resource for work on culture (Tan & Moghaddam, 1995; Van Langenhove & Harré, 1994).

Harré & Van Langenhove (1991) developed the theory in describing the social realm as being constituted through conversations, institutional practices and social rhetorics. Here, they noted how positioning could be seen to vary along two dimensions: self/other and deliberate/forced. Moreover, they acknowledged the importance of power in determining variations in positioning. In other words 'people "make" discourse, but not in discursive conditions of their own choosing' (Parker, 1992, p. 32). Harré & Van Langenhove also highlighted how when one positions oneself one is simultaneously implicitly positioning someone else and vice versa. Sampson (1993) in his discussion of the construction of identity has found the concept of positioning useful too but has similarly highlighted the role of power and the dual action involved in positioning of constructing a position for the self and for the other -- and here I do not mean simply individual selves or others but also communities, organisations and so on. But how has paranoia arisen as a place in which to position the self or others? Before moving on to look at the kind of positions we construct in relation to paranoia it is necessary to set this discussion in a further layer of cultural context.


One of the most prevalent themes to emerge from paranoid discourse is that of surveillance. The world conjured up in such texts is of an active and malevolent observer. Although power of interpretation lies with the subject of discourse, power in the situation lies with the observer about whom we are usually told little. The image of an anonymous yet powerful observer, is reproduced in a number of texts. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (1966) opens with a description of a telescreen in the background which both received and transmitted all that was audible and visible. Here, surveillance is mediated by electronic means. Thus the observer (if there is one watching at the other end) is rendered even more anonymous. Great play is made of such technology within spy and science-fiction genres. For example, in the cult British 1960s TV serial The Prisoner (Incorporated Television Limited, 1967), the character, Number 6 (played by Patrick McGoohan) is, at first:

unaware that all the while his every action has been observed by Number 2 and a disquieting bald-headed Supervisor on a giant screen in an impressive Control Room whose walls are covered with huge maps of the world, terrestrial and celestial. A small army of cameramen [sic] work in shifts to keep the Village and its surroundings including the inside of the houses under constant surveillance.

Carrazé & Oswald (1990, p. 38)

The images suggested here are deeply reminiscent of Foucault's (1977) description of the panopticon (which was mentioned briefly in chapter 1) and his concerns with the panoptical organization of space in Western culture and how this indicated the move from physical regulation by others to governance of the self by the self. Rabinow (1984) notes, in a resumé of a foucauldian view of surveillance in culture, that 'through spatial ordering, the panopticon brings together power, control of the body, control of groups and knowledge ... it locates individuals in space, in a hierarchical and efficiently visible organization' (p.19). The cultural and spatial organization of society means that we are continually surveyed, constantly regulated by a panoptical gaze. Surveillance, while conceptually distinct from suspicion, is materially and discursively connected to it. In the culture Foucault describes, surveillance necessarily entails suspicion on the part of those observed. Thus, it could be argued that the increased surveillance of the population noted by a number of writers (eg Rose, 1985, 1989) has been one of the conditions of possibility (Blackman, 1994b) for paranoia -- which is not to deny that individuals before this time might have been suspicious. When suspicion is a condition of surveillance, any comment on that surveillance embroils the speaker in suspicion, their own. They are thus positioned as paranoid. Blaska describes the world of the psychiatric in-patient:

You can't even listen, to each other, without someone spying, reporting, recording, and charting. And then calling you paranoid if you notice

Blaska (1992, pp. 283-4)

The consequence of feeling watched is to render the subject self-conscious and fearful, caught within a 'text of fear' (Lopez, 1991) and experiencing the 'chilling effect' of surveillance (Campbell, 1988, p. 355)(2). There is no escape, since, as Gandy (1993) has demonstrated, panoptical surveillance is mediated not only through direct visual and auditory means in physical space, but also through all manner of data-collection within personal information-gathering systems in cyberspace. Smail (1984) has noted how this experience of continual surveillance leads inevitably to the inscription of anxiety into the lives of those surveyed. However, since in most paranoid discourses, the 'other' has malevolent intent, the result is not only anxiety but self-regulation and suspicion. Sass's (1987) analysis of Daniel Schreber's 'paranoia', as we saw in chapter 1, argued that because of persecutory child-rearing by his father, Schreber 'a quintessentially panoptical being' experienced an internalized surveillance 'thus watching himself watching himself watching himself watch' (1987, p. 144). Such a comment concurs with that of iek (1992) who sees in the concept of paranoia a kind of material superego which sees all and knows all. Thus paranoia could be seen as a system of governance, a psychic panopticon. Although surveillance seems common across Western society, its specific forms may vary from society to society. Thus Gaines (1995) argues that paranoid delusions in the US commonly involve the CIA whilst in Italy they commonly involve neighbours. Moreover, although surveillance is a dominant theme in Western culture, the depiction of paranoia is varied and contradictory and this offers some clues to its construction.


Culture is contradictory. We are often forced to acknowledge the presence of conflicting

discourses in its texts, and it is this presence of contradiction which allows room for

resistance, the refusal to respond within dominant meanings.

Parker (1992, p. 49)

There is no singular and coherent cultural image of paranoia. Instead variation between competing images and discourses appears to be the norm. On the one hand there is the image of what Gleeson (1991) describes as a 'destructive-obstructive' character who makes others feel uneasy and who themselves feels under threat and 'got at', who does not take things at face value but is mistrustful of others and their motives and who makes wildly untrue allegations. We are led to believe by the media that this kind of paranoid person is likely to be dangerous and violent -- I will look in more detail at this in chapter 4. Such positioning is in stark contrast to the 'absent standard' (Sampson, 1993) of trust and optimism which is highly valued in Western society.

On the other hand, there are images which justify and legitimize a suspicious stance toward the world. For example, we are often urged to be suspicious of the motives of others. We also know that we gossip about (Rosnow & Fine, 1976) and routinely lie and deceive others (Lewis & Saarni, 1993). A recent opinion poll in the UK found that 24% of people had lied to others and 64% thought they had been lied to at least once during the previous day (Social Surveys/Gallup Poll Ltd, 1994). At times suspicion can be gendered (e.g. in cases of jealousy or in the societal regulation of women's freedom of movement at night) and at others it can be economic (e.g. with the home security industry marketing fear of burglars -- see also Lopez, 1991). Police forces run projects to encourage neighbourhood surveillance known in the U.K. as Neighbourhood Watch Schemes. Moreover, jokes about paranoia abound with much of the humour resting on whether a paranoid stance is legitimate or not.

We begin to see here that one opposition around which much variation circulates is that of normal/pathological. There is normal suspicion and there is paranoia which is seen as a sign of pathology. Another opposition here is self/other in that our own suspicion is likely to be seen by us as normal whereas the suspicion of others may be seen as paranoid. However, a further discursive variation can be seen to occur around the poles of individual/social.

Traditionally, in analysing conspiratorial/paranoid narratives, writers seem to have adopted one of two approaches. The first examines the intra-psychic and cultural dynamics which lead to an individual becoming paranoid. Examples here include the work of Keen (1986), Sass (1987, 1994) and Lacan (1932 and see iek, 1992). Keen (1986), adopting a story metaphor, has proposed that we 'think about paranoia in terms of how the paranoid person narratizes his [sic] life' (p. 176). Work examining apparently bizarre phenomena like UFO abductions have been treated in a similar way (Baumeister & Sommer, 1997; Newman, 1997; Snyder, 1997).

The second approach has tended to highlight the historical, social, cultural and (geo)political significance of paranoid and conspiratorial discourse (Curry & Brown, 1972; Jameson, 1992; O'Donnell, 1992; Ryan & Kellner, 1988; Waters, 1997; Wernick, 1994). This approach has also fostered an interest in conspiratorial or paranoid rhetoric following the work of Hofstadter (1966) which we noted in chapter 1 (eg Darsey, 1995; Smith, 1977). Hofstadter argued that this kind of discourse was the preferred style of minority political movements -- although minority movements can often have a powerful political voice(3). However, others have noted that majority political movements also use a conspiratorial style when necessary. Thus Finn (1990, 1993) has commented on how conspiracy narratives can be used by political majorities to position minorities and that such a style not only produces particular kinds of explanation but also constrains what can be said. Billig (1991a) has suggested that 'the conspiracy interpretation of politics is an argument and is to be found in the argumentative context of political discourse' (p. 113). He has proposed that one of the effects of conspiratorial discourses is to persuade others through a variety of rhetorical means. Conspiratorial discourse is yet another of the texts embedded in Western culture which produces particular kinds of positions for the subjects and objects of discourse as it engages with other discourses in what Curt has described as 'textual tectonics': 'the rhetorical skirmishes of one [story] against another; their rivalries and allegiances; the playing out of dominance and submission' (Curt, 1994, p. 12).

Some have attempted to bridge these two approaches but often this is by using concepts derived from work on individuals. Thus Kramer (1994) draws on cognitive models and applies these theories to groups and organisations. Harrison & Thomas (1997) attempt to combine cognitive and organisational variables in an analysis of how 'cover-ups' come to be perceived as such. Parker (1995a) uses a psychoanalytically-informed cultural analysis to examine UFO phenomena like abductions in popular cultural texts.

We can see then, that paranoia is clustered around three key oppositions: individual/social, normal/pathological and self/other. In this chapter I hope to begin a deconstruction of these oppositions by studying conspiratorial discourse as a single text that can be read as both normally suspicious and as paranoid. I will argue that it is not the text that is different in these two cases, rather it is the process of positioning which renders the subject paranoid and that this positioning is intitmately related to power. Here then, I am dissolving the boundary between paranoid and conspiratorial discourses. In many discussions, this distinction is maintained, often by academics deferring to the clinical knowledge of psychiatry(4).


Paranoia is an important cultural resource which has a number of discursive effects, providing a location in which the subject can be positioned by others as 'paranoid' and in which the subject can position themselves as knowing what is really going on (i.e. using a distinctive mode of conspiratorial accounting as in the promulgation of conspiracy theories). For the sake of convenience, then, the rest of this chapter will focus on these two distinct issues: first, the use of paranoia as a referent, that is as a location in which to position others; second, as a location in which one can position oneself (either self consciously or otherwise) in relation to paranoia. Thus one might place oneself in a suspicious stance through the use of conspiratorial rhetoric or, alternatively as non-paranoid or rational by refuting conspiratorial accounts. In positioning others the individual, other and pathological sides of the binaries come into play. In positioning ourselves the social, self and normal sides of the binaries are relevant. We will see how conspiratorial narratives are 'marketed, mongered, driven underground, muted, adapted, reconstructed and disposed of' (Curt, 1994, p. 12) in the arena of discourse. The explicit use of textual metaphors here serves to trouble dualisms and dichotomies and is therefore useful in the current project (Stenner & Eccleston, 1994).


What is notable about being positioned as paranoid is that it is most often an identity given to position an Other rather than chosen for oneself and this is the first side of the split(5). There are distinctive patterns in how such a subject position is produced and press reports of the Wembley Global Deception conference are a good illustration in that they involve the use of a number of rhetorical strategies that act as signals to the process of what Smith (1978) has referred to as 'cutting out' -- this denotes a means by which talk and other behaviour is presented as not simply a deviation from social rules and norms, but as anomalous.

Although a variety of cultural texts will be drawn on, those surrounding a two day conference at the London, UK Wembley arena in January 1993 will predominate. It was heralded as 'the first international conference that will unquestionably expose the greatest global deception ever' (Nightlink Communications, 1993). Organized privately, it featured presentations by eight speakers drawn from the academic, journalistic and intelligence communities. The promotional literature for the event noted that speakers included: Dr Robert Strecker who presented evidence that 'AIDS is a MAN-MADE [sic] disease'; Eustace Mullins, who exposed economic 'manipulations by a powerful elite'; Jan M van Toorn who argued that the AIDS treatment AZT was dangerous and had acquired documents on 'healthcare issues, secret mass hypnosis ... and manipulation of the world population'; David M Summers who had 'thoroughly researched anomalous phenomena'; Vladimir Terziski who was a 'qualified authority on antigravity and advanced space flight propulsion technology'; Jordan Maxwell who was an expert on 'super-secret Societies and their direct links to the world's power elites'; Norio Hayakawa who had documented proof and video footage of 'highly advanced disc-shaped crafts displaying unnatural technological capabilities which clearly defy accepted gravitational laws'; and William Cooper who was 'the world's top expert on the inner structure of the New World Order'. The leaflet noted that the organizers had no political affiliations and also contained a warning that 'the evidence and information presented during this conference may be psychologically disturbing'. Paranoid humour, or humour about paranoia, is also used as a focus later in this chapter. Humour operates by simultaneously breaking and re-marking a rule (Purdie, 1993), in this case, rules governing how we may speak about paranoia.

Smith has shown how a process of cutting out renders certain kinds of behaviour as 'mentally ill type' behaviour. In both the reports by The Guardian on the event, the conference was immediately framed as different or anomalous (or 'cut out') by being printed in bold type. This convention, particularly when combined with a location on the front or back page (and occasionally inside the paper) often marks a piece as a humourous item. The first article (Ezard, 1993) followed some comments in the diary section of the newspaper which consists largely of humourous items, and was printed in bold and was located on the back page. The second piece, although located on page 7, was also printed in bold and was hence identifiably marked as different:

To the uninitiated this may sound like a tall and confusing story. But here it is, as told by a quiet American to 300 ordinary looking people at the first international conference on global deception at the Wembley conference centre yesterday.

Pallister (1993, p. 7)

At the start of this piece the story to be reported is identified as possibly 'tall and confusing' and one which requires some specialist or initiate knowledge. The speaker is described as 'a quiet American' and the audience as 'ordinary looking'. That such descriptions, not normally used in newspaper accounts, are used here implies that they are necessary since they cannot be assumed. The implication is that given the framing of this account, it could have been expected that the audience would look odd and that the speaker would be loud or agitated. In these first two sentences then, the text signals to the reader that there is something anomalous about this event: the story, audience and speaker. The second paragraph reiterates these signals in a different form by moving from a news report style to parody:

There is a secret world government, dedicated to Lucifer and with a lineage stretching back 5,000 years to the Canaanites and the cult of Baal, the god of fertility. It reaches into every sphere of life, if only you knew. The doctors are in it, and the judges - why else do they wear black robes, the symbol of Babylon? -- and naturally the masons.

Pallister (1993, p. 7, emphasis in original)

In this narrative structure, the content of the conference is made to seem even more bizarre through the use of a monologue style connecting with an image of conspiracy theorists as self-obsessed. Rather than presenting any 'evidence' this account makes bald statements which, because they lack any validation, once again seem bizarre. Moreover, the text is self-consciously conversational with the listener/reader addressed by comments like 'if only you knew' as if to highlight the fact that this piece of news is of a different order than the other items in the newspaper. The addition of 'and naturally the masons' at the end of this excerpt connects with an image of conspiracy discourse as focused on a limited number of clichéd objects (e.g. Jewish people, the masons, communists etc.) for which evidence is adduced post-hoc. Finally, there is overt appropriation of conspiracy discursive styles. For example, these plots are 'secret', and they reach into 'every sphere of life'. Connections are made between objects on the basis of hardly any evidence e.g. between judges and Babylon because of the wearing of black robes. Later in the article similar connections are made. Thus, in locating someone as paranoid, there is discursive work both in 'cutting out' their behaviour and in appropriating and parodying conspiratorial styles of rhetoric.

An example of such a discourse of connections is contained in a newspaper interview with Mary Seal, the co-organizer of the Wembley Global Deception conference described earlier. In the interview, she notes that many people have noticed intrigues in history but 'everyone seems to be looking at a fragmented piece of a huge puzzle, unable to see a complete picture' (Quirke, 1993). The complete picture is that:

people have been pulling the strings behind every event that has happened - First World War, Second World War, the Bolshevik revolution, which was a complete hoax ... You just have to look at who owns the controlling interest in the major oil companies, the pharmaceuticals, the petro-chemicals, the international banks, the federal reserve system, the Bundesbank. It's the same names all the time. Hitler was financed by these people. These people financed the Allies as well. Lenin was financed, of course, by the same people, I could name three hundred of them now but to do it out of context would sound ludicrous.

Quirke (1993)

This account is marked by a number of features: historical events are explained by those who 'pull strings'; financiers of different political groups at different times in history are described as 'the same people'; her audience are positioned as people who may be stupid or who have been hoodwinked -- at the least, people to whom a truth needs to be revealed. This text illustrates the epistemological and ideological desire for simplicity here, a point which characterizes many conspiratorial texts. Moreover, Seal realises the way in which her message might be heard: as 'ludicrous'. Another newspaper article about the same event contains similar elements although here the process of 'cutting out' is even more overt in that the questioning of the organizer's mental health is undisguised:

Perhaps this is the moment to ask about mental stability. 'People who try to stop what's happening are always portrayed like that,' Ms Seal said. She has no history of psychiatric problems.

Quirke (1993)

Although the answer to the question about mental illness appears to be negative, the very process of questioning it serves to mark out Ms Seal's views, cutting her out in the sense of rendering her views illegitimate and not explicable according to normal social rules -- similar patterns are evident in texts where writers denounce particular projects as paranoid (see for example, Bywater, 1990). Thus the conference organizer becomes positioned as paranoid both by adopting a particular stance (of suspiciousness) and by her being positioned by wider discourses (e.g. general cultural proscription of suspicion versus prescription of trust and so on). A subject position is delineated and it is in the creation of such a position that identities are created and transformed. One may accept or reject such an identity but the success of this depends on how much power you and your story have as opposed to the power of dominant discourses.

Sampson has noted 'power involves the manner by which persons are given a location and a subjectivity as actors within discourse' (1993, p. 1223). He has described how, in constructing a negatively-valued discursive position for an other, we are in the business of constructing a 'serviceable other' -- one who defines our possession of desired qualities by their lack. Thus in positioning someone as paranoid we are also constructing an identity for ourselves: as trusting; rational; reasonable; optimistic; sane and so on. Rhetorical strategies for resisting the paranoid position

I have argued that locating someone in the discursive position of 'paranoid' has a number of effects. Clearly, one of the most important of these is the regulation of suspicion. Thus, following her interview with the BBC's Panorama, Nicholas Soames, the then Conservative Minister for the UK Armed Forces, suggested that the Princess of Wales was in 'the advanced stages of paranoia' (Webster, 1995, p.1). Porter (1992) has noted how, when the ex-Prime Minister of the UK, Harold Wilson, made a number of allegations about a plot by MI5 (the British Security Service) to destabilise his Labour administration, the Conservative (and ex-MI6) MP Stephen Hastings 'called him "positively paranoic" and urged him to "see a psychiatrist" ' (p. 210)(6). Such accusations are often used by psychiatrists to neutralise their critics. Thus Casey (1994) suggests that sweeping statements by Breggin (1993) 'show the author's paranoid position' (p.137).

In order to resist such positioning, many speakers attempt to 'innoculate' their audience by raising the question of paranoia, or by attempting to warrant their use of a discourse of suspicion through the use of a 'I don't mean to be paranoid but...' position. For example, Mary Seal, who co-organised the Wembley Global Deception conference, after alleging that a newspaper's coverage was biased because of a previously sympathetic piece by another journalist, asks 'Paranoid? Perhaps, but why the subsequent lies?' Seal (1993). This is also a form of the 'just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me' discourse in that she is already located in the narrative of the joke which writes off conspiracy talk by locating it within the pathological individual. Similarly, Parker (1992) prefaces a critical commentary on recent changes in British social psychology with 'at the risk of seeming paranoidly suspicious' (p. 67). Moreover, in a recent House of Commons debate on the Police Bill, Tony Benn commented:

In the old days, those who talked about being bugged were described as paranoid; nowadays people say, 'What's new?' Both attitudes are wrong. We should not be regarded as paranoid if we know it is happening, and it should not be regarded as normal because everyone does it.

Hansard (12 February 1997, p.392)

That speakers wishing to be suspicious defend against an implied accusation of paranoia suggests that paranoia has powerful regulatory effects. Furthermore, these rhetorical strategies may be far from successful since discursive positions are organised such that the very reflection on the position threatens to relocate the speaker as paranoid.

The second part of this chapter enters the paranoid and conspiratorial textual landscape exploring its contours, specifically the forms of paranoid discourse and the subject positions available within it.


I have suggested that the cultural significance of the construction of paranoia can be approached by examining how it can be seen as a discursive position. The argument developed so far is that positioning someone as 'paranoid' cuts them out in the sense that their behaviour is regarded as anomalous and not explicable by normal social rules. It also serves to remove legitimacy from any suspicions that the person voices. Of course this only occurs when the self is positioned by an other. When it is the self which is doing the positioning it is less likely to be seen by the self as a 'paranoid' position, rather it will be seen as a sensible and understandable 'knowing' position (see O'Donnell, 1992). This is the second side of the split, representing the self, normal and social side of the opposition. This occurs, for example, when politicians adopt straightforwardly conspiratorial rhetoric in an un-selfconscious manner. Another example is from a recent catalogue for a security gadget firm:

Do you really know what's going on? Disloyalty and deception are often promoted through conspiratorial conversations. In the most extreme form, conspiracy can undermine national interests and become treasonable. Commercially, it can destroy a business and domestically, can ruin a relationship.

Lorraine Electronics Surveillance (1995)

Even if it is the self doing the positioning however, a lot depends on power since, as I argued in the previous section, those who self-consciously adopt conspiratorial rhetoric (e.g. by using the 'I don't mean to be paranoid but...' gambit) run the risk of being branded paranoid all the same.

Here, I wish to argue that the discourses which produce a paranoid or knowing position contain a number of threads. These may be woven together to produce quite different texts. Intentionality, suspicion, trust and interpretation are regulated within different forms of paranoid discourse. The rhetorical use of intentionality

A common rhetorical strategy in paranoid discourse is to intentionalize events through the use of the notion of conspiracy. Common-sense notions tend to assume that a conspiracy is only held to have occured when there is evidence of an intention to conspire. This is, in fact, how criminal conspiracies are defined in English criminal law (Smith & Hogan, 1992). Anti-conspiratorial discourse, on the other hand, often aims to undermine such accounts by mobilising a discourse of intention since the imputation of intentionality breaks a social rule. To accuse someone of imputing intentionality to a wide range of interconnected phenomena is to reveal that there is a paranoid state of mind at work. Since intentions are extremely difficult to 'prove' and conspiracies are notoriously epistemologically ambiguous, such challenges to conspiratorial interpretations are often successful, particularly when linked with positioning the other as 'paranoid'. There are more sophisticated, non-intentionalist discourses of conspiracy which compete with intentionalist accounts, however, proving the flexibility of conspiratorial accounts(7). Eco (1986), for example, in his critique of the Red Brigades' conspiracy theories, has noted how, rather than sending letters informing those in powerful positions of their 'secret plans', conspiring multi-nationals would act more subtly, through, for example, manipulation of the international finance markets. Such accounts run contrary to the intentionalist language used in political argument and so a political account of conspiracy often sounds paranoid. Ryan & Kellner (1988) have argued that conspiracy movies mobilize a 'discourse of distrust' based on turning the 'systemic concealment of real power structures into a personalized account of secret intrigue' (p. 98). Jameson (1992) concurs, arguing the conspiratorial narrative is a solution to a fundamental representational problem: how to picture an unimaginable and increasingly technologically sophisticated global network that is so vast that it cannot be 'encompassed by the natural and historically developed categories of perception' (1992, p. 2). Subverting trust and optimism as a warrant for action

What are the effects and consequences of conspiratorial accounts? Liberal discourse about apparently bizarre or unwarranted ideas might view conspiratorial texts as harmless and amusing. As Billig (1986) has put it 'the world is a brighter place thanks to quirky eccentrics' (p. xxiv). However, such a view fails to acknowledge the effects of certain forms of conspiratorial discourse. Billig, for example, has noted that 'there is no such enjoyment to be gained from the believers in the non-existence of the holocaust' (1986, p. xxiv). Indeed, a number of writers have noted how the employment of anti-semitic conspiratorial discourse has served to warrant action consistent with such views. Thus Cohn (1967) has described how such rhetoric served as a warrant for the holocaust. More recently, racist groups have promulgated new versions of old conspiracy theories to deny the fact of that genocidal episode (Billig, 1991a; Seidel, 1986). Of course these same groups are constructed and also constrained by these narratives (Finn, 1993).

Paranoid and conspiratorial discourse works to promote suspicion and subvert implicit cultural rules of optimism and trust. Such discourse can serve to warrant both further suspicious interpretations and action consistent with such analyses. Kovel (1986), for example, has argued that the rhetoric of the Cold War, by projecting hostile intent onto other nations, helped sustain the military-industrial complex and the nuclear state. Lopez (1991) has noted how the cultivation of fear has led to the militarization of everyday life, with increasing emphasis on personal security and safety leading to political conservatism. Of course, as I have argued already, these have particular gender and economic effects and I will develop my analysis of these in chapters 4 and 5.

Porter (1992) has noted that accounts of IRA bombing campaigns seemed to 'justify the role of MI5 and the Special Branch' (p. 200). Indeed, with the demise of the USSR as a threat to national security, terrorism has become the officially-recognised priority of British security services (Norton-Taylor, 1993b; Rimmington, 1994). Enzensberger (1976) has described how the Tsarist secret police (the Ochrana) infiltrated agent provocateurs into revolutionary fighting organisations plotting to overthrow the Russian Tsarist regime. Thus, he suggests (concurring with Hannah Arendt), the Russian revolution of 1917 was, in a significant way, the product of the Tsarist secret police. This was entirely functional for the Ochrana since it 'would become superfluous unless there were a conspiracy to combat' (Enzensberger, 1976, p. 191). Tony Benn reports how the police penetration of the National Union of Students (NUS) was so complete in 1966 that 'during the strike, one of the NUS's committees consisted entirely of Special Branch!' (1990, p.510). Narratives such as these serve to warrant action taken by both the 'paranoid' and the 'normally suspicious' sides of the split. Thus the conspiratorial accounts surrounding the Waco siege and the Oklahoma bombing serve to warrant action taken both by the Identity Movement and the US Federal government. Conspiratorial discourse as revelatory evangelism

The account given by Mary Seal noted earlier was revelatory and was intended to convince. Historical causation is seen as a relatively simple linear process. Although the objects of the conspiracy are largely national or trans-national organizations, the use of rhetorical strategies like personalization (eg by repeatedly noting how the people behind events are the same) and intentionalization links historical events and disparate groups in a narrative. Within the bounds of such texts though, there are constraints as Finn (1993) has noted. It is not possible to speak of complex causation influenced by a number of competing interest groups. Moreover, the influence of organizations in the shaping of historical events is seen as a straightforward matter of who pulls the strings and who pays.

Conspiratorial interpretation serves as a unifying, simplifying and paradoxically both de-mystifying and mystifying explanation. The position set up is for a subject who 'knows'. It is also an argument, uttered within a context of convincing an audience -- a crucial issue, as Billig (1991a) has pointed out. This is a common theme in conspiratorial accounts:

Narrator: Now David Vincent knows that the invaders are here, that they have taken human form. Somehow he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun.

Quinn Martin (1967)

In this excerpt from the introduction to the US TV science-fiction serial The Invaders(8), we see the discursive intent to strive to convice others who are positioned as 'disbelieving' by a subject who is privy to a secret truth. Within popular culture the representation most often encountered here is that of the 'all-American ideal of the tinkering common man' (Ryan & Kellner, 1988, p. 100) and the 'heroic quest' model of conspiracy movies (Barker, 1992). This is perhaps one feature of conspiracy discourse where they may be a difference between the pathological paranoid and normal suspicion positions. The person characterised as paranoid is often alone and wary and not at all evangelical (see, for example, Porteous, 1995). This again, however, is due less to the account and more to the marginalised position in which the person or group are either already placed or in which they know they will be placed if they voice their account.


I noted earlier how the representation of paranoia is varied and contradictory. One of the most potent signs of this is in paranoid humour. A visual example of such humour is the following cartoon (Figure 2.7).

Figure 2.7

In understanding what is going on here, I will draw on two related theories of humour. Purdie (1993) has argued that funniness is over-determined and that it 'involves at once breaking rules and "marking" that break so that correct behaviour is implicitly instated' (p.3). In particular, she proposes that jokes transgress the 'symbolic law' by which one signifier stands for one signified in a logical and contained sequence. Humour thus arises from the multiple generation of signifieds. A second approach, from within the DA tradition is Gilbert & Mulkay's (1984) analysis of scientists' jokes. They suggest these revolve around a central 'proto-joke' which contains a juxtaposition of two competing discourses or interpretive repertoires. With reference to paranoia the proto-joke could be said to be: 'Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me'. Gilbert and Mulkay's approach would suggest that part of this joke's funniness comes from the fact that it contains two incongruous discourses which we would see as the binary oppositions which contruct paranoia. On the one hand we know that the term 'paranoia' can be employed in a case where someone is mistakenly suspicious of others. On the other hand, we know that at times such a belief is, if not true, at least entirely reasonable. Using Purdie's (1993) analysis then, the 'rule' of discourse broken here is the multiple meaning of 'paranoia'. It stands both for a true and rational orientation to the world and at the same time as an example of 'mad' behaviour. iek (1992) has noted that in such jokes there is a 'successful encounter' between the real (ie the world of objects) and reality (ie our perception of the world). The 'final surprise' is produced when the gap separating 'hallucination' from 'reality' is abolished. Such an examination suggests the need for a complex analysis both of how subjects position themselves and of how they are positioned by others as paranoid. In the cartoon in Figure 2.7 we see Smithers going to his boss, asking to see his file only to be told that files are not kept on employees. After Smithers has left the office, the boss then goes to his filing cabinet to find Smithers' file which is emblazoned with the phrase 'nosy bastard'. Here multiple meanings of Smithers' request are generated. On the one hand, his request could be seen as paranoid, especially given his boss's response 'but we don't keep files on employees, Smithers'. On the other hand, his request is entirely reasonable especially when we see not only that a file exists, and that therefore the boss has lied (suggesting Smithers could, reasonably be even more suspicious than he is), but that it labels him a 'nosy bastard' therefore undermining further the legitimacy of his request(9). The proper and correct behaviour (to use Purdie's words) implicitly instated here is clearly trust in and optimism about the behaviour of others. Humour of this type, then, appears to serve the interests of policing and regulating suspicion or, at least, of suspicion of the commonplace. Thus, whilst appearing to subvert the notion of paranoia and thus trouble the dualism we find that the boundary is actually reinstated. But what of the role of suspicion in interpretation and in texts like the current one? What are some of the rhetorical features of conspiracy talk and writing? What effects do they have?


Conspiratorial accounts have long structured explanations of current and historical events. Texts like those of Graumann and Moscovici (1987), Hofstadter (1966) and Jameson (1992) and fictional works like Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (1990) testify to the attraction and power of such discourse which tells intriguing stories with all the ingredients of a plot that will hold the reader or listener: the revelation of secret plans(10). Groh (1987a) has argued that conspiracy discourses tend to appear in specific historical contexts. He has noted that there have been some changes in the forms of such discourse, for example, from metaphysical to worldly intentionality. He has also described (1987b) how conspiracy discourses have different objects -- depending of course on who was using the discourse, and for what purpose. Over time and across contexts objects have included: women (as witches); Jesuits; Rosicrucians; Communists; Masons; Jewish people; the Knights Templar and so on.

Ricoeur (1970) has described a tradition of interpretation developed from the work of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, which he has termed 'the school of suspicion' (p. 32)(11). Their commonality lies in that which they oppose and in the urge to demystify and to decipher expressions of meaning although their subjects, methods and assumptions are vastly different. Some have seen a 'paranoid hermeneutic' as central to capitalism. Thus Freedman (1984) argues that we are constituted 'as paranoid subjects who must seek to interpret the signification of the objects -- commodities -- which define us and which ... mystify the way that they are defined' (p. 18). Indeed, it is not only commodity fetishism which produces this effect but also the real existence of conspiracies which are 'no voluntaristic aberration but a structural necessity for ruling-class politics' (Freedman, 1984, p. 19).

Foucault's work could also be seen as adopting a hermeneutics of suspicion and forms of discourse analysis have been described within such a context: 'rather than taking on trust what interviewees say, discourse analysis attends to every word with a suspicious eye' (Parker, 1992, p. 124, emphasis in original)(12). Eco (1990) has noted that 'every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning' and thus our rule should be 'simple: Suspect, only suspect' (Eco, 1990, pp. 377-378).

A discourse of suspicion is not only a destructive force, undermining dominant cultural notions of trust, it is also productive, creating new forms of knowledge, new interpretations. Such forms of discourse can create a discursive spiral of mistrust and suspicion which may lead, in a paranoic twist, to the construction of a world where nothing and no-one can be trusted. The conspiracist takes the position that in finding out what is really going on she must move beyond surface reality to see what is hidden beneath, to see the hand of the 'Other of the Other' (iek, 1992). Jameson (1992) notes how in conspiracy movies such a move may be represented spatially or through the use of light. Thus in Wild Palms (Stone, 1993) the resistance movement is literally an underground movement, travelling through a huge network of tunnels which the character Harry Wyckoff describes as 'a subway for paranoids'(13). In President's Men (Pakula, 1976) the bright open newsroom where the 'truth' is revealed is contrasted with the dark underground car-park where secrets are discussed. But at each turn, the 'deeper' reality turns out to be yet another 'surface' reality -- in doubting reality it is easy to lose one's way and be prone to the reality-loops beloved of writers like Philip K. Dick -- a good illustration here is the film Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990) inspired by a Dick short story (see also Parker, 1996).

Such reality loops work through the use of rhetorical strategies of intention (as I have argued above) and of connection between apparently unconnected events: 'groups seemingly in opposition ... are all connected, all directed by the invisible centre' (J.M. Hoene-Wronski, quoted in Eco, 1990, p. 312). Eco has characterized such discourse: 'wanting connections, we found connections -- always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else' (Eco, 1990, p. 463-464). The subject positioned here clearly becomes one who not only 'knows' but who knows too much, who is privy to an excess or 'surplus knowledge' (iek, 1992). The connection imperative has been seen as central to paranoid texts (O'Donnell, 1992).

Jameson (1992) has argued that it is the movement between versions of events -- such that conspiracies are switched on or off and such that characters may be detectives one moment and then victim or villain the next -- that defines 'the ideologeme that currently bears the name paranoia in the popular mind' (1992, p. 34) rather than any 'clinical reality' or 'state of consciousness'. For him such switching is 'the deeper truth of the world system' (1992, p. 16), a form of interpretation. But when might such accounts be used and what kind of effects do paranoid and conspiratorial accounts have?


One major effect of the conspiratorial text is to unify disparate interests against an external agent (or internal forces manipulated by an external agent) upon which is projected all manner of malign intent. The subject positioned in this process inhabits a space characterized by a sense of purpose, mission and identity (perhaps at a time when identity is under threat) and also a dramatization of history (Roberts, 1972). The self subject to conspiracy (and hence using conspiratorial discourse) becomes active here, suddenly seeing a meaning in all events, only to become all the more thoroughly enmeshed in a paranoid subject position. There are a number of competing explanations, however, for when such accounts might be used.

Some explanations adopt an individualistic approach to effects. Thus Baumeister & Sommer (1997) argue that people giving apparently bizarre accounts (for example of UFO abductions) do this voluntarily in order to 'transcend and transform their identities and, in particular, to cultivate relationships with powerful, often desirable others' (p.213). Snyder (1997) and Newman (1997) offer similar functionalist interpretations.

Other approaches to explanation are more social and include the view, for example, that conspiratorial accounts are entirely functional within a given context. Thus Case (1987) describes the role of suspicion amongst racehorse trainers whilst Wedow (1979) discusses how the management of paranoia amongst a group of drug users creates elaborate interaction rituals which serve both to protect group participants and reinforce a collective orientation.

A popular historical theory is that conspiratorial accounts are used by politically significant, yet marginalised groups, for example, the political extremes of right and left (Inglehart, 1987) although I have also noted that political majorities will adopt conspiratorial positions if necessary. Moynihan (1985) has suggested such an analysis for the right-wing conspiracy theories attempting to explain the failures of Ronald Reagan's presidency by referring to a conspiracy by the liberal media. Conspiratorial accounts may then, be used to explain and give meaning to otherwise politically confusing or threatening events. Elsewhere (Harper, 1992) I have argued that this suggests that conspiratorial accounts might be more likely to be used by those who are powerless. Certainly work by Mirowsky & Ross (1983) suggests this may be the case. They argued that social positions characterized by powerlessness and by the threat of victimization and exploitation tended to produce paranoia. Goertzel (1994) provides additional support for this view. He reported that black and hispanic respondents and younger people were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than white respondents and older people. Such accounts suggest that conspiracy accounts are more likely to be used by those in powerless positions because they reflect and explain the conditions of their lives.

Waters (1997), however, reporting a survey by the New York Times and WCBS-TV News, comments that African Americans who indicated belief in a number of conspiracy theories were better educated, more politically active and more aware of community problems than non-believers. She argues that this was because they were 'more keenly aware of the continuing disparities between Blacks and Whites' (p.121) because of their social mobility and goes on to dispute the view that conspiracy theories must always be viewed as pathology, noting a range of documented conspiracies. This brings us back to the central theme of this chapter -- the dualism of paranoia's representation in modern popular culture -- since a great deal of social scientific effort has gone into accounting for conspiratorial accounts but this process itself is structured by the dualism in that, implicitly, conspiratorial accounts are seen as abnormal and pathological, as a phenomenon which requires explanation. In the next chapter I will explore the inherent oppositions which construct paranoia in professional culture (eg the scientific literature). We will see that similar oppositions are at work there too.

1. For a selection see the Usenet group alt.conspiracies or visit Vankin & Whalen's web- site:

2. Porteous (1995) and Devalda (1996) give compelling accounts of the fear experienced by someone feeling overwhelmed by suspicion.

3. An anonymous journal referee has indicated to me, however, that Hofstadter's position as a neo-Conservative consensus historian leads to him wishing to marginalise non-centrist views.

4. One of the issues that concerns Groh (1987a) and Wulff (1987) is how to distinguish between individual and group paranoid delusions. This ignores the fact, of course, that the diagnostic repertoire is flexible enough to enable groups to be diagnosed as deluded, for example as folie à deux or folie à plusieurs and attributed to some form of 'delusional infestation' (Enoch & Trethowan, 1991).

5. Rose (1998a) discusses how news media generally construct those with mental health problems as Other.

6. Stella Rimmington, ex-Director-General of the British Security Service publicly denied any plot against Wilson (Rimmington, 1994). Porter (1992), having reviewed the evidence, considers that there were plots afoot but that they did not actually work and that there are other more plausible reasons for the demise of Wilson. Leigh (1988) however, disagrees and offers a plausible alternative analysis of the available information.

7. Pigden (1995) makes a spirited defence of conspiracy theories used appropriately. Baker & Faulkner (1993) give a plausible account of a commercial conspiracy.

8. Although originally made in 1967, The Invaders has been repeated a number of times on British TV. This excerpt was recorded on BBC2 on 20 December 1992.

9. Of course, this joke is funny for other reasons also, including our awareness of suspicious employee-vetting procedures by organizations like the Economic League (Hollingsworth & Tremayne, 1989; Osler, 1994). Surveillance does, of course occur outside of fictional contexts. During the trial of two Welsh nationalists in March 1993, MI5 officers gave evidence that on one day an estimated 38 MI5 agents followed one man as he joined a small nationalist protest march (Norton-Taylor, 1993a). A few days earlier more than 20 MI5 agents had tailed another man. It should be noted that, in the reporting of this State surveillance, paranoia is only momentarily evaded by the ludicrous, and therefore humourous scale of the MI5 operation. A serious discussion of this surveillance would quickly take the form of conspiratorial discourse, a discourse that would then inevitably and ineluctably become read as paranoid.

10. The title of a recent book is illustrative: The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy (Pipes, 1997).

11. A recent book on psychoanalysis is entitled Freud's Paranoid Quest: Psychoanalysis and Modern Suspicion (Farrell, 1996).

12. There is a good deal to be said about the stance of this dissertation, which could be read as suspicious and I will deal with this issue in chapter 7.

13. Tunnels are symbolic for those who adopt a conspiratorial position. For example, there is a whole series of magazines on secret tunnels: Infiltration -- the zine about going places you're not supposed to go.

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