The Paranoid Chronotope
Power, Truth, Identity
Frida Beckman



When Ed Fletcher, in Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story “Adjustment Team,” turns up late to work, he steps into a “rolling haze,” an “indistinct gray” of a reality under adjustment. As he reaches out to touch the office building that he thought he knew, the building starts to crumble. “It rained down, a torrent of particles. Like sand. Ed gaped foolishly. A cascade of gray debris, spilling around his feet. And where he had touched the building, a jagged cavity yawned—an ugly pit marring the concrete.” Because of a mistake on behalf of a member of the Adjustment Team, he has unwittingly discovered their existence. This team, he learns, exists to “supplement” the “natural process,” to correct and adjust events for certain ends, in this particular instance to help ease the tensions of the Cold War. They are, a member of the team assures him, “fully licensed to make such corrections.” To make a long story short, Ed is shocked at first but ultimately adjusts his view of reality and its components and incorporates this element into his conceptualization of the world and his role within it. At the very end of the story, he recognizes that the team has made further adjustments in order to save him from having to answer his wife’s questions about the whole mishap—after his discovery, he roams around the city in shock and his wife thinks he has been unfaithful. Gazing upward in the final lines of the story, he says softly, “Thanks. . . . I think we’ll make it—after all. Thanks a lot.”

Fast-forward 50 years to a post-truth and conspiracy theory–ridden twenty-first century in which our very conceptions of reality clash, violently, and in which a recurring trope is that someone or something is purposefully working to hide the true reality behind veils of deceit and deception. One of the most extreme examples is found in online communities that strive to “red pill”: to wake up the countless people—mostly men, mostly white—who have been duped into accepting the fake reality we see around us. Like Ed, these men are persuaded that they walk around in what they believe is reality but, as explained to them, this reality is one co-opted by liberals, feminists, and elites who have brainwashed them to the point at which they no longer recognize their own oppression. Piercing the veil of deception and waking up to reality—reality as characterized by misandry, elitist manipulation, and the undermining of white Americans with the help of unregulated immigration and abortion—is vital if white men want to recuperate their agency, power, and identity. And they have been getting considerable help in this effort by men in very powerful positions. The jagged cavity is yawning and promises a revelation of the real: Thanks—“I think we’ll make it—after all. Thanks a lot.”

The sense or idea or conviction—personal or collective, pathological or political—that our everyday existence is not quite what it seems, that others are not quite what they seem, and, critically, that we ourselves are perhaps not quite what we seem is a specter haunting the modern West. More precisely, what seems to be on the increase is the sense or idea or conviction—personal or collective, pathological or political—that our everyday existence is not governed according to the logic we thought we knew, that others are not people just like us, and, critically, that we ourselves are perhaps not who we thought we were. We can go further, that what seems to be accumulating is the sense or idea or conviction—personal or collective, pathological or political—that our everyday existence is manipulated, that others constitute a threat to us, and, critically, that we ourselves are perhaps not in control of our own thoughts and actions. This sense or idea or conviction is, of course, the looming specter of paranoia.

Historical, philosophical, and political conditions help determine the severity of the specter of paranoia as a social phenomenon. Indeed, the notion that we can profoundly know reality, others, and ourselves in the first place is itself historically, philosophically, and politically coded. Therefore, the paranoid tendencies of any one time and place tell us something important about a society and its culture.

In this book, I note a dramatic realization and politicization of paranoia in the West in general and in the United States in particular in the new millennium. At the core of my study sits an attempt to understand the nature and resurgence of this paranoia and how it emerged during the second half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first. Because what do they all have in common—the commanding presence of continuous surveillance, filter bubbles, algorithmic radicalization, climate change deniers, fake news, alternative facts, Macedonian troll factories, identification of a perverted elite, ethnic profiling of Muslims, caged immigrant children, Fox News fear mongering, presidential accusatory tweets, Infowars, proliferating conspiracy theories, incel hatred of women, burgeoning nationalism, growing alt-right movements? Most centrally, they have in common a sense that everyday existence is shadowed by something menacing, a more or less explicit identification of a more or less clearly outlined enemy, and a fear or conviction that this enemy is out to get them or at the very least poses a threat to their individual freedom and identity. In other words, what they have in common is a tendency toward, or outright actualization of, a paranoid mindset.

On the one hand, we are quite right in not knowing whom to trust, in struggling to identify where real power lies, in questioning the sources of facts and truths, in anxiously scrutinizing our own agency and identity in the age of control and surveillance. On the other hand, we live in an age in which fear—and in particular the fear of the other—has been institutionalized, commodified, and systematically and continually rebranded. Where are the boundaries between reasonable doubt and downright paranoia? How is the precarious negotiation of such boundaries affected by a paranoid political climate that methodically identifies evil enemy others and promotes conspiracy theories in America in the twenty-first century? To what extent can this balancing act be explained by the increasingly evident disjunctions between diehard conceptions of the autonomous subject and the implicit undermining of this subject in the neoliberal control society evolving during the latter parts of the twentieth century? And why is the progressively populist and nationalist paranoia emerging in recent decades so decidedly white and male, creating unholy bonds between lonely incels in basements and the country’s highest office?

Definitions of paranoia, David Trotter notes, have remained relatively constant over time and the concept has seemed obvious, transparent, naturalized (2001, 16–7). In its current, basic, pathological sense, paranoia is essentially “a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent” (American Psychiatric Association [APA] 2013). APA criteria include assumptions of exploitation and deception, secrecy, mistrust taking the shape of minute scrutiny of people’s actions, reading hidden—often demeaning or threatening—meaning into comments or events, and long-held grudges for perceived hostility (2013). This basic and clinical definition can be recognized in many of the phenomena analyzed here. However, I am not primarily interested in paranoia as an individual and pathological phenomenon but examine it rather as a significant feature of American society and culture more broadly: as a style in American politics, as a theme in fiction, as a mode in theory, and as a method in literary and cultural interpretation.

As a style in politics, paranoia reaches back at least to the American religious persecutions of the eighteenth century; as a theme in literary fiction, it reaches back at least to Cervantes; as a mode in theory, it reaches back at least to Descartes; and as a method in literary and cultural interpretation, it reaches back at least to Rousseau. But something happens toward the end of the Second World War. Dick’s short story speaks to a philosophical preoccupation reaching back to Plato’s simulacrum and the idea of flawed copies, but as it was published alongside many other fictional texts with a similar theme in the 1950s, it can also be said to mark the early days of the specter of American paranoia in its current form. The rise of the Cold War, the second Red Scare and McCarthyism, changes in the economic logic, and an escalating complexity of information technologies and social communication networks over subsequent decades were some of the key components that encouraged and shaped paranoia from then on. Intensifying over the later parts of the twentieth century, we see how the new social movements contested and changed social power relations; how late capitalism unhinged the relation between production and value; how globalization, digitalization, and advanced communication systems challenged the subject’s capacity to conceive of and interpret its relation to the world; and how decades of intensifying neoliberalism dislocated the political subject’s position.

Twenty-first century paranoia has become progressively apparent in politics and political discourse in the polarization of views, in institutionalized suspicion of “elites,” in accumulative nationalism and xenophobia, in an aggressive white masculinity, and in shifting relations to news, information, and facts in what has come to be called post-truth society. Focusing on these difficulties, I pay particular attention here to the significant role played by a changing public sphere. The conditions of this sphere have been quite radically transformed since the 1950s, and the ways in which people communicate with and imagine relationships with one another have altered drastically. The spaces in which experiences, thoughts, and knowledge are shared and negotiated have multiplied but have also, arguably, become more complex and obscure. In the seeming no-space of the digital world and in the ungraspable totality of globalized capitalism, the world has become bigger and smaller at the same time. This, I suggest, aggravates and partly explains our growing uncertainty about how to locate and identify power, where to find truth, who can provide facts, and, indeed, what social and political reality is and what the nature of individual agency and identity is within it.

Attempts to understand the relation between subject and power, between subject and truth, and between subject and identity, in literature as well as in society and politics more generally, has largely been the work of critique. Therefore, I also interrogate the disenchantment with, or even critique of, critique that has grown in recent decades as linked to literary, societal, and political developments. It has been argued that theoretical developments during the second half of the twentieth century contributed to the burgeoning paranoia in the period I study. John Farrell, for example, points to the overarching and inescapable dimensions of language, ideology, and power theorized during this period and a common trend of ascribing agency to discourse, to capital, and to power while displacing the freedom and intentionality of individuals to “an unfixable and unaccountable locus of control” (2006, 5). Whether we choose to see such theories as paranoid or not, we can see, with Farrell, how such approaches to understanding structures, systems, and power really do complicate the possibility of envisioning oneself as an autonomous individual. Indeed, this is not a failure—quite the contrary. The very aim of many of these theories has been to rethink the nature of the subject and of the humanist traditions underpinning our conceptions of it. Thus it is arguably not these theories themselves so much as the tension between them and liberal notions of subjectivity that create the paranoid response. The tension in how to negotiate agency in relation to structures, systems, and power has intensified in recent debates on postcritique. In fact, as we will see, postcritique echoes society’s more general anxieties surrounding interpretation and critical thinking while failing to fully take into account the conditions of its own existence.

Centering on what I identify as three key dimensions—power, truth, and identity—in the contexts of society, literature, and critique, I try to explore and explain the increasing paranoia in our society that began in the second half of the twentieth century. This endeavor relies on and is enabled by the construction and subsequent employment of the central concept of the paranoid chronotope. I demonstrate that a paranoid chronotope emerges essentially as two spatiotemporal logics chafing against each other. One is typically recognized as a commonly accepted reality; the other is not directly visible but is rather sensed as an underlying and perhaps even hidden but ultimately truer reality. As we will see in the various analyses of society, literature, and critique, subjects seem to sense that dimensions such as society, politics, and economy affect them but they refuse to recognize the limits of liberal individual subjectivity. Nervous attempts to consolidate an awareness of social and political influence over the subject with a strong belief in the subject’s freedom and agency result not in a renegotiation of the conception of the self in relation to the social but in the construction of clear enemies and hidden realities in relation to which this self can be reinforced.

Preliminary Definitions

“The trouble with paranoia,” Trotter says, “is that we all think we know what it is” (2001, 16). Its definitions, as we have already established, have not changed that much over time. For example, the contemporary definition provided by the APA does not differ that much from earlier clinical diagnoses (even if the APA would likely have problems with earlier accounts of the causes of paranoia). The term paranoia appears already in Greek literature and philosophy—in Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Plato—but is then often loosely employed as crazy or mad or “thinking amiss” or “going astray” (Lewis 1970, 2). It is also from the Greek that the term stems etymologically: being “beside” (para) the “mind” (nous).

Medical classification of paranoia began in the eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth. With the German physician and psychiatrist Johann Christian August Heinroth, we see the germination of its modern conception. Heinroth identified four species of paranoia according to Aubrey Lewis: ecnoia (“a single false idea is responsible for gross distortion of a subject’s relation with the outside world”), paraphrosyne (“delusions about the supernatural”), moria (“a sort of megalomania”), and paranoia catholica (“a general mixture of emotional, cognitive, and volitional aberrations”) (1970, 3). Various and disparate engagements with the term continued during the nineteenth century. The closest they got to a consensus, Lewis suggests, is with Ludwig Snell in 1890, who saw paranoia as a chronic illness that centrally features delusions of influence, persecution, and, frequently, grandeur.

With the rush to science during the nineteenth century came numerous ways of understanding mental disorders, and various diagnoses and names were tested out: monomania, dementia praecox, paraphrenia. Paranoia as a concept started gaining ground toward the end of the century. An article from 1882, “Are you a Paranoiac? Or the Latest Nickname for Cranks,” described how Henry S. Williams, a medical superintendent at a hospital came up with a new term, one the article believes, “will soon pass into the current coin of civilized intercourse.” Paranoia was a “new kind of mental illness,” “a modern form of insanity,” and we recognize its symptoms already in this early description: “delusions of persecution, or hallucinations, or delusions of grandeur” (Review of Reviews, n.p.). However, Dr. Williams was either well informed or perceptive of the times, since at this point several psychiatric studies had been published.

The first extended approach to a clinical conception of paranoia can be found in J.E.D. Esquirol’s pioneering work on insanity. In Mental Maladies: A Treatise on Insanity (1845), he described what he called “monomania,” a condition that can beset the intellect, the emotions, and the will. In this he saw a disorder with a very strong focus, in which patients “seize upon a false principle, which they pursue without deviating from logical reasonings, and from which they deduce legitimate consequences, which modify their affections, and the acts of their will” (320). Noting the systematicity of this disorder, as well as its suspicion and grandeur, Esquirol’s monomania clearly seems to be paranoia avant la lettre. Precursors of the concept of paranoia can also be found in James Cowles Pritchard’s work, as Trotter points out, primarily in his Treatise of Insanity from 1835, which discussed the “moral insanity” of monomania, a conviction characterized by suspicion and grandeur and pertaining to one particular area and circumstance (2001, 24). Esquirol’s and Pritchard’s conceptions of the systematic and methodical nature of paranoia were echoed in Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Textbook of Insanity (1870).

With Krafft-Ebing, the interpretative dimensions of paranoia become clearly visible: “Accidental, harmless remarks by others; frequently meeting the same person; accidental departure of those that were present when he enters a room; the passers-by that avoid him or stop; clearing the throat or coughing”—these are all interpreted as signs that reinforce growing suspicions. This is the passive stage of the disease, in which the patient withdraws, brooding over the hostility of the world around him (1905, 382–3). A more active stage is reached, either gradually or suddenly, when suspicions intensify and turn into “terrible certainty” and delusionary systematicity. Previously generalized suspicion and scattered signs materialize and take shape as a starker situation and an identifiable enemy. Depending on the person’s own position and convictions, this enemy may be an individual such as a companion or associate or a group such as Jesuits or socialists or the secret police (383). The situation now becomes much more acute and frightening. A third and final stage is reached when the paranoiac, previously in the dark about the reasons for his persecutions, searches for its rationalization and finds it in delusionary grandeur. He is really a very important person—a prince, a prophet, a messiah—and so it is no wonder that people are out to get him (386).

Many of these elements are also present in perhaps the most famous historical paranoiac of all: Judge Daniel Paul Schreber. Writing on his own disease in Memoirs of a Nerve Patient published in 1903, Schreber described how, having felt a desire to be penetrated as a woman, he was convinced that this desire was caused by experiments performed on him by doctors. He also accounted for periods in his life during which he was convinced that he was chosen by God. Schreber’s case was made famous by Sigmund Freud’s study of his memoirs, and although Freud had much more limited experience of real-life paranoiacs and their diagnoses and treatments than earlier psychiatrists, his work on Schreber has remained a key reference in the field (see Freud 2013). Freud’s diagnosis—that Schreber’s paranoia was caused by repressed homosexuality—also perpetuated and strengthened conceptions of paranoia and sexuality as linked.

In his thesis on paranoia, Jacques Lacan lifts paranoia from the sexual mires and sees it rather as an underlying dimension of all knowledge. This understanding emerges from his dynamic understanding of the three registers of subjectivity: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. The Imaginary is constituted by our consciousness and awareness as it is constructed by our perception and conception of the world. This is a sensory realm in that it is based on our perceptions and conceptions of what exists beyond ourselves. But it is also necessarily an illusory realm; we do not have access to the Real but can only imagine it. Knowledge is reality as constructed in our fantasy and as such is fictional. Unfortunately, this is as good as it gets: imaginary knowledge is all we have. The Imaginary, in turn, is dependent on the Symbolic—on images, affects, interpersonal relations, and, most centrally, sociolinguistic constructions of the Real. This “symbolic order” is culturally specific, consisting of, for example, laws and norms and traditions, or, in short, collective conceptions and constructions of the real or, as Lacan calls it, the structure. The Imaginary with the help of the Symbolic produces the Real, but this is still necessarily a deluded conception. The Real is always and forever elusive. We think we have access to it, but because we can only reach out to it via the Imaginary and the Symbolic, we can never get to it.

The Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real coexist in tension, which Jon Mills describes as a “negative dialectic” without the possibility of a Hegelian synthesis. The dynamic is interdependent and conflictual, and while there may be momentary coalescence between them, they are essentially irresolvable (2019, 15). The subject emerging from this negative dialectic is fundamentally paranoid. Not only are we subject to our own Imaginary, which keeps us locked in conceptions of our surroundings that are only our own; this Imaginary is shaped by a Symbolic that is specifically not our own. Thus deluded by the I as well as by the Other, the Real is bound to haunt us. As we will see later, a concealed Real quite concretely haunts some subjects and groups today, often with the crucial difference that they believe it is actually accessible provided they adopt a gruesome enough tactic.

The idea of paranoia as an underlying element of life on a general level emerges even clearer with Melanie Klein, who also builds on Freud but deviates from him as well as Lacan centrally in terms of the temporality of paranoia. Rather than discussing stages, Klein identifies positions, suggesting that we do not put phases behind us so much as continue to vacillate between them through life. In response to anxiety, this vacillation can take shape on the one hand as a depressive position and on the other as a paranoid/schizoid one. The paranoid/schizoid position has its origins in the very early days of a child’s life. Unable to experience and recognize complexity and wholeness, the child separates the world into good and bad, which in Klein’s terms translates into the good breast (food, warmth, comfort) and the bad breast (pain, colic, intentional or unintentional cruelty by the parents). Around six months, however, and providing it has obtained enough sense of security, the child has developed enough to begin to recognize that the good and the bad breast belong to the same person, to see that good and bad coexist in the same individual. This brings on a depressive position, characterized my mourning and loss. Nothing will ever be all good or last forever. This is a stronger and more mature position in that it recognizes the vicissitudes and ambivalences that characterize reality. Both positions continue to coexist throughout adult life, but whereas a safe and loving upbringing will make the child better prepared to handle life’s inconsistencies, a less fortunate start in life means that the child will likely handle anxiety by means of the strong separation, or splitting, as Klein calls it, between good and bad and thus in the projections of the paranoid/schizoid position.

That theories of paranoia materialize alongside the evolution of modernity is no coincidence. Developing alongside new types of knowledge and knowledge bearers is what Trotter calls a “paranoid modernity,” in which the very status of knowledge is at stake. Trotter underlines the tension between knowledge and uncertainty for the new professional classes emerging in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the authority bestowed on them arises what he calls the “psychopathy of expertise” (2001, 7). This is associated with the increasing dissemination of professional methods and ideals on all levels and in all activities of society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this sense, and as Trotter puts it, paranoia becomes “meritocracy’s illness” (82).

Paranoia also, like psychiatric diagnoses generally, is an example of how definitions and diagnoses evolve with, and function as, disciplinary power during this period. “Psychiatric power,” as Michel Foucault has taught us, arose with the increase in and institutionalization of psychiatric knowledge in the nineteenth century, and establishes “that supplement of power by which the real is imposed on madness in the name of a truth possessed once and for all by this power in the name of medical science, of psychiatry” (2006, 133). In this way, psychiatric concepts not only help to produce the cases that fit their description, as David J. Harper notes, but also, as Nicholas Rose puts it “make new sectors of reality thinkable and practicable” (1994, 90; 1990, 105). Harper underlines that this means that influential historical accounts of paranoia, such as Lewis’s, should themselves be subject to critical scrutiny. An example of the weakness in Lewis’s historical account, Harper suggests, is the treatment of the struggle to classify paranoia as a problem isolated to psychiatry (Harper, 101) and thus the lack of contextualization when it comes to the philosophical and intellectual history of as well as the implications and interrelations between psychiatric diagnoses and power.

The weakness of the definition of paranoia that I rely on is the opposite of Lewis’s. I am less interested in relying on or working toward a psychiatrically precise and finalized definition—an impossible task, as the brief history just provided intimates—and more interested in precisely the philosophical, intellectual, literary, and political contexts of paranoia and how they are related to certain conceptions of the subject. Paranoia is often associated with modernity, not only because of its burgeoning knowledge production and disciplinary power but also and quite centrally because of what is seen as nostalgia for a coherent subject. This nostalgia is commonly contrasted with what is seen as the affirmation of fragmentation, and thus of schizophrenia, in postmodernity.

Still, many theorists of paranoia as an American cultural and literary phenomenon recognize it as growing particularly strong after World War II, first as a result of Cold War tensions and McCarthyism—famously articulated by Richard Hofstadter’s formulation of “the paranoid style in American politics”—and later as a response to anxieties related to radical progressions in globalization, communication, surveillance, and control systems during the latter part of the century. In particular, and of specific interest to me, are the recurring and frustrated struggles of identifying power structures thematized in postmodern literature. Indeed, the insistent paranoid tendencies in literary fiction during this period enforce a reconsideration of the common conception of the postmodern as a celebration of fragmentation, especially when it comes to the subject. At least in the paranoid genre, according to Timothy Melley, there is an easily discernable, deep anxiety triggered by a sense of loss of personal autonomy through postwar culture (2000, vii). In my treatment, the paranoid chronotope is a tool to help identify the similarities between such literary formulations of paranoia and paranoia’s contemporary social, cultural, and critical expressions.