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You're Not Just Imagining It

There is a paranoid culture in America and Peter Starr’s new multimedia book examines the phenomenon.

By Pamela J. Johnson

Peter Starr with new web project, We the Paranoid

Photo: Carlos Puma

First comes the slow, ominous music and computer-generated human head watching a projector screen with flashing images.

As the music accelerates, the images begin to rouse in you a suspicion that something sinister is at play below the surface:

Three hands forming a pyramid envelop an all-knowing eye. Martha Stewart smiles, cradling a chicken. Crop circles. An open convertible carrying President John F. Kennedy. A poker-faced Neo from The Matrix.

This is the introduction to a new Web-based, multimedia book, We the Paranoid, written and produced by Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University.

The book, probing the paranoid culture of contemporary America, contains interactive spaces that test viewers’ intuitive judgment of specific conspiracies and challenge them to distinguish between fear and paranoia.

Each of the project’s 11 chapters begins with a short video narrated by Starr. The accompanying analytical text is equivalent to a short scholarly book.

In pursuing this work, Starr has seen how powerful visuals can be in conveying complex theory.

“You can argue a bit more suggestively, you don’t have to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’,” Starr said. “You can be suggestive in a way that would not work on the page.”

In the introductory video, there is a flash of a black-and-white photo of a bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing Richard Hofstadter. The historian’s touchstone essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, sets the stage for the book’s premise and is discussed in the text.

Starr’s book argues that American conspiracy culture of the past several decades is first and foremost a reaction to an increasing difficulty in conceptualizing sociopolitical power. When people are unable to give power a name, a story, a face, they become more susceptible to believing in conspiracies of all sorts.

Starr noted the medieval concept of the “great chain of being,” in which the order of the universe is a strict hierarchical system. Power emanates from God, goes down through the king, the aristocracy and so forth. Power in our contemporary liberal democracies, however, is much more complicated.

“In our globalized, Internet-driven world, it’s increasingly hard to identify where power comes from,” Starr said.

“So we see the revival of old conspiracy theories and the creation of new ones. Why? Because these days, you can’t readily tell a story about how power works.”

The current financial meltdown and resulting government bailouts have fanned conspiratorial flames. After President Bush signed into law a $700 million plan to bail out the nation’s financial system this past October, Starr said, a quick Google search revealed thousands of entries linking the bailout to conspiracy.

Again, the reasons for the economic meltdown are complex, reaching far beyond any one set of decisions, such as those that left financial industries largely self-regulated.

“There is not one person or factor responsible for bringing down the house of cards,” Starr said. “So we have reverted to these conspiracy theories in order to tell ourselves a story. If we can tell ourselves a story of conspiracy, we can rid ourselves of the supposed conspirators and feel that we have somehow cleaned up the mess. Of course, it’s almost never that simple.”
For his book, Starr has coined the phrase, “paranoia industry,” referring to that subset of the entertainment industry that produces films, television shows and novels with conspiracy plots.

“We are quick to label as kooks those who believe that United Nations troops are amassing on the border of Mexico to invade the United States following a map printed on the back of a Kix cereal box” Starr said. “And yet we go to movies — The Matrix, the Bourne films, The Terminator trilogy — that ask us to buy into a paranoid world view in exchange for a certain pleasure.”

These films tend to make us feel omnipotent, he said. For example, viewers of The Matrix typically empathize with its protagonist Neo, whom the film portrays as a man of destiny, “the One.”

“The films of the paranoia industry allow us as spectators to be ‘the One’ vicariously,” Starr said.

This project is a departure for Starr, whose past books about the Paris Commune and French theory after May ‘68 have addressed a more limited scholarly audience.

“My first book was grounded in psychoanalytic theory, which can be impenetrable to non-academic readers,” Starr said. “Here, I wanted to draw on theory to examine the continuing place of the paranoid style in our culture, but in a way that was accessible to everyone.”

Starr has long embraced multimedia literacy. In 2006 and 2007, as interim dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at USC, he helped create the Multimedia in the Core program, which integrates multimedia authorship training into USC’s undergraduate curriculum.

“I finally stepped back and said, ‘If our undergraduates can do this, why can’t I?’ ” Starr recalled.

Starr incorporated his new book into his “Psychoanalysis and the Arts” course at USC in the fall of 2009. Final project included short videos on specific aspects of today’s paranoid style.

Starr’s undergrad student Andrew Pouw’s video essay examines the germ and viral panic. Shaia Moore’s video looks at cults. Nick Hernandez’s video probes mind control. Emilie Winckel’s project explores the “paranoia industry.” You can find these video essays on the wetheparanoid page of YouTube.

Former students also played key roles in creating the site. Starr’s graduate research assistant at USC, Tara Waugh, helped him produce the videos. Undergraduate Nikki Laurea helped create the interactive features. Austin Wintory wrote the original score for the introduction.

“I didn’t want the project to be just me, Peter Starr, authoritative professor preaching to an audience,” he said. “I wanted it to be participatory. My hope is that the project takes on a life of its own, snowballs and becomes a real community.”

Eventually, the site will move to, which Starr envisions as a site for collective research into the causes and evolution of the nation’s paranoid style.

Where our paranoid style is headed over the next decade is a question that haunts Starr. When asked this question recently, he mediated before answering.

“I have no idea,” he whispered, repeating, “I have no idea. I only know for certain it’s not going away.”

The 1.0 version of We the Paranoid can be viewed here.

Pamela J. Johnson is the senior writer at USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences