Plotting the sixties : the culture of conspiracy in the USA
This dissertation explores how the discourse of conspiracy shaped and was itself shaped by the cultural and political landscape of the USA during the 1960s. It focuses on the popular engagement with notions of conspiracy in four key areas, namely postmodernism, feminism, the counterculture, and gay rights. Broadly speaking, it traces the way those groups who had previously been the object of demonological scrutiny began in the sixties to tell conspiracy theories about those in power-and about each other. It is concerned with "plotting" both as a form of conspiratorial organisation, and as a narrative device. Through close readings of the poetics of conspiracy in both factual and fictional texts, this thesis aims to bring together "realist" and "symbolist" approaches to the "paranoid style" in American culture. It consists of four interrelated case studies, each of which examines key texts from around 1963, in conjunction with works from the 1990s which rethink the earlier representations. The first chapter explores how conspiracy theories have mounted a challenge not just to the official "lone gunman" version of the assassination of President Kennedy, but to the "authorised version" of the 1960s themselves. Through a reading of Don DeLillo's Libra (1988) and Oliver Stone's JFK (1992), I argue that narratives about the conspiratorial activities of the authorities have contributed to a crisis in the authority of narrative, making the Kennedy assassination both a symptom and a cause of a postmodern culture of paranoia. The second chapter considers the figuration of conspiracy in popular American feminist writing, from Betty Friedan' s The Feminine Mystique (1963) to Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth (1990). I argue that conspiracy tropes have functioned not only to link the personal and the political, but also to establish a series of implicit divisions within American feminism. The next chapter traces the emergence of a self-conscious engagement with the culture of conspiracy in the sixties through the career of Thomas Pynchon. I then examine what has happened to the conspiracy culture of the sixties, through an analysis of Vineland (1990). I argue that the earlier paranoid "depth" of secrecy has been flattened out by the proliferation of the signs of mass culture. The final chapter concentrates on the highly idiosyncratic paranoid fictions of William S. Burroughs. My aim is not so much to diagnose him as to locate his writings within postwar discourses of homosexuality, drug addiction and disease. I examine how his novels of the sixties rework the notion of paranoia as an externalisation of private fears by highlighting the internalisation and even the literal incorporation-of public surveillance. I then consider the possibilities and pitfalls of reading Burroughs in the light of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and conversely, of reading his novels as a map of the contemporary culture of body panic.