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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: You're so paranoid you probably think this newsletter is about you
For better or worse, Richard Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” still undergirds much analysis of politics left and right. Its centrality was apparently confirmed first by Trumpism and then by conspiracy theories around Covid. A few examples, out of scores available: In
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For better or worse, Richard Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” still undergirds much analysis of politics left and right. Its centrality was apparently confirmed first by Trumpism and then by conspiracy theories around Covid. A few examples, out of scores available: In The New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote about “The Paranoid Style in Conservative Politics” back in 2017; last month, Bill Schneider, writing in The Hill, warned “America now embracing the ‘paranoid style’"; and just last week, Laura Kipnis gave a talk at UMass-Amherst on “The Paranoid Style in Campus Politics.”
Hofstadter was interested not just in the American penchant for conspiracy theories (anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic in the 19th century, anti-Communist in his own time) but in their perfervid rhetoric and in the unstable psychology that rhetoric reflected: “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter’s interest was pointedly not in the paranoid’s factual wrongness. “Nothing,” he writes, “really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.”
The concern, then, is not with whether the paranoid’s beliefs are true but with whether they are justified — and for Hofstadter the key to knowing that, as Nicolas Guilhot emphasizes in an intriguing article in the most recent issue of The Journal of the History of Ideas, is to pay attention to aesthetics: that’s why it’s “the paranoid style” and not “the paranoid substance” or “the paranoid content” or “the paranoid ideology.” After all, Hofstadter says, the paranoid style can be found equally “in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims,” just as, say, the hard-boiled noir style in detective fiction can be found both in the angry right-wing fantasies of Mickey Spillane and in the radical protest politics of Chester Himes. Hofstadter himself, in the book-length version of his Harper’s essay, gives Guilhot the clue: “When I speak of the paranoid style, I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style.”
Guilhot’s article is devoted to exploring “the idea that artistic style provided a model for cultural and political analysis,” which, he says, can be traced to interwar essays by the intellectual historian Karl Mannheim. There is, according to Guilhot, a “sleight of hand” involved in Hofstadter’s concept: “Could a style be said to be ‘paranoid’ in the same way it was ‘Mannerist’? Did the detour through art history sufficiently distance the paranoid style from the psychopathological condition?”
Guilhot’s answer, basically, is no. After tracing a rich genealogy of the “politically heuristic value of style” — E.H. Gombrich, Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Binswanger, and Hans Prinzhorn all make appearances — he concludes that Hofstadter and other “thinkers of the paranoid style remained trapped in a contradiction ... that led them to rely on ‘style’ as the manifestation of invisible phenomena.” In other words, the identification of the paranoid style itself deployed a species of interpretive paranoia. “The result,” Guilhot says, “was no longer a historical interpretation of political protest movements in relation to processes of cultural sedimentation and social transformation; it was the denunciation of a psychological atavism, the conjuring of an eternal enemy, and the production of liberal myths and liberal propaganda — if not of liberal paranoia.”
For Guilhot, paranoid style is the paradigmatic politically heuristic aesthetic style — and all inferences about politics that are based on style, he mischievously suggests, risk being paranoid. Guilhot is surely right that accusations of “paranoid style” can themselves be paranoid. When The New York Times’s medical-science reporter Apoorva Mandavilli wrote, in a since-deleted tweet, that “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots” — perhaps an instance of “liberal myths and liberal propaganda” — she could certainly be accused of the paranoid ascription of paranoia to others.
Which isn’t to say that some lab-leak speculation wasn’t rooted in racism and associated paranoias. As Jon Allsop wrote about “the lab-leak mess” in the Columbia Journalism Review, in a formulation that owes something to Hofstadter, “A given theory can be a conspiracy and racist and, at root, true, just as a given theory can be scientifically grounded and not racist and, at root, false; who is propounding it, and why, and based on what, matters.”
For Hofstadter, paranoid style is less a way of doing politics than politics’ replacement: “The difference,” he says, between the paranoiac’s “‘evidence’ and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world.” I wonder, though, whether the concept might not have more purchase now if the accent were put on truth rather than politics. It is the openness to surprise and the experience of uncertainty intrinsic to all genuine truth-seeking that the paranoiac wants to ward off. Mandavilli’s apology, which emphasizes the importance of investigation, makes that point well: “I deleted my earlier tweets about the origins of the pandemic because they were badly phrased. The origin of the pandemic is an important line of reporting that my colleagues are covering aggressively.”
“Badly phrased” is among other things a judgment of style. Some habits of language inhibit openness to the truth — even when they happen to be attached to true statements. As long as those bad verbal habits are common enough to organize a political community, “paranoid style” will remain a valuable tool of analysis. Identifying and avoiding it might even be one of the academy’s purposes.
OK, but this isn’t paranoia ...
The Republican war on higher education has ratcheted up a few notches. In Texas, as our Sarah Brown reports, SB 18, which would prohibit public colleges from granting tenure to new hires, passed the state Senate. (It remains to be seen whether the House and the governor will also approve.) Meanwhile, in North Carolina, HB 715 would “prospectively eliminate academic tenure and establish uniform contracting procedure for faculty at constituent institutions and community colleges.”
- “When a psychonaut breathed ether or injected cocaine, where was he hoping to travel?” In The New Yorker, Clare Bucknell on drug-taking as a form of self-exploration from the 19th century on, occasioned by the historian Mike Jay’s new book on the subject. For more on drugs, check out our Tom Bartlett’s recent essay about the father of ‘shroom-based psychiatry.
- “I couldn’t tell him that my blood had stopped. I couldn’t tell him about the gas in my blood.” In Harper’s, Michael Clune on what it feels like to have an anxiety attack.
- “The site feels a little emptier, though certainly not dead. More like the part of the dinner party when only the serious drinkers remain.” In The New York Times Magazine, Willy Staley writes about what Twitter was and what it is now, as its functionality degrades under Elon Musk. Last summer, The Review published a forum asking whether Twitter makes academics stupid and mean — opinions differed.
- “He is intrigued by the obstinate opacity of affinity, which is so misty as to defy definition.” Becca Rothfeld’s debut column as The Washington Post’s nonfiction book critic is about the art critic Brian Dillon’s Affinities.
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