This study critically analyzes set of social structures and the discourses in Postwar America which abridges individual autonomy presented in the texts; Catch 22 and The Stepford Wives mainly drawing upon Timothy Melley’s theoretical insight of Agency Panic and Postmodern Transference.
The loss of individual agency is the predominant theme of these texts where self is vulnerable to be affected by the external affairs. This study initially discusses the theoretical conceptions of Agency Panic and Postmodern Transference and their relationship ensued by the character analysis and the creation of conspiracy, and finally the conclusion. Agency Panic, termed by Timothy Melley deals with the anxieties of loss of individuality caused by multitude cultural practices and various social, political and economic structures. The ebbed individual autonomy contaminating human specialties makes one extremely anxious and paranoid. This feeling or sense of loss of control over own self causes Agency Panic in the individuals. Melley defines Agency Panic as “.
. . intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control – the conviction that one’s action are being controlled by someone else, that one has been “constructed” by powerful external agents” (12). Agency Panic, in other words is a defensive attempt to protect the integrated liberal self against the external control. Agency Panic stems from the paranoid state of the individuals. Melley has distinctly distinguished and defined ‘paranoia’ from its traditional meaning.
Traditionally paranoia is associated with pathological meaning that refers to the recurrent expression of distrust and fear of environs but Melley here attributes ‘paranoia’ with the intensely defensive responses of self to the structures which subordinate the agency of an individual. Hence, the steady form of angst of loosing individual freedom is paranoia in broader sense. Postwar America has often been depicted as a nation under the grip of ‘conspiracy mania’ where ‘paranoid style’ is dominant structure of art and literature. This era in the United States is defined as the ‘age of conspiracy’ too.
Observing this popular phenomenon of conspiracy, Melley states, “Conspiratorial explanations have become a central feature of American political discourse, a way of understanding power that appeals to both marginalized groups and the power elite” (7). Although the present dominant theme in Postwar America is conspiracy and paranoia, it can be traced back to decades ago. The development of conspiracy narratives is not rooted in the historical incidents like the Kennedy assassination, Watergate or the cold war. Indeed, it stems “. .
. from a sense of diminished humanity” (11), a feeling of individuals that they cannot impact the significant social phenomena. Conspiracy theory is so widespread in America that it ranges from political affairs, CIA investigation, and government actions to art, literature, movies and television shows after the World War II. This conspiracy theory has been a governing narrative in Postwar American culture. This dominant cult is reflected in the mainstream art and literature. Canonical writers like Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K.
Dviduaick, Joseph Heller, Ralph Elision, Margaret Atwood and William Gibson to denominate a few “have all produced narratives in which large governmental, corporate, or social system appear uncannily to control individual behavior and in which characters seem paranoid, either to themselves or to other characters in the novel” (8). This sort of outlook is rapidly circulated in the various discourses and is popularly accepted. Melley, for his theoretical proposition differentiates the meaning of the term ‘conspiracy’ from its traditional signification. Here, the term no longer designates small and secret plot; instead, it is quite antithetical to the traditional meaning and refers to the actions of the larger and powerful social-political organizations, governmental authority, information and technology, any system and their work is not secret or concerned but obscure and so rife. Conspiracy theory serves to comprehend how individual’s self is disintegrated by the powerful agents in the society which is the starting point of conspiracy. It further unravels the unwanted and forceful influence of the larger social bodies.
Thus, Melley quotes Don DeLillo that “All conspiracies begin with individual self-repression” (10). DeLillo implies that people who fall in conspiracy repress their desire and act for the execution of collective goals. The aforementioned line has another implication too. If self repression is the beginning of conspiracy, those who are not involved in it attempt to protect their integrated self against social structures. Therefore, to understand the relationship between social orders and the individuals is to see the individual in antithetical to society. Melley has also figured out dual features of Agency Panic.
“The first is a nervousness or uncertainty about the causes of individual actions. This fear sometimes manifests itself in a belief that the world is full of “programmed” or “brainwashed” subjects, addicts, automatons, or “mass-produced” persons . . .” (12). Beside this, the secondary feature incorporates that “controlling organizations are themselves agents – rational, motivated entities with the will and the means to carry out complex plans” (12-13). A new breed of individual who is less autonomous has been produced by various new forms of controlling system in the postmodern era.
It means individual subjectivity is always under the grip of postindustrial society or post-civilization. The emergence of this new world with new cultural, social and economic order is beyond the control of individuals in the Postwar age. This loss of individuals’ autonomy to influence or control the situation or meaningful social actions generates Agency Panic in them. There is the emergence of several postmodern theories in Postwar America which see self as a part of larger system or the construction of the exteriority. Regarding this alternative postmodern concept of human agency which is antithetical to liberal humanism, Melley mentions “. .
. individual actions or desires can be controlled by large system . . . that individuals are “constructed” by powerful systems of knowledge or discourse” (38). Postmodernist notion about the self is intensely criticized in the defense of liberal individualism and the unified self.
These critics directly respond to Postmodernists’ concept of human agency as a rhetorical attribution of intent and rationality to larger structure of social order than individuals where individuals are the construction of those larger agencies. This notion of shift of individual agency to other system or the level of collective is what Melley calls Postmodern Transference. If an individual sees himself as a part of social orders, he assimilates the postmodern concept of self and work for the communal goals is Postmodern Transference whereas if he realizes that he is under the influence of such structures of society, he attempts to protect his penetrable self causing Agency Panic.