"Conspiracy and the Essentialist Crisis: Postmodern Anxiety in American Film"
The central premise of conspiracy - that the 'state of things' is not based in contingency,
but rather in the premeditated intentions of a quasi-omnipotent and omniscient agency - flows
over into so many other contemporary narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, and seems
to reflect a cultural tendency to attach individual and, particularly, willed factors of causation
to historical events in general. Whether the assumptions that support this tendency are accu-
rate or not (i.e., whether there is really a conspiracy) is unimportant. What is of interest is the
question of what characterizes conspiracy and what these characteristics can tell us about the
culture circulating these narratives. Repeatedly, we encounter individuals debilitated by some
oppressive external agent who threatens to usurp their own agency. When we think of Cold
War era films such as Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or John Franken-
heimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), we immediately recognize the mechanisms at
work: some threatening alien Other or secret agency acts as a representative manifestation of
the political or national ideological Other we collectively fear. In what are such fears based?
Through an analysis of conspiracy narratives, I will illustrate how postmodern anxieties
and fantasies in which 'I' cannot protect the boundaries to my self are played out. It is instruc-
tive to read such anxieties within the context of two poles of thought: humanist notions of the
self, rooted in Enlightenment thinking and characterized by essentialism, and postmodern
notions of the self, characterized by decenterment, fluid boundaries and the 'construction' of
identity. Some films of potential interest will be Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Peter Weir's
The Truman Show, Mark Pellington's Arlington Road, David Fincher's The Game and Fight
Club, and the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix trilogy.
University of St. Gallen