The Politics of Paranoia from Hobbes to Q Anon
Political Science 401/514
Monday, 1:30-4:20 pm
Professor: Noga Rotem
Office hours: Tuesdays 2-4 pm, or by appointment, Gowen Hall 125
Paranoid leaders and popular fears of conspiracies have always been part of political life. In the last several years, however, we have seen the rise of a powerful mainstream conspiracy thinking, fueled by the internet and by a surge of right-wing populism around the world, and stoked specifically by the 45th president of the United States. This tendency is a source of growing public concern. Many political commentators have been wondering if we have entered an era of ‘post-truth,’ whether we will ever be able to agree again on the basic facts of our political reality across party lines, and what does the normalization of conspiracy thinking tell us about the future of democracy.
Reflecting on this public debate, this seminar will ask: what are the political conditions that breed paranoia? How can we explain people’s mistrust of facts? their flight from reality? Is political paranoia a problem of intellectual laziness? (that is, people don’t care enough about the truth?) Is it a problem of mental health? (that is, followers of conspiracy theories should seek treatment?) Where is the desire for the paranoid fantasy coming from? How should democratic people respond to paranoid politics? And, is there anything positive about paranoia that might contribute to (rather than only endanger) democratic life?
We will explore these questions by engaging major works in Political Theory that grappled with paranoia and its impact on politics. Thomas Hobbes will be our starting point, as Hobbes dedicated the entire fourth volume of his masterpiece – Leviathan, to the task of combatting the conspiracy theories (or, demonological doctrines, as he called them) that proliferated in 17th century England and that exacerbated the mayhem of the English Civil War. Might Hobbes’s refutation of paranoia be of any use for us today? After Hobbes we will turn to Hannah Arendt, Simon de Beauvoir, Richard Hofstadter, alongside contemporary scholars such as Jodi Dean, Timothy Melley, Elizabeth Anker, and others, all will help us theorize paranoia, understand paranoid fantasies, and assess their impact on democratic life. We will conclude with an exploration of some recent work on the Q Anon conspiracy theory and its followers.
Requirements and evaluation, 401 students:
- Quality of participation: 15%. Make it a habit to participate frequently in class discussion (at least once every session). Full and engaging participation is crucial to the success of this seminar, and to your participation grade. In order to contribute to class discussions, you will have to read the assigned materials before Every Wednesday I will send out questions to help focus your reading in preparation of the following Monday’s class.
- 5 Reflection posts 1-2 paragraphs (due Monday morning at 8 am): 10% Reflection posts are not papers. Instead, they are opportunities for you to reflect on some of the texts ‘on the spot’ as you are reading them, that is, in a more spontaneous and less structured way than you would in a paper, and share your thoughts with your instructor and peers on canvas. You might feel that you strongly agree, disagree, puzzled, intrigued, etc. In your response, try to refer to a specific paragraph or page number from the text. The response might answer (concisely) one of the following questions: What in this particular text, or segment from a text made you pause and think, and why; why do you so strongly agree or disagree; or, how do you see this text/segment of a text speaking to the larger themes we are discussing in class, or speaking to another text we have already read and discussed. Before you write your reflection post, check canvas to see if anyone else posted a reflection about the same text. Read previous posts, and consider responding to them in your own response as you see fit. These reflection posts will help you a great deal with your final project.
- One in-class presentation about the week’s readings: 20%. Meet with me in office hours the week before you are presenting to plan for your presentation.
- Midterm essay: study a conspiracy theory of your choosing: 25%. 7 pp max. Prompt will be distributed on October 18, assignment is due on November 8.
- Final project: In pairs: create a cognitive map of the seminar’s readings (using at least 8 texts), and present it as a poster in class on week 10: 30%. Due on December 6th.
Requirements and evaluation, 514 students:
- Quality of participation: 15%
- 5 Discussion posts (due Monday at 8 am): 10%
- One in-class presentation about the week’s readings: 20%
- 1-page research paper prospectus (due on week 7): 5%
- Final research paper (15 pp): 50%.
Health and safety in a pandemic
In this class, masks covering nose and mouth are required, and eating and drinking are prohibited. Anyone who has symptoms should stay home and get tested. Anyone who tests positive needs to report it to the UW COVID-19 Response and Prevention Team (email@example.com , 206-616-3344) and quarantine for 10 days.
In a case where the instructor the instructor needs to quarantine, students will be notified by email, and lecture or respective discussion section will temporarily move online.
Finally, everyone is encouraged to install WA Notify on their phone to facilitate contact tracing.
Cases of suspected cheating and plagiarism will be referred to the Arts and Sciences Committee on Academic Conduct. University policies and guidelines regarding cheating and plagiarism can be found at http://depts.washington.edu/grading/issue1/honesty.htm#misconduct.
Extension requests will require appropriate documentation. If you need to turn work in late, please give prior notice to your me.
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**All readings will be posted on canvas under “Files”**
UNIT ONE: INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS PARANOIA AND HOW SHOULD WE STUDY IT?
Week 1, October 4: Explanation and Exoneration
Sarah Churchwell, “Can American Democracy Survive Donald Trump?” The Guardian, November 2020
Hannah Arendt, “Preface to the First Edition,” in: Origins of Totalitarianism
Judith Butler, “Explanation and Exoneration,” in: Precarious Life
Week 2, October 11: Medication or Education?
Simone Chambers, “Truth, Deliberative Democracy, and the Virtues of Accuracy: is Fake News Destroying the Public Sphere?”
Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”
UNIT TWO: “ILLNESS OF POWER?”
Week 3, October 18: Hobbes: Demonology and Civil War
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, selections
Allison McQueen, “Hobbes ‘At the Edge of Promises and Prophecies,’” in: Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times
Week 4, October 25: Paranoia and Sovereignty
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power: “Rulers and Paranoiacs: The Case of Schreber,” and “Epilogue,”
Libby Anker, “Orgies of Feeling: Terror, Agency, and the Failures of the (Neo)Liberal Individual” in: Orgies of Feeling
Timothy Melley, “Agency Panic and the Culture of Conspiracy”
Week 5, November 1: Paranoia and Whiteness
Judith Butler: “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia”
William Connolly, “Bodily Practices and Fascist Modes of Attunement,” in: Aspirational Fascism
Juliet Hooker, 2017. “Black Protest/White Grievance: On the Problem of White Political Imaginations Not Shaped by Loss,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 116 (3): 483-504
UNIT THREE: “THE POOR PERSON’S COGNITIVE MAPPING”
Week 6, November 8: Paranoia and Worldlessness
Hannah Arendt, “Antisemitism,” in: The Jewish Writings
Hannah Arendt, “Totalitarian Propaganda,” 341-364, and “Ideology and Terror,” 470-479, in: Origins of Totalitarianism
Week 7, November 15
Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in: Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, pp. 347-356
Cathy Cohen, “Conspiracies and Controversies,” in: The Boundaries of Blackness, pp. 186-219
Week 8, November 22
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, selections
Kaitlyn Tiffany, “The women Making Conspiracies Beautiful,” The Atlantic, August 2020
Week 9, November 29
George Cukor, Gaslight (watch in class)
Bonnie Honig, “Gaslight and the Shock Politics Two-Step,” in: Shell-Shocked
Week 10, December 6: Conclusion
Noga Rotem, “World-Craving: Rahel Varnhagen, Daniel Paul Schreber, and the Strange Promise of Paranoia”