We invite Nina Power to discuss how paranoia plays into our everyday lives and how the classical paranoid thoughts such as government spying on us and agencies reading through our messages turn out in fact to be correct.

ParanoiaIllustration by This Blows and Robbie Blundell

Paranoia: We see through you by Nina Power

As Lacan noted, there is something fundamentally paranoid about knowledge. In order to understand the least thing about the world, we operate with necessary misapprehensions about what we can and do not know, our place in the world, and the relationship between what we know and what we can do with it. While we do not usually believe we can understand or control everything or even very much at all, behind the scenes there always lurks an implicit theory of knowledge: we might regard knowledge as cumulative, as additive, or we might see it as functioning on different levels: this kind of knowledge works here, this other kind works there. Only in moments of rare lucidity or delusion do we believe that we have understood everything, as much as we think we might want to. We are neither God nor are we usually to blame for most of the quotidian crap we usually feel guilty for.

Knowledge can be seen as power, or as a tool, or as useless but interesting, or as incomplete but progressive. Even though ‘grand narratives’ are supposed to be over, we might nevertheless be Marxists, feminists, historical pessimists, catastrophists, ecological thinkers, anarchists, etc. – or even many of these things at once. In other words, there might be some kind of overarching framework that we use as individuals and collectives that attempts to uncover structures and patterns that enable us to predict and even resist the future. We can argue about and refine these frameworks, or even radically break with them as time passes. But they are generally open-ended, nuanced, flexible, if firm in various places. Those who claim to understand exactly how everything works, or have an explanation or a reason for every event that happens we might think are assuming too much, or are desperately seeking some sort of principle that describes the lot: the New World Order, perhaps, and the cry of ‘false flag!’ that greets every major bombing, attack or accident – this is not of course to say that there haven’t been such operations and cover-ups, merely that to assume that they always are indicates a mindset that sees conspiracies everywhere. In a world where there are no accidents, errors, coincidences, everything starts to take on a horrible, terrifying meaning: if there are no gaps, then everything is full to the brim with a grotesque weight, and someone or something ends up being responsible and consequently blamed, feared and/or worshipped.

But as the old phrase ‘just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you’ implies, there is an important separation between the form of paranoia and its content – a paranoid feeling that turns out to be true is no less paranoid for all that. But what we are witnessing lately with the grim breaking waves of stories about institutionalised child abuse and other ruling class corruption is less confirmation of pre-existing paranoias, than the revelation that paranoid content is outstripping paranoid form: even the very worst mind could hardly have grasped the extent and reach of such violent abuse and exploitation of the most vulnerable, whether it be Savile’s hospital patients or care home children drugged and raped by MPs and peers. The paranoid understanding of class – these people are not like us – is revealed to be true in the case of establishment abuse and those who colluded in covering it up even if they did not directly participate. How can we describe this kind of knowledge that those at the top surely had and continue to have? As hundreds come forward to report abuse at the hands of celebrities and politicians, we have a very clear indication of how much fear and power is involved in discrediting and undermining the experiences of the abused, where their knowledge and lives are trashed because someone much more powerful can just bury them, figuratively and literally.

Classic paranoid thoughts – anxiety about being watched, being spied on, agencies reading thoughts or implanting them – are, it turns out, in fact, all correct. In the wake of the NSA revelations, how to distinguish between formal and content paranoia becomes increasingly difficult. In an interview with Melissa Dahl for the ‘Science of Us’ website, psychiatrist Joel Gold puts the problem like this:

So how do you talk to someone who is delusional but at the same time, isn’t wholly wrong? If this happened ten years ago, and my patients were saying, “There are cameras everywhere, the government is watching me, they’re listening to my phone calls,” we’d believe they were paranoid. Today, we can’t really automatically say that, because it’s true — the government might be listening to this conversation right now.

The political question concerns both the definition of mental illness – is someone really paranoid when the form of their supposed illness in fact matches the content? How usefully paranoid should one be when UK reality itself looks like a Philip K Dick multiverse crossed with the class politics of Lindsey Anderson films, scripted by David Peace with all the morality of Kind Hearts & Coronets? Is it better to take a cool, well-rested distance or to triumphantly declare from the pinnacle of red-eyed anxiety that this is what we suspected all along? Does it make a difference what our formal framework for understanding knowledge is when the content is just simply rotten? What is the best way of getting back control of knowledge as such, to ensure that those with secrets to hide are never again in a position to be able to hide from what they’ve done because – simply – they won’t be able to do it again?

If we are all expected to lead transparent lives – that is to say, lives that are open at every point to surveillance, monitoring, suspicion, harassment, prosecution – how do we demand transparency of those who do the watching and who cover-up their secrets from the majority? Detective shows, as ubiquitous as they are popular, appeal in part because of the sheer will of the flawed cop tracking his or her quarry towards some sort of uneasy conclusion. We are supposed to believe that the state is the detective, damaged maybe, but ultimately on the side of the good, pretending to self-investigate when necessary, self-correcting when random innocents get killed along the way. But, above all, we are supposed to believe in the detective as the entity that combines knowledge and good intentions. We need not only to kill the cop in our head, but the entire police station, the IPCC, the courts, prisons and the state that oversees, and in fact is them.

Some have suggested that Snowden’s revelations are perversely ultimately useful for governments – after all, if people know their backs are being watched wouldn’t they spontaneously police themselves? – but at the same time, the stakes – global transparency and knowledge-control – couldn’t be, well, clearer: if understanding about what is going on means being paranoid from time  to time, then, in the name of all that is real, bring on the fear.

Nina Power is a senior professor of philosophy at Roehampton University, co founder of Defend the Right to Protest, journalist and author. One Dimensional Women is available on Zero Books

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