2015 has been something of an annus horibilis for self-styled ‘wellness warriors’. First, alternative therapy advocate Jessica Ainscough passed away from the cancer she had been treating with Gerson Therapy. Next, celebrity chef Pete Evans had his infants cookbook Bubba Yum Yum: The Paleo Way pulped on the eve of its release date after one of its recipes was found to have potentially baby-killing levels of vitamin A. Evans and his co-authors have since self-published the book. More recently, a highly critical blog post about the scientific errors committed by soi-disant ‘food babe’ Vani Hari went viral, and high-profile wellness blogger Belle Gibson admitted to having fabricated a cancer diagnosis for profit. Such scandals are now so commonplace that Brisbane’s Avid Reader bookstore has started a new subsection for cookbooks by ‘Disgraced Lifestyle Bloggers‘.
There are, of course, a multitude of factors at work behind these scandals. Richard Cooke at The Monthly dissects the culture of advertising that supported the avenues through which Gibson’s brand was pushed, and Amy Gray at The Age argues that poor science communication and a public desire for inspiration and authenticity have created opportunities for less-than-scrupulous figures to sell miracle diets. Overland’s own Stephanie Convery argues that the body and diet have become sites of personal control in a system marked by alienation and powerlessness. But, in addition, these scandals also reveal the extent to which paranoia has become one of the dominant affects of our time.
It’s important to note that paranoid affect might not always and uniformly feel like paranoia. Affect theorists such as Brian Massumi regularly make a distinction between affect, feeling, and emotion – affect being structural and pre-personal, feeling being personal, and emotion being social. For others such as Silvan Tomkins, affects are hard-wired systems present in the body which form the biological basis of emotion. We needn’t take a position on the ontology of affect to note that the word denotes, or should denote, a structure that generates diverse feelings and emotions. Thus, Lauren Berlant can argue, in Cruel Optimism, that the optimism of her title ‘might not feel optimistic … it might feel like anything, including nothing: dread, anxiety, hunger, curiosity.’ Similarly, the paranoia that fuels our current obsession with ‘clean eating’ doesn’t necessarily feel like paranoia: it could feel like autonomy, wisdom, vitality, or any number of other feelings. Those feelings are nevertheless generated by an affective structure that can be best characterised as paranoid.
The promise of clean or paleo eating as a panacea is premised first and foremost on a rejection of modernity and scientific thinking. It’s structurally conservative insofar as it looks back to a prelapsarian time when humans were supposedly better off than they are now – ‘paleo’ being of course derived from ‘Paleolithic’ – and, as Jason Wilson has argued, that structural conservatism has made it fertile ground for regressively misogynist gender politics. Its worldview is informed by a scepticism towards science, even as individual exponents of the diet garland their books with a sprinkling of scientific-sounding claims about hunter-gatherer diets. This might explain why the diet still attracts adherents even after those claims have been demolished by actual scientists. With that scepticism comes paranoia. If, as paleo and clean eating adherents believe, the mainstream contemporary diet is actively harmful, why do people continue to eat it? Enter the shadowy ‘big ag’, whose supposed power has shaped people’s diets against their will, and who have an interest in covertly suppressing the truth of ‘clean eating’.
Similar suspicions animate a number of causes beloved by what we might call the Woodford Folk Festival set, such as the battle against water fluoridation (sponsored by ‘big chem’) and childhood vaccinations (‘big pharma’). More starkly paranoid conspiracy theories fester at the fringes of this soy chai latte-sipping liberal left hippiedom: sunscreen causes cancer; jet fuel can’t melt steel beams. In such circles paranoid scepticism is seen as necessarily intertwined with progressive politics: to believe that vaccinations do not cause childhood autism is to reveal oneself as gullibly conservative. This perhaps explains the Abbott government’s enthusiasm to deny family benefits to those who choose not to vaccinate their children – it’s an issue that drives a wedge right through the Greens’ voting bloc.
But paranoid affect has no inherent political bias. Its mechanisms can also be clearly seen at work in the belief, currently popular among the fringes of the US right, that ‘cultural Marxism’ was invented by the Soviet Union in order to insidiously infect the US’s colleges and metastasise outwards. Paranoia also structures the very name of Reddit’s infamous RedPill community, the de facto internet home for men’s rights advocates. For those who aren’t up on decades-old action flicks, it’s a reference to the red pill that protagonist Neo swallows in the film The Matrix, which allows him to see behind the façade of his everyday life and discover a vast robotic conspiracy. Reddit’s RedPill community would have you think that women (especially feminists) are responsible for a similarly vast conspiracy to subjugate men, and that their ideology provides the ‘red pill’ that will allow men to perceive the world of sexual politics as it ‘really’ is. Similarly, the neo-reactionary movement or ‘dark enlightenment‘ is premised on a belief that a powerful left-wing consensus dubbed ‘the Cathedral’ has managed to control public discourse to the detriment of the world’s ‘natural’ elites – that is, white, Asian and Jewish male geeks.
As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes in the essay ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading‘ (from her 2002 collection Touching Feeling), paranoid affect generates a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and an associated narrative trope of exposure. Paranoid affect leads us to assume that if only we could make the truth known then we’d be well on our way to fixing the ills of the world. But, as Sedgwick notes, this places a perversely un-paranoid faith in the assumed audience of this knowledge: ‘That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility.’
After all the substance of the revelations offered by paranoid reasoning are often less-than-revelatory. Let’s say that it is true that such a thing as ‘big ag’ exists, and has been deliberately and secretively influencing our diets for the worse. What does such knowledge reveal that we don’t already know? Most of us already know that high-fructose corn syrup shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities, that we should avoid eating overly-processed foods, that agricultural subsidies to certain politically cherished voting blocs create perverse outcomes, that the neoliberal consensus doesn’t give a shit about the health and wellbeing of the poor. Does it matter whether these outcomes emerged ad hoc or at the behest of the Illuminati?
The paradox of paranoia, at least as far as political action goes, is that it is both a product of neoliberalism and sometimes, if not necessarily always, an impediment to action against that neoliberal system. Neoliberalism is predicated on the myth that human beings are, or should be, rational actors navigating a predictable world of market forces; it is fundamentally a worldview that strips the world of mystery and wonder. One explanation for the appeal of the paranoid affect that has given us Belle Gibson, Loose Change and Mencius Moldbug might be that paranoia gives us back that sense of wonder, and makes the world seem bigger and more complex than we have been lead to believe. So, if paranoia opens the door to an understanding of the pernicious effects of the current radical free-market orthodoxy, those of us on the left should welcome its presence. We should also, however, remain alive to the possibility that nobody will care after we unmask the hidden operations of power and oppression at the core of neoliberalism. After all, you can’t wreck a machine just by removing the metal plate that obscures its unseemly innards – you have to throw a spanner in the works, too.