February 16, 2004

What are you looking at? Paranoia, what else?

by Eric Rangus

For class, the undergraduates in Michael Hill's "Conspiracy, Paranoia and Global Culture" course sit in a semicircle with everyone's back against the wall.

While paranoia, as the title suggests, plays a significant part of the course curriculum, the furniture setup is strictly coincidental. Actually, the large semicircle makes for much easier discussion. That no one can sneak up behind any of the students is simply a bonus.

"We try to take paranoia and conspiracy quite seriously," said Hill, teaching affiliate in the Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture and Society Program of the ILA. This is his first time teaching the course, a portion of which sprung out of his doctoral research on New Age mysticism.

"It's very easy to paint all of this as silly or crazy," Hill continued. "But when we start looking at how close these seemingly odd ways of thinking about the world are to very normal psychological and political processes, then it becomes much more murky and we have to start asking a lot more questions."

So, while some upcoming class discussions will revolve around UFO abductions and vampires in colonial Africa, the course's wider theme is a cross-cultural examination of the "culture of fear" and how conspiracy theories and feelings of paranoia are sprung in a variety of disciplines.

"I wanted to give the students a wide intellectual terrain through which these issues are discussed," Hill said. "It feels like the course is going off in a million different directions--and it is, in many ways."

"There are a lot of cross-cultural aspects to this class," said senior interdisciplinary studies major Margot Stern. "It covers political science, history, cultural studies and psychology, and it goes into them deeply."

"My idea for the course came partly out of a sense that students were looking for an academic venue in which to discuss things like the culture of fear, ideas that are kind of floating around, whether it be looking at terrorism and 9/11, or violence in American culture," Hill said.

"This course is especially relevant," said senior philosophy major Lauren Heymann. "It touches on a lot of issues politically and socially that are important right now."

Each class period features a student discussant who serves with Hill as co-facilitator for a review of that day's reading assignment. In early and mid-February, the class is exploring "paranoid politics," and discussion topics--drawn primarily from the book Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (1997) by Robert Robins and Jerrold Post, one of five texts utilized by the class--include possible biological origins of paranoia, the perceived necessity of enemies to bring like-minded people together, and different types of group paranoia.

Other sections include paranoia concerning race, conspiracies involving colonialism and capitalism, and the "American Apocalypse," which involves--among other things--the conspiracy of the New World Order.

Class members are not afraid to discuss or question the material. For instance, Robins and Post's theories on biology and the "necessity of enemies" met with almost uniform criticism from the students.

"The class was comfortable with the material from the beginning," Hill said. While a junior-level course, "Conspiracy, Paranoia and Global Culture" boasts students from freshman year to senior.

"It surprised me a little," Hill continued. "They came in with very clear ideas about why they wanted to take the class. They were ready for discussion. In the first couple of classes a lot of them were putting their cards on the table in terms of their political perspectives on the Iraq war and 9/11, that sort of thing."

Hill, who also teaches an ILA course on visual culture, came to Emory first as an undergraduate in 1991 and earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology in 1995. For graduate study, he transferred to the ILA and has completed all his coursework toward his doctorate and has only to finish his dissertation, "New Age in the Andes: Mystical Tourism and Cosmopolitan Religious Culture in Cuzco, Peru."

Hill's research covers the globalization of religious movement, specifically the New Age movement in Peru. One emphasis, he said, is "mystic tourism" (when people confer with shamans, for example) and its effects on local life.

Part of Hill's exploration into New Age mysticism involves UFO and alien abduction narratives. "Originally, I thought the whole course would be about UFOs and aliens," Hill said, channeling his inner X-Phile for a moment. "Then I thought, 'No, that's not the way to go.'"