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The conspiracy of masculinity in Ishmael Reed.

Those who believe that major world events result from planning are laughed at for believing in the "conspiracy theory of history." Of course, no one in this modern day and age really believes in the conspiracy theory of history--except those who have taken the time to study the subject.--Gary Allen, None Dare Call it Conspiracy 8

To some if you owned your own mind you were sick, but if you possessed an Atonist mind you were healthy.--Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo 24


Published a year apart, Gary Allen's anti-Communist screed None Dare Call it Conspiracy and Ishmael Reed's gleeful Mumbo Jumbo seem to have little in common. Allen, a collaborator with the John Birch Society, writes a singularly paranoid work that more than one commentator finds reactionary, if not visibly anti-Semitic, in its coded language of "international bankers." Reed's work is a postmodern, freewheeling Black Arts celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and its supporting musical subculture. But despite differences in their content, both works share a common form; both feature a secret society that conspires to control history, and both establish fixed, knowing subjects, in Allen's words, "those who have taken the time to study the subject," and in Reed's words, "those who own their own minds." In supporting such fixed subjects, these narratives produce oppression in their form while decrying it in their content. Arguably, Reed's satirical use of the secret society conspiracy theory should challenge its ideological assumptions, but if, as Fredric Jameson argues, form itself retains ideological assumptions, form challenges the capacity of postmodern works to function as apolitical pastiche.

Since the mid-eighties, a consistent question marks Reed criticism: how to reconcile the gleefully postmodernist "early" Reed with the bitterly anti-feminist "late" Reed. Famously, critics champion Reed as a fulfillment of a postmodern aesthetic project. Variously, they claim that Reed employs pastiche, destroys meta-narratives, deconstructs binaries and, in general asserts an aesthetic challenge to both modernism and late capitalism. Furthermore, as an African American postmodernist, Reed receives special attention, both as the realization of a specific African-derived aesthetic--what Henry Louis Gates describes as "Signifiyin" or James Snead identifies as "circular time"--and as a special racially rooted genre of postmodernism that avoids the movement's problematic, apolitical "dissolution of the individual" by rooting its critique in a "critically self-revising tradition" (Mikics 3-4). Linda Hutcheon, for example, notes: "Ishmael Reed's consistently parodic fiction clearly asserts not just a critical and specifically American 'difference' but also a racial one. And, on a formal level, his parodic mixing of levels and kinds of discourses challenges any notion of the different as either coherent and monolithic or original" (134). A short list of Reed's satirical targets in Mumbo Jumbo includes Afrocentrism, literary journals, Marxism, Warren Harding, and black power. Reed's later work, though, has fared less well critically. Robert Eliot Fox, for example, calls Reckless Eyeballing "an instance of the diminution of power his work of the 1980s has manifested, compared to his truly innovative work of the 1960s and 1970s" (78). Similarly, in his introduction to The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed, Bruce Allen Dick notes, "The criticism surrounding (Reckless Eyeballing) has caused many to overlook Reed's best fiction" (xxxi).

Advocates for Reed's later work defend it through claims that it merely reflects the imbalanced gender roles of its time, or that Reed lodges a heavier critique against males, or that his characters, not Reed, exhibit misogyny. Patrick McGee provides a good example of this trend: "While all of (Reed's) books contain misogynist representations, they also negatively deconstruct machismo, patriarchy, and Western imperialism" (58). But are these forces evaded so easily? By extension, does Reed's elision of gender pose larger, ontological problems for Reed? In other words, can Reed's misogyny be dismissed as a superficial aesthetic choice, or does it point to a structural blindness? I argue that the seeming discontinuity between the early Mumbo Jumbo and the later Reckless Eyeballing obscures a common form operating between the two, and in much of Reed's fiction; a group of male-led outsiders (Papa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo and "the fellas" in Reckless Eyeballing) struggle against an overwhelmingly powerful, transhistorical force that closely resembles white hegemony (the Atonist Path in Mumbo Jumbo, feminists in Reckless Eyeballing).

The ideology of the secret-society form, and its attending political demonology, leads inevitably from Mumbo Jumbo's Freemason-like Atonist Path to the revised conspiracy Reed develops in the Reckless Eyeballing, a novel that locates white feminists as the power in control. This transition reflects the topsy-turvy political landscape of the 1980s, but also demonstrates the perils of incorporating conspiracy theory without challenging its form. While I do not want to reduce all conspiracy theory, especially Reed's, to its most offensive character (such as anti-Semitism, or, in this case, misogyny), in its claims to mastery Mumbo Jumbo's secret-society conspiracy theory leads predictably to the anti-feminism of Reckless Eyeballing. In other words, a common cultural logic, operating through the secret-society conspiracy theory, marks both Mumbo Jumbo and Reckless Eyeballing. Identifying this common structure does not, of course, mean that Reed can be reduced to his anti-feminism; it simply means that, as Jameson argues, forms have ideologies that often subvert the Intentions of their texts. In Reed, these forms surface with a distinctly masculine tinge, producing scenes of male mastery.

The paranoid structures that emerge in Reed seem to confirm Patrick O'Donnell's recent assertion that "the paranoid subject resurrects standards and foundations (of identity) by taking advantage of the very fluidity of relations and contingency of events that mark the postmodern" (12). (1) For O'Donnell, paranoia functions as a kind of nostalgic desire for unity in the face of the multiplicitous history of postmodernity; postmodern narratives inevitably feature paranoid subjects who strive to reclaim stable identity structures out of the schizophrenia of postmodernity. While I agree with O'Donnell that postmodern paranoia is inevitably nostalgic, I argue that in Reed, conspiracy theory represents a specifically masculine nostalgia. Furthermore, for the African American subject, O'Donnell's argument offers a mixed appeal for while minority subjects might well wish to retain a specific identity, paranoia can also work to resurrect demonizing structures hostile to African Americans. The paranoid tradition that invokes secret societies is particularly problematic in this respect; as Allen's example demonstrates, these narratives have frequently been deployed by archconservative groups with a demonizing, racist agenda.

Mumbo Jumbo's Secret Society

Mumbo Jumbo recounts the rise and fall of a subversive, jazz-infused dance movement called Jes Grew. This movement is under constant threat by a shadowy Atonist Path, which employs a fraternal organization called the Wallflower Order as its military arm. In opposition to the Atonist Path/Wallflower Order stands Papa LaBas, the "Vodoun detective," and his followers. The central plot's mystery involves the location of Jes Grew's sacred text, which, as it turns out, dates from ancient Egypt. A side plot involves the attempts by the revolutionary Mu'tafikah group, in the same spirit as Jes Grew, to "liberate" works of colonially-acquired art from Western museums. Throughout both plots, Reed threads a critique of western cultures and a validation of minority subcultures, most prominently Vodoun.

Conspiracy theory appears in the book's opening pages, which recount an attempt by the Wallflower Order to quash Jes Grew by fumigating the Place Congo in New Orleans (6). (2) Colluding power moves against a perceived threat; immediately, Reed as narrator-author informs the reader that Mumbo Jumbo will function as a conspiracy novel. Although he puts this conspiracy in satiric quotes by pitting it against a dance craze, the aesthetic concerns here resonate with Reed's position as an artist. From Reed's position, a conspiracy with cultural ends carries as much weight as a political conspiracy--in fact, functions like a political conspiracy--as will become even more apparent in Reckless Eyeballing.

Jes Grew may be dancing, but it is still the best thing going against western cultures, and by extension white hegemony, which, in Mumbo Jumbo, is played alternately by the Atonist Path and the Wallflower Order. David Mikics, for example, describes Reed's work as a struggle against late capitalist rationalization, a force he locates in the Wallflower Order/Atonist Path in Mumbo Jumbo (40). Similarly, Kathryn Hume positions Mumbo Jumbo as part of a larger trend in postmodern fiction that responds to a general control culture in the United States. She describes Mumbo Jumbo's core conflict as a struggle between western cultures and Jes Grew (507). In Mumbo Jumbo, Buff Musclewhite reinforces this view when he describes Berbelang, the leader of the Mu'tafikah, and the threat that Berbelang's organization poses: "The man is talking about Judeo-Christian culture, Christianity, Atonism, whatever you want to call it" (115). (3)

In its generic form, the secret-society conspiracy theory holds that a select group of initiates--be they Illuminati, Freemasons, or the Wallflower Order--controls the course of history. Society members hold powerful positions, becoming presidents, popes, kings, and prime ministers, but their desires are secondary to the will of the society itself, which remains constant over the course of centuries. These societies secretly orchestrate historical events, including elections, wars, and economic crises. For example, Allen's None Dare Call it Conspiracy positions the Illuminati (who in the twentieth century call themselves Bolsheviks, and later the Council on Foreign Relations) as the secret group behind the creation of the Federal Reserve, the institution of the income tax, and the writing of The Communist Manifesto. The basic qualities of the secret society are omnipotence and invisibility. For the secret-society conspiracy theorist, this version of history appeals because of its totalizing explanation, its ability to encompass all sorts of disparate historical phenomenon. As a result, the secret-society conspiracy theory is difficult to refute, since any new fact is simply accepted as some new secret machination. But the secret society also presents an irresistible fantasy of power, power that remains untainted by the ebbs and flows of history. The articulation of this theory itself validates an all-knowing subject; since, by definition, the subversives' activities are hidden and inaccessible to most subjects, the theorist who identifies these activities is himself empowered.

Like the Freemasons or Illuminati, Mumbo Jumbo's Wallflower Order possesses wide-reaching powers as a result of its elite membership. Since its members occupy positions of financial and political power, they can exert influence in a variety of spheres. For example, Reed describes the group installing Warren Harding as president and forcing the Mayor of New Orleans to commit suicide (17-18). It also controls the press, or at least Hinckle Von Vampton's old employer The New York Sun, as well as the publishing industry: in the novel, Haitian leader Benoit Battraville notes, "(A)fter the Americans withdraw [from Haiti] it will be completely deleted from the American 'History Books'" (133). The Atonist Path seems even able to instigate the Depression by taking money out of circulation, in order to stop Jes Grew (156).

Mumbo Jumbo's primary secret-society conspiracy theorist is Papa LaBas, who famously traces the novel's Atonist conspiracy back to ancient Egypt, encompassing Moses, the Greeks, the Crusades and Pope Clement V, and ending with Hinckle Von Vampton's activities in the novel's present. Of course, Reed positions this theory as satirical, a parody of a dime store detective novel denouement in which the villains turn out to have been plotting for the past 5,000 years. Nevertheless, the form here echoes the mastery of conspiracy theory. Here, Papa LaBas cements his transhistorical mastery of the novel's material. Reed may everywhere deconstruct authority, but he reserves for Papa LaBas a solidity that he denies, for example, the list of books cited by Mumbo Jumbo as references.

LaBas's mastery here is not accidental. Reed reifies LaBas's character by associating him with Reed's cherished Vodoun, and furthers this emphasis by reusing LaBas in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Throughout Mumbo Jumbo, LaBas continually speaks with authority, as when he complains to Earline about the coverage that Jes Grew has received in the media: "They are calling it a plague when in fact it is an anti-plague. I know what it's after; it has no definite route yet but the configuration it is forming indicates it will settle in New York. It won't stop until it cohabits what it's after. Then it will be a pandemic and you will really see something. And then they will be finished" (25). Reed locates mastery with LaBas through his definitive "know" and the thorough familiarity with the topic that LaBas evidences. Like any good expert, or conspiracy theorist, LaBas authoritatively diagnoses the situation, naming and designating its various parts. Moreover, LaBas here also reinforces the subject of his diatribe, the "they" which implies the Wallflower Order/ Atonist Path. Throughout this passage, LaBas exhibits a masculine mastery that leaves little room for dissent. So if Earline is a little wary of this talk, readers may sympathize with her, especially when he responds to her protest with a gendered address: "Woman, I dream about it, I feel it, I use my 2 heads" (25).

In Mumbo Jumbo, the secret-society conspiracy theory generates masculinity wherever it lands. For Reed, something about the theory's form itself leads inevitably to masculine dominance and exclusion. Closely associated with the reified character of Papa LaBas, and reinforced by its metaphorical attack on western cultures, the secret-society conspiracy theory limits the postmodern deconstruction of Mumbo Jumbo. The form itself reflects and reinforces masculine desire, a desire consistent with the historical origins of the secret-society conspiracy theory.

The Political Unconscious of the Secret-Society Conspiracy Theory

In The Political Unconscious, Jameson describes an "ideology of form, that is, the symbolic messages transmitted to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of production" (76). (4) Implicitly, Jameson challenges the idea of appropriation by arguing that form cannot fully escape the moment of its production, because form maintains remnants of the struggles that raged around this moment. While for Jameson, the ideology of form ultimately means the great class struggle of history, form can also recall other repressions. Jameson indicates this additional interpretation in a passage that glosses feminism with Marxism, but nevertheless opens his reading of form into other registers:
 (T)hat what we have called the ideology
 of form is something other than a
 retreat from social and historical questions
 into the more narrowly formal
 may be suggested by the relevance of
 this final perspective to more overtly
 political and theoretical concerns; we
 may take the much debated relation of
 Marxism to feminism as a particularly
 revealing illustration. [...] In our present
 perspective, it becomes clear that
 sexism and the patriarchal are to be
 grasped as the sedimentation and the
 virulent survival of forms of alienation
 specific to the oldest mode of production
 of human history, with its division
 of labor between men and women.
 (Political 100)

While this passage tends to obscure the specificity of feminist struggle under the more general categories of alienation and the division of labor, it also indicates the multiplicity of struggles that form can contain, and the ability of form to cross subject positions while maintaining the "sedimentation" of old repressions. Form is open enough to accommodate progress, yet closed enough to reproduce its repressions of origin.

The secret society conspiracy theory, with origins in a white male sphere, maintains the structure that enabled it to function successfully as a white male form. In this sense, Michelle Wallace's comment that "Reed attempts to displace the color of the center ... leaving intact, and even confirming, the notion of centers and therefore peripheries" seems valid (186). The Freemason Hall provides a good metaphor for the way that the secret-society conspiracy theory functions here. Early in Mumbo Jumbo, Reed references Black Freemasonry through a painting of Prince Hall, the founder of Black Freemasonry in the United States; Black Freemasonry remains a part of the novel through the character Buddy Jackson. In an article that observes the power of Freemasonry for black masculinity during the colonial and Victorian eras, Maurice Wallace claims that Freemasonry offered a legitimizing structure that simultaneously eluded the racist gaze and asserted a phallic masculinity (418). In Wallace's reading, Freemasonry validates black masculinity because of the structure of the secret society itself; the Freemason's hall, whether it houses blacks or whites, works similarly. This similarity provides both the benefits and drawbacks of a black masculinist Freemasonry. As Wallace notes, the Masonic lodge, while structurally benefiting black male identity, necessarily excludes female identity: "(T)he special layout of the lodge-room ... signifies among Masons an androgynous subjectivity intent on displacing women from the generative process of masculine self-creation" (417). While Wallace focuses on the benefits of the Masonic structure, the exclusion of women presents a Foucauldian problematic in which all disempowered subjects are at risk when one subject retains a naturalized privilege over another.

Reed's use of the secret-society conspiracy theory functions like Black Freemasonry; it offers an established cultural structure with a guaranteed position of stability, but one that inscribes its own exclusions. The Freemason hall maintains its characteristics no matter who is using it. It is less appropriated for minority use than inhabited by minority subjects. In this sense, it functions differently than Reed's appropriation of the Western form in Yellow Black Radio Broke Down. The Western novel, as Robert Murray Davis notes, is a "traditionally all-white genre." In Davis's view, Reed manages to create critical distance between his work and its source; to Davis, Reed "appropriates" the Western form but does not "inhabit" the form (416). For Davis, Reed escapes the problematic association with an "all-white genre" through parody, in particular through breaking the pattern of the traditional Western novel. But while Reed breaks the Western pattern in this earlier novel by upending its moral structure, in maintaining a sense of moral stability around Papa LaBas, he reifies the secret-society conspiracy theory. While Reed seems to appropriate the secret society form, in maintaining this stability he inhabits it.

If, then, the form of the secret society conspiracy tends to retain its ideological origins, what are these origins? Hume alludes to the history of secret-society conspiracy theory when, in describing Reed and other "control artists," she references Richard Hofstadter's notion of the "paranoid style." Though Hofstadter has been repeatedly critiqued for limiting political paranoia to a too-narrow spectrum of American politics, his pointed critique of far-right conspiracy theories nevertheless indicates the fearful history of conspiracy theory in the United States, which is often marked by xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny. (5) As Michael Rogin notes in an essay critical of Hofstadter, American conspiracy theory inevitably attacks "the alien," which encounters all of the historical associations of the alien with immigrant, Jew, black, native, and woman (284). The secret-society form has been especially vital in this history; the Jew-Illuminati substitution visible in Gary Allen's None Dare Call it Conspiracy provides only a recent example of a long trend.

But the secret-society conspiracy theory proves troubling for more than just its cultural associations. The form of the secret society conspiracy itself tilts somewhat inevitably in a demonizing direction. By speaking from a position that obscures the contingencies of identity formation and institutional power, what Allen sneeringly dismisses as the "accidental theory of history," the secret society conspiracy theory must create a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable subjects--essentially, the conspiring and conspired-upon (8). Once admitted to a text, conspiracy theory gravitates toward the point where Rogin locates the countersubversive imaginary, as a subject that fears and despises an Other. Rogin writes, "To win, in the countersubversive tradition, is to be an English-speaking white man. To lose is to fall back among the undifferentiated mass of aliens, women and peoples of color" (279). The ontological stability of the secret-society countersubversive creates a political demonology apparatus, which--first directed at the most privileged--swivels around to aim at the least privileged.

More generally, the secret-society form, like other conspiracy theories, engages in a totalizing universalism that itself represents a certain white male subjectivity. Narrating the existence of a history-controlling secret society, the conspiracy theorist necessarily steps outside the flow of history, writing anew a "universalist history (that) ... musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time" (Benjamin 262). In his landmark work on conspiracy theory, Mark Fenster writes: "The 'classical' conspiracy narrative attempts to unify seemingly disparate, globally significant elements and events within a singular plot" (108). Conspiracy theory contains the messy data of history within a transhistorical narrative. (6) The conspiracy theorist assumes a position of mastery in regards to the Symbolic Order, aligning himself, as Kaja Silverman describes, with the Phallus as arbiter of meaning. In Male Subjectivity at the Margins, Silverman describes the special fiction enjoyed by masculinity through an imagined conflation of penis and Phallus (43). Using terms not foreign to the secret-society conspiracy theory, Silverman writes, "(F)ar from belonging to a kind of "sacred time' beyond the vicissitudes of ideology and history, the phallus/penis equation is promoted by the dominant fiction, and sustained by collective belief" (44). The conspiracy theorist's master narrative, and the position from which he narrates it, represents one element of such a dominant fiction, registering the effects of such a phallus/penis conflation.

Conspiracy theory, then, carries with it its own gendered biases--biases that flow into its texts. A scene from Mumbo Jumbo demonstrates the side effects of the conspiracy theorist position. The scene in which LaBas and Herman "exorcise" the errant Earline makes visible the problematic gender politics involving LaBas and Jes Grew. The spirit possessing Earline induces a wild sexuality, and she becomes a dangerous woman who threatens masculine integrity, as quickly learned by the hapless trolley driver whom Earline/ Erzulie seduces. LaBas tells him, "You couldn't help yourself. If you hadn't given in to her requests she would have killed you" (126). In "exoricising" this spirit, LaBas and Herman struggle not against the Atonist Path/ Wallflower Order, but against feminine sexuality. Earline is a force that must be tamed because with her indiscriminate sexuality--"All black men are my husbands" (121)--she threatens the masculine authority maintained by LaBas and his associates. This scene reveals the limitations of Jes Grew countersubversion. As Paul Gilroy argues, in the spirit of Foucault, any movement that attempts to maintain ontological essentialism seems subject to reproducing new power imbalances, because of its commitment to a morality. In Mumbo Jumbo this morality subverts white hegemony, but maintains a masculine hegemony. While Mumbo Jumbo works as allegory, the vehicle for this allegory drags a massive apparatus onto the novel's stage, one that, once it has completely threatened Atonists, may well turn its sights on a more literal, less powerful, target. To explore this possibility further, I turn to a novel from Reed's later period, Reckless Eyeballing.

The Conspiracy of Gender in Reckless Eyeballing

The masculine unconscious at work in Mumbo Jumbo surfaces more clearly in a Reed work published 14 years later, under the changed cultural circumstances of the Reagan 1980s. Reckless Eyeballing replaces white hegemony with feminism as the premier threat to black masculinity. It does so by taking the structure of the secret society conspiracy theory and reworking it so that feminists, not white hegemony, are at the center of the conspiracy. Like Mumbo Jumbo, Reckless Eyeballing repeatedly stages scenes of "men in small rooms" who struggle against entrenched power, but the power in the latter novel is held by feminists, not shadowy secret societies.

As critics note, Reckless Eyeballing is a strange work that seems to have little in common with the gleeful postmodernism of Mumbo Jumbo. Written largely in realist mode, the book inserts long diatribes into character speech that draw directly from Reed's essays and interviews. No critic claims for Reckless Eyeballing anything like the aesthetic success of Reed's earlier work, and, as noted, this period of Reed is often described as one of decline. In Reckless Eyeballing, Reed seems explicitly bent on a political project, to right the wrong of putative feminist demonization of the black male, a topic that repeatedly surfaces in Reed interviews and essays.

The misogyny of Reckless Eyeballing provokes a strong critical reaction, represented primarily by a famously negative New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani and a Village Voice article by Michelle Wallace. Kakutani describes the novel as a "nasty, idiosyncratic blend of invective, satire, and social criticism" and notes that this blend is not entirely postmodern pastiche: "The Holocaust exists in this novel mainly as a point of comparison for contemporary prejudice against blacks. And the sexist banter of men tends to come off as sort of "boys will be boys' silliness, whereas feminist criticism of men assumes decidedly more sinister proportions" (166). While Reed's treatment of the Jewish experience seems to me more even-handed than Kakutani admits, her description of the novel's gender politics is accurate. Wallace uses Reckless Eyeballing to comment on a larger trajectory in Reed's career, and, by extension the tragic infighting promoted by this view: "With Reed, we're considering a kind of knee-jerk non-perceptiveness in which he mindlessly competes with white women for the number two spot" (9). Wallace notes Reed's repeated decrying of media stereotypes, but faults him for limited vision. She even explicitly positions Reed as a conspiracy theorist: "Reed calmly explained to me that there was a media-wide conspiracy to blame black men for male chauvinism" (184).

Reed's defenders seek to temper his misogyny through reference to a larger postmodern or aesthetic project. Hume, for example, argues that the misogyny in Reed merely reflects his accurate depiction of a masculine-inflected control culture. In her reading, "(m)asculine identity, particularly with regard to women, seems to be one of the commonplace problematics of control" (513). Daniel Punday maintains that Reckless Eyeballing's misogyny is part of Reed's artistic project, a calculated, rhetorical attempt to implicate his readers in an easy sexism: "By anticipating and undermining such prejudiced interpretations of Reckless Eyeballing, Reed exposes the ethnic and sexual stereotypes that pervade mainstream literary reception" (167). While this argument seems to over-accommodate authorial intent, and could conceivably justify distasteful sentiments in any postmodern work, it does reflect the problems of artistic production at the center of Reckless Eyeballing and may well form part of Reed's project. McGee reinforces Reed's view on the topic, that criticizing his own subject position gives Reed license to critique other subject positions: "Reed paints a more unflattering portrait of the male African-American artist than can be found in any novel by a black feminist" (57). McGee, and by extension Reed, seems to believe that the difficult cultural conflicts indexed by Reckless Eyeballing can be banished by sheer force of will, that there is nothing more substantial to misogyny than its actual words. The idea that Reed reveals misogyny as a symptom of his culture is familiar and compelling, but does little to challenge the structural myopia built into Reckless Eyeballing.

The complications here resolve when Reckless Eyeballing is read as inhabiting the same conspiracy theory form as Mumbo Jumbo. While not immediately recognizable as a conspiracy novel, Reckless Eyeballing positions feminists at the center of a conspiracy that controls, at least, the theatrical and publishing worlds of New York City. While this kind of "conspiracy" seems more local and less sensational than that described in Mumbo Jumbo, the two conspiracies retain a common structure. The theatrical/publishing industries do control Reckless Eyeballing's fictional world, and the novel symbolically ascribes the same powers to Becky French, its central white feminist, as Mumbo Jumbo does to the Atonist Path/Wallflower Order. Here, the conflation Atonist Path/white hegemony works in the opposite direction that Reed intends. While Mumbo Jumbo uses a conspiracy theory in the service of cultural criticism, Reckless Eyeballing employs cultural criticism that ends up acting like a conspiracy.

Like Mumbo Jumbo, Reckless Eyeballing features a group of "countersubversives" who are known generally as "the fellas." Throughout the book, Ian Ball refers to what "the fellas" thought of this or that character, using this voice as a counter to the official feminist voice that Reed locates in Becky French and, to a lesser degree, in Tremonisha Smarts. While it is usually Ball who refers to this group, at least one other character--Lieutenant Brown--also refers to "the fellas," which serves to give the group a tangible existence outside of Bali's head (20). In addition, the novel's other male characters participate in the oppositional logic of "the fellas" even if they do not term it as such. This logic unfolds in the novel's recurring scenes of "men in small rooms," which usually feature Ian Ball and one other man. In these rooms, away from the female characters, men share both their sexual fantasies (a key weapon for the novel's countersubversive movement) and their various reasons for paranoia.

Furthermore, as if Reed is conscious of the paranoid structure that he creates here, these exchanges circulate conspiracy theory material. For example, early in the book Jim Minsk tells Ball that he "hates misinformation," decrying the idea that "The Jews own the media," "the Jews own the garment district," and concluding with a critical reading of this anti-Semitic discourse: "they just libel Jews with that shit so's to take their minds off those that really own it. That's the same shit they used against you blacks. Like the black welfare queen with the fur coats and two homes and diamonds" (16). Minsk's reference to Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" speech works to create fraternity between the two men. A meeting between Jake Brashford and Ball features a similar exchange of conspiracy-tinged material. Brashford complains that white women collaborate with white men to attack black men. He quotes statistics to support his point: "If you're a white woman, your chances of being murdered is one in three hundred sixty-nine. If you're a white man, one in one thirty-one, if you're a black woman, one in one hundred four, but if you're a black man it's one in twenty one" (27). Brashford's use of statistics recalls the statistics frequently floated through conspiracy theory, ostensible facts invested with paranoid political desire. The tone that Reed uses for these encounters also resembles the hushed tone of the conspiracy narrative. Finally, Randy Shank emerges as the book's most literal conspiracy theorist. Ball describes Shank as "insistent that he hear his odd and tortured theories" (67). Shank accuses Ball of siding with feminist "collaborators who are aiding our enemies in destroying us" (67). While Reed establishes Shank as the most unreliable and mentally unstable of "the fellas," the similarity of his discourse to other male discourse reinforces the conspiracy theory logic operating throughout Reckless Eyeballing.

But if Reckless Eyeballing qualifies these male exchanges by knowingly framing them in conspiracy theory material, it reinforces their truth by ascribing conspiracy-like power to the book's feminists. In Reckless Eyeballing, feminists appear as a power block in opposition to "the fellas." Like the Atonist Path/Wallflower Order, these women arrange "hits" on men; of the man who gave a good review to Shanks" play, Ball thinks, "Feminists had (him) followed" (53). They also have the ability to control the news or at least to influence the artistic community through newsletters like "Lilith's Gang, 'a publication for feminists in the culture industry.'" Lilith's Gang publishes "THE SEX LIST," a blacklist of male writers who have offended women and who should be punished accordingly through bad reviews, funding rejections, and so on. The conspiracy in Reckless Eyeballing is experienced, then, by the male artist or writer who relies on reviews and funding for his livelihood. Later in the novel, Reed makes visible the "victims" of the conspiracy; apropos of nothing, Ball thinks, "Jim, Randy Shank, and now Brashford" (118). The three men listed have all met different fates--Jim Minsk has been lynched, Randy Shank has been arrested, and Jake Brashford has left the US for Tel Aviv. The only possible reason to list the three men together in this way is to group them as victims of the alleged feminist block around Becky French. (7)

The feminist project in Reckless Eyeballing emerges as even more insidious in the repeated scenes of white men taking pleasure in unfavorable descriptions of black men. For example, white men throughout the book congratulate Tremonisha Smarts on her dramatic play, which prominently features an out-of-control black masculinity. The scriptwriter that Smarts works with on adapting the play into a movie provides a good example. Smarts tells Ball "Every time we were supposed to have a script session he would get all tooted up and start talking about how black boys, as he called them, used to beat him at basketball ..." (59). The white writer's glee at degrading a black man demonstrates the larger results of the feminist conspiracy. Reed asserts that criticizing black masculinity only furthers racism and by extension white hegemony.

This episode and others are lent moral force by their close resemblance to Reed's essays. As critics note, the Tremonisha Smarts character is based on Alice Walker, and Smarts's play based on The Color Purple. In his essays, Reed claims that his problems with Walker result not from her text, but from how her text has been interpreted both by white filmmakers and the media: "In the film The Color Purple, directed and produced by white males, all of the myths that have been directed at black men since the Europeans entered Africa are joined. In this film, black men commit heinous crimes against women and children, and though defenders of Walker's book [...] argue that these creations were merely one woman's story, critics in the media have used both the book and the movie to indict all black men" ("Steven Spielberg" 145-46). Reed's logic here implies that Walker and other feminists collude, passively if not actively, with white men to stereotype black men in pejorative ways. Like Reckless Eyeballing, Reed's essays hint at conspiracy theory in both their tone and content.

The secret-society form at the heart of Reckless Eyeballing, coupled with the novel's anxious use of conspiracy theory material both complicates a sense of Reed as straightforwardly misogynistic and points to an unconscious sexist structure present throughout Reed's work, or at least spanning Mumbo Jumbo and Reckless Eyeballing. Because it relies on forms with universalist aporias, the resultant misogyny is in some sense beyond Reed's control. As Rogin argues, the operating logic of the secret-society conspiracy theory leads inevitably to a scene of violence against an Other. In her reading of the Black Power movement, Robin Wiegman critiques a structure that seeks to replace a white Phallus with a black Phallus, but nevertheless remains sympathetic to this reaction (109). Using terms applicable to Reckless Eyeballing, Wiegman writes: "(B)lack nationalism's negotiation of its relationship to white masculine supremacy transferred the problem inherent in the disjunction between masculine sameness and racial difference to the site of gender" (109). In the same way, Reckless Eyeballing transfers the disjunctive masculine sameness located in Reed's use of the secret-society conspiracy theory to the site of gender.


In the black dystopian town in Toni Morrison's Paradise, when the social pressures of the 1960s and 70s create too much conflict, the men of the town blame the convent outside of town. Throughout the book the convent acts as a refuge for women, serving as a haven from male oppression in the way that the town itself, once called "Haven," provides a haven from white oppression. These men respond violently to the convent, killing one member and driving the rest away. What began as a progressive ideal--the project of resisting white hegemony--evolves into its own form of oppression, partially, as Morrison makes clear, as a result of the myopia of essentialism. In Reckless Eyeballing, seemingly weary of the thankless task of critiquing white hegemony, Reed marches out to the figurative feminist convent, shotgun in hand. But when he gets there, he finds that he has been tricked, and his bitterness only serves the same white male subject he locates as culprit in Mumbo Jumbo.

The evolution of the secret-society conspiracy theory in Reed's postmodern work demonstrates the limitations of such theories in escaping their moment of production and the ability of form to shape ideological content. In establishing a position of mastery outside History, this narrative inevitably incorporates an unconscious morality that is in itself repressive. The presence of such an unconscious indicates that some forms of conspiracy theory, as political discourses with their own history, do not slide easily into postmodern pastiche, for their form remains chained to a machine of repression, a machine that, in Rogin's words, both "obscures and generates America's own forms of historical guilt" (279).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "Thesis on the Philosophy of History." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Davis, Robert Murray. "Scatting the Myths: Ishmael Reed." Arizona Quarterly 39.4 (Winter 1983): 406-20.

Dick, Bruce Allen, ed. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1999.

--. "Introduction." Dick x-xxxii.

Fenster, Mark. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.

Fox, Robert Eliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1987.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Hume, Kathryn. "Ishmael Reed and the Problematics of Control." PMLA108 (1993); 506-18.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1988

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.

--. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981.

Kakutani, Michiko. "Gallery of the Repellent." Rev. of Reckless Eyeballing. 1996. Dick 164-66.

Knight, Peter. Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X Files. New York: Routledge, 2000.

McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin's P, 1997.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992

--. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Mikics, David. "Postmodernism, Ethnicity and Underground Revisionism in Ishmael Reed." May 1991. Postmodern Culture 1.3. 7 Apr. 2003. <>. 3-4.

Morrison, Toni. Paradise. New York: Knopf, 1998.

O'Donnell, Patrick. Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.

Pipes, Daniel. Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. New York: Free P, 1997.

Punday, Daniel. "Ishmael Reed's Rhetorical Turn: Uses of 'Signifying' in Reckless Eyeballing." 1992. Dick 166-82.

Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

--. The Last Days of Louisiana Red. New York: Random House, 1974.

--. Reckless Eyeballing. New York: St. Martin's P, 1986.

--. "Self Interview." Shrovetide in New Orleans. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978. 137.

--. "Steven Spielberg Plays Howard Beach." Writin' is Fightin'. New York: Atheneum, 1988. 145-46.

--. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Ronald Reagan the Movie. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Turner, Patricia. I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Wallace, Michelle. "Female Troubles: Ishmael Reed's Tunnel Vision." 1996. Dick 183-90.

Wiegman, Robyn. American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.


(1.) O'Donnell offers perhaps the best of a number of recent critiques of paranoia in a post-Cold-War era.

(2.) The Place Congo is famous for the Vodoun rituals performed there.

(3.) Reed and his critics are not the only ones who find in conspiracy theory a mechanism for attacking white hegemony. Knight argues that, given the actual experience of blacks in the west, Reed's idea of a white conspiracy behind black domination urges attention, serving as what Knight describes as a kind of "popular sociology." Knight uses as evidence the broad appeal of suggestions that the CIA distributed crack cocaine in poor black neighborhoods. According to Knight, the reason this idea took root so strongly is that the notion of a conspiracy seems to explain much about the black experience. While Knight is a careful reader of conspiracy theory, this interpretation fails to account for the slippages that become possible when conspiracy theory forms are adopted, slippages evident in Reed's use of the secret-society conspiracy theory. To a lesser degree, Turner also finds a counterhegemonic conspiracy theory in her reading of black community rumor. For the subjects of Turner's study, talking about, for example, a Ku Klux Klan plot to sterilize black men through Church's Chicken becomes a way to express anxiety about lack of black business ownership in poor neighborhoods, and "avoiding the restaurant becomes a means of controlling the specter of racism" (107). But Turner's reading works because it motivates subjects using an empty signifier (Church's Chicken) in ways that do not strongly raify the idea of plots. This effect is not the case, I argue, with Reed's use of the secret society conspiracy theory, which, in locating a position of total objectivity with LaBas, emphasizes form over content.

(4.) Like other conspiracy narratives, Mumbo Jumbo's form begins with the detective novel, as both Reed and his critics note (O'Brien, "Conversations" 15). In a characteristically Reed moment, he tells O'Brien, "I really regret that I didn't win the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award. I wanted to get that prize because I thought Mumbo Jumbo was the best mystery novel of the year" (16). In a seminal essay on conspiracy theory, Jameson describes the conspiratorial thriller as a mutation of the detective novel. In his reading, the literal detective becomes a "social detective" in the conspiratorial thriller (Geopolitical 33). This "social detective" investigates a crime that is in fact a collective--the conspiracy. Famously, Jameson reads the conspiracy structurally, as a cognitive map" of a truth normally not perceptible, the social totality of class oppression under late capitalism. While I find Jameson useful in considering how the form of a conspiracy theory can operate independent of its content, Jameson limits possible interpretations of this form by staying within a relatively narrow framework of Marxist interpretation. While Jameson explores other cultural sources for conspiracy theory, he keeps his hand steady on the rudder of class antagonism. While there is certainly a class element in Reed, race and gender emerge as equally vital forces affecting the subject.

(5.) Among recent conspiracy theory critics, Hofstadter looms large as both father figure and nemesis. For critics of Hofstadter, see especially Rogin 275-84; Fenster 3-21; and Knight 36. For a contemporary continuation of Hofstadter's theoretical tradition, see Pipes.

(6.) O'Donnell argues that paranoia continually works to create a singular History out of a multiplicity of histories: "(P)aranoia thrives on 'linkage' and the dispersion of 'history' into 'histories' that, in the work of paranoia, become reconnected into the predestined history that was always there in the first place, scattered in the hidden clues of fragmented histories" (149). He further maintains that the paranoid actually redresses universalist history--what he calls latent destiny--by demonstrating the mechanism by which universalist history is constructed out of multiplicity. I am interested in the social fallout from the paranoid's self-positioning and the implications of this fallout for masculine subject formation.

(7.) The novel also establishes French as anti-Semitic, which also symbolically links her to a conspiracy; although historically, accused members of conspiracies are Jewish, the reversal here nevertheless positions her with peculiarly extreme motives. Her production of a play by Eva Braun only adds to this characterization. Thus, Reed anticipates Rush Limbaugh's ugly "feminazi" by a few years, and brings feminism to such an extreme that it deconstructs itself.

Andrew Strombeck is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of California, Davis. His work is published or forthcoming in Cultural Critique, Postmodern Culture and Open Spaces. He is currently completing a project on conspiracy theory and masculinity in postwar America.
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Author:Strombeck, Andrew
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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