Conspiracy, Pornography, Democracy: The Recurrent Aesthetics of the American Illuminati

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This essay examines reactionary, countersubversive fictions produced in the context of two conspiracy theories in the United States: the Illuminati crisis (1798–1800) and Pizzagate (2016–17). The author suggests that both cases emblematize a pornotropic aesthetic, a racialized sadomasochism that recurs across United States culture. Building on the work of Hortense Spillers, Alexander Weheliye, Jennifer Christine Nash, and others, this essay argues that observers should understand countersubversive political reaction as an aesthetic project, a pornotropic fantasy that distorts underlying conditions of racial subjection. In the context of a resurgent far right that describes its enemies as “cuckolds” and frequently deploys the tropes of highly racialized pornography, this essay suggests that we might find the deep origins of pornographic, reactionary paranoia in the eighteenth century. It suggests, moreover, that understanding and contesting the underlying conditions of racial subjection require that scholars consider the power of pornotropic, countersubversive aesthetics to bring pleasure, to move people, and to order the world.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273-294
JournalJournal of American Studies
Issue number2
Early online date12 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020


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