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The Covert Sphere

Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State

In December 2010 the U.S. Embassy in Kabul acknowledged that it was providing major funding for thirteen episodes of Eagle Four—a new Afghani television melodrama based loosely on the blockbuster U.S. series 24. According to an embassy spokesperson, Eagle Four was part of a strategy aimed at transforming public suspicion of security forces into something like awed respect. Why would a wartime government spend valuable resources on a melodrama of covert operations? The answer, according to Timothy Melley, is not simply that fiction has real political effects but that, since the Cold War, fiction has become integral to the growth of national security as a concept and a transformation of democracy.

In The Covert Sphere, Melley links this cultural shift to the birth of the national security state in 1947. As the United States developed a vast infrastructure of clandestine organizations, it shielded policy from the public sphere and gave rise to a new cultural imaginary, "the covert sphere." One of the surprising consequences of state secrecy is that citizens must rely substantially on fiction to "know," or imagine, their nation's foreign policy. The potent combination of institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state was instrumental in fostering the culture of suspicion and uncertainty that has plagued American society ever since—and, Melley argues, that would eventually find its fullest expression in postmodernism.

The Covert Sphere traces these consequences from the Korean War through the War on Terror, examining how a regime of psychological operations and covert action has made the conflation of reality and fiction a central feature of both U.S. foreign policy and American culture. Melley interweaves Cold War history with political theory and original readings of films, television dramas, and popular entertainments—from The Manchurian Candidate through 24—as well as influential writing by Margaret Atwood, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, E. L. Doctorow, Michael Herr, Denis Johnson, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, and many others.

Author Information


Timothy Melley is Professor of English, Affiliate of American Studies,and Director of the Humanities Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America and The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State, both from Cornell.


""His study impressively documents how state secrecy became a privileged topos for reflecting on power and knowledge in late twentieth century American literature and cutlure." —Alexander Dunst,Journal of American Studies"

Sam Goodman:

"In his exploration of the national security state and the fiction it inspires, Melley engages in a spirited and cerebral examination of certain cultural and political tropes of the Cold Warand beyond, illustrating how often they have been rearticulated in a twenty-first-centurycontext as the War on Terror gathered pace in the wake of 9/11."

Donald E. Pease, Founding Director of the Futures of American Studies Institute:

"The Covert Sphere brilliantly demonstrates how the covert activities undertaken by the Cold War state generated postmodern fantasies that the 'covert sphere' instructed citizens to enjoy. Timothy Melley’s benchmark text will utterly transform received understandings of the Cold War and postmodern fiction alike."

Alan Nadel, University of Kentucky:

"Timothy Melley develops a rich, fruitful, and original engagement with the notion of the 'public sphere' that establishes it not as a discursive space purified of hidden agendae, disinformation, and secrecy, but rather as an overt acknowledgment of the covert. The Covert Sphere thus provides an astute taxonomy of the ways that the covert and the public relentlessly modify each other. This is a provocative and important book, one particularly relevant in this Age of Terror, when covert actions have become our boldest public obsessions."

Joseph Tabbi, University of Illinois at Chicago:

"Timothy Melley shows why a term like 'postmodernism' won’t go away—not so long as the National Security State itself is grounded in irrationalism, the unreal, and the necessary lie. Melley’s historicist argument is that over time and without central planning, in response to the (partly imagined) covert activity of the Soviets in the Cold War, the United States developed an elaborate ‘covert sphere’ through the CIA and many other government organizations. Through novels, films, television serials, and electronic games, knowledge circulates mostly as fictions and narratives, and this is the great advantage held by the covert sphere over the rational-critical public sphere: once knowledge is narrativized, it becomes not exactly deniable, but flexible, capable of endless construction so that no one narrative can ever hold the national stage for very long. Melley’s understanding of the fictionality of contemporary knowledge, a key contribution to American cultural studies, also produces subtle and original readings of some of our most important postmodern fictions."

Audience: General/trade;