Contrasting views of conspiracy theories

Three chapters on conspiracy theories in three separate books, two pursuing a Cultural Studies perspective and the other a rationalist one.

  • Chapter 7 – A few clicks of a mouse. In Aaronovitch, David. 2009. Voodoo Histories – the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern Histories. London: Jonathan Cape. pp219-258.
  • Chapter 3 – Cultural studies on/as conspiracy theory. In Birchall, C. 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop. Oxford: Berg. pp65-90.
  • Afterword – Conspiracy theory, cultural studies and the trouble with populism. In Fenster, M. 2008. Conspiracy theories. Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp 279-289.

Birchall is a theorist of popular culture who views conspiracy theories as “signalling a healthy scepticism towards official accounts” (p40). Her interest is the conditions under which the “knowledge producing discourses” of conspiracy become “necessary possibilities” to counter government secrecy veiled in “established and rational discourses” (p63), and what this has to teach her as a cultural theorist. So while she alludes to lack of substantiation and commitment in some theories, she is mainly responding to the prevailing invalidation of conspiracy theories as irrational, politically impotent, bad cognitive mapping done in ignorance. Drawing on John Fiske’s view that conspiracism can be “a method by which the negative experience of capitalism can be, if not rectified, then at least articulated” (p67), she argues that distaste for conspiracism on the part of the intelligentsia is symptomatic of a problem with the cultural analysis carried out by the academic establishment, threatened by other meta-narratives than its own. She argues that viewing conspiracism only in terms of political success or failure will fail to recognise “many aspects” (p69), namely that it is positively active and challenging of hegemony. She points out contradictions in scientific appeal to reason which simultaneously refuses to engage with the possibility that conspiract theories may be true (p71). She calls this phenomenon an example of Lyotardian ‘differend’,

“…a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply another’s illegitimacy.” (p72)

From this point of ‘epistemic relativism’ she proceeds to Baudrillard’s view that knowledge is imaginary and plural, and from there to a Lyotardian criticism of consensus about ‘bad interpretations’ (p81) – consensuses which bear no inherent relation to the truth, are vulnerable to being hijacked for nefarious ends, and are used by ‘the system’ to consolidate its hold on power. This lays the ground for her to celebrate the hoax cultural studies essay successfully submitted by Alan Sokal to the (non-peer-reviewed) Social Text journal. She argues that rather than compromising the cultural studies project, the Sokal incident affirms it. The essay was accepted, she argues, because despite Sokal’s intentions the essay wasn’t bad. Moreover its acceptance demonstrates the admirable openness of cultural studies to the illegitimate. At this point Birchall, while acknowledging the defenciveness of cultural studies in the face of attacks on its credibility, begins to set out commonalities between the conspiracist ‘forgers’ of knowledge and cultural studies itself, for which “the legitimacy of knowledge cannot be decided in advance of any reading”. She then asserts the illegitimacy of cultural studies: “cultural studies may well be a con, a scam, a swindle” and cultural theorists “a bunch of charlatans” (p86), warning against enlisting metanarratives such as Marxism or Humanism in the hope that “the more respectable discipline’s credibility will rub off on ours” (p87). In a move reminiscent of the embattled conspiracy theorist she first announces that she may be branded a traitor, and then professes herself a sort of cultural studies patriot, putting her neck on the line for the sake of its integrity. She then retorts that everybody who works with knowledge is illegitimate, which she qualifies as ‘undecidable legitimacy’, which in turn implies the need for precautionary inclusivity. This leads to a surprisingly banal conclusion which reads like an appeal: because none of us can claim to know anything, academics should avoid offending the subjects of their inquiry, their colleagues, or anybody by ridiculing their point of view, but should instead be as affirming as possible. She alludes to the propensity of some conspiracy theories to harm politics and sometimes people but this is not her focus. She seems primarily concerned with appropriating illegitimacy as a dignified means to retrieve lost ground and morale in cultural studies. I think you have to be a cultural studies insider to fully understand this self-referential preoccupation.

Nobody seems to have notified Aaronovitch that his pursuit is illegitimate or that conspiracists are to be studied rather than countered. Taking a firmly political historical approach, he is uncompromising towards conspiracists from a position of deep and explicit familiarity with their anomalies and slants rather than prejudicial gut distaste. He views conspiracism as effectively and fundamentally unjust and a threat to some groups who are far from power and influence, most prominently Jews and Zionists. In this respect he takes conspiracy theories more seriously as projects in their own right than Birchall chooses to; his is a different – and you could say more substantial – form of recognition. His chapter begins by recounting a 9/11 ‘truth’ event in 2005 fronted by Susannah York. He points out the habit of ruling out better-evidenced, and consequently most likely, explanations in favour of perverse and convoluted ones. He notes that the speakers are unlikely to have encountered each other without the contact across the usual boundaries catalysed and enabled by the Web, which he views as a “mass of undifferentiated information” (p221) where sites – often self-characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ – which use new media to proselytise or amplify 9/11 conspiracism far outnumber those dedicated to debunking conspiracism. Aaronovitch moves into this gap with two approaches to debunking: he fully engages with several 9/11 conspiracy theories on their own terms and takes them apart factually, and he also examines the modus operandi of conspiracists. With respect to the latter he demonstrates the dangers of ‘cui bono’ reasoning as a means of identifying perpetrators by asking who benefited from World War. He also points out the double standards of conspiracists in their “lofty incredulity” about establishment accounts while simultaneously insisting that their own highly questionable accounts stand unless each part (for example, the assertion that the FBI benefited from 9/11) is conclusively refuted. Aaronovitch is responding to a “leaching” of conspiracism into popular culture.There is a subtext of concern about the hyperactivity of the conspiracists, and his meticulous attention to detailed debunking of conspiracies positions him as somebody who hopes to shore up facts against sustained erosion as the “theories formulated by the politically defeated [are] taken up by the socially defeated” (p292).

Fenster’s chapter is between these two opposing views. A fellow cultural theorist whom Birchall quotes approvingly before rejecting this final chapter of his book, he is concerned that while conspiracism is a manifestation of “often justifiable discontent with contemporary institutional democracy and governance” (p281), cultural studies must accept that far right conspiracism, which hurts and even kills, should not be valorised and empowered. He explores the difference between the experience of black Americans with a history of enslavement, systematic exclusion, exploitation (including their unconsenting involvement in the Tuskegee syphilis study), and the assassination of their leaders and supporters, and on the other hand the experience of white working class American men who adopt far right conspiracy theories, concluding that black Americans are more justified in tending towards conspiracism. However he disagrees with John Fiske’s view (p264) that ‘blackstream’ and ‘counterstream’ knowledge should always be championed as not only legitimate but also presumptively emancipatory simply because it actively and radically resists the dominant forms of rationality.  Fenster points out that conspiracism, being simplistically constituted round a monocause such as race, “precludes linkages to other movements of resistance” (p286) and can as easily be used to oppress as to empower. Instead he paraphrases Eve Sedgwick,

“…a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers or better practice.” (p285)

He concludes, compassionately nevertheless, that conspiracy theory is political failure.

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2 thoughts on “Contrasting views of conspiracy theories

  1. Hm… Is resistance to “the dominant forms of rationality” the chief reason for birth of conspiracy theories? Leaving highbrow terminology aside for the learned, isn’t conspiracy-mongering a natural response to secrecy the governments frequently overuse?

    To go a step further: isn’t the above similar to the religion(s) that could be explained (partially) as a feeble attempt by humans to explain/accept that which they don’t understand and/or don’t know?

  2. I think Fiske was making a point against Enlightenment thinking which championed rationality over gut instinct but failed to make good the world’s injustices – or merely replaced some with other new ones, he might say.

    It’s said – including by Fenster – that secrecy on the part of the authorities does promote conspiracism. But the recent open government approaches seem to have confused massive amounts of data with transparency, so it seems that openness on its own isn’t sufficient to make conspiracism go away. And in any case, as you imply, secrets are sometimes a good idea. If you’re conspiracy-minded, I’d speculate, surely the existence of any secrets whatsoever is a licence to give your imagination free range.

    Yes, it’s an “attempt by humans to explain/accept that which they don’t understand and/or don’t know.” But an important thing about conspiracy beliefs is that they don’t tend to be held by all humans. Two good presentations from a psychological perspective are Chris French and Robert Brotherton (together) and Karen Douglas.

    Entirely separately from that, I tend to think of conspiracism as a kind of upward scapegoating.

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