Conspiracy theory event at UCL

Shhhhh – don’t let them know we’re talking – even thinking – about them.

Tsk, I’m out of date. Conspiracy theorists are mainstream these days, to the extent that Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth in partnership with We Are Change are sufficiently funded to bring us this conspiracy theorist event at UCL:

Conspiracy theories are alternative, counter-hegemonic explanations for a given phenomenon which allege secret and malevolent machinations based on nasty motives. On inspection, conspiracy theories are inadequately evidenced. It’s this lack of evidence in combination with a keeness to believe in malevolent motives, in the presence of a reasonable and well-evidenced ‘official’ theory, which are the tell-tale signs of crankery. Nevertheless, here we are – crankery abounds. Perhaps soon I won’t even be able to put them in my ‘weirdos’ category any more.

Cultural scholar Mark Fenster would definitely disapprove of that. I just ordered his book. He conceptualises conspiracy beliefs as a populist “mode of desire” for a different society and, in this respect, as progressive. Part of review of the first edition (2001, before 9/11) in Cultural Studies;15(2):375-9 by Mark Harrison is interesting:

Fenster proposes a mode of analysis that departs from Hofstadter’s position by adopting a more sympathetic stance, one which attempts to take conspiracy theory seriously and recognize its ostensibly inherent utopian potential.

Conspiracy theory as a topic should be of great interest to cultural studies scholars for a number of reasons. As a mode of understanding power relations in contemporary America, conspiracy theory occupies an increasingly broad bandwidth within the political imaginary. In addition to its popular representations in cinema, television and massmarket fiction, the conspiratorial world view is central to the burgeoning culture of conservative Christianity (the forces of secular humanism occupying the role of central villain) and generally informs the sense of political apathy among the US electorate.

However, Harrison says that Fenster fails to talk about how such theories might work progressively in culture or politics. After all, the thing about conspiracy theories is that they are politically disorientating and associated with political fatalism.

One question that arises upon reaching the conclusion that conspiracy theory is somehow symptomatic of a broader dynamic is what can the symptom tell us about that dynamic? Fenster shows us that plumbing the structures of conspiracy theory is a good place to begin addressing this question, but he seems to default to a modified version of conspiracy theory as a salve to the wounds of political disenfranchisement. To say that conspiratorial thinking brings comfort to its host misreads the nature of creeping paranoia and the sense of being surrounded by overwhelmingly powerful and malevolent forces. While Fenster clearly realizes this, he never quite accounts for the tension between the notion of conspiracy theory as salve and conspiracy theory as a source of profound dread and disequilibrium.

Some paragraphs later Harrison refers to “critical theory’s paranoid doppelganger”. It will be interesting to see how Fenster’s the 2008 edition evolved.

From a different and complementary disciplinary perspective, social psychologist Karen Douglas finds that poople who hold conspiracy beliefs tend to have cynical, disaffected, machiavellian values and can envisage doing the same kind of thing themselves – I drastically simplify; she is not inclined to pathologise or criminalise people with conspiracy beliefs. (Incidentally people who promulgate conspiracy theories are probably different from people who are susceptable to them.)

I’m also going to the event for the questions – AE911 are actively soliciting for architects and engineers to go and listen. Matt is an engineer, so I guess that means me.


10 thoughts on “Conspiracy theory event at UCL

  1. It would be easy to confuse the burgeoning “Skepticism” culture (e.g. the Skepchicks and Bad Astronomer blogs, the Skeptics guide to the Universe podcast, James Randi and so on) with conspiracy theorists, because the Truthers are skeptical of the evidence placed before them. However “Skeptics” are happy to embrace theories if the evidence is there. Evolution, cosmic stuff, moon landings. So the skepticism is the initial state, but they are flexible. For Truthers, the skepticism is rigid, and their initial state also includes a paranoid belief in the malevolent forces.

  2. Oh and I dearly wish I could come along to this. Mr Gage seems to think that just because some engineers think it, all you plebs should too. I would dress as Graham Lister, who had a similar belief in the infallibility of “doctors and architects”. The media falls for this stuff too, which leads to headlines telling you that cress cures cancer, because one doctor said so.

    Also I’d like to see you and Matt.

  3. I think that psychological explanations are probably closer to the “truth” on this issue, combined with a political counter culture outlook, which might explain why such ideas find a receptive audience in certain places? Not 100% sure, but it is interesting to ask why in the 21st century such irrationality is still around and so vocal?

  4. MattP, maybe I could dress as Graham Lister (I saw Bob Mortimer on the street the other day. He was my kind of height and wearing a hell of a lot of make-up).

    Kellie, that was a marvellous write-up. Interestingly it’s almost as if you and my friend (who is into steam punk and not Truthers) saw different films in Traff Square that night, because when I – not having seen it myself -relayed your review to her she didn’t recognise it until I talked about the women’s peace movement. I am now really intrigued to see it.

    Mod, I bet irrationality has grown proportionately to the decline of physical sciences and maths. Maybe De Sautoy will sort us out.

  5. Ten or twenty years ago the plot of that film wouldn’t have made me blink. To betray my current set of prejudices, watching it last week I expected the saintly peace campaigner to be revealed as the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Alas not. The clothes were really great though.

  6. The truthers and the very small number of engineers who support them are not mainstream. It’s led by an architect for a start – what self respecting engineer believe what architects say about structural behaviour!

    Perhaps we should spend some time concentrating on the sain people who have debunked these idiots for example,

    The comment thread on the second link will hopefully reassure fleshisgrass that are plenty of people prepared to invest time in calmly and rationally arguing with the nutters. Although if you are sad enough to read till the end the conspiracy fundamentalists do end up talking to themselves setting up straw man after straw man then demolishing them – presumably with crontrolled explosives.

    I only spent a few minutes on their website but haven’t managed to find any mention of the 6 of Novemeber event being an officail UCL event.

  7. Matt, I am reassured. It’s true that anybody can rent a room at UCL, and I didn’t mean to give the impression that UCL was endorsing it except from a cash point of view. Dinner smells good, by the way.

    Kellie, “I expected the saintly peace campaigner to be revealed as the mastermind behind the conspiracy.”

    That’s very funny. The other week I met a man with an intense interest in conspiracy theories and as our conversation went on it became clear that he believed that the conspiracy theorists, rather than deluded utopian demagogues, were actually plotting against the rest of us. My eyes started to spin in their sockets at that stage so I excused myself and left.

    Your illustrations are the most beautiful things, I just got your book for my friends’ little boy in Australia, and I hope you find your lost paintings.

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