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Tsk, I’m out of date.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: http://gageinlondon.blogspot.com/
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.