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A Reader’s Guide to Conspiracy Theory

By MATTHEW DENTITHconspiracy
One of the (unfortunate) side effects of writing a PhD thesis on Conspiracy Theories is the feeling that you are living in a Len Deighton novel. The difference between fact and fiction becomes more and more blurred as you study Conspiracy Theories. The very act of reading the paper ends up being a speculative exercise in ‘How would a Conspiracy Theorist link these events together?’ and there is always the lurking horror that one day you won’t treat it as a mere intellectual fancy.

Which is why I bite the bullet in the ‘holidays’ and read scholarly tomes on Conspiracy Theories that lie ever so slightly outside my chief research area.

Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From by Daniel Pipes, New York: Free Press, 1997.

Pipes is a right-wing media pundit prone to attacking both the Left and Islam for daring to exist. I approached his book, then, with some trepidation; whilst Pipes is some kind of authority on Conspiracy Theories I was not convinced he had enough nous to overcome his political views and present a decent argument.

I was then, for the most part, pleasantly surprised, although given that it was written pre-9/11 some of the optimism of this book has been squandered by recent events. One of Pipes’ central theses in this book is that in the West, Conspiracism (the unreasonable fear of Conspiracies) is on the decline. Given that four years after the book’s publication 9-11 occurred his claim that ‘We’re getting over it’ now seems oddly optimistic, given that Dubya probably kept the flame of conspiracism alive during his presidency.

Pipes defines a Conspiracy Theory as being a fear of a non-existent Conspiracy. His odd definition is obviously pejorative. Conspiracy Theorists, for one, don’t use the term in that way and a lot of the pyschological and philosophical literature is concerned with whether such theories are warranted, which suggests that some Conspiracy Theories could well be true.

Still, I can understand why Pipes defines Conspiracy Theories in this way; he is developing Richard’s Hofstadter’s notion of the Paranoid Style, the notion that belief in Conspiracy Theories is symptomatic of a mental pathology similar to paranoia. Given that this is the operating definition for Pipes his discussion on Conspiracism and its usage by both the Right and the Left is interesting and, I think, fairly well-reasoned. He rather glosses over the conspiracism of the Right in part because his natural enemy is the Left but also, I think, because the Left is often allowed to pretend that they don’t engage in a similar pathology.

Pipes’ chief target is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, arguably, explains away Conspiracy Theories as being due to the institutional nature of large organisations. Chomsky simply defines so-called ‘good’ Conspiracy Theories as Institutional Analysis and reserves the term ‘Conspiracy Theory’ for the ‘bad’ ones. Pipes is correct in identifying this as a left-wing attempt to engage in Conspiracy Theorising without admitting it. Whilst there is a certain pomposity to Pipes’ denunciation of Chomsky and his followers the argument itself seems sound.

Given just how much the political landscape has been changed by 9/11, it would be interesting to see a new and revised edition of this book.

Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy, Springer Series in Social Psychology, edited by C. F. Graumann and S. Moscovici, New York: Springer Verlag, 1987.

One of the biggest problems I have as a researcher is occasionally forgetting that I’ve read a book. This is one of them; it turned out I had interloaned it about a year before. I forgot that I had read it because it is, to my mind, impenetrable. This might be because several of the papers are translations and this might be because I’m not a psychologist and so the terminology and occasionally awkward phrasing really did my ‘ead in. Most of the work, unsurprisingly, is Social Pyschology and I got nothing more out of it on this accidental second reading. Some of the material is clearly interesting (there is a paper on how the Spanish authorities encouraged the Roman Catholic Church to characterise the (so-called) New World Indians as cannibals, for instance) and if I were a pyschologist I would have lapped this material up.

But I didn’t.

Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America
, edited by Peter Knight, New York University Press, 2002.

If the last book was overloaded with Social Psychology this book had too much Lyotard in it. Given that it was a volume edited by Peter Knight (an American Studies professor in Manchester who has written quite a lot of good material on American attitudes in respect to Conspiracy Theories) I had high hopes. However, Knight is the editor and the editor alone; nowhere in the list of articles does his name appear as an author.

Still, there was some interesting material. Skip William’s `Spinning Paranoia’ looks at both the Conspiracy and Cock-up Theories of History and wisely points out that a lot of commentators who argue for one end up endorsing a version of the other. He uses a nice example from George Will’s dismissal of the claim Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed due to the actions of a Conspiracy. Will claims the assassination was a cock-up, not seeming to realise that the assassin’s being part of the failed Conspiracy to blow up the Archduke’s car was probably a major contributory cause to the assassin deciding to shot the Archduke when he bumped into him at the café afterwards; the assassin may well have been part of a failed Conspiracy to kill the Archduke via a car-bombing but was part of a successful Conspiracy to kill the Archduke. The latter Conspiracy is the important one because it entails the former.

Clare Birchall’s The Commodification of Conspiracy Theory is a good overview of just how easily it seems we can talk about Conspiracy Theories without having any belief as to whether they are plausible or not. Like a lot of the authors in this volume her argument for this agnosticism in respect to Conspiracy Theories comes out of the way the media portrays Conspiracy Theories, with `The X Files’ being the prime target of her critique. She does, however, back up her argument with a savvy discussion of how the revelations of what the Intelligence Community gets up to have made us just a little more open to the notion that governments might well be out to get us. The number of wacky conspiratorial explanations of political events which turned out to be warranted has made the public a little more sceptical of official explanations and a little more likely to entertain notions of Conspiracy, even if only half-heartedly.

The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth Century France by Geoffrey Cubitt, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993.

The French Revolution is a great example of a series of actual Conspiracies and posited Conspiracy Theories; you have the actual Revolution itself to comment on, the feeling that the French Court acted at least conspiratorially and the question as to what role the Roman Catholic Church played in the proceedings. Geoffrey Cubitt’s book looks at the role and portrayal of the Jesuits before, during and after the (first) French Revolution and whether they really were conspiring with the Court against the people of France.

Cubitt is interested in the rhetoric of Conspiracy Theories. Whilst a lot of his book is devoted to the Revolution he does go on to talk about the larger picture of Conspiracy Theories today. In essence, Cubitt argues that the modern concept of the Conspiracy Theory is an invention that came out of the Revolutionary France (he is not alone in making this claim). Cubitt’s argument is that pre-Revolutionary Conspiracy Theories focussed on what personal gain the conspirators could hope to obtain, which was the method of conspiracy within the Royal Court, whilst the Conspiracy Theories that emerged during the Revolution – the ones common today – started to allude to conspirators not as groups of distinct individuals but rather as classes and sects who acted not so much for personal gain but rather in respect to long-term gain, such as domination of the state… or even the world.

Cubitt’s thesis reflects a central presupposition in a lot of the literature on Conspiracy Theories, that they are relatively modern. To some extent I agree: conspiracies in democracies look, historically, as if they operate somewhat differently from their historical counterparts in more closed political societies. My hesitation in endorsing Cubitt’s presupposition wholeheartedly is that I think it is only part of the story and that the notion of Conspiracy, the acting together in secret to achieve some end isn’t really changed by moving from closed to more open political structures. Sure, the stories we tell differ, but the character of them does not.

I change my mind on this regularly so I probably won’t agree with this opinion by the time this sees print.


Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture
by Mark Fenster, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008.

I am not one of those philosophers who thinks ‘post-modernity’ means ‘utter garbage.’ I think post-modernism is a useful tool for the interpretation of certain corpuses of literature, and I increasingly think that the corpus of Conspiracy Theories should be treated as a very specific kind of literature.

But – there is always a but here, isn’t there – I’m still just a little put off by phrases like ‘hyperactive semiosis’ and the like. They just don’t ring true to me. I blame this on my MA thesis on G. W. F. Hegel. It turned me not just against Hegel and his dialectic; it also destroyed any love I had for the florid philosophical style that he, some might say, perfected.

Fenster’s book is filled with such phrases.

His book is a critique of Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style. Fenster’s thesis is that Hoftstadter (and his successors, like the aforementioned Daniel Pipes) oversimplifies the Conspiracy Theory dialectic.

It is important to note that Hoftstadter does not think that belief in Conspiracy Theories is an actual species of paranoia but rather that belief in Conspiracy Theories is pathologically similar to paranoia. Belief in Conspiracy Theories engenders a belief in an ‘Other’ who is out to get you/someone, but this belief is not irrational in the way that paranoia is. Indeed, history tells us that sometimes (and there is a debate here as to whether ‘sometimes’ can mean ‘often’) conspiracies do occur. Hoftstadter’s error is to buy into the idea that Conspiracy Theories posit an ‘Other’ that is Manichean in character.

Fenster’s believes Hofstadter and his cronies take an overly populist view of Conspiracy Theories, making them out to be cases of ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ where ‘them’ are the people who succumb to the paranoid style and the ‘us’ are the well-educated ones who know that, really, conspiracies aren’t all that prevalent. As Fenster argues, this view ignores the fact that sometimes the suspicion that drives Conspiracy Theorising might be on to something; we cannot simply characterise belief in Conspiracy Theories as utterly suspicious (although we might well be justified in having a prima facie suspicion about such beliefs).

Fenster’s alternative is to focus on the roots of the ‘paranoid pathology – to ask ‘ why do Conspiracy Theorists form these beliefs in the first place?’ He doesn’t seek to legitimise Conspiracy Theories but rather to contextualise them and thus make them understandable and not necessarily irrational, as some would like to have it.

I think I like Fenster’s book. The central thesis, the attack on the Paranoid Style, is not just well-argued, it also fits in with my work (which is not necessarily the basis for a glowing review). More importantly, Fenster uses case studies to illustrate his thesis, showing that mere paranoia cannot be the basis for the multitude of Conspiracy Theories which are predicated on people being done over again and again and again. Indeed, the lesson to be learnt from this book is that the old adage ‘Even paranoids have enemies,’ is not just true but occasionally well-justified.

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Matthew Dentith studies and teaches at the University of Auckland. Visit his blog at: http://all-embracing.episto.org/

5 comments:

  1. Jonathan, 6. July 2009, 16:45

    “Pipes is correct in identifying this as a left-wing attempt to engage in Conspiracy Theorising without admitting it. Whilst there is a certain pomposity to Pipes’ denunciation of Chomsky and his followers the argument itself seems sound.”

    Have you *read* any Chomsky? Chomsky is s very rational thinker, almost to a fault.

     
  2. Ross Brighton, 7. July 2009, 1:29

    everyone engages in cognitive dissonance, Jonathan – even the supposedly rational. And this isn’t necessarily Chomsky the author, more likely Chomsky the media personality and interviewee.

     
  3. Matthew, 8. July 2009, 16:58

    In reply to Jonathan; yes, I know Chomsky and his work (given my thesis it would be remiss of me to not know the material). Still, despite the fact that I think Pipes is (usually) quite wrong I think his criticism of Chomsky (and others who engage in the same kind of activity) is right in principle; Chomsky et al do engage in a game where belief in conspiratorial activity gets classified as being ‘not a Conspiracy Theory.’ It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do in many cases, and Pipes does it as well (just read his blog), but it doesn’t negate the strength of his argument.

     
  4. Jeremy, 9. July 2009, 9:08

    Matthew,

    You might be right, but giving us one clear example of Chomsky doing that would surely be in the spirit of the copiously-footnoted-one himself.

    So there’s your challenge. Establish that your criticism of Chomsky isn’t the academic equivalent of conspiracy theory: a lazy excuse for the hard yacker of real research and scholarship

     
  5. Matthew, 9. July 2009, 16:59

    Well, it isn’t exactly my criticism, per se, of Chomsky; it’s Daniel Pipes’s. I’d recommend looking at what he has to say; in my review I said I thought it worked, but others might disagree. Given that Pipes spends quite some time on the subject, using examples (and criticises Berlet and others for the same kind of move) I’d say that if people really are concerned that Chomsky is under attack, then I’d recommend going to the source, rather than attacking the messenger.

    For those who want to look into it, Pipes delves into this issue about Chomsky around page 174 of the edition I reviewed (although basically that chapter, which is on Conspiracies of the Left, is the argument proper and probably needs to be read in full to understand his thesis).