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In Association with Amazon.com

Jodi Dean
Theorizing Conspiracy Theory

    Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1999)

    Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power... @ Amazon.com
    Conspiracy Theories:
    @ Amazon.com

    George Marcus, Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

    Paranoia Within Reason @ Amazon.com
    Paranoia Within Reason
    @ Amazon.com

    Timothy Melly, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Cornell University Press, 2000)

    Empire of Conspiracy @ Amazon.com
    Empire of Conspiracy
    @ Amazon.com


    "This is the age of conspiracy . . .the age of connections, links, secret relationships."

    Don DeLillo, Running Dog

  1.      As the global networks of the information age become increasingly entangled, many of us are overwhelmed and undermined by an all-pervasive uncertainty. Far from passively consuming the virtually entertaining spectacles of vertically integrated media, we come to suspect that something is going on behind the screens. What we see is not what we get. The truth may not be out there, but something, or someone, is. Accompanying our increasing suspicions, moreover, are seemingly bottomless vats of information, endless paths of evidence. As Kathleen Stewart writes in her eerily evocative contribution to Paranoia Within Reason, "Events and phenomena call to us as haunting specters lodged somewhere within the endless proliferation of images and reports . . .the more you know, the less you know."[1] There may be more information than we can bear.

  2.      Having it all, bringing every relevant and available fact into the conversation, as the Habermasians like to say, may well entangle us in a clouded, occluded nightmare of obfuscation. I'm thinking here of my nanny's efforts to understand the legalities of her divorce or my mundane and consumerist attempts to choose an affordable cell phone provider. We're linked into a world of uncertainties, a world where more information is always available, and hence, a world where we face daily the fact that our truths, diagnoses, and understandings are incomplete -- click on one more link, check out one more newscast, get just one more expert opinion (and then, perhaps, venture into the fringe; after all, some HMOs cover alternative remedies).

  3.      These two ideas, that things are not as they seem and everything is connected, are primary components of how we think about and experience the information age. They are also the guiding impulses of conspiracy theory. Are the lawyers and judges in our small town colluding against my nanny? Are telecoms, like some Windowed-monster, engaging in monopolistic practices that will enrich their stockholders?

  4.      Mark Fenster's Conspiracy Theory, Timothy Melley's Empire of Conspiracy, and the essays collected in George Marcus's Paranoia Within Reason are recent contributions to a reemerging interest in the paranoid style of contemporary politics. Theorists concerned with problems of virtuality and paranoia, political scientists following militia groups, religious and millennial studies scholars observing unfolding cultic activities and end-time scenarios, all take up the challenges posed by conspiratorial labels, accusations, and fears. To be sure, exactly what is under scrutiny remains as shifting and suspicious as the fears of conspiracy themselves. In identifying conspiracy theory, some focus on its style, others on its preoccupation with plot, still others on its pathological motivations.[2]

  5.      Briefly, the problems with these approaches are as follows. First, the emphasis on style oscillates between accusations that conspiracy thinking is excessively rational, over-interpretive, and too preoccupied with evidence, on the one hand, and that it is irrational, locked into a rigid interpretive framework, and pays little attention to the facts, on the other hand. Conspiracy theories, it is said, are either too complicated or too simple. They are never "just right." As Slavoj Zizek observes, this oscillation suggests that we are dealing here with jouissance.[3] Critics of the paranoid style take issue with the irrational pleasures and excesses of reason denied in reason's name, with the ways that distinctions between what can count as a valid or significant citation are clearly imbricated in power and privilege.

  6.      But might not the very excesses of conspiracy theory click on the surpluses, the libidinal supports, of political and economic power? The details of conspiracy suggest, contra those who emphasize style, the myriad, multiple lines of authorization through whose networks power flows. Conspiracy theory centers these surpluses, understanding them as integral to the maintenance of power. As Timothy Melley observes (in a wide-ranging analysis that integrates Don DeLillo, Kathy Acker, Joan Didion, Sigmund Freud, David Riesman, Nobert Wiener, and Leo Strauss): "the term 'conspiracy' rarely signifies a small, secret plot anymore. Instead, it frequently refers to the workings of a large organization, technology, or system -- a powerful and obscure entity so dispersed that it is the antithesis of the traditional conspiracy. 'Conspiracy,' in other words, has come to signify a broad array of social controls," (8).

  7.      Second, the emphasis on plot comes up against the ways that conspiracy theories are neither complete nor intelligible. In other words, there are always gaps and uncertainties that disrupt any effort to theorize a conspiracy. Most of us know that there are conspiratorial explanations for the JFK assassination, the origins of the AIDS virus, the crash at Roswell, the eye and pyramid images on American currency. But we don't know what these explanations are, what sorts of plots and shadowy figures are involved and how they fit together. All we know are bits and pieces without a plot. This is the way conspiracy theories work. Most fail to delineate any conspiracy at all. They simply counter conventional narratives with suspicions and allegations that, more often than not, resist coherent emplotment or satisfying narrative resolution. Fear and unease are always conspiracy theory's residue. We might say, then, that conspiracy theories are critical theories, critical theories generally misread as empirical theories (exposes).

  8.      In conspiracy theories, the possibilities of malevolent plays of power link facts, speculations, and questions. Was the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana part of a CIA mind-control experiment?[4] What explains the fact that the CIA was the first to report the massacre and the presence of CIA agent Richard Dwyer? Was it a plot to kill hundreds of African-Americans? Rather than mapping totality, conspiracy's insinuations disrupt the presumption that there is a coherent, knowable reality that could be mapped.

  9.      Finally, the emphases on pathological motivation employ either an indefensible diagnosis or discount the embeddedness of conspiracy thinking within what they understand as mainstream history and elite groups. Thus, even as those who view conspiracy as pathology attempt to use psycho-therapeutic criteria to demonstrate the abnormality of political paranoia, they are left acknowledging that sometimes there really are conspiracies afoot and sometimes paranoia in politics makes good sense.[5] Paradoxically, were they to follow through with this acknowledgment, their diagnoses would be premised on establishing whether or not a conspiracy exists, thereby transforming the critics themselves into conspiracy theorists. Similarly, efforts to render conspiracy thinking as some kind of "status-deficit disorder" have to confront the conspiracy mindedness of elected politicians (Senators Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, say) and governmental policies (those carried out in the United States during the Cold War).[6] Clearly, conspiracy thinking is not confined to the marginal and excluded. All three of the books reviewed here are a wonderful remedy to this problem: Mark Fenster's account of a Senate subcommittee hearing on militias sets out the conspiratory thinking within law enforcement and watchdog organizations; Melley rereads the critique of the "other directed" or "organization" man in postwar social science as a kind of conspiracy theory; Myanna Lahsen in the Marcus volume looks at debates over global warming in terms of accusations of conspiracy.

  10.      In contrast, then, to thinking about conspiracy theory in terms of style, plot, or pathology, I think it makes better sense to understand it as an informational assemblage linking lines of power (legitimacy/authority) and possibilities for agency (intention/subjection) along the axis publicity/secrecy and through nodes of evidence. Such an understanding allows for changes in the context, content, and role of conspiracy thinking over time. It recognizes conspiracy theory as an account of power and political agency. And, it highlights the dynamic of secrecy and publicity as central to the logic of conspiracy theory.

    Conspiracy Now

  11.      Why is conspiracy particularly prevalent today? All three volumes point out that conspiracy has a long and lurid history in America, but that it nonetheless seems to be enjoying a particularly strong popularity today. Why?

  12.      Melley thinks the problem is "agency panic." Conspiracy theory, in appearances ranging from social psychology, to literature, to the Unabomber manifesto, seeks through its critique of invasive organization to defend a notion of the individual as a rational agent. It's a reaction to the decentered subject. Perhaps. But Melley's argument relies on the claim that treatments of systems as enemies in conspiracy theory necessarily presuppose that systems are total and intentional (58). It is this supposition that Melley takes to be a symptom of a general nostalgia for the intentional, inviolate individual swept away in the course of the twentieth century. I disagree with this reading of conspiracy theory. To talk about corporate power, an issue Melley raises in the first chapter, is not to deny that there are different people, interests, and practices within a corporation. Nor is it to say that the corporation is an intentional subject. Rather, it is simply to say that there are systems and practices that have effects, effects that may well be awful. (The subtleties in the accounts of corporate conspiracy in the Marcus volume are helpful here.) Additionally, I'm not convinced either of Melley's account of a widespread cultural nostalgia for the willful liberal subject or that conspiracy theory should be read in terms of such nostalgia. In alien abduction discourses, for example, the problem is not with the instability of memory (as the abductee uncovers repressed memories of abduction and then the possibility that any memory is a screen for something else) or the fluidity of bodies (in connection with movement between earth and alien space and in the context of alien efforts to breed a hybrid human-alien species). Rather, the problem is when Western law and science rely on categories that prevent them from even considering that the abductees are not insane, deceitful, etc. Thus, while Melley's observations on cultural anxieties about organizations, surveillance, and interconnection are helpful, his account of "agency panic" seems too quick.

  13.      In contrast, in his introduction to the collection Paranoia Within Reason, George Marcus emphasizes two components of contemporary life that ready it for the installation of conspiracy: the mentality of the Cold War and the crisis of representation often denoted as the postmodern. The contribution from Kathleen Stewart elaborates on this answer, linking the rise in conspiracy thinking to networked communications: "The Internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing and no place." (18).[7] Through a conjuration that simultaneously invokes and exorcises a delusion of totality, the pale blue glow of digitized information circulates through and interconnects nearly all commercially available media. Books, magazines, television, video, movies, newspapers, tabloids, tapes, e-zines, and websites, each cross-references, legitimizes, and undermines the other. That cultural practices intersect, reinforce, and complicate each other isn't itself new -- but technoculture's degree of saturation is.[8]

  14.      Accordingly, we might understand the reappearance of conspiracy theory on the radar of academic theory and traditional media as reconfigured engagement with problems of uncertainty and the boundaries of the political. In the wake of McCarthy and the throws of the Cold War, American historians and social scientists elaborated a theory of democratic politics that could allow for balanced conflict. They wanted to give an account of ordered political disagreement capable of avoiding the conformist extremes they identified in communism and consumerism, on the one hand, and the irrational extremes of paranoid and authoritarian personalities, on the other.

  15.      Fenster's Conspiracy Theories provides a thorough and nuanced account of these efforts as they worked themselves out in pluralist democratic theory and consensus conceptions of the history of American politics. Historians and political scientists alike dealt with political uncertainty by psychologizing it, treating it as deviant, and rendering it outside the bounds of "normal political processes of bargain and compromise" (19, quoting Richard Hofstadter's influential essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics"). Fenster writes: "Afraid of the decay of American politics and culture by the onslaught of post-war technological and social changes, Hofstadter, his contemporaries, and his followers constituted a notion of the pathological political Other as that which lay beyond the pale of political discourse" (18).

  16.      If Hofstadter's work, specifically, and the pluralist theorists' and consensus historians' concern with conspiracy, more generally, mark the initial production of the boundaries of the political in the post-war era, then the return to conspiracy might well denote its closure. Conspiracy, in other words, might suture a certain conception of the political. Its contemporary reconsideration may then mark a turning point insofar as the conditions for the pluralist theory so preoccupied with excluding extremes no longer hold. Put somewhat differently, current preoccupations with conspiracy might click on a growing realization that the presuppositions of pluralist theory, the bounded political normal, the rational, discursive, procedural public sphere, are fictions that have lost a plausibility they never really had.

    It All Makes Perfect Sense

  17.      The title to the Marcus volume highlights the loss of the fiction of plausibility attached to the rational public sphere -- Paranoia Within Reason. Observing that Hofstadter fails to appreciate the reasonableness of conspiracy thinking, Marcus explains: "We wish mainly to deepen and amend Hofstadter's study precisely by coming to terms with the paranoid style, not as distanced from the 'really' rational by exoticized groups with which it is usually associated in projects of targeted critique of expose, but within reason, as a 'reasonable' component of rational and commonsensical thought and experience in certain contexts" (2). Like other Enlightenment theories with claims to truth and reason, conspiracy theory links facticity, causality, coherence, and rationality. And, like other Enlightenment theories, conspiracy theories are marked by a drive to know and uncover the truth. They suspect. They express the sense that something has been withheld, that all the facts aren't known, that what we see isn't all there is. As if inspired by the mantras of global technoculture, conspiracy theory demands more information. Too humble to offer a totalizing account, too aware that the whole, the global, resists imagining (something is always left out), its accumulated assertions remind us that we don't know.

  18.      A "casebook" of the tendencies and situations through which conspiracy haunts contemporary society, Paranoia Within Reason presents the diversity among paranoid intensities and conspiratorial assemblages of information. Few of its essays reduce conspiracy thinking to a style, a preoccupation with plot, or a pathology motivated by exclusion. Rather, the chapters take up conspiratorial articulations of power and agency, publicity and secrecy, in the security and exchange commission, quantum mechanics, amusement parks, Russian gangs, philosophy of language, as well as Waco, Gulf War syndrome, and multiple personality disorder. In so doing, the volume's contents display the instability of distinctions between the conspiratorial and the 'normal.' Its methodological use of interviews keeps alive the way "some of the subjects move from a sense of being completely outside a world in which conspiracies operate, perpetrated by others, and of which they are victims, to the more ambiguous situation of suddenly discovering oneself implicated in or complicit with conspiratorial processes and movements emanating from a mysterious elsewhere" (7). To think conspiratorially, to posit links between actions and events, to imagine that there is an other working behind the scenes, may well be reasonable, inseparable from reason, part of the very operation of reason. Indeed, could it not be the case that denying this paranoid core is precisely that intrusion of irrationality, of affective extremism, that empowers reason with its undeniable coercive force?

  19.      Paranoia Within Reason's attunement to the suspicions and uncertainties in conspiracy thinking contrasts with a more common interpretation of conspiracy theory as totalizing and absolutist. Hofstadter, for example, criticizes conspiracy theory for its overwhelming coherence: "it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities . . . it believes that it is up against an enemy who is as infallibly rational as he is totally evil, and it seeks to match his imputed total competence with its own, leaving nothing unexplained and comprehending all of reality in one overreaching consistent theory."[9] But as the essays in Paranoia Within Reason make clear, even if once upon a time conspiracy theorists offered totalizing systems mapping the hidden machinations of Illuminati, Freemasons, Bilderburgers, and Trilateralists (and, in fact, I don't think they ever did but won't argue the point here), the defining feature of the conspiratorial haunting of the present is doubt, uncertainty, and the sense that if anything is possible, then reality itself is virtual (or at least as variable as neurotransmitters and computer effects).

  20.      One of the volume's best chapters, Michael Fortun's "Entangled States: Quantum Teleportation and the 'Willies,'" evokes this familiar strangeness of our conspiratorial present. He links cryptography, IBM, quantum mechanics (what Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), 'matters of security and exchange," and the sense that one cannot know certainly. Using Derridean hauntology, he asks about the ethics of control, location, knowledge, and observation when the binary of guilty/innocent has no place, when we can't be sure who is implicated, in what, and whether these implications matter. Fortun writes, "If something like moral outrage, a change of heart, a new spiritual or political resolve is the response to the presence of a conspiracy, then the willies is the response one has to the presence/absence of conspiracy. In a slightly different articulation, if an ethics answers to the ontological contours of a fully plotted, fully present conspiracy, then the hauntology of a present/absent conspiracy calls for a different kind of response, which for now might be put under the name of a 'moral responsibility' -- albeit an impossible moral responsibility" (70). The willies respond not to conspiracy, but to conspiracy theory, to suspicion, possibility, uncertainty. It calls us to question and decipher, even as we remain well aware that we might just be adding to the confusion. This half-state is appropriate for the information age: "When does randomness aggregate into conspiracy?" (107).

  21.      "Due Diligence and the Pursuit of Transparency: The Securities and Exchange Commission, 1996," by Kim and Michael Fortun, is another of the provocative contributions to the Marcus volume that disrupts the presumption of a knowable, mappable reality. Based on an interview with Michael Mann, who was then director of the Office of International Affairs at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, this chapter considers the dense, suspicious, "techno-tangles" of contemporary capitalism. It focuses on the complicated politics of disclosure at work in the SEC's efforts to oversee and regulate corporate activities. Mann's remarks emphasize the importance of keeping the investor informed. Information, in other words, is the key to accountability, to "the transparency and integrity of the market" (186). Mann explains: "one of the things that I think makes the SEC such a great agency is that it has this really simple mission. To tell the truth. Disclosure, period. No matter what your political bent is, no one can disagree with the proposition that information is good" (187).

  22.      The Fortun's presentation of their interview, however, suggests how information does not necessarily correlate with clarity and transparency, not to mention goodness and accountability. They draw out a contrasting story wherein the "incomprehensibility" of securities regulations destabilizes "the opposition between disclosure and secrecy, between what available to the knowing subject and what isn't" (161). Information may obfuscate even more than it clarifies. This is an important insight today, the technocultural "post" to postmodernity. It reminds us that telling the truth has dangers all its own, that a politics of concealment and disclosure may well be inadequate in the information age.

  23.      Although I have highlighted a couple of the essays that focus on conspiracy in America, Paranoia Within Reason is much broader. There are chapters on Italy, Britain, Slovenia, Russia, and Brazil. Suspicion, uncertainty, and paranoia appear and work differently in different contexts. Even paranoid styles change. Still, the interviews, aphorisms, and allegories within these chapters embed multiple links between them -- not unlike conspiracy's own connections. And, again, perhaps one of the most significant of these links involves that between conspiracy and uncertainty, one that, when we click on it, suggests the limits of publicity and, sometimes, the reasonableness of paranoia. Luiz E. Soares observes, "The rise of social science itself was based on the unveiling of the covert, the disclosure of deception, the revelation of what is hidden behind the masks of ideology . . . The specter of conspiracy haunts the halls of academia" (225).

    The Best Conspiracy Is the One We Don't Discover

  24.      Conspiracy Theories, although attuned to the entanglements of conspiracy theory, is less convinced of its uncertainties. With fine accounts of progressive critiques of conspiracy theory, militia groups, anti-Clinton conspiracy theories, millennialism, and the conspiracy subculture, Fenster provides a valuable guide through the networks of conspiracy in contemporary American culture. Particularly good is the section on "conspiracy theory" as a label deployed in a larger strategy of political delegitimation and the importance of a more complex analysis of populism than reductive dismissals of populist conspiracism allow. Looking at an engagement between government and the militias, Fenster vividly depicts "the disciplinary controls that filter and channel a multiplicity of voices into a unified notion of responsible and legal speech acts within the pluralist consensus" (31). Nonetheless, his very sureness, his very attempt to guide, to map, indeed, to proceed as if conspiracy thinking could be mapped, may well misconstrue what is at stake in conspiracy's resurgence. Fenster, although critical of Hofstadter, agrees with him that a primary characteristic of conspiracy theory is its "desire to find, understand, and represent the totality of social relations" (93). In this vein, Fenster sees conspiracy theory as "one of the few socially symbolic attempts in contemporary culture to confront and represent totality" (116). I think this emphasis on totality is mistaken.

  25.      Fenster views conspiracy theory as an excessive, over-reaching interpretive practice. Reading the practice in terms of desire, he highlights the "active, indeed endless, processes that continually seek, but never fully arrive at a final interpretation" (80). As desire, conspiracy theory seeks "truth," meaning, and explanation. It doesn't, and Fenster faults conspiracy theory for this, seek to fulfill its desire via concrete programs and laws. Even worse, according to Fenster, conspiracy theory doesn't fulfill the desire it does have: the truth is always out there, never realized, never complete. "There is . . . no final connection, no deepest order. The interpretive search must continue" (90).

  26.      I'm puzzled by the argument here. On the one hand, Fenster acknowledges the ongoing incompleteness of conspiracy theory, its very "theory-ness," the unstable and shifting character of its evidence, the always-hypothetical character, and the generally unprovable nature of is conclusions. On the other hand, he criticizes conspiracy theory as a representation or interpretation of the totality of social relations, one "organized -- indeed, controlled by the logic of conspiracy" (93). But precisely this logic, as a distinctive logic of conspiracy, is not articulated. The conspiracy remains hidden, the connections contingent and uncertain. Fenster discounts his own analysis by retreating into the old paranoid style argument. The desire for explanation (and, as desire, it will remain open-ended and unfulfilled) is not the same as the provision of explanation. In fact, it is telling that Fenster never provides a full account of any conspiracy. Why doesn't he? Perhaps, as I've suggested, because conspiracy theories don't, can't, map a totality. Perhaps because they disrupt complacent, consensual, transparent theories of politics with their suggestions that, insofar as power is at work, always present as well as elsewhere, things are not as they seem. (Another way to put this would be to understand conspiracy theories in terms not of desire but drive.)

  27.      Rather than attempting to set out the logic of conspiracy theory (a task I suspect would look a lot like an Enlightenment search for truth, meaning, and explanation), Fenster treats conspiracy as a narrative form in which a hero seeks to uncover the plot. As such, he explains, "the conspiracy narrative reveals a longing for closure and resolution that its formal resources cannot satisfy" (108). According to Fenster, the key or pivot point in the conspiracy narrative is the "totalizing conversion" whereby everything in the protagonist's world is reinterpreted once and for all. It is the point at which the protagonist realizes the "truth" of history, recognizes that everyone else remains ignorant and deceived, and comes to be inserted into this history as a vehicle of change.

  28.      As an example of a totalizing conversion, Fenster uses a scene from The X-Files: in the final episode of the first season, "The Erlenmeyer Flash," FBI agent Dana Scully obtains laboratory evidence of alien DNA. She tells her partner, agent Fox Mulder, "I've always held science as sacred. I've always put my trust in accepted fast . . . For the first time in my life, I don't know what to believe" (137). Fenster interprets this scene in terms of conversion, claiming that Scully "now believes" (137). But, this is not what she says. Fenster substitutes clarity for uncertainty. Scully isn't convinced that aliens are real; all she knows is that her scientific training is starting to collapse in on itself, that it is telling her something that it, science, has long denied.

  29.      Fenster's emphasis on totalizing conversion thus seems misplaced: conspiracy thinking is so uncertain that one is rarely fully convinced; instead, one becomes involved in a reiterative back-and-forth that mobilizes doubt and reassurance into a never-ending, never-reconciled account of possibility. The narrative pivot, we might say, involves the step away from belief and into skepticism, doubt, and uncertainty.

  30.      Fenster collapses into his notion of the "classical conspiracy narrative" three positions that need to remain distinct: that of the author, the protagonist, and the reader or audience.[10] As I mentioned, Fenster sees a specific act of conversion as establishing the defining relationship of conspiracy theory, that of the individual to history. The individual protagonist, through his or her investigations, discovers totality, the truth of history. Via this discovery, the protagonist can "save" history by bringing to light the hidden truth.

  31.      While Fenster's account of the classical conspiracy narrative may apply to film and fiction, conspiracy theory presenting itself as non-fiction, that is, conspiracy theories like those around UFOs, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jonestown, CIA mind-control, the death of Princess Diana, and the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, don't rely on a specific act of conversion that establishes the defining relationship of the individual to history. This becomes clear when we disconnect the three positions Fenster pushes together. First, the perspective of the author is separate from that of the reader. Working within a framework of objectivity and fairness, conspiracy authors go to great efforts to present their evidence with the intent of convincing their readers. Rarely does the author assume that the audience agrees with everything presented; members of the audience are presumed to be skeptical, even hostile. We might say that conspiracy theory posits a "split audience" of believers and unbelievers.[11] Believing readers will recognize the accumulated facts as evidence. Unbelievers will consider these same facts as potential challenges to the status quo, as questions that may not be answered, as indications that there are people who think something is going on. Readers are confronted with a choice, instructed that they will have to make their own decision after confronting the "facts." For example, Budd Hopkins ends the preface to his 1996 book on alien abduction with, "The final judgment is yours to make."[12] Numerous authors call for "open minds" and serious consideration of the evidence. Indeed, they often write new books, with new information, trying to convince people anew. The matter of truth is never certain or closed.

  32.      Second, the perspective of the author is not that of the narrator or protagonist, even in first person accounts. For Fenster, belief causes, sets in motion, the protagonist's drive to interpret the facts. For the conspiracy author, however, belief is an effect of the very practices of searching, finding, and interpreting. Making links, searching for knowledge, produces belief. Precisely because this knowledge is unstable, because it is imbricated in constitutive uncertainties, it depends on the generation of ever more evidence, ever more interpretations, for sustenance. Ufologists report more sightings, more missing fetuses. Assassination theorists find new witnesses. Even after Scully and Mulder get clear evidence of the alien conspiracy, in the next episode they remain searching, skeptical, uncertain.

  33.      Zizek describes the external customs supporting belief in terms of a precarious "believing without knowing it," a paradoxical "belief before belief." He writes, "by following a custom a subject believes without knowing it, so that the final conversion is merely a formal act by means of which we recognize what we already believe."[13] My claim is that conspiracy thinking operates prior to a final conversion; indeed, it is an anxious sort of pre-belief, a thinking that is a longing that one suspects, fears, and even desires will never be fulfilled. Ever suspicious, it disavows the closure of a final explanation, theory, or political and moral order. To read conspiracy theory in terms of a final conversion, then, misses its distinctive feature of suspicious longing and thereby mistakes the practices of the belief before belief as the excesses that result from its failure to map totality. Once we recognize that conspiracy is marked by doubt, however, its preoccupation with searching and finding appear as nervous enactments to produce belief -- but not yet.

    Don't Look Suspicious

  34.      Since Ricoeur, a strand of critical social theory has voiced its, well, suspicions, of a hermeneutic of suspicion. In a recent version of this argument, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick criticizes paranoia in queer theory, asking how it happened that paranoia (as an illumination not of how homosexuality works, but of how homophobia works) moved from an object of anti-homophobic theory to its methodology.[14] She observes that the paranoid style in marked by a "faith in exposure" and by a sense of a naive audience that will be outraged and motivated by the unveiling of the scandalous secret. Sedgwick writes: "What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb -- never mind motivate -- anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artificial, self-contradictory, imitative, phantasmatic, or even violent?"[15]

  35.      Sedgwick's question regarding the assumptions of a hermeneutic of suspicion suggests an answer to her question regarding the shift from object to method in queer theory, an answer important for thinking about conspiracy theory. The faith in exposure is the faith of the public sphere. Suspicion as method practices this faith, searching for and uncovering the truth, bringing it to light, making it available for reflection. "Secrecy," as Fenster notes, "constitutes conspiracy's most egregious wrong." When queer theory and conspiracy theory adopt a methodological paranoia they are reiterating, adopting, but not without revision, the drive for truth at the heart of the ideal of public reason. Indeed, within this method there is not only a presumption regarding an illegitimate non-consensuality within the secret and private, but also a presumption that publicity is directly linked to consensuality, that was is public is accepted by the public. Recent work by Michael Taussig on the public secret ("knowing what not to know") and Zizek on ideology ("I know, but nevertheless") demonstrates yet again the fantastic and politically dangerous dimensions of this assumption.[16]

  36.      To return to Sedgwick, the assumption of surprise she notes as a characteristic of the drive to uncover rests on an ideal of a rational and transparent public sphere, a sphere where people act in clear, consistent, principled ways, where they trust each other and believe that revelation and discussion will lead to justice. Critiques based on this assumption exhibit a confidence in their own significance. Conspiracy theory, which shares with liberal ideals of public reason a conviction in the importance of revelation and a link between actions and events, illuminates, then, not conspiracy but publicity. It says something about the general logic of the public sphere, taking some of its presuppositions with deadly seriousness. I'm struck, for example, by Fenster's critical observation regarding the protagonist of the conspiracy tract, The Gemstone Files: "his only actions are cognitive and communicative" (199). Sounds like someone trapped in a Habermasian public sphere to me.

  37.      Conspiracy thinking is a method for thinking critically when caught within the governing assumptions of a public sphere. So the problem with conspiracy thinking is not its failure to comply with public reason but its very compliance, a compliance that reiterates some of these assumptions even as it contests others, a compliance that demonstrates all too clearly the paranoia, surveillance, and compulsive will to know within the ideal of publicity. Thus, conspiracy theory rejects the myth of a transparent public sphere, a sphere where others can be trusted (and, importantly, conspiracy theory doesn't claim with certainty that no one can be trusted; it claims an uncertainty as to whether anyone can be trusted), although it continues to rely on revelation. In so doing, it demonstrates the constitutive antagonism between transparency and revelation, the antagonism of a notion of the public that ultimately depends on secrecy: if everything and everyone were transparent, there would be nothing to reveal.

  38.      We might say that, by reiterating the compulsions of publicity, conspiracy's attempts to uncover the secret assemble information regarding the contexts, terms, and conditions of surveillance, discovery, and visibility in a culture where democracy is conceived within a hegemonic notion of the public sphere. When publicity feeds the mediated networks of the information age, conspiracy theory challenges the presumption that what we see on the screens, what is made visible in traditional networks and by traditional authorities, is not itself invested in specific lines of authorization and subjection.

  39.      Make links, search for truth: within these injunctions one is forced to be free insofar as one is forced to gather information. More powerful, more persuasive, than market and consumerist conceptions of freedom, freedom as information gathering confirms a conception of democratic engagement long part of the ideal of the public sphere: the public has a right to know. Citizens are free, in other words, so long as nothing is hidden from them. Thus, they must watch, surveill, expose, and reveal. Conspiracy theory or the version of democracy that supports the information age? I can't tell the difference. I guess I'll have to look on the Internet.


    [1] Kathleen Stewart, "Conspiracy Theory's Worlds," Paranoia Within Reason, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) 13.

    [2] S. Paige Baty emphasizes plot; see American Monroe The Making of a Body Politic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). Richard Hofstadter emphasizes style; see The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996). Daniel Pipes emphasizes pathology; see Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From (New York: The Free Press, 1997).

    [3] Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997) 53-54.

    [4] Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen, The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1997) 288-294.

    [5] Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post do a particularly intricate version of this dance in Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

    [6] For more on this see my essay, "Declarations of Independence," in Cultural Studies and Political Theory, ed. Jodi Dean (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

    [7] Stewart, 18. I make a similar point in Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998) esp. ch. 4.

    [8] I'm indebted to Van Zimmerman for this point.

    [9] Hofstadter, 36.

    [10] Fenster's conflation of protagonist and author appears in the following passage: "Having glimpsed this essential truth, the protagonist begins the long and arduous task of successfully effecting change on the increasingly vulnerable larger historical structures that finally are visible to him. This is equally true for fictional narratives and the narratives embedded in 'factual' accounts of conspiracy; in the latter, the metanarrative pivot, the point in the writer's life in which the conspiracy reveals itself to him/her . . . serves a similar purpose in enabling the narrating act contained in the text," 112. Fenster's conflation of protagonist and audience appears on 113, when he foregrounds "the cognitive act of interpretation as performed by both protagonist and audience," and on 131, where he observes that finding conspiracy "is an act of reconstruction performed by both protagonist and audience alike."

    [11] Van Zimmerman suggested this formulation to me.

    [12] Budd Hopkins, Witnessed (New York: Pocket Books, 1996) xiv.

    [13] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1997) 40.

    [14] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You," in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997) 6.

    [15] Sedgwick, 19.

    [16] Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies.

    Jodi Dean is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is the author of Solidarity of Strangers (University of California Press, 1996) and Aliens in America (Cornell University of Press, 1998). She is the editor of Feminism and the New Democracy (Sage, 1997) and Cultural Studies and Political Theory (Cornell University Press). She is working on a book on the ideology of the information age, Publicity's Secret (Cornell University Press, forthcoming).

    Copyright © 2000, Jodi Dean and The Johns Hopkins University Press
«Theory & Event», 4:3 (2000)

Оригинал: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_&_event/v004/4.3r_dean.html


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