Mark Fenster


On his book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (revised and updated edition)

Cover Interview of January 20, 2009

A close-up

In fact, two close-ups.

The first is on page 17, a very brief discussion of what the book isn’t, as opposed to the remainder of the introduction, which identifies what the book is.  The first edition came out just before a bunch of really fine books from different fields were released, including ones by Jodi Dean in political science and Peter Knight in American Studies, and two essay collections by anthropologists (including one edited by George Marcus).  All of us struggled against the expectations that academic books on conspiracy theories would either give a history of them (wide-ranging or focusing on a particular type or period of conspiracy theories) or debunk them.  Instead, the books sought to read conspiracy theories symptomatically, as aspects of American culture and democracy.

To those who view conspiracy theories and theorists as dangerous and strange—that is, to someone persuaded by Hofstadter’s assertion that they are pathological—these projects (including my own) appear troubling.  We seem to validate conspiracy theories and to waste valuable time and effort that could be spent proving them false.  But the problem is that, time and again, the state and media find that showing the factual and logical errors in conspiracy theories doesn’t make them go away.  Rather, theorists either deny the errors, revise their theories in different directions towards different factual claims or explanations, or question the authority and motives of those who seek to disprove them.  Even if Hofstadter was right—and in fact I appreciate his willingness to consider the conspiracy “style” even as I reject his dismissal of them as “paranoid”—his approach is incomplete.  The cultural, narrative, and logical world that conspiracy theories operate within needs further explanation.  This is not to deny the importance of histories and debunkings, but it is to affirm the importance of work that explains the broader as well as the specific context within which such theories emerge and circulate.

The second is on page 278, the final page in the new chapter on the 9/11 conspiracy theories. At that point, I’ve just completed a thick description of Loose Change, the most popular and widely viewed documentary espousing the theory that the state’s explanation of the 9/11 attacks—the al Qaeda conspiracy—is dubious.  The chapter as a whole is largely a thick description of such theories, the media that circulate them, and the community of believers that has emerged, especially during 2006, around the time of the attacks’ fifth anniversary.  I remain on the descriptive level purposely throughout the chapter because I think the episode really illustrates what the book as a whole argues: that conspiracy theories operate and succeed as much as modes of narrative and interpretation that offer alternative means to understand the past and present as they do as expressions of political pathology.  Loose Change offers a complicated challenge to the dominant explanation, one that’s at heart a simple counter-narrative of corruption and evil, one that calls into being both a political identity—the doubting, persistent, and thoughtful researcher—and a political community—a collective community of knowledge seekers.  Viewed as a mode of rhetoric and story telling, it’s a really powerful film, even if I don’t believe much of what it claims.