Mark Fenster


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

Cover Interview of January 20, 2009


I hope that the book will be seen as one piece of a larger effort to rethink conspiracy theory. There are a lot of questions and methods that the book either ignores or glosses over because they were outside the book’s scope.  These include insights from social and cognitive psychology, social history, extensive ethnographic research, and from comparisons across culture as well as time.  I think the book’s contribution is its critique of the dominant approach to understanding conspiracy theory and its effort, through its reading of texts and practices, to posit a different, more productive way of thinking about conspiracy theories.

I intentionally sought to write the book in a way that would be legible to non-specialist and even non-academic readers without entirely abandoning the scholarly endeavor of working through the existing academic literature.  I hoped to strike a note between jargon-heavy books of theory, which no one but a small number of avid academics and intellectuals can follow, and popularizations of scholarship, which lose all the intellectual heft and credibility of the academic endeavor.  This is a topic of wide interest and concern, and I’d like to be able to reach those with a serious interest in conspiracy theories—whether because they believe in them or because, like me, they just find them fascinating.

Finally, I would like also to reach across the conspiracy theory divide.  When the first edition came out, I sent copies to two people who were quite helpful as I was writing it—a publisher of a conspiracy fanzine and a political activist who writes frequently and forcefully about the danger of conspiracy theories. Both of them told me they liked the book, which seemed like a great accomplishment given their quite different perspectives on conspiracy theories’ value and proximity to the truth.  I fear that because I clearly don’t believe in the 9/11 theories, most members of the “truth movement” will focus only on that chapter and really won’t like the book.  That’s fine and inevitable, I suppose, given that I doubt many of the assumptions and assertions upon which they’ve built their community.  I would hope that they’d recognize the distinctions I make throughout the book between my approach and the mainstream view of their project, but I hold no illusions about that as a possibility.

© 2009 Mark Fenster