One aspect of conspiracy theories examined by Mark Fenster in his book, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-8166-3242-1), is as a parlor game, “a way to break the ice at parties.”
Fenster describes one such situation, where among a group of strangers there was an awkward silence, until the subject of conspiracies was introduced. That broke the dam, and various perspectives were shared.
Here’s another sociable aspect of “paranoia.” There was (or is) a role-playing game called GURPS Illuminati, with a game manager and several players. The manager designs the conspiracy and gives different roles to the players. The players can be investigators, members of various conspiracy groups (like the Bilderbergers, the Illuminati, etc.), or someone marginally intersecting (or stumbling upon) a conspiracy. The game manager is not passive but can intervene, for example by introducing new elements. The game manager “leads them into things slowly, dropping very minor hints that there are mysteries behind the facade of the normal.”
The GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) book explains that players never definitively win the game: “If the Illuminati are really monstrous spiders in a web of intrigue, you can’t defeat them. You can only soldier on, struggling to reveal one more layer of the conspiracy, while staying one small step ahead of those who would destroy (or co-opt) you.”
“Conspiracy Theory As Play,” is one of many perspectives discussed by Fenster in his book. At long last someone has taken an impartial critical approach to the wide-ranging field of conspiracy theories. The usual critiques of the subject are clichés, insults and lame jokes, played like a broken record, (e.g. “conspiracy nuts,” “someone call Oliver Stone,” “the grassy knoll crowd,” etc.) Mainstream journalists assigned to write something about conspiracies must be awfully lazy since they keep writing the same stupid things. Fenster is refreshing in that he has thoroughly studied his subject and does not stoop to “humorous” insults.
On the other hand, Fenster writes from academia, so there’s a lot of fashionable ivory tower words like “epistemological valences,” “semiotic apparatus,” and “heuristic devices” you might conk your head into. At least, though, an academic type is at least now doing more than carefully avoiding serious discussion. As the years go by, other academic turtles might be peeking their heads out and noticing “something was going on back then.” This timidity of the ivory tower is alluded to on the back cover of Fenster’s book: “I find the issue of conspiracy theory compelling and appreciate Fenster’s fruitful approach to what has been mysteriously ignored by the academy,” writes one reviewer.
So how does Ph.D. Fenster analyze the conspiracy theory craze of the past 50-or-so years? Basically it is seen as a never-ending quest. Conspiracy theorists keep peeling back layers of the onion but never will get to the core, argues Fenster. They are like Gnostics, searching for some transcendent thing. That’s one aspect. On the other hand, Fenster’s very title refers to “secrecy in American culture.” The government keeps classifying more and more information as secret. The secrecy of the federal government is burgeoning. They won’t let loose with the information. A reasonable way for the citizenry to glimpse the hidden truth is for them to theorize. Physicists do that: there’s a whole branch of physics called “theoretical physics.” But no one is guffawing at the physicists and calling them “physics nuts.” There is a core after you peel back the layers of the onion.
Nonetheless, Fenster is a just observer. Standing outside the community of conspiracy devotees, he views the situation objectively and reports back what he sees. Even the term “community” used to describe conspiracy theorists is misleading, writes Fenster. Conspiracy researchers are “notoriously cranky, wary of outside interest and help, and difficult to get along with.” For that reason, it is harder for them to move toward politically effective coalition building. Fenster misses though the very real factor of hostility faced by these conspiracy researchers. Not being a conspiracy theorist himself, he has no experience of subtle harassments such as disinformation fed to you by malicious sources, tricky interviews, visits from government agents, and such. That’s not always paranoia! There are powerful and entrenched interests who wish the conspiracy theorists would just go away. “Even paranoids have enemies.”
To be fair, Fenster does not descend to the crudity of dismissing the expanse of researchers as “kooks” and “grassy knoll freaks.” He sees the phenomena as a sort of church, broken down into various denominations, and with the denominations themselves fractious due to the massive iconoclasm of the members. He describes a “conspiratorial hermeneutic of ‘sensing wholes’ [which] never fully reaches the ‘whole’ it seeks…” The “community” pursues an “ongoing play of interpretation [which] finds its purpose and pleasure in ongoing conjectures about and refusals of a singular truth.” In a sense, Fenster is correct: there is an aspect of True Believers propping up each other’s belief system. But just because Fenster stands outside the system does not always mean he is accurate when he describes it. Remember the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, thought up by some “physics theorist”: the observer himself influences what he observes. And Fenster, standing outside, misses what’s seen by those standing inside (though that perspective, as much as Fenster’s outside perspective, has its limitations.)
Fenster is quite right that conspiracy theories are fun. That does not mean it’s basically just a game, cheap thrills for a bored sub-class.
In the 1960s, a popular book was The Making of a Counterculture. Fenster perceptively notices the countercultural possibilities of conspiracy theories. They are a new genre of literature, where fact meets fiction. Resistance to constant government encroachment takes the form of counterknowledge, conspiracy “theories” that beget an incipient counterculture but which is threatened by its own nature of cynicism into distrusting itself.
Forget Hofstadter and “The Paranoid Style,” you lame journalists spitting out clichéd critiques. Fenster dissects Hofstadter and finds him lacking. Venerated Hofstadter used “paranoia” (individual pathology) to describe a social phenomena. He thereby “substituted a schism in the soul for a schism in society” and exiled non-consensus dissent. Get hep and study Fenster’s book, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. That way, when you are assigned to write an article about conspiracy theories, it will be less trite.
Conspiracy theorists are not kooks, they are a front line in the latest eruption of populism. In some ways, they invoke the carnivalesque, a festival which turns the political order upside-down. Unfortunately, the sobering seriousness of their research (“When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”) can lead to irascibility, over-suspicion, and isolation. A remedy for such ailments is a sense of humor. One must not only resist the encroachments of the conspiracy, “but learn to laugh and play, to find a point of ironic and critical distance from which a more efficacious resistance can proceed.” Laughter will give you perspective, from which you will be able to more effectively resist. Paranoia can be fun.
(The above first appeared at my old Conspiracy Nation web site on May 1, 2004.)