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Alasdair Spark
Conspiracy Thinking and Conspiracy Studying

In July 1997 the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary included the term 'conspiracy theory' for the first time. This was a recognition that in recent years conspiracy has become increasingly popular as an explanation for unfolding events, most overtly in the United States. Whether it be widely held beliefs about the Kennedy Assassination, a government cover-up of extra-terrestial contact, claims made by Patriot militia groups about a 'New World Order' and an imminent United Nations takeover, African-American suspicions of a deliberate programme to flood the ghetto with drugs, the popularity of The X-Files or the speculations found in the National Enquirer or on the Internet, all point to conspiracy as a discourse which is now fully part of the public realm, and a popular cultural manifestation which is symptomatic of contemporary concerns. For those of us engaged in study, such populist conspiracy surely needs to be understood in terms beyond the two poles usually charged with meaning: as the collective 'paranoia' of Right Wing extremists (the psychological model originated by Richard Hofstadter's study of the 1950s), or as the irrationality and gullibility of an under-educated public (as Carl Sagan recently asserted in The Demon Haunted World (1996)). Instead, to understand the extensive popularity of conspiracy and what it means for the contemporary United States, we need to understand the methodology, appeal, and metaphor which mark this attempt to narrativise the confusions and complexities of the late Twentieth century. An awareness of this, in effect of the internalised logics of conspiracy theory - 'conspiracism' - ought to make scholars consider why conspiracy has become so prevalent - and in effect so liberated - since the late 1980s?

Issues of knowledge, secrecy and power do have to be admitted, in which the possibilities and appeal of conspiracy thinking as a genuine uncovering of secrets and a revelation of authority are apparent. But on its own, this approach would serve only to legitimate certain conspiracy thinking as rational and therefore as worthwhile; what also demands our collective consideration are the utmost tendencies of conspiracy to enquire and imagine. Therefore, to take the other extreme, while it is clear that there is a 'camp' quality to some of the more baroque theories put forward (eg, that the British Royal family are drug-runners), this should only indicate more strongly the need for an appreciation of the aesthetics of conspiracy-mongering, and for a scholarly enquiry about the meaning of the pleasures, entertainments, and satisfactions which conspiracy appears to provide to such large numbers of Americans today. To that end, it is evident that conspiracy thinking today is no longer confined to Right wing organisations or to right wing positions. Conspiracy evidently can no longer can be identified with marginal, and psychologically disturbed (status-deprived/paranoid) groups; and that the collective dimension of this 'paranoia', increasingly evident since the Sixties from Left and Right alike, suggests that employing clinical terms to collective populations is mistaken - conspiracy may be a symptom, but not of an illness. Therefore, the development of conspiracy thinking in the Sixties and the advent of Leftist (eg gay, feminist, anti-Vietnam War) perspectives, many with good reason, and the deployment of conspiracy in literature by authors such as Pynchon and Delillo ought to cause us to discuss issues of national security and the secrecy culture which Tom Engelhart calls the "invisible government" - for instance in the context of such as COINTELPRO and Watergate. The culture of secrecy has bred a culture of conspiracy, one which post-Sixties events such as Iran-Contra, or the revelations of radiation testing have only served to confirm. Furthermore, as Michael Lind in The Next American Nation has argued, multi-culturalism also has promoted notions of conspiracy - the Right believes that the nation has been subverted by a sinister new class of liberal intellectuals and bureaucrats, and the Left that opposition to multi-culturalism is covert, whispered project of the white majority - for instance the Texaco tapes. Therefore, conspiracy poses some difficult problems for the accepted multi-cultural model in which cultural relativism is allowed, but racial and ethnic divisions are policed. The acrimonious debates about Afro-centrism, Egypt, 'sun and ice people' and perhaps most significatly the OJ Simpson trials suggest nothing less.

The recent critique of conspiracy offered by skeptical critics such as Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World (1996) is that conspiracy indicates the gullibility of the American population at large. Following the lead of Andrew Ross in his discussion of the New Age (Strange Weather, 1992), conspiracy thinking in its treatment of knowledge, evidence, personal testimony and authority, presents a paradigm of the world worth examining. Discussion must also engage with Elaine Showalter's thesis in Hystories (1997) that America is currently subject to a "plague of paranoias" in which a nation of "wannabe" victims are displacing responsibility for their various ills upon imagined agencies. The prevalence of conspiracy requires an explanation which steps beyond discrimination between the validity of personal belief. In the contemporary situation, the significant baseline for a study of conspiracy thinking is the uncertainty and dissonance of the post-Cold War world, and the new order of post-Fordist globalisation of economy, polity, and information which has rapidly accelerated in its wake. Already, before the events of the late 1980s, it was a trope of post modern theory (from whichever base one chooses) to characterise late capitalist culture as defined by fragmentation, incoherence, and a resistance to meta-narratives; this study will contend that in the conspiratorial imagination's willingness to plot connections and to connect plots, the opposite can be seen, and that conspiracy constitutes a postmodern (a hyperreal) mode of communication and therefore a popular attempt to re-cohere and re-determine meaning by transforming 'secret' information into common folk knowledge. Furthermore, the saturation of information in an advanced contemporary society such as the United States makes this attempt to map meaning necessary, and the use of conspiracy as metaphor for disempowerment comprehensive.

Critical terminology is vague here (for instance, between Conspiracy theory and Theory about conspiracy) and so we would like to promote the use of a new term – dietrologia. Taken from the Italian phrase for conspiracy theory and translating as ‘behindology’, we hope the use of this term can be useful in attempting to map and understand the re-coherences which conspiracy imagines and so extensively deploys. That these re-coherences produce difficulties (the irrational, the racist, the paranoid, the bizarre, the trivial) is not disputed, but this problem is particularly true for an academy which despite its engagement with the popular continues (as Andrew Ross has argued about 'low' culture) to find difficulty with the apparently un-malleable politics of some elements of popular culture. It is too easy for critics to dismiss conspiracy as too crazy to study, or the politically regressive mystifications Fredric Jameson implies in dismissing conspiracy as "debased", and a "poor person's mapping of the postmodern age" - inevitably suggesting a monopolistic view of what the rich person's mapping might be. Therefore, the aim of our studies must be to resist the characterisation of conspiracy as (literally) incredible, but also to challenge the presumption of it as innately recidivist. In setting conspiracy within postmodern theory, we engage particularly with the contention made by Jameson that such thinking represents an over-determined response to the fragmentation induced by late capitalism - that in trying to see everything, it sees nothing. In fact, its desire to plot connections and to connect plots indicates precisely the utility of conspiracy in providing a zone for the imagination in which alternative totalities can be constructed and revised out of the mass of information. These totalities, their constitution, operation, and the identities they provide for participants are the important items for study, and it is only in recognition of this that their progressive or anti-progressive meanings can be debated. To this end, an appreciation of conspiracy as commodified in the knowledge marketplace, the producer-consumer relationship it embodies, and the pleasures it provides in decipherment, invention, and (for some) action, are also essential to any serious study. Led by work done by Gordon Wood on conspiracy in the Eighteenth century, examining conspiracy provides a valuable and overlooked means of understanding popular perceptions of the contemporary situation, and the paradigms which the conspiratorial imagination provides pose serious questions about causation, authority and knowledge in the postmodern, globalising era.

To this end, the importance of the Kennedy assassination as a primal scenario in contemporary conspiracy thinking is evident. The assassination provides the 'mother-lode' for conspiracies (the event at which almost all conspiracies eventually touch base), and therefore November 22 1963 serves as one of the fractures from which the modern conspiracy era has been dated, and - as important - is back-dated to by the contemporary 'reverse mapping' of recent American history as conspiracy led - that the plot-line for history is conspiracy. In doing so it has served as a primer or evolving text for contemporary conspiracy thinking, providing, refining, and elaborating mechanisms of argument, use of evidence, plotting of narrative, and the establishment of interconnections which have established a working methodology for conspiracy's discussion of events which we consider rests upon "undeniable plausibility" (it makes sense, it must be so) which satisfies the conspiracy consumer. In doing so, it also has established a marketplace for conspiracy, and therefore a producer-consumer relationship evident in commodification of conspiracy, in the mass of materials for sale, the touristic opportunities developed, and the endless elaboration of the central mystery and deferral of solutions for the consumer.

The second major fracture which has fed conspiracy thinking in the past decade is provided by unidentified flying objects. At first sight, this does not provide such an instant rupture as the Kennedy assassination (where were you when...), but the prominence given in recent years to the so-called 'Roswell Incident' (the crash of a flying saucer in July 1947) has provided a similar primal scenario for conspiracy, and for what has been claimed as a 'cosmic Watergate.' Therefore, a major focus of contemporary conspiracy lies in the discourse of alien encounter, and the alleged government conspiracy to hide the 'biggest secret of all' as promoted in texts by authors such as Stanton Friedman and Kevin Randle. As with the Kennedy assassination, in the last decade the Roswell scenario has progressively provided a backward mapping of recent American history - recently realised in the short-lived series Dark Skies.Further to this end, the associated discourse of recovered aliens, alien autopsies, 'back-engineered' technology, Area 51, and a covert controlling group beyond the government known as Majestic Twelve also demands our attention, as does connections with the scenario of alien abductions (American citizens given in trade for alien technology) will be established, and the discourse developed by writers such as Budd Hopkins and John Mack.

Third, the conspiracy viewpoint which has become the most prevalent and established in the USA in the past five years and associated with patriot groups and militias is that of the so-called 'New World Order', with its elaborate discourse of United Nations dominance, Russian and other armies secretly encamped in America, black helicopters roaming above the nation, and concentration camps, ready and waiting for American dissidents. Roots exist in Right-wing treatises about 'One World Government' from such as the John Birch Society, but the characterisation of these groups as simply 'Right-wing' and extreme. As Michael Kelley recently argued in the New Yorker (July 1995), the conspiracy thinking of the patriot militias - both of their members and their more diverse supporters (consumers) - is better characterised as a populist 'fusion' in which Right and Left wing viewpoints, analyses and materials blend, where Pat Robertson and Noam Chomsky can be found side by side. What does mark this conspiracy theory out is its identification of the Federal government and its agencies (most notably the FBI and the BATF) as the enemy. It is no longer the case that the Federal government has been subverted, and needs to be cleaned out; the Federal government de facto is the enemy, as the lengthy constitutional tracts of the militias give testament to. This view, that subversion is not now invasive but pervasive, and the evidences cited from the events of Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Oklahoma will be discussed, but to explain the militia-conspiracy phenomenon discussion will also return to issues of the post-Cold War, and globalisation, for instance in the challenge to majoritarian White American identity (and prosperity) posed by this process, and (as Adam Parfrey argues) the perceptions of inter-government agreements such as GATT and NAFTA as betrayals. Militia discourse, particularly conventions, newsletters, and web-sites needs to be examined, and consideration given to the pleasures and satisfactions given participants/consumers in their identity as militiamen and women. That this identification can lead to actions such as Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City cannot be contested, but whether this action constitutes the default condition can be.

The new prevalence of conspiracy theory and the methodology by which raw information is processed and becomes legitimated as knowledge ought to form the basis for study to come, but, as a symptomatic feature of the contemporary condition, the very popularity of conspiracy clearly also figures a postmodern collapse of distinctions between the literal and the metaphorical, the factual and the fictional, the paranoid and the persecuted, the diagnosis and the symptom, the personal and the political, the trivial and the worthwhile, the plausible and the incredible. The loss of these distinctions has served to disable traditional outlooks and politics (including cultural politics), and so the issue of where this leaves the American nation, and whether differentiation between conspiracy as legitimate revelation or deluded mystification is possible and desirable is a project we consider should engage cultural criticism in the future.

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