I just finished attempting to read Mark Fenster’s book, Conspiracy Theories: secrecy and power in American culture. I say attempted because I gave up. I only had two weeks on interlibrary loan and I was only making 6-7 pages a day, the material was so difficult.
In fact I was so lost that I’m not sure what I was lacking: I suspect that it’s background in philosophy and perhaps sociology, psychology and political science. There were sentences that I could not crack, although I did finally get the meaning of “interpellation”1 (not “interpolation”) and how it was used at least some of the time.
I don’t mean to make fun of the book, just to say that it is not accessible to people like me who skipped Philosophy 101 in college. The book did have some interesting parts; it described the “classic” conspiracy theory narrative and generally challenged a simplistic view of the conspiracy theorist as a nut case paranoid (or Hofstadter’s “paranoid style”). Fenster’s view is that conspiracy theories are a legitimate expression (however literally inaccurate) of real underlying social forces, and a cry for more transparency in the exercise of power by the powerful, and for more control by the theorists over their own lives. To follow the discussion in full, one needs a grounding in the philosophy of alienation.
I skipped the major sections on conservative Christian millennialism (since I know that stuff pretty well) and conspiracy theories as play (dealing with conspiracy-themed games) that I found outside my interest. Some may be interested in the coverage of conspiracy theories in popular culture, such as the move JFK and television’s The X-Files.
Next up is Conspiracy Nation: the Politics of Paranoia in postwar America by Peter Knight.
1Interpellation: the process by which ideology addresses the pre-ideological individual and produces him or her as a subject proper