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Book review (not)

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

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23 Responses to Book review (not)

  1. avatar
    Joey July 1, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    Authors who do not know how to make their work accessible obviously don’t care much about sales or reads.

  2. avatar
    Daniel July 1, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Or perhaps the masses were not his target audience?

    You can’t really criticise the author for not making his work mass readable if his intended audience was the professional social scientist

  3. avatar
    Expelliarmus July 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    Actually, I do think its a valid criticism. Professional social scientists aren’t going to read the book either — they’ll simply use it as a reference, if needed,, for whatever they need a reference on. So if they happen to be researching Christian millennialism, they’ll use the index to find the bits on that which happen to correspond to their research, but they aren’t going to read the rest.

  4. avatar
    J.Potter July 1, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    So then, if an author were to write a book in hopes of bringing vital revelations to the masses, but wrote it in bland, monotonous, drier-than-dirt style, he would be fooling himself?

    Just a theoretical, no particular book in mind ;-P

  5. avatar
    Expelliarmus July 1, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    Also, there’s no excuse for Mr. Fenster to have poor written communications skills — his background is in law and communications:

    J.D., Yale Law School
    Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Institute of Communications Research
    M.A., University of Texas at Austin
    Department of Radio/Television/Film
    B.A., University of Virginia (Double major in English and Rhetoric & Communication Studies)

    See http://www.law.ufl.edu/faculty/fenster/ and http://www2.law.ufl.edu/faculty/fenster/resume.pdf

  6. avatar
    Expelliarmus July 1, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    Just one thing — I don’t know what Fenster wrote about the television shows he referenced, but as a long term X-Files fan…. we watched because] it was fantasy. The conspiracy theories provided a great vehicle for the plot and character development, as did the intergalactic conflict on the various Star Trek series. I think a plot based on a conspiracy is great fodder for a writer’s imagination, precisely because it creates all sort of situations for character motivation that don’t have to be explained in real life, logical terms. That is, we really don’t have to know much about they shadowy cigarette smoking man in x-files, for the most part he just conveniently shows up whenever there is a plot-driven need for Mulder to obtain some type of new, secret information.

  7. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 1, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    I skimmed through this section quickly (book was due tomorrow and I’m leaving early in the morning) but one of the points Fenster made was that the “lone gunmen” were very prototypical of real conspiracy theorists of the day (Fenster was writing in 1999 when the Internet was less ubiquitous) and that in general, the X-Files fit the “classic” conspiracy theory model. In classic conspiracy theories, the protagonist is often an out-of-favor government agent.

    Expelliarmus: Just one thing — I don’t know what Fenster wrote about the television shows he referenced, but as a long term X-Files fan…. we watched because it was fantasy.

  8. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 1, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    I hope it doesn’t seem that I’m criticizing the book, because that was not my intention. That would be like someone who didn’t know any calculus criticizing a book on differential equations, or some modern kid criticizing literature of the past centuries because he’s not familiar with the Classics.

    I changed the word “dense” to “difficult.” By “dense” I meant tightly packed, but that word’s more pejorative than I intended.

    Now it is possible that the material could have been communicated in a more accessible manner, but I attributed my difficulty to a severely limited background in philosophy, and in particular Marxist philosophy. When he uses the word “interpellation” to describe how some class of people with a particular social angst becomes the “common man” in a conspiracy theorists view, I am supposed to assume all the baggage that that word has been given by the Marxist philosophers who used it. That’s fine, but I haven’t read those philosophers.

    BTW, the book also seems to have a lot of the “good stuff” in the end notes.

    Expelliarmus: Also, there’s no excuse for Mr. Fenster to have poor written communications skills

  9. avatar
    Expelliarmus July 1, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    But the point is that I have read some books that are filled with difficult scientific information and jargon, and at the same time are made into easier reads because the author and editors put some effort into making sure that the text flows more easily. Authors who are fond of impressing their readers with all the big words they know are, in my view, often people who really don’t understand what they are writing about all that well. They are hiding their lack of comfort with their own premise and assertions behind the jargon.

    In Fenster’s defense, students are encouraged to write that way in most academic writing — that is, he would have learned pretty early at UVA that he got better grades on his English papers when he wrote that way. If he hadn’t also studied communications I might give him a pass — but communications is all about the art of making difficult stuff understandable to one’s audience.

  10. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 1, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    I won’t pretend that I don’t suspect what you say is true for this book and that it is unnecessarily obtuse. There were maybe 4 words that I didn’t know, but I was killed by the name dropping and using words “in quotes” to indicate that they had a special meaning based on how some other author used them.

    Another big problem I had was that in a large sense the book seemed to be a critique of the “main guy on conspiracy theories”, historian Richard Hofstadter. Without having read Hofstadter and not knowing his terminology, I couldn’t follow the critique. About all I know of Hofstadter is that he thinks conspiracy theorists have a “paranoid style,” meaning that they act paranoid but are not actually paranoid.

    Some of our more literate commenters might give it a shot and see what they think (love that interlibrary loan).

    I will add that I have ordered a copy of the book for my library, because I think that there is good stuff in there for someone with the persistence to follow the notes and references. Perhaps I’ll try to read Hofstadter first and then this again. It’s just not a two-week project.

    The new book, “conspiracy nation: the politics of paranoia in postwar america” is a collection of papers at a conference by several authors (Fenster not included). Both books are published by university presses, but the latter at least at the start looks very accessible.

    Expelliarmus: But the point is that I have read some books that are filled with difficult scientific information and jargon, and at the same time are made into easier reads because the author and editors put some effort into making sure that the text flows more easily. Authors who are fond of impressing their readers with all the big words they know are, in my view, often people who really don’t understand what they are writing about all that well. They are hiding their lack of comfort with their own premise and assertions behind the jargon.

  11. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 1, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

    I see that Richart Hofstadter’s book “Anti-intellectualism in American life” is a free download from Barnes and Noble, and readable on Nook (including Nook for PC and Iphone/Pad). Just in time for summer vacation reading!

    Except the BN copy looks like a Latin text from 1694. Hmmm. Time to call customer service.

  12. avatar
    Northland10 July 2, 2011 at 7:04 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy: Just in time for summer vacation reading!

    Except the BN copy looks like a Latin text from 1694. Hmmm.

    Summer barefoot reading may bring more realism to reading a volume from “Discaled” (i.e. barefoot) brethren. You may not have been looking to read commentaries on Thomas Aquinas in Latin.

    Who wouldn’t want to read twelve volumes of the Theological Curriculum of Salamanca’s College of the Barefoot Brothers of the Blessed Mary of Mount Carmel, Primitive Observance.

    http://rester.us/HistoricalTheoBlogy/?p=476

  13. avatar
    Keith July 3, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy:
    I see that Richart Hofstadter’s book “Anti-intellectualism in American life” is a free download from Barnes and Noble, and readable on Nook (including Nook for PC and Iphone/Pad). Just in time for summer vacation reading!

    Except the BN copy looks like a Latin text from 1694. Hmmm. Time to call customer service.

    In the process of doing an archeological dig through some of the piles of paper in my office, I found an Web sourced article I printed off back in September 2010.

    Hofstadter: The Paranoid Style in American Politics

    tagline: It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.

    That tagline could have been written last week, but the article was originally published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964. You might like to recall the context: a presidential election pitting Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater. The successor of one murdered president versus a man in the process of overthrowing the political legacy of another murdered President.

    Perhaps you’ll find this article more accessible than Fenster’s book and satisfactorily explanatory of Hofstadter’s idea of the ‘paranoid style’.

  14. avatar
    Keith July 3, 2011 at 5:56 am #

    OK, I just googled that article to check where it had been reprinted on the web or if my link above was unique, I found out that it is considered a rather important article (and that Wikipedia notes the context similarly to what I described). I hadn’t actually checked that before.

    You have probably already encountered it, and thus your various passing remarks about Hofstadter.

    If my link is redundant I apologize, I try to stay in front of things but sometimes its all just to much.

    By the way, I didn’t find what I was looking for in my archaeological dig.

  15. avatar
    Keith July 3, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    Here is another Hofstadter essay: The Psuedo-Conservative Revolt published in 1954

    Hofstadter laments that even Adlai Stevenson recognized the essential conservatism of the democratic party:

    “The strange alchemy of time,” he said in a speech at Columbus, “has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country — the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.” The most that the old liberals can now envisage is not to carry on with some ambitious new program, but simply to defend as much as possible of the old achievements and to try to keep traditional liberties of expression that are threatened.

    I would argue that holds even today. Health care reform is that “ambitious new program” the liberals have been trying to find space to tackle. It is ironic that the liberal failure to protect the New Deal reforms, a start has been made toward Health care reform. I suspect that it is on extremely shaky ground.

    The Psuedo-Conservative is loosly defined as:

    There is, however, a dynamic of dissent in America today. Representing no more than a modest fraction of the electorate, it is not so powerful as the liberal dissent of the New Deal era, but it is powerful enough to set the tone of our political life and to establish throughout the country a kind of punitive reaction. The new dissent is certainly not radical — there are hardly any radicals of any sort left — nor is it precisely conservative. Unlike most of the liberal dissent of the past, the new dissent not only has no respect for non-conformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative — I borrow the term from the study of The Authoritarian Personality published five years ago by Theodore W. Adorno and his associates — because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word, and they are far from pleased with the dominant practical conservatism of the moment as it is represented by the Eisenhower Administration. Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways — a hatred which one would hesitate to impute to them if one did not have suggestive clinical evidence.

    Who is the pseudo-conservative, and what does he want? It is impossible to identify him by class, for the pseudo-conservative impulse can be found in practically all classes in society, although its power probably rests largely upon its appeal to the less educated members of the middle classes. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming, “This means eight more years of socialism” was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality. So also were the gentlemen who, at the Freedom Congress held at Omaha over a year ago by some “patriotic” organizations, objected to Earl Warren’s appointment to the Supreme Court with the assertion: “Middle-of-the-road thinking can and will destroy us”; the general who spoke to the same group, demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”;2 the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business to be fighting communism in Korea, but that the war should immediately be extended to an Asia-wide crusade against communism; and the most ardent supporters of the Bricker Amendment. Many of the most zealous followers of Senator McCarthy are also pseudo-conservatives, although there are presumably a great many others who are not.

    Deja-vu all over again.

    The concluding thought in this article is:

    However, in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.

  16. avatar
    G July 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Wow! Fascinating and most excellent finds from history Keith! Thanks for the info in your last few posts. Your articles have hit the nail on the head and given a name to this irrational regressive madness – pseudo-conservatism . While it is both important and revealing to be able to see its earlier underpinnings and put it into historical context, it is also a sad, sobering reminder of just how pervasive and dangerous this diseased mindset is. I fear it is the ideological cockroach of our time. Difficult to eradicate and always scurrying around in the dark recesses…just waiting for its chance to breed to a level where its infestation can make the whole place condemnable and suitable for its needs…

    Keith: Deja-vu all over again.
    The concluding thought in this article is:

    However, in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.

  17. avatar
    Arthur July 3, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    I agree with G: the article Keith shared was fascinating. It was also a bit comforting, insofar as it suggests that some of today’s extreme political beliefs are not new and will not always be ascendant. In that hope, I’m reminded of what a singer/songwriter from Minnesota wrote, some ten years after “The Psuedo-Conservative Revolt” was published:

    Oh ev’ry foe that ever I faced
    The cause was there before we came
    And ev’ry cause that ever I fought
    I fought it full without regret or shame.
    But the dark does die
    As the curtain is drawn and somebody’s eyes
    Must meet the dawn,
    And if I see the day
    I’d only have to stay
    So I’ll bid farewell in the night and be gone

  18. avatar
    Keith July 4, 2011 at 7:54 am #

    In the quoted excerpt above, I left out a paragraph that I didn’t think useful in an otherwise too long quote. On rereading, I think it is quite pertinent and to the point. So replace the ellipses with this paragraph:

    From clinical interviews and thematic apperception tests, Adorno and his co-workers found that their pseudo-conservative subjects, although given to a form of political expression that combines a curious mixture of largely conservative with occasional radical notions, succeed in concealing from themselves impulsive tendencies that, if released in action, would be very far from conservative. The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows “conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness” in his conscious thinking and “violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere. . . . The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

  19. avatar
    Arthur July 4, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    Keith:

    I’m glad you included the additional paragraph. The author sums up much of what we’ve observed among birthers, tea-party members, and other right-wing extremists when he writes:

    “The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

  20. avatar
    G July 4, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    Arthur:
    Keith:

    I’m glad you included the additional paragraph. The author sums up much of what we’ve observed among birthers, tea-party members, and other right-wing extremists when he writes:

    “The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

    Agreed, on all counts. Is it just me, or is this the same type of passive/aggressive behavior that schoolyard bullies also exhibit? I guess some folks never grow out of it.

  21. avatar
    Arthur July 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    G:

    You may be right about school-yard bullies, but I’ve observed those who best represent what Adorno calls the Authoritarian Personality type are those who serve as obedient followers of a school-yard bully.

  22. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 8, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    Things are not improving. This sentence appeared in the next book on my list:

    Lyotard’s argument that the postmodern sublime “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself” and that “it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented ” works principally in the terms of aesthetics, analogy and simulation, all of which are displacements away from the “real” that Jameson seeks to reveal through “cognitive mapping.”

  23. avatar
    J.Potter July 14, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Hey, Doc, please take a suggestion for a “recommended reading” list? If you have time. You’ve provided so many reference to online sources, now you’re working through aome offline ones, your thoughts would be helpful. Books on conspiracies often sound awesome, but are almost always disengaging. After a few pages of the recently released The Truthers (has a section on birthers and WND!), I found myself hoping my face would catch a bullet.

    If you come across a gem, I’d love to hear about it.