In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Whose Conspiracy Theory?
  • Andrew Strombeck (bio)
Review of: Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X-Files. New York: Routledge, 2000.

In the post-9/11 world, cultural paranoia and its number-one star, conspiracy theory, have reemerged with a vigor unseen since their heyday in the fifties. The Bush Administration’s anti-terrorism rhetoric could be characterized as a form of conspiracy theory, epitomized by Bush’s use of “Axis of Evil” to conflate the undeniably different Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. On the left, a relentless stream of conspiracy-minded notions (some, of course, with a basis in truth) have been associated with the Administration, from a secret plan to cancel the 2004 elections to the idea of an “October Surprise” featuring the reappearance of an always-already captured Osama Bin Laden to the now infamous “Bush bulge.” Such an atmosphere heightens the need for a critical evaluation of conspiracy theory like Peter Knight’s Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X-Files. (A note on terminology: in this essay, “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy culture” refer to thinking about actual conspiracies; “conspiracy theory criticism” refers to second-level thinking about conspiracy theory.) Knight, a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester, makes a compelling case for the emergence of a widespread “conspiracy culture” in the post-Kennedy era, using evidence from literature, popular culture, and conspiracy subcultures. This conspiracy culture is indeed pervasive. Its components include an American government increasingly obsessed with secrecy, a popular politics of suspicion developed in response to this secrecy, and a host of cultural productions that simultaneously parody and spread these conspiracies. Knight argues that conspiracy theory indexes a larger alienation characteristic of late capitalist life, that conspiracy theory “express[es] a not entirely unfounded suspicion that the normal order of things itself amounts to a conspiracy,” a claim validated by the tone of post-9/11 politics. Yet while Knight is astute in reading recent conspiracy culture as more pervasive than assumed by earlier critics like Richard Hofstadter, Knight seems too ready to sever the connection between conspiracy theories associated particularly with “right-wing white men” and a wider conspiracy culture. Even while recognizing that conspiracy theory is differently experienced by different subjects, Knight resists asking why conspiracy theory has by and large remained the property of white men.

This book is part of a recent cabal of conspiracy theory criticism, which includes Mark Fenster’s Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Life, Timothy Melley’s Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America, Patrick O’Donnell’s Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative and Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace. Knight himself is something of a conspiracy-theory industry, having in the past four years edited both a collection of essays (Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America) and a multi-volume conspiracy encyclopedia (Conspiracy Theories in American History). The publication of this conspiracy criticism has been propelled, perhaps, by the reemergence of conspiracy culture in the 1990s, represented on the one hand by the sustained popularity of The X-Files, which highlighted the playful aspects of conspiracy subculture, and on the other by Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which unveiled to the public an active and conspiracy-minded militia subculture. Like Knight’s work, all of this criticism seeks to debunk the idea, generally associated with Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1963), that conspiracy theory is the exclusive domain of an extremist right. Part of the project at work here is the establishment of conspiracy theory as a legitimate object of study, a move that, while less than perfectly necessary after two decades of cultural criticism, works against a dominant ideology that posits conspiracy theory as extremist fringe defined as pathological against a “healthy politics” associated with a pluralist middle. Knight begins by carefully differentiating his sense of a wide conspiracy culture from the narrow vision of conspiracy theory offered by its debunkers, who would include—in addition to Hofstadter—professor of Middle Eastern studies Daniel Pipes and feminist...

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