- Embracing Aporia?The Lessons of Popular Knowledge
Gossip and conspiracy discourse have long been epistemologically suspect, and recent critical treatments tend either to celebrate or to excoriate these social phenomena. Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip heralds a new perspective, proposing that gossiping and speculating are not only defensible but also fundamental-indeed inescapable-ways of knowing. Offering a theoretical analysis that simultaneously abjures a traditional thesis, claims wide-ranging associative liberties, and insists on the groundlessness of all truth-making, Birchall engages in a tricky balancing act; the book aims to level the relationship between academic studies and popular knowledge-production and yet, almost paradoxically, to define a more radical role for cultural studies.
Repeatedly the book underscores that aporia haunts all knowledge-building and that the procedures of conspiracy theory and gossip-often critiqued for their sketchy grasp on confirmed truths-resemble the methods employed even by more legitimized forms of speculation, such as traditional scholarship. Early on, Birchall acknowledges fundamental debts to Michel Foucault-particularly to Foucault's notions about the commingling of power and knowledge within discursive formations-and to Jacques Derrida, whose ideas on aporia, trace, absence, and responsibility inform the book's deconstruction of knowledge hierarchies. Yet the text also builds on the revaluation of gossip initiated by Patricia Meyer Spacks's 1985 Gossip, and it echoes the impulse to link conspiracy theorizing to postmodern experience that readers will recall from both Mark Fenster's Conspiracy Theories (1999) and Patrick O'Donnell's Latent Destinies (2000).
Birchall argues that cultural studies-often assailed within the university in precisely the terms used to castigate popular knowledge-has a more radical response available to it than the ultimately conservative struggle for "legitimacy" as traditional academic scholarship. Insofar as "true justified" knowledge and the social authority it enjoys are not objective facts but, rather, culturally conferred categories of convenience, to emphasize-rather than deny or displace-aporia presents a more productive cultural studies project than keeping the secret. Accordingly, traditional analyses of phenomena such as conspiracy or gossip are insufficient if they leave intact an assumed hierarchy dividing the putative experts from those whose practices are studied. On this count, implicitly, Birchall takes issue with Spacks, whose revaluation of gossip is couched within a traditional literary analysis requiring and showcasing specialized expertise. Challenging such hierarchies between the knowers and the known, this book argues that by relinquishing expert authority, by "thinking about the status of cultural studies . . . as a form of knowledge . . . we will have learned something from popular knowledges rather than just about popular knowledges" (31, emphases in original). Accordingly, gossip and conspiracy theory model the epistemological instruction popular culture can offer.
Birchall disclaims early on that no "Big Theory" structures this analysis; instead, she proposes an "athetic" line of investigation, operationally defined as "a kind of speculation that doesn't involve positing a firm thesis or which operates under a stable principle" (118). This stance, she suggests, amounts to a deconstructive move toward knowledge-building, an approach Birchall defends against assaults-from both outside and within cultural studies-by commentators who propose to be anti- or post-theoretical or who reproach cultural studies for not being more "politically responsible." Answering those who assail the "celebratory readings," the "optimism," the uncritical "populism," or otherwise "speculative" approaches in cultural studies, Birchall reminds us that deconstruction has destabilized metaphysical certainties about the "political." Sanctioning critical play instead, the book charges that scolding colleagues for their putative political irresponsibility betokens an unwittingly reactionary and destructive moralism that amounts to discursive border-patrolling. "If cultural studies is to be up to the job of understanding popular knowledges," the author argues, it needs to avoid such prescriptions; "it has to consider the consequences of moralism displacing theory. . . . Moralism is nostalgia: it performs a politics appropriate to a different age" (26). Birchall's response to reproaches couched in terms of an a priori "politics"-somewhat like that of the conspiracy theorist toward "official" culture-is to eschew debate with such assailants and to instead invoke an alternative discursive community. This strategy to...