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  • Theorizing Conspiracy Theory
  • Jodi Dean (bio)
Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
George Marcus, Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation (University of Chicago Press, 1999)
Timothy Melly, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Cornell University Press, 2000).

“This is the age of conspiracy . . .the age of connections, links, secret relationships.”

Don DeLillo, Running Dog

As the global networks of the information age become increasingly entangled, many of us are overwhelmed and undermined by an all-pervasive uncertainty. Far from passively consuming the virtually entertaining spectacles of vertically integrated media, we come to suspect that something is going on behind the screens. What we see is not what we get. The truth may not be out there, but something, or someone, is. Accompanying our increasing suspicions, moreover, are seemingly bottomless vats of information, endless paths of evidence. As Kathleen Stewart writes in her eerily evocative contribution to Paranoia Within Reason, “Events and phenomena call to us as haunting specters lodged somewhere within the endless proliferation of images and reports . . .the more you know, the less you know.”[1] There may be more information than we can bear.

Having it all, bringing every relevant and available fact into the conversation, as the Habermasians like to say, may well entangle us in a clouded, occluded nightmare of obfuscation. I’m thinking here of my nanny’s efforts to understand the legalities of her divorce or my mundane and consumerist attempts to choose an affordable cell phone provider. We’re linked into a world of uncertainties, a world where more information is always available, and hence, a world where we face daily the fact that our truths, diagnoses, and understandings are incomplete — click on one more link, check out one more newscast, get just one more expert opinion (and then, perhaps, venture into the fringe; after all, some HMOs cover alternative remedies).

These two ideas, that things are not as they seem and everything is connected, are primary components of how we think about and experience the information age. They are also the guiding impulses of conspiracy theory. Are the lawyers and judges in our small town colluding against my nanny? Are telecoms, like some Windowed-monster, engaging in monopolistic practices that will enrich their stockholders?

Mark Fenster’s Conspiracy Theory, Timothy Melley’s Empire of Conspiracy, and the essays collected in George Marcus’s Paranoia Within Reason are recent contributions to a reemerging interest in the paranoid style of contemporary politics. Theorists concerned with problems of virtuality and paranoia, political scientists following militia groups, religious and millennial studies scholars observing unfolding cultic activities and end-time scenarios, all take up the challenges posed by conspiratorial labels, accusations, and fears. To be sure, exactly what is under scrutiny remains as shifting and suspicious as the fears of conspiracy themselves. In identifying conspiracy theory, some focus on its style, others on its preoccupation with plot, still others on its pathological motivations.[2]

Briefly, the problems with these approaches are as follows. First, the emphasis on style oscillates between accusations that conspiracy thinking is excessively rational, over-interpretive, and too preoccupied with evidence, on the one hand, and that it is irrational, locked into a rigid interpretive framework, and pays little attention to the facts, on the other hand. Conspiracy theories, it is said, are either too complicated or too simple. They are never “just right.” As Slavoj Zizek observes, this oscillation suggests that we are dealing here with jouissance.[3] Critics of the paranoid style take issue with the irrational pleasures and excesses of reason denied in reason’s name, with the ways that distinctions between what can count as a valid or significant citation are clearly imbricated in power and privilege.

But might not the very excesses of conspiracy theory click on the surpluses, the libidinal supports, of political and economic power? The details of conspiracy suggest, contra those who emphasize style, the myriad, multiple lines of authorization through whose networks power flows. Conspiracy theory centers these surpluses, understanding them as integral to the maintenance of power. As Timothy Melley observes (in a wide-ranging analysis that integrates...

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