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Anthropological Quarterly 76.2 (2003) 323-334

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From Conspiracy Theories in the Incipient New World Order of the 1990s to Regimes of Transparency Now

George E. Marcus and Michael G. Powell
Rice University

Todd Sanders and Harry West (eds). Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 328 pp.

This volume is typical of the form of many collections produced by anthropologists, and it has both the virtues and limitations that can be attributed to this form. The editors (here, Sanders and West) and sometimes invited commentators (here, John and Jean Comaroff) provide a conceptual gloss on a topical topic (like conspiracy/transparency here) that enframes and often exceeds what is dealt with in a series of diverse cases drawn from the long-term, intensive projects of anthropologists who bend and lend what they know from their wideranging and deep knowledge of their subjects to the topic in question. What results is a fascinating cabinet of curiosities around a few central, already well known truths about a topic, "in the air," so to speak, but not a systematic treatment of it as is outlined in the conceptual overviews of the editors and commentators. Instead, what we have are anthropologists weighing in as licensed generalists, albeit paradoxically, from the highly specific and holistic ethnographic slices of life that they are trained and oriented toward knowing intimately. [End Page 323]

A committed anthropological investigation devoted to the phenomenon or topic conceptually envisioned by this volume would be quite different from what a typical collection like this, producing occasional knowledge for it, could offer. Such an investigation, or set of investigations, would incorporate in their ethnographic purview both the complex of practices around transparency emanating from their source in state power and the operations of market capitalism, and the popular spread of paranoid social thought and emotion among groups, places, and local cultures subject to such perceived but vaguely understood powers. To the considerable credit of the editors, transparency as a contemporary issue of social thought is included in the conceptual frame of this volume along with the more familiar treatment of paranoia/conspiracy theories as a socially distributed way of thinking and feeling of some salience. Indeed, the dialectical relation between debates about transparency as a matter of public policy and paranoia/conspiracy theories as a popular mode of thought is subtly speculated upon in the introduction, but because of the traditional positioning of ethnographic research, "out there," so to speak, among subjects outside and subordinate to major institutional orders, we get only a set of intensive studies of how a paranoid way of thinking arises within the conditions and logics of situated everyday lives roiled by forces greatly feared but the sources and processes of which are incompletely understood. This volume is thus an anthropologically distinctive, but also somewhat belated contribution, among others that have appeared primarily during the 1990s, to the impulses and forms of paranoid thinking about the social as it is experienced in different settings. This is a worthy, but by now, limited exercise.

Transparency—debates about the regime of secrecy in the changing conditions of contemporary forms of institutional power—is a distinct topic absent from the accounts of socially embedded cases of paranoid thought offered here. It requires a different treatment of a more incestuous manifestation of paranoid thought within the authoritative regimes of reason themselves—states, markets, information technology, technoscience generally—as a component of bureaucratic functioning and policymaking. The popularity of paranoid social thought in the so-called New World Order of the 1990s, in all of its detailed local and populist expressions as captured in the cases of this volume, might be understood as largely an effect of the disorderly sea changes in the norms, ethics, and techniques of the governance of institutions in relation to constituencies which have been played out under the explicit rubric or key term of transparency. Later in this review, we want to say more about this uninvestigated...


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