Peter Knight is Professor of American Studies at Manchester University, UK. In this literate, scholarly but eminently readable book published at the turn of the present century, he examines the development of what has always been known as `the paranoid style' on the fringe of American literature and political discourse into a widespread cultural phenomenon, where countercultural suspicions about authority have led to a climate where `a paranoid attitude is both routine and ironic.'
Conspiracy theories, the author demonstrates, have traditionally functioned either to bolster a sense of an `us' threatened by a sinister `them' or to justify the scapegoating of usually blameless victims - Jews or some other group who is `not us', the current political class, or whoever. This phenomenon has now been expanded to fulfil a wider range of psychological and social functions. The manufacture of bogus conspiracy theories has mutated from obsession with scapegoating an imagined `enemy' to a more generalised feeling about `conspiring forces' to explain feelings of powerlessness; away from a secure, identity-reinforcing paranoia to a less secure climate of anxiety which views everything with suspicion. Knight demonstrates how this is an understandable (albeit irrational) response to increasing societal complexity, multi-ethnic globalization, growing bureaucratic interference in the lives of citizens, and information-overload in post-industrial societies.
The author cites academics such as Daniel Pipes, who points out that the world wide web is an ideal medium for conspiracy-propagandists as "the very technology mesmerizes its viewers into credulity", and Elaine Showalter, who received death threats from conspiracy theorists following the publication of her book `Hystories'. Knight's objective is not, however, to demonstrate yet again that CT culture is in general dangerous and deluded (which he takes for granted) but that it "provides an everyday epistemological quick-fix to often intractably complex problems"; in other words, like David Aaronovitch he seeks to understand and explain rather than condemn, though with greater intellectual rigour than that populist journalist and erstwhile Marxist thinker.
Following the opening chapter, four subsequent chapters go into detail about popular manifestations of CT narratives:
* Plotting the Kennedy Assassination - the mother of populist CT narratives in the USA, where the author demonstrates that ultimately myth and belief about the event and the psychological functions these fulfil are more significant than the mundane reality, which due to an overabundance of contradictory and generally unreliable data can now never be uncovered (his clever analysis of Oliver Stone's film `JFK' as a textbook example of modern myth-narrative alone makes the book worth reading)
* Feminism and the CT-narratives of victimhood to which the movement gave birth in the 1960s to 1980s (all males on the planet are in on some gigantic conspiracy to subjugate women and some women are `in on it' too)
* Black paranoia and the aesthetics of conspiracy - many in the black communities in the USA believed in the 1990s that there was a pervasive conspiracy among white-skinned people to exterminate them, by for example deliberately infecting fast food from outlets only in `black areas' with a substance to make black men sterile. The author demonstrates that to proponents, supported by no evidence except paranoid suspicion it ultimately doesn't matter if these beliefs are true in fact; `it might as well be true' as far as they are concerned, as CT-narratives `hover somewhere between the literal and the metaphorical' in the way they are used to explain other intractable societal problems of segregation and exclusion
* Body panic - in which the author analyses the large number of conspiracy theories which have been manufactured about vaccines, modified food, the origin of AIDS and so on, and how this body-invasion paranoia is designed to reinforce `us and them' bogey-man narratives of malignant intentional agency in a world of increasing medical and environmental threat and uncertainty
Knight quotes extensively from various works of fiction, especially the development of the 7-series `X-Files' which reflect populist CT narratives and where there is always another layer of explanation, where nothing is ever resolved. This, claims Knight, has to be understood as part of the phenomenon: to try to deconstruct the bogus narratives of CT-thinking logically is doomed to fail; it is more appropriate to contextualize the useful psychological and social functions these narratives perform. "In a climate of insatiable exposure coupled with a routinized cynicism, conspiracy theory becomes a machine for imagining in advance every worst possible scenario of apocalyptic paranoia...anything which happens is then only confirmation of what was already suspected...even when nothing happens" (p243).
It has been claimed in recent years that the dumbed-down narratives prevalent in CT culture have had their day, that no intelligent educated person takes them seriously anymore and that they have become `merely cultural' like belief in the tooth fairy, or that a TV soap opera story is real, and therefore should be of little concern to serious academia. Knight argues it is precisely because so many CTs now occupy a cultural space more ironic than literal, commonly ridiculed and satirised in everyday discourse, which makes them interesting as a cultural phenomenon and one which historians and social scientists should study.
Knight's thesis is complex but coherent, deep and thoughtful, and those unfamiliar with the academic style may find the text hard going in places. However the author is a lively and intelligent writer, and if you are interested in what lies behind the propagation of populist alternate narratives and the phenomenon of CT-culture in all its contradictory manifestations, this book will be worth your time and might even help you make sense of it.