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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 December 2012
The reviewer `The Guardian' has written such a thorough and comprehensive summary of this book that it is difficult to add anything more. So I will confine myself to some general observations, mainly on what I think the book does and does not manage to do.

What it does do is to offer a frequently stimulating and interesting overview of the development of conspiracy thinking in the United States in the decades since 1963, the year of Kennedy's assassination. No longer the domain of the political right, the style of conspiratorial thinking has seeped into the writings of feminist and black activists. This is done by an examination of the writings of overtly conspiratorial accounts and on those thinkers who eschew conspiracy theories but are poised edgily on its cusp (such as feminist writers Betty Friedan and Naomi Wolf). He also examines the representation of conspiratorial thinking as expressed in the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo and the TV series the X files.

He shows that contemporary conspiratorial thinking does not necessarily mean that it thinks that someone is actually in control. Much of conspiratorial thinking is ironic, and deprecating, satirizing itself and its own pretensions to offer an alternative explanation of what is really going on. The X-files epitomizes this: it's sceptical about its own scepticism, with episode after episode deferring the final revelation: the truth is out there but you never get there. There could be a rational explanation or a supernatural one - there is no way you can tell the difference.

The author offers a variety of explanations for the development of this - the fact that the government has committed conspiracies, the rise of postmodernism, globalisation all seem to give the impression both that someone is in control pulling all the strings or no one is in fact in control. These speculations are suggestive rather than conclusive. The Kennedy assassination - and the criticisms leveled at the Warren Commission - seems to have stimulated a rise in conspiratorial thinking on the left although it is not clear that this has achieved anything by way offering a convincing alternative explanation of what happened in Dallas on November 22 1963 (or in New York on September 11 2001).

The author's command of his sources impresses but his style does not and like too many cultural theorists is too prone to pseudo-profound flourishes like `it has long been noted that capitalism colonises the body', vapid phrases which are just concoctions of verbiage. This detracts from the explanatory value of the book. Also, as one is reading this, one begins to ask the question why does any of this matter? The author thinks not. Conspiracy theory is playful and ironic at best, misguided at worst. Indeed, the author makes vague gestures that conspiracy theory raises difficult questions about thorny issues, like the power of pharmaceutical companies. Or it's great entertainment, like the X-files.

Although no conspiracy theorist himself, he is complacent in his overlooking the pernicious consequences conspiratorial thinking has had in relation to HIV/AIDS for example. HIV causes AIDS. The leftist theorists who deny this link are guilty of profound intellectual irresponsibility. Their ideas have had calamitous consequences in places like South Africa. These unhappy consequences the author overlooks (true this book is about the US but there is too little consideration of the harm that conspiratorial thinking can do to progressive causes). One can hazard a guess at a reason for the author's approach: a liberal-left academic, writing about conspiracy theories propagated by the left, brings to his subject a charitable indulgence he wouldn't bring to conspiracy theories of the right - UN black helicopters, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion etc.

In addition, the author does not consider that the possibility that the pursuit of chimerical theories allows the real villains - who are not skulking in the shadows but are out there in broad daylight - to get away with it. It is true that the proliferation of conspiracy myths is partially on account of actual government conspiracies such as Watergate. But one is mystified why the blatant evidence of wrongdoing does not bring American governments down: think of Iran-Contra in the 1980s, or the failure of the Bush administration to find WMD in Iraq. In each case, the culprits concerned scarcely bothered to cover their tracks. Instead conspiracy theorists barked up the wrong trees with crackpot theories (crack as a CIA-plot to decimate the ghetto in the 1980s, the towers brought down by controlled demolitions in the 2000s) that chased phantom villains while letting the real ones (Colonel Oliver North, Donald Rumsfeld) off the hook.

Overall an interesting book, but stronger on analyzing the style rather than the substance of conspiratorial thinking on the American left.
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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.
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on 21 October 2013
Brilliant for an XFiles and Film Culture geek like myself. If you've done a media course or love film & TV culture this really gives you another angle to think about.
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