De-fenstering Hegel

So, Summer School is over, Semester One is now in session (I believe the kids say ‘is in the house’ these days; crazy!) and I am trying to work out what it is I think about Mark Fenster and his ‘Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture.’

You see, my problem is that I both like it yet find it a little too… post-modern.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of those anti-post modern philosophers who thinks ‘Post-Modernity’ simply means ‘utter garbage.’ I think post-modernism is a useful tool for the interpretation of certain corpuses of literature, and I increasingly think that the corpus of Conspiracy Theories should be treated as a very specific kind of literature, to whit historical-cum-political explanations.

But, and there is always a but here, isn’t there, I’m still just a little put off by phrases like ‘hyperactive semiosis’ and the like. They just don’t ring true to me ((Actually, I blame writing my MA thesis on G. W. F. Hegel. It turned me not just against Hegel and his dialectic; it destroyed any love I had for the florid philosophical style that he, some might say, perfected.)).

Which is a pity; Fenster is the perfect antidote to the Daniel Pipes’ book. I thought better of Pipes’ book when I read it back at Christmas time than I do now (when I trouble myself tp remember it); this is possibly because I have spent some time reading Pipes’ blog (and its associated articles) and I’m now quite convinced Christopher Hitchen’s attack on Pipes and his Islamic view is entirely justified.

Which is another matter entirely.

So, Fenster. His book (I’m only halfway through, I might add) is a critique of Hofstadter’s ‘Paranoid Style’ analysis of Conspiracy Theories. Fenster’s thesis is that Hoftstadter (and his successors, like Pipes) oversimplifies the Conspiracy Theory dialectic ((I’m not so antipathetic to some of the traditional Hegelian terminology, it seems…)). Hofstadter characterises belief in Conspiracy Theories as being like paranoia; it is important to note, as Fenster does, that Hoftstadter does not think that belief in Conspiracy Theories is a species of paranoia but rather that belief in Conspiracy Theories is pathologically similar to paranoia. Belief in Conspiracy Theories engenders a belief in an ‘Other’ who is out to get you/someone but this belief is not irrational in the way that paranoia is. Indeed, history tells us that sometimes (and there is a debate here as to whether ‘sometimes’ can mean ‘often’) Conspiracies do occur. Hoftstadter’s error (and given that I’m only halfway through the book this could all be revised in the next few chapters) is to buy into the idea that Conspiracy Theories posit an ‘Other’ that is Manichean.

Fenster disagrees. He finds that Hofstadter and his cronies take a populist view of Conspiracy Theories, making them out to be ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ where ‘them’ are the people who succumb to the paranoid style and the ‘us’ are the well-educated ones who know that, really, Conspiracies aren’t really all that prevalent. Yet this view ignores the fact that sometimes the suspicion that drives Conspiracy Theorising might be on to something.

What I like about Fenster is the notion that we cannot simply characterise belief in Conspiracy Theories as utterly suspicious (although we might well be justified in being prima facie suspicious about such beliefs. He writes:

“The fact that complex, secret conspiracies might occur makes the evaluation of any somewhat plausible conspiracy theory exceedingly difficult, as no a priori grounds exist for distinguishing correct, or at least warranted, conspiracy theories from incorrect or unwarranted ones.” (p. 10)


“As with clinical paranoia, the interpretative practices of conspiracy threory are in many instances delusional but are structured in a manner that is internally consistent and logical.” (p. 95)

He also (like Pipes to a certain extent) thinks that Chomsky, et al, deal with the existence of belief in Conspiracy Theories in an overly simplistic (and Fenster thinks dangerously so) way. He writes:

“Instead, their [Noam Chomsky, Chip Berlet and Michael Albert] emphasis is on drawing distinctions between conspiracy theory and what they see as proper progressive inquiry along three axes; the analysis of power, the gathering of information about covert power, and properly progressive political activism.” (p. 45)

Fenster argues that Chomsky et al are no different to the grandfather of the ‘Paranoid Style’ analysis of Conspiracy Theories, Richard Hofstadter; they all tend to rely on the same simplistic psychological explanations that refer to status anxiety and political pathology. In essence, they continue to believe that political beliefs are the result of manipulation and crisis rather than legitimate reactions to the political world.

This doesn’t, of course, make belief in Conspiracy Theories suddenly legitimate; rather, it makes such beliefs understandable and not as irrational as some would like to have it.

I’m going to end now with a lengthy quote to which I will add no commentary. In part I do this because I have more to say and will say it soon and, in part, I do it because I have work to do. Mostly, however, I do it because I did write something more and then the internet ‘stopped’ and I lost it. Conspiracy? No. But it does make one paranoid.

“Conspiracy Theory as a populist theory of power, then, is an ideological misrecognition of power relations, calling believers and audiences together, and into being as “the people” opposed to a relatively secret, elite “power bloc.” Three important insights about conspiracy theory flow from this conceptualization–insights that the remainder of this book develops. First, if populist movements and logic must produce political identities and movements rather than merely take advantage of behavioural reflexes or social circumstances, then the communicative aspect of conspiracy theory–its form as well as its content, its reception as well as its texts–is fundamental to its political significance and effects. Hofstadter saw this, of course, and that insight explains why his concept of “paranoid style” was and remains so influential. Second, if populist logic is an inevitable and necessary part of a democratic political order, a challenge produced by the democratic promise of popular sovereignty and self-rule, then conspiracy theory, as a mode of populist logic, is not foreign to democracy. It can in fact play the role of a productive challenge to an existing order–albeit one that can excessively simplify complex political and historical events. At the same time, like populism generally, conspiracy theory can play a destructive role by manipulating overly majoritarian, racist or antidemocratic tendencies among the public. This neutral or ambivalent vision of populism and conspiracy theory, which cautions against a a priori normative conclusions about the rationality and effects of a radical challenge to the political order, is one that Hofstadter and any paranoid style”-inflected approach rejects. The third important insight that a reconceptualization of populism provides flows from this unwillingness to reject conspiracy theory tout court. A populist movement may correctly or at least not inaccurately describe a political order in which power is concentrated and unaccountable. Similarly, overarching conspiracy theories may be wrong or overly simplistic, but they may sometimes be on to something. Specifically, they may well address real structural inequities, albeit ideologically, and they may well constitute a response, albeit in a simplistic and decidedly unpragmatic form, to an unjust political order, a barren or dysfunctional civil society, and/or an exploitative economic system.” (p. 89-90)


Giovanni says:

Up until the last quote you had me thinking that the whole of Fenster’s book might be replaced with the tagline for Enemy of the State (‘It’s not paranoia when they’re really after you’). But the guy’s obviously on to something – ‘conspiracy theory, as a mode of populist logic, is not foreign to democracy’. That’s a pretty shap observation. I’d add to the very last bit that conspiracy theory is (also) a symptom of the postmodern condition (in the Lyotardian sense); something that shouldn’t make us nostalgic of the old order or plunge us into epistemological confusion and panic, but rather realise that decentering and multiplying the sites of knowledge-making comes with consequences. Let the people speak, and you’re not always going to like what they have to say.