Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture


JFK, Karl Marx, the Pope, Aristotle Onassis, Queen Elizabeth II, Howard Hughes, Fox Mulder, Bill Clinton—all have been linked to vastly complicated global (or even galactic) intrigues. In this enlightening tour of conspiracy theories, Mark Fenster guides readers through this shadowy world and analyzes its complex role in American culture and politics.

Fenster argues that conspiracy theories are a form of popular political interpretation and contends that understanding how they ...

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Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture

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JFK, Karl Marx, the Pope, Aristotle Onassis, Queen Elizabeth II, Howard Hughes, Fox Mulder, Bill Clinton—all have been linked to vastly complicated global (or even galactic) intrigues. In this enlightening tour of conspiracy theories, Mark Fenster guides readers through this shadowy world and analyzes its complex role in American culture and politics.

Fenster argues that conspiracy theories are a form of popular political interpretation and contends that understanding how they circulate through mass culture helps us better understand our society as a whole. To that end, he discusses Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the militia movement, The X-Files, popular Christian apocalyptic thought, and such artifacts of suspicion as The Turner Diaries, the Illuminatus! trilogy, and the novels of Richard Condon.

Fenster analyzes the "conspiracy community" of radio shows, magazine and book publishers, Internet resources, and role-playing games that promote these theories. In this world, the very denial of a conspiracy's existence becomes proof that it exists, and the truth is always "out there." He believes conspiracy theory has become a thrill for a bored subculture, one characterized by its members' reinterpretation of "accepted" history, their deep cynicism about contemporary politics, and their longing for a utopian future.

Fenster's progressive critique of conspiracy theories both recognizes the secrecy and inequities of power in contemporary politics and economics and works toward effective political engagement. Probing conspiracy theory's tendencies toward scapegoating, racism, and fascism, as well as Hofstadter's centrist acceptance of a postwar American "consensus," he advocates what conspiracy theory wants but cannot articulate: a more inclusive, engaging political culture.

About the Author:
Mark Fenster received his Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois and his law degree from Yale University. He currently lives in Denver.

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Editorial Reviews

Fenster, a lone writer (the literary equivalent of a lone gunman, perhaps), segues from the novels of Thomas Pynchon to the Clinton Death List. . . . Conspiracy Theories is a dangerous book. I suspect 'they' (and you know who I mean, of course) will take care of this lone writer any day now.
Voice Literary Supplement
Fenster culls the liveliest counterintelligences out there—the Michigan Militia, religious millennialists, Chris Carter, even Oliver Stone—and sets them up as the last idealists. They might be obsessive and maniacal, but they're after a transparent political system, where big business and the government can be held accountable. Their 'paranoid style,' according to Fenster, is just old-school populism refitted for the media age.
Philadelphia City Paper
Fenster makes a powerful argument for regarding conspiracism as an integral product of the political system, reflecting inadequacies the establishment itself is blind to and expressing strong desires for the realization of frustrated ideals. Conspiracy Theories is a fascinating look at an important, little-studied topic. Informative and thought-provoking.
American Book Review
Fenster's careful examination of conspiratorial beliefs as evidence by right-wing groups, by various media, and even by those who devise such theories as a form of ludic or satiric endeavor (like Robert Anton Wilson) is revealing. And his articulation of the set of political-rather than pathological-reasons for their behavior is salutary.
Publisher's Weekly
A commendably level-headed analysis of the grip that conspiracy theories maintain on contemporary America. Fenster notes that conspiracy theory serves a useful purpose as a balm to the politically alienated segments of society. By neither dismissing paranoid kooks nor being seduced by their yarns, Fenster constructs a strong case that even while we do not believe, we should nonetheless listen.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816654949
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 8/15/2008
  • Edition description: Revised
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,242,550
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface     vii
Introduction: We're All Conspiracy Theorists Now     1
Conspiracy as Politics
Theorizing Conspiracy Politics: The Problem of the "Paranoid Style"     23
When the Senator Met the Commander: From Pathology to Populism     52
Conspiracy as Cultural Practice
Finding the Plot: Conspiracy Theory as Interpretation     93
Uncovering the Plot: Conspiracy Theory as Narrative     118
Plotting the Rush: Conspiracy, Community, and Play     155
Conspiracy Communities
The Prophetic Plot: Millennialism and Christian Conspiracy Theory     197
A Failure of Imagination: Competing Narratives of 9/11 Truth     233
Afterword: Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Studies, and the Trouble with Populism     279
Notes     291
Index     361
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2004

    Knee-deep in pomo-ism

    When I bought this book I was hoping for either a historical or social psychology approach to understanding the current popularity of paranoid conspiracism and the breakdown in critical thinking which it heralds. I was disappointed. The author makes a good start in proposing and defending the idea that simplistically dismissing non-mainstream historical narratives as 'paranoid conspiracy theories' is superficial and less than honest. In the second chapter, he completely fumbles the ball. It should not require nearly 50 pages and countless quotes from Lacan to end up dancing around the tautology that circular reasoning is an infinitely prolonged process by virtue of its circularity. Fenster appears to be nearly phobic about doing anything akin to drawing a conclusion or making a judgement either of fact or of value, and the book is written in the utterly leaden, deliberately obfuscating style of the post-modern 'critical theory' academic. Normally a new book is something which I plow through at the first sitting and then re-read repeatedly in small portions until it's well-digested. I could not force myself to finish this book-the first time that has happened in years.

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