Wat I red on me ‘olidays

Pointless StatisticsSo, Christmas. It’s the perfect time to catch up on all those books I’ve been meaning to read for, as they say in school, `yonks1.’ Normally I find fiction to occupy my festive season, but given that I knew I was getting the Wii I decided on inter-loaning some thesis-related non-fiction.

Actually, a better (just made-up) reasons; one of the (unfortunate) side effects of studying Conspiracy Theories is the feeling that you are constantly reading (and, I suspect, thinking you are living in a) Len Deighton novel. Because the subject of study is so very much like (if not actually) fiction actual fiction becomes less and less of an escape.

Fact and fantasy, eh; who can tell the difference?

Gah. Anyway, over the Christmas period I have read:

Daniel Pipes’ `Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From’ (New York: Free Press, 1997).

Pipes’s book was written pre-September 11th, 2001 and it is rather odd. Good, I might add2, but still odd. He’s oddly optimistic, claiming that, in the West, Conspiracism (the unreasonable fear of conspiracies) is on the decline. Now, Pipes was not to know that in four years time there would be a rather spectacular event and a rather unspectacular President who would (I’m avoiding the word `conspire’ here, even though it makes a kind of narrative sense) produce Conspiracy Theory after Conspiracy Theory and engender fear of the Muslim `other’ like almost no one had before.

Pipes’ book isn’t about Conspiracy Theories but rather Conspiracism. He defines a Conspiracy Theory as being a fear of a non-existent Conspiracy, so he and I are not on the same page about the epistemic status of Conspiracy Theories, but his talk about Conspiracism and its usage by both the Right and the Left is interesting and, I think, fairly well-reasoned. Pipes rather glosses over the conspiracism of the Right, rightly, I think, arguing that we’re fairly aware of its character. Instead, he spends quite some time talking about the Left’s usage of conspiracism, pointing out that Leftists3 like to present Conspiracy Theories as if they were merely the best possible inference and not really Conspiracy Theories at all (and remember, Pipes defines Conspiracy Theories as baseless, so he’s saying that the Left is just as fantastical in its conspiracism as the Right). It’s fascinating stuff and whether I agree with his characterisation (and I think he’s mostly right about some Left-wing attempts to define away warranted Conspiracy Theories as being examples of some other, non-Conspiracy, theory) or not I’m going to use some of it in the next iteration of the CCE course.

`Changing Conceptions of Conspiracy,’ Springer Series in Social Psychology, edited by C. F. Graumann and S. Moscovici. New York: Springer Verlag, 1987

This was, as it turned out, a book I’ve interloaned before. It’s still as inpenetrable as ever (part of the problem is that a lot of the papers are translations and. given that I’m not a psychologist, the terminology and sometimes awkward phrasing really “did my `ead in.” Most of the work, unsurprisingly, is Social Pyschology and I got nothing more out of it on this accidental second reading. Some of the material is clearly interesting (there is a paper on how the Spanish authorities encouraged the Roman Catholic Church to characterise the (so-called) New World Indians as cannibals, for instance) and if I were a pyschologist I would be lapping this material up.

But I’m not.

`Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America,’ edited Peter Knight, New York University Press, 2002

If the last book was overloaded with Social Psychology this book had too much Lyotard. Given that it was a volume edited by Peter Knight (an American Studies professor in Manchester who has written quite a lot of good material on American attitudes to Conspiracy Theories) I had high hopes. However, Knight is the editor and the editor alone; nowhere in the list of article authors does his name appear.

Still, some interesting material worth noting. Skip William’s `Spinning Paranoia’ looks at both the Conspiracy and Cock-up Theories of the world and wisely points out that a lot of commentators who argue for one end up endorsing a version of the other. He uses a nice example from George Will’s dismissal of the claim Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed due to the actions of a Conspiracy. Will claims the assassination was a cock-up, not seeming to realise that the assassin’s being part of the failed Conspiracy to blow up the Archduke’s car was probably a major contributory cause to the assassin deciding to shot the Archduke when he came to the café afterwards.

(He also has some nice to things to say about the Fallacy of the Free Market and it probably comes from an extreme belief in the Coincidence Theory.)

Clare Birchall’s `The Commodification of Conspiracy Theory’ talks a lot about how we can cite Conspiracy Theories without having any belief for or against them whatsoever. Part of this agnosticism seems to come out of `The X Files’ (or so she asserts, like many of the other authors in the volume) but part of it might also come out of the revelations of what the Intelligence Community has been up to. The number of wacky conspiratorial explanations of political events which turned out to be warranted have made the public a little more sceptical of official explanations and a little more likely to entertain notions of Conspiracy, even if they are only half-hearted.

I’m not quite finished with the reading; at the moment I’m working out whether I need to read past the introduction4 of `The Jesuit Myth,’ a book detailing the post-(French-)revolution Conspiracy Theories about the favourite scapegoat of the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits. Then, once that is done, I had Mark Fenster’s `Conspiracy Theories’ to read. It gets referenced a lot; I need to see why.


  1. Admittedly, that might be Tom Brown’s school.
  2. Unlike some of his volumes it does not appear overly, if at all, anti-arab
  3. His terminology.
  4. It’s a good introduction but its also a weighty tome and I suspect the theory side is about to become mired in a dense retelling of history.

3 Replies to “Wat I red on me ‘olidays”

  1. They wouldn’t say ‘yonks’ at Rugby, especially during Tom Brown’s Schooldays. It is a neologism from the 1960s, possibly a back-formation from ‘donkey’s years.’

    Is 9/11 conspiracy theory confined to one end of the political spectrum? I think of it as having an appeal to both left and right, although where the theorists sit politically is beyond my ken.

  2. What does “the fallacy of the free market” mean here? Is this a newly discovered logical fallacy? Google is not much help here as “fallacy” and “free market” occur in so many texts…

    1. That’s a good question.

      I’m using it to refer to the argument that if we just let the Free Market do its thing, then everything will sort itself out. It isn’t an example of a formal fallacy in itself; it (usually), however, is an example of a presenting a simplified and irrelevant retort to the presentation of an argument. So, it’s a fallacy in respect to it being (usually) an example of a failed counterexample to an argument.

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