Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid, by Emma A. Jane and Chris Fleming

Rachel Hoffman on a reconceptualisation of conspiracy theory and its role in the modern world

October 23, 2014

In his 1964 essay “The paranoid style in American politics”, Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “paranoid style” to describe the prevalence of conspiracy theories in US history. In tracing the paranoid style from the Illuminati scare of the 1790s through the anti-Masonic, nativist and populist fears of the 19th century to the McCarthy era’s anti-Communist panic, Hofstadter contended that ultimately this “style has to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated rather than with the truth or falsity of their content”. Scholars have been debating conspiracy theories and their function, role and impact on modern societies ever since.

Here, Emma Jane and Chris Fleming reconceptualise conspiracy theory and its role in the modern world from the perspective of media, philosophical and anthropological studies. Simply describing these ideas as “conspiracy theorising” or “paranoia” risks dismissing them as illegitimate, the authors assert. In taking them seriously, they ask first whether such notions should be framed within the terms of the decline of Enlightenment reason and the collapse of objectivity. Second, drawing in part on Hofstadter’s thesis, they compare conspiracy theorists’ ways of believing and communicating their notions with those of their critics.

Modern Conspiracy traces the role of conspiracy and conspiracy theory in the formation of the modern world, from the scientific revolution of the 17th century to the rise of mass communication media in the 20th. The media may not be responsible for the contemporary proliferation of conspiracy notions, nor are “individual political catastrophes” such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the events of 11 September 2001. What is crucial is “the emergence of a paradigmatic – and consummately modern – epistemic ambience”, characterised by scepticism towards institutionally propagated truths. Thus, Jane and Fleming argue, conspiracy thinking employs the argumentative tools of the Enlightenment itself, notably the critique of “established”, institutional knowledge. In this way, widespread access to the internet has democratised theories of knowledge about world events.

Discussion of conspiracy thinking and paranoia, say Jane and Fleming, tends to be dominated by either conspiracists or their debunkers. This book brings together these two explanatory narratives by examining and comparing them, and attempting to show the resemblances between both rhetorical styles and methodologies, putting their respective argumentative styles on an equal footing.

However, in this exchange of evidence and counter-evidence, and in the questioning of sources presented here, we surely have to ask whether all debunkings are equally valid, particularly importantly with regard to events about which we have access to historical facts. “Debunking” the Holocaust, for instance, may have a different epistemological status to that of denying climate change, where the precise meaning of evidence is still open to debate, although the allegations of a broad conspiracy of silence are of the same nature in both.

Concluding by offering “remedies” for dealing with conspiracism, the authors recommend that we broaden our understanding of modern conspiracies, and they advocate humour – in place of rational argument – as a response to conspiracy theorists.

Lucidly written, Modern Conspiracy is recommended reading not only for conspiracists and debunkers, but also those interested in a nuanced view of the modern nature of conspiracy and its critique.

Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid

By Emma A. Jane and Chris Fleming
Bloomsbury, 184pp, £54.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9781623566814, 60911 and 64315 (e-book)
Published 23 October 2014

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