Essay Review: Theorizing Conspiracy--Before and After 9/11

Ray Pratt
Political Science

Books Reviewed:
Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

Timothy Melley, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

Peter Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to The X-Files (New York: Routledge, 2000).

Mark Dery, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (New York: Grove Press, 1999).

Before Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network there were (supposedly) irrational, "paranoid" fears of men-in-black with license to kill, black helicopters under UN control taking over America, and fears of "mad cow" disease. Spectacular horrors of the kind everyone saw replayed hourly in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001, but surely prefigured in the popular cultural images in such films as Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich), and the very real terror bomb attacks on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, demonstrated the possible outcomes of a world of real conspiracy, "a new world of unseen, unknown assailants, terror missions without political message, senseless destruction."/1/

If, as the litany from television commentators tells us, "everything changes" after the 11 September events, approaching some of the best of the recent crop of books on conspiracy theorizing, theories of conspiracy, and conspiracy thinking--all products of an earlier era of intimations of conspiracy and citizen paranoia arising from perceived powerlessness--requires a new optic. "Conspiracy thinking" was once a term of opprobrium, a way to disparage anyone who suggested secret forces were at work or responsible for a wide variety of inadequately explained historical events, from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to the California energy price crisis of 2000. But the obliteration of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in under two hours, in one of the most diabolical and audacious, high concept, low technology operations since the (apocryphal?) Trojan Horse, provides the preeminent historical example of a real terrorist conspiracy. Ingenious beyond belief, and certainly beyond the expectations of the CIA and FBI, indicative of real secret conspiratorial networks of "sleeper" agents lurking within the supposed superpower United States that could carry out a suicide mission inflicting more deaths on America (and many citizens of other nations) than any event since the Civil War, the 9/11 events demonstrate how much things have changed. Everyone now knows conspiracies are real; it follows that those who suspected their presence were not unreasonably paranoiac. And here is the point of continuity with earlier visions of conspiracy, which may have prefigured what is now widely known: What one once thought was paranoia just might have been a form of heightened awareness.

Where the most recent conspiracy of organized terrorists had its origins outside the continental United States, earlier visions of conspiracy (until 9/11/01) often expressed a fear of agencies of the United States government itself. With the phenomenal upsurge in trust in government since September, the fears once directed at government men-in-black are now projected onto networks of Islamic radicals who may still be hiding within the borders of the United States./2/

This brings us to Mark Fenster's Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture and several other related recent works on the phenomenon, including Melley's Empire of Conspiracy, Knight's Conspiracy Culture, and Dery's The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. From the cultural meanings of the fear of "mad cow" disease and genetically modified foods (discussed insightfully by Dery, who sees it as "a screen for the projection of popular anxieties" [125-38]), to such historically remote (alleged) developments as the (apparently real) Conspiracy of the Illuminati in Bavaria beginning in 1776 within the Masonic Order, through the assassination of John F. Kennedy (discussed by Melley, Fenster, and Knight), to the mysterious 1991 death of investigative reporter Danny Casolaro (the object of a fascinating chapter in Fenster's work), each of these works presents important insights on widespread fears evident in American culture of the 1990s and into the present. Each takes as profoundly significant the widespread belief in secret conspiracies, though each, while finding conspiracy beliefs important, also sees them as a manifestation of other, more complex developments in U.S. and world political economy and the reflections of those trends in popular psychology./3/ These books contrast markedly with several works of a few years earlier by Daniel Pipes and Robert S. Robins and Jerrold Post,/4/ which see conspiracy theorizing as an essentially pathological, largely delusional belief in non-existent conspiracies.

This essay focuses largely on themes in Fenster's work, which, while in places less than easily readable, presents some of the more fascinating and certainly most politically significant perspectives on the phenomenon, particularly in his discussion of conspiracy theory as a form of "populist" discourse, the last refuge of a besieged citizenry resorting to the most extreme form of political cynicism as an antidote to that sense of loss of control--or even influence--that Melley in The Empire of Conspiracy describes as "agency panic": "intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control--the conviction that one's actions are being controlled by someone else, that one has been 'constructed' by powerful external agents" (12).

In Conspiracy Theories, Fenster, adopting what he describes as a "realist" approach to conspiracy (following Michael Rogin,/5/ in opposition to a "symbolist" approach identified with Richard Hofstadter's work on "the paranoid style"), finds conspiracy theorists of all varieties are (or, one might say, were before the terror events of 9/11/2001), probing something definitely significant in American and world culture. Fenster, a law professor and cultural studies specialist, argues persuasively that just because in some specific cases "overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something" (67). In his view, the key contribution of most of the conspiracy theories and theorists is that "they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration in the ownership of the means of production, which together leave the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to signify in the public realm" (67). In simple terms, if Americans feel powerless it is because--to ever greater degrees--they are. As Chalmers Johnson noted so perceptively in Blowback,/6/ the most important and influential agencies of the Federal Government are not in Washington, D.C., proper, but south of the Potomac River: the Defense Department and the CIA. And, at least until the aftermath of the 2001 terror crisis, one would have been hard-pressed to argue that the President was as important as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, Alan Greenspan. Or even the president of Boeing.

For many years, Fenster points out, "conspiracy theory" served a symbolic strategy of de-legitimation in political discourse, representing "a political Other to 'proper' democratic politics" (xii). This tendency was perhaps best expressed in Richard Hofstadter's 1965 essay and book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In a perceptive exegesis and critique in Chapter One of Conspiracy Theories, Fenster dissects and deconstructs the Hofstadter approach, turning it on its head to demonstrate its ideological uses: One is "normal,"i.e., middle of the road (to the right of historical domestic American varieties of socialism or communism and left of Barry Goldwater's 1964 brand of conservatism--which, retrospectively, looks "moderate," given the shift of the whole American political spectrum right-ward in recent decades); or, one is "paranoid." Yet even paranoids have real enemies, and it is the perception of the paranoia--the "something" that it reveals--that is so interesting in Fenster's analysis of this dynamic in the U.S. popular culture of the later 1990s.

Conspiracy Theories was obviously written in the late 1990s, at the peak of cultural fascination with conspiracy images and visions such as the TV series The X-Files and its brief clone, Dark Skies; the 1997 film Conspiracy Theory (Richard Donner) featuring no less than two of Hollywood's highest paid stars, Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts; and the continued cultural fascination with the 1963 assassination in the aftermath of Oliver Stone's film version JFK. Fenster sees the diverse varieties of conspiracy theorizing across the political spectrum (if one may any longer use such a unidimensional notion) as representing "a populist possibility, a resistance to power that implicitly imagines a better, collective future" (xiii, emphasis added).

In the complex aftermath of the 9/11/01 events and U.S. and world responses, what leftist theorists might call the "emancipatory" hopes and impulses immanent, though only sometimes evident, in earlier conspiracy theorizing that Fenster recognizes, seem very remote indeed, almost as distant as the naive and touching Victorian utopian socialist dreams of William Morris's News From Nowhere (1891), written in response to the mass regimentation he perceived in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1889)./7/

What is engaging in Fenster's discussion is his stark contention--in contrast to such recent works as those of Pipes and Robins and Post--that "there are elements of secret treachery in the contemporary political and economic order" (xv). The book contains eight often disparate chapters--which cannot all be considered here--some detracting from its most significant political insights located in the discussion of "Conspiracy Theory and Populism" in Chapter 3.

Fenster's Chapter 5, "JFK, The X-Files, and Beyond: Conspiracy Theory as Narrative," makes brief, intelligent comments on the two central conspiracy texts in the popular culture of the 1990s, offering for readers of the extensive critical literature no unique additions to the body of criticism. A definitive reading of Stone's JFK as a conspiracy text (perhaps the greatest in the history of American popular culture), and an analysis that goes far beyond the too-brief treatment of the film by Fenster (or even the longer treatments of the film and event by Melley and Knight), as well as the growing body of research on the issues surrounding the actual event, and its influence and importance for subsequent conspiracy theorizing, is Christopher Sharrett's comprehensive, often revelatory discussion, "Conspiracy Theory and Political Murder in America: Oliver Stone's JFK and the Facts of the Matter."/8/ Readers interested in what, for many younger students, becomes an increasingly remote topic (as the reviewer's students continue to point out), should refer to Sharrett.

"The Conspiracy Community" (Fenster, Chapter 7) is much more interesting for the academic analyst of conspiracy politics, profiling a diverse range of theorists, theories, and conspiracy media. While Fenster argues the conspiracy community as a collective and a political enterprise is "ineffective," pointing helplessly to "a future when closure will occur, interpretation can stop, and the political becomes transparent" (xx), the rich details fascinate readers who recall such cases of mysterious deaths as that of the independent investigative researcher Danny Casolaro, found dead in a motel room in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in August 1991. Casolaro was conducting research on an alleged scandal in the U.S. Justice Department under Ronald Reagan's attorney general Edwin Meese; he was convinced he had uncovered a series of interlocking scandals, including the funding of the Nicaraguan Contra rebels through arms sales to Iraq, linking up with the Iran-Contra scandal and the "October Surprise" plot (the alleged illegal deals made between Iran and Reagan's 1980 campaign manager, soon to be CIA head, William Casey, to delay release of the U.S. hostages and thus insure Reagan's election/9/).

Like the case of the (possibly) murdered Karen Silkwood, subject of a popular 1983 film (Silkwood, Mike Nichols) and several books; or, the supposedly unexplained deaths of so many JFK assassination witnesses, there was more going on in such cases than Fenster is willing to grant, despite meticulously describing the Casolaro case (188-98). But his focus is obviously on the similarity of the structure of the narratives of lone investigators, whose suspicious deaths continue to resonate among the growing ranks of other lone investigators--whose suspicions and reasoned paranoia now seems well-founded, if largely forgotten in the rush of history after the 9/11 events.

Fenster's insightful Chapter 3 might have been significantly expanded and some of the other sections excised or shortened. The insights here demonstrate a radical sensitivity to the predicament of late 1990s American citizens caught in a political process requiring negotiation with the "secret Other of bureaucracy" (74), enacting publicly only in those moments when their political consumer choice is added up in polls or votes (that might--or might not--be counted). Late 1990s conspiracy theory, he finds, is "symptomatic of the structural problems of a specific political, economic, and social context" of the United States. Central is the recognition the phenomenon is not simply a pathology--as the extended critique of Hofstadter makes clear--but an expression of populist protest. Yet, to say conspiracy theory is an expression of populist protest requires an understanding of the nature of populism. The author finds congenial a left-leaning notion of the term, yet backs off that in adopting an opaque definition from Ernesto Laclau, defining it as "popular traditions" which constitute "the complex of interpellations which express the 'people'/power bloc contradiction as distinct from a class contradiction.... [It is] an abstract, unstable domain."/10/

Beginning with the view conspiracy theory was not necessarily populist in its "evocation of an unwitting and unwilling populace in thrall to the secretive machinations of power" (63), Fenster convinces the reader it often is a form of radical populist discourse--whether of the left or right does not matter here--based on the "perceived secret elite domination over and manipulation of the entirety of economic, political and social relations" (66). One problem both the author and reader grapple with throughout this section surveying a wide range of literature from such social theorists and analysts as Laclau, British cultural studies guru Stuart Hall, and Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, is that Fenster never comes up with a clear, economical definition of "populism." A concept widely used by theorists and appearing commonly in ordinary discourse, it is rarely clearly defined. If it has something to do with "the people," precisely who they are varies with context and cases. Both Adolf Hitler and Juan Peron in Argentina have been described as having "populist" appeals--the former to the middle class, the latter to industrial workers; Huey Long in Louisiana in the 1930s and Alabama governor George Wallace at his most virulently states' rights phase were both called "populists." With so many variant possibilities, one is left with the question, "What is populism?"

Fenster says "populism is both an important and a recurring phenomenon...precisely because it represents the inability of political and social order to incorporate fully all resistance and excess" (66). Populism in the 1970s and 1980s, as Stuart Hall pointed out in several discussions cited by Fenster, often involved authoritarian impulses--using popular consent, harnessing some popular discontents, and neutralizing opposing forces, while disaggregating opposition, and incorporating strategic elements of popular opinion into its project for winning and maintaining power. Reaganism in the U.S.--elements of which remained a decade after its namesake had vanished from the scene--though in a different national political economic context from the British Thatcherism analyzed by Hall, articulated certain "populist" elements. Reaganism described and represented a perceived struggle between individuals and the Federal bureaucracy (government becoming "the problem not the solution," in Reagan's inaugural address), as well as a struggle between "the American people" and an "evil empire" (in that case, the Soviet Union, not the Osama bin Laden of more recent events).

"Conspiracy Theory and the Contemporary American Political Subject" in Chapter 3 of Conspiracy Theories recognizes the "subsumption of civil society by the neoliberal state." Here Fenster holds that "intermediate institutions that formerly played a central role in the relationship between citizen, capital, and state in the corporatist social-democratic model--such as labor unions, political parties, and local and federal governments--have been stripped of their social, economic and political ability to represent the interests of political subjects and to be recognized as such" (68). The profoundly deleterious effect on American politics and people of such trends, he argues, is the "lessened...ability of individuals to engage politically and socially with one another," a trend which, tragically, "has diminished their capacity to imagine a shared, collective future" (68). Conspiracy visions emerge out of this diminution, involving (citing Mike Davis's study of Los Angeles, City of Quartz),/11/ the actual "destruction of social space," along with the longer-term decay of civil society. Summing up a generation of social critics--an extensive literature is cited in copious notes--Fenster describes the displacement of citizen engagement into the "privatized realm of consumption." This trend follows directly from the "tendency toward excluding real social antagonisms and debate from the public sphere, and the logic of control that has come to permeate the decaying institutions, structures, and spaces that compose what remains of civil society, [which] leave little opportunity for the 'citizen' to effectively or affectively engage with the state" (69).

In this "marginalized and shrinking sphere of collective public action," politics becomes modeled on consumption, descending into a "mood politics" (a term borrowed from U.S. cultural theorist Lawrence Grossberg) where scandal replaces real debate. In the diminished remnants of civil society and what passes for the realm of politics, there are ever fewer spaces where "the voiceless can signify" (70). Perhaps in such trends one finds some of the roots of such domestic terrorists as Timothy McVeigh, abortion clinic bombers and assassins of physicians, and even Theodore Kaczynski the Unabomber/12/--as deranged as he might have been--all using terrorist violence in their twisted efforts to send messages (to them) self-evident, but about which only they seemed to be so resolutely clear they were willing to kill individuals, or--in McVeigh's case--to commit mass murder by truck bomb.

By the 1990s (beginning in the 1970s with Watergate), the "politics of scandal" (Grossberg's term)--a diminished yet sensationalized public discourse--"replaces debates, and emotional confessions become the dominant form of political self-definition....[Scandal] becomes a strategy whereby a depoliticized politics becomes the site of a postmodern passion [relegating politics to the] affective and scandalous."/13/

Post-11 September 2001, the relevance of the analysis of these developments in Fenster's and the related works cited above is heightened. In public discourse and Presidential pronouncements terrorists have no origins. They are simply "evil doers." Events have become de-contextualized, origins forgotten./14/ While a real, complex, well-organized conspiracy from an external source is clearly evident, a mass politics of near panic, heightened by endless 24/7 mass media repetition, also suggests connections that may simply not exist--the October 2001 world anthrax scare (based on a very few real events) is a good example. Yet, as Johnson noted in Blowback, there is also stolid resistance among the political class and the mass public--encouraged by the national administration's "information" efforts and the limited historical knowledge of mass media--even to think about any past U.S. role in building up the very sources of what have become not just media-constructed "bad guys" and "evil-doers," but profoundly dangerous external threats--political Frankenstein's monsters like Bin Laden--with real hidden networks of domestic "sleeper" terror agents, to which past U.S. policies of covert aid and--later--omission, in Afghanistan and after the Gulf War of 1991, may have indirectly contributed.

If, as Fenster notes regarding Watergate and succeeding scandals up to (but not quite including) Clinton-Lewinsky, following Jean Baudrillard's analysis of Watergate, public discussion of power becomes limited to notions of "scandalous corruption," any conceptions of resistance and change are limited to "impeachment, special prosecutors, and term limits" (71). Or, post events of 9/11/01, one might suggest, to displays of overt patriotism in mass displays of American flags, spontaneous--then compulsive--singing of "God Bless America," and giving blood for victims of the WTC attack beyond hope, whose bodies never will be found (the terrible smell from their decomposition at the disaster site remained two months after the events, resolutely unmentioned in even a single network television newscast, demonstrating how well the consensual self-regimentation of the news media functions).

In an environment of simulation and constructed politics, the production and manipulation of trust becomes, Fenster notes (following insights of Polish sociologist Bauman) the most valuable commodity of a national politics which--both before and after 9/11--is itself largely an exercise in its production and manipulation. Because scandals are less events than "structures of feeling," legitimacy can no longer be produced through normal channels, but blossoms in extreme crisis, flourishing under perception of external threat. In this connection note, again, the phenomenal upward trajectory of public expressions of trust in government in polls in late September 2001, achieving levels not seen since the mid-1960s./15/

Yet this also may constitute further evidence of what has been described by Bauman as the "functionality of dissatisfaction," in which political moods and allegiances are inherently unstable, exhibiting quite bizarre volatility. This also provides free rein for conspiratorial fear as the most extreme form of political cynicism, in which such dissatisfaction became (right up to 9/11 and the public obsession with Chandra Levy and Rep. Gary Condit) "stabilized within a narrative that provides the 'certainty' of all-encompassing scandal"--at least until the 11 September 2001 events, which may have inverted the earlier argument, yet further confirm the analysis. Before the terror attacks, which, it is repeatedly said, (supposedly) changed everything, "the certainty of conspiracy theory...[lay] in its utter lack of trust: the only thing of which one can be truly certain is the deception with which rulers rule. Paradoxically, the conspiracy theory only 'trusts' politics to be corrupt.... It is the extreme--indeed, ultimate--skepticism of the political sphere by a sector of the population that feels excluded" (71).

While the earlier vague intimations of sensed conspiracy analyzed by Fenster and the other works on conspiracy might seem to recede in relevance after 11 September 2001 (replaced by fear, patriotic anger, and public resolve to get the "evil doers" no matter what the cost), who can say what new forms of collective anxieties, popular paranoia and conspiratorial developments could--or likely will--follow from new waves of widespread panic, not just from some sectors of society, but a whole population, if their government, in which they--momentarily--invest the highest levels of trust in the last 40 years, can no longer protect them?


  1. Edward Said, "Islam and the West are inadequate banners," The Observer [London], Sunday, 16 September 2001 [online edition].[Back]

  2. On the tremendous upsurge in trust in government after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, see Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, "Poll: Americans' Trust in Government Grows--Confidence in Government More than Doubles Since April 2000," Washington Post, 28 September 2001 [article available online at].[Back]

  3. One of the most insightful brief discussions of conspiracy thinking, its rationality, and reasonable basis is Judith Grant, "Trust No One: Paranoia, Conspiracy Theories and Alien Invasions," Undercurrent 6 (Summer 1999) [available online at]. Examining contradictory government statements regarding the alleged Roswell UFO crash in 1947, Grant finds that by their very public admissions, government agencies demonstrate the truth of arguments of proponents of cover-up conspiracies in this and many other events usually dismissed as paranoia or delusion.[Back]

  4. Daniel Pipes, Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From (New York: Free Press, 1997); Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).[Back]

  5. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan: The Movie--and Other Episodes of Political Demonology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987). In his important discussion of political repression throughout U.S. history in this work, Rogin repeatedly cites Robert Justin Goldstein's classic Political Repression in Modern America, recently reissued with significant updates (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001).[Back]

  6. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000). Johnson takes account of the September 11, 2001, events in "Blowback," The Nation, 15 October 2001, 13-15.[Back]

  7. After a recent re-reading of Bellamy's tract--wildly popular in its day and responsible for stimulating hundreds of local Bellamy societies in the country--it seems to this reviewer to conceive of the future as a kind of gigantic quasi-fascist Wal-Mart.[Back]

  8. Christopher Sharrett, "Conspiracy Theory and Political Murder in America: Oliver Stone's JFK and the Facts of the Matter," in Jon Lewis, ed., The New American Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 217-47.[Back]

  9. A good summary of the alleged "October Surprise" plot can be found in Douglas Kellner, Television and the Crisis of Democracy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1990), 228-33.[Back]

  10. Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London: Verso, 1977), 176.[Back]

  11. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).[Back]

  12. On the Unabomber, see Dery's discussion "Wild Nature, Wired Nature: The Unabomber Meets the Digerati," in The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, 225-45.[Back]

  13. Lawrence Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992), 277.[Back]

  14. See, for example, Johnson's Blowback and analyses of earlier U.S. support of "terrorism" by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1979) and Herman's The Real Terror Network (Boston: South End Press, 1982). William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995) provides extensive background on U.S. interventions forgotten or ignored by the public and national leaders. In Z Magazine [online edition] 18 October 2001, Edward Herman argued, "from the 1950s the United States itself has been heavily engaged in terrorism, and has sponsored, underwritten, and protected other terrorist states and individual terrorists. In fact, as the greatest and now sole superpower, the United States has also been the world's greatest terrorist and sponsor of terror." Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "Who Terrorizes Whom?" Available at terrorizes.htm.[Back]

  15. See Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, "Poll: Americans' Trust in Government Grows," Washington Post, 28 September 2001, cited above.[Back]

Contents | Home