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Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture Paperback – April, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0816632435 ISBN-10: 081663243X

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 282 pages
  • Publisher: Univ of Minnesota Pr (April 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081663243X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816632435
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #547,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something," opines Fenster in this commendably level-headed analysis of the grip that conspiracy theories maintain on contemporary America. He does not bother sifting for truth in the The X-Files, the Clinton Chronicles or JFK, but he does pay close attention to those who believe and promulgate conspiracy theoriesAwhat he calls the "conspiracy community." Even if every conspiracy theory is patently false (Fenster does not marshal evidence either way), he argues that mainstream culture's affinity for conspiracy theory is an important phenomenon itself. The "conspiracy" tag can be used to delegitimize others' opinions, as when the allegations that the CIA helped bring crack into East L.A. were written off as part of the African-American community's supposed susceptibility to conspiracy. And conspiracy theory is too often simply the cover story for racists and anti-Semites. But Fenster also notes that conspiracy theory serves a useful purpose as a balm to the politically alienated segments of society, and he optimistically interprets the popular pursuit of uncovering the hidden mechanics of power as evidence of a latent populism waiting to harnessed. By neither dismissing conspiracy theorists as paranoid kooks nor being seduced by their yarns, Fenster constructs a strong case that even while we do not believe, we should nonetheless listen.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By daibhidh on May 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I recall a quote from Robert Anton Wilson who said, "Anyone in the United States who isn't paranoid must be crazy." I always thought that was an amusing quote, and it should've shown up in this book, probably! Fenster explores the prevalence of conspiracy theory in American culture in this very academic book. While his writing style is good, I warn you that this book seems aimed at academics, and not your garden-variety conspiracy buffs.
He begins with exploring Richard Hofstadter's work on the paranoid style of American politics, and leaps into studying the militia movement, later focusing on JFK, the X-Files, and other forms of "conspiracy as entertainment" and also examines millennial Christian groups and apocalyptic predictions, etc. Fenster is rigorous in his exploration of conspiracy theories-as he explains in the beginning, he is not detailing the theories so much as examining what they represent, both culturally and individually. In this, he does an excellent job, particularly regarding the militias.
He seeks to get past the old notion of conspiracy theory as pathology to seeing it as a legitimate, if extreme and disempowering expression of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo. This is an important observation: that conspiracy theory, by embracing the idea of all-powerful individual villainy (a secret group behind it all), instead of structural problems (capitalism, American democracy) people can actually affect and change, conspiracy theory saps the strength from people by making them paranoid bystanders to their own lives. But he's clear to point out how the structure of the American political system creates this line of thought, albeit unintentionally-the majority of Americans are marginalized in this society.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Michael J Woznicki HALL OF FAME on November 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
....What makes this book special? Whatmakes this book a must read?
The answers are simple, this book has details. This book has facts. This book has information that is hard to find anywhere else. Above all this book isn't conjecture. Fenster's ability to bring to life the conspiracy and what it means to society is nothing short of remarkable.
From the very beginning, we find that author's attention to detail almost incredible. Fenster has taken what society has reduced to nothing more than tabloid trash and revealed secrets that will make you scared and judging from the writing you should be.
Fenster covers Militia groups, JFK, the Millennium, Bill Clinton and other and does it very well. I am certainly glad to have had the chance to read this remarkable book. I would hope the author is in the process of a second edition. Once again - excellent job!
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Format: Hardcover
Mark Fenster's academic essay on conspiracy theories and the part they play in American culture differs from other academic works on the subject (for example those of Peter Knight or Michael Barkun) in that he rejects outright Richard Hofstadter's characterization of the `paranoid style' as a pathology preventing healthy engagement with the political process, of "trivial and groundless claims" made by marginal groups on the edge of society threatening the inclusive pluralist consensus at the heart of the social contract. Fenster makes a case that belief in a wide range of contradictory and ultimately misguided alternate narratives about `secret power structures/cabals' ruling society is not only a characteristic of the postmodern political landscape but a central aspect of the longstanding populist strain in American culture which even underlies the principle behind the separation of powers written into the US constitution. CTs should be seen, Fenster argues, as a sub-set of populism: "In its apocalyptic narrative vision...conspiracy theory assumes the coming end of a moment cursed by secret power and a (never-to-arrive) new beginning where secrecy vanishes and power is transparent" (p288).

Fenster lays out his thesis in an organized way, treating each chapter as an essay on a different aspect of the phenomenon, summarizing the argument he is going to make in advance prior to launching into the detail. The writing style is academic to the point of being dry; more likely to appeal to those familiar with university academia and less so to readers more comfortable with a racy, populist style. It's no page-turner.
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Format: Kindle Edition
Author Mark Fenster wrote in the Preface to this 1999 book, "Ultimately, I propose that the utopian 'plot' to be uncovered is not composed of the exclusivity and secrets of conspiracy, but of the open-ended political struggle for equality, solidarity, and a transparent, participatory democracy that conspiracy theory might assume but can hardly imagine and cannot attain." (Pg. viii) He says that conspiracy theory is "a populist expression of a democratic culture, that circulates deep skepticism about the truth of the current political order throughout contemporary culture." (Pg. xiii)

He exlains, "This book is intended... as an analysis of the role of conspiracy theory in contemporary populism... (It) is meant to spur debate about the role of interpretive and narrative practices in popular politics, as well as about the relationship between the political discourses of the marginal and extreme, and the mainstream and dominant." (Pg. xxi-xxii)

He later notes, "As a group, conspiracy theorists' distrust and fears of power and secret plans are not necessarily connected to any one individual or political party (indeed, George Bush's call for a 'New World Order' in a 1991 speech and his membership in Yale's infamous secret Skull and Bones society made him just as much a target of conspiracy theories as Clinton) but instead exceed the particularities of established political conflicts... for more global and historical explanations of events." (Pg. 81)

He suggests, "Conspiracy theory is a practice of desire that MOVES---back in time, around and through events, collecting details, surrounding the conspiracy and encrusting the conspiracy's shadow with a long and growing signifying chain.
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More About the Author

Mark Fenster received his Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois and his law degree from Yale University. He is professor at the University of Florida Law School.