Reading Culture: Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories comprise a ubiquitous cultural discourse, paradigmatic of the post-truth milieu of the 21st century. Avril Lavigne was replaced by a clone. 9/11 was an inside job. Delaware doesn’t exist. The conspiracy theory offers a plausible enough account for otherwise inexplicable phenomena: but they don’t have to be proven true to become popular, they just have to be proven reasonably not-false. This course will examine conspiracy theory as a means for the emergence and distribution of contested cultural knowledges. What qualifies as a conspiracy theory? What marks a conspiracy theory as different from gossip, rumor, secret, or myth? We will analyze conspiracy theory as a vehicle for the dissemination of “truth”—assuming that these truths are really “out there”—tracing the conspiratorial through the political, the social, and the economic as a powerful instrument of influence. Specifically, we will unpack the formal elements of the conspiracy theory—its resistance to falsification, circular reasoning, and so on—in order to develop critical reading and visual analysis skills that will help us assess information presented to us as true. Given the Latin etymon conspirare—“to work secretly towards a goal”—we will consider what motivates conspiracy theorists and what ends they might serve. How do conspiracy theories disrupt or subvert accepted knowledge about society? And who benefits from such a disruption? We will also use the conspiracy theory to frame our understanding of culture in the post-truth world, where it appears that truth has been displaced, delayed, and is always subject to denial. Beyond that, the conspiracy theory will serve as a tool for personal reflection or excavation. What we take to be true and what we are convinced to—or want to—believe should be helpful in evaluating our own tendentious relationships with truth.
During the fall of 2020, I taught a fortuitously timed introductory seminar at the University of Minnesota on conspiracy theories. This worksheet, intended to encourage critical thinking about, around, and with conspiracy theories, is a product of that course. Feel free to use it as you please—with proper attribution—in your various encounters with and interrogations of disinformation.