Just Because You’re Paranoid, Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You – Clare Birchall

Cultural Studies on/as Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theorists may present the Birmingham closure as a matter of settling scores by colleagues envious of the reputation of its cultural-studies brand; or it may be seen as belated punishment for radicalism. Indeed, earlier incarnations of the unit had a history of conflict with administrators who found its innovations hard to accept and its political positions unpalatable. (Gilroy, n.d.)

Having raised the spectre of conspiracy in this on-line plea to save Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Paul Gilroy hastily goes on to stress that the closure has less to do with a plot against cultural studies and more with the ‘immediate pressures on higher education in Britain’. However, I think it is worth investigating the layers of paranoia hinted at a little further (the paranoia of those working ‘in’ cultural studies about their own position, the paranoia of those from other disciplines about student interest in cultural studies, and an institutional or managerial paranoia about the politics and aims of cultural studies). I want to take a closer look at the relationship between conspiracy theory and cultural studies, not just to learn what cultural studies has to teach us about conspiracy theory, but also to consider what conspiracy theory might have to teach us about cultural studies — a field which can itself be seen to be subject to, and structured by, the possibility of a number of (internal and external) conspiratorial narratives.

At issue here is the problem of approach. Doesn’t conspiracy theory, itself a form of (albeit popular) interpretation and knowledge, have implications for how we interpret and produce knowledge about it? Perhaps this is nothing new; after all, at one time or another in the history of cultural studies various cultural forms and practices (for example, subcultures, fans, the ‘everyday’) have been presented as requiring a unique frame of reference or analysis. To give a recent example, Jeremy Gilbert has identified music as ‘exceeding’ a notion of culture as a set of signifying practices (Gilbert, 2003). But while I think that there are certainly cultural practices and texts that present more problems to the way in which we approach them than others, these practices may reveal a difficulty at the heart of cultural analysis in general. Consequently, while I want to claim a certain specificity for the focus of my study — conspiracy theory — I also want to consider how it highlights a general problem with the position from which cultural analysis occurs. In this way, we can appreciate conspiracy theory as a unique form of popular knowledge or interpretation, while also addressing what this might mean for any knowledge we produce about it or how we interpret it.

In what follows, then, I want to propose: first, that as a form of interpretation itself, conspiracy theory might raise questions about cultural analysis and interpretation per se; and second, that as a mode of interpretation accused of being ‘illegitimate’ or marginal in some way, and as a synthetic, interdisciplinary knowledge, conspiracy theory might have much in common with cultural studies (at least in terms of the perception of cultural studies by others, or cultural studies’ own internalised paranoia about how it is perceived). I want to argue that what might be unusual about conspiracy theory (why it is such an interesting, ‘singular’ case study) — namely, the way it is regarded as excessive or paranoid interpretation — is also precisely what makes it significant for other discourses or disciplines including (and, I will suggest, especially) cultural studies. As a way of thinking through these issues I’m going to be drawing on another mode of thought which occupies a precarious position with regards to legitimacy: deconstruction. Deconstruction is particularly interesting and useful in this context, not least because it has explicitly and rigorously turned its attention to the aporias that lie at the heart of legitimacy, knowledge and interpretation.

My intention is to demonstrate how the analysis of conspiracy theory hitherto practised by cultural and literary studies can be seen as an indicator of a more general weakness — one that I will suggest could be a productive ‘weakness’ if such analyses are seen, not so much as the end point of cultural analysis, but as more of a beginning. I’m going to start by mapping out some of these various analyses, before going on to think about conspiracy theory, and from there cultural studies, in a different, what we might call ‘deconstructive’, way.

Cultural Studies on Conspiracy Theory

First, a working definition: by conspiracy theory I initially mean a narrative that has been constructed in an attempt to explain an event or series of events to be the result of a group of people working in secret for a nefarious end. Though we often associate the signifier ‘conspiracy theory’ with apparently ‘crazy’ Internet rants, it is important to keep in mind the truism, ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you’. In other words, conspiracies do happen. This relationship between conspiracy theory and, say, investigative journalism – between conspiracy theory and theories of conspiracies – must be thought on a continuum. Any distinction we might set up at this point will later prove unsustainable. But I also want to position conspiracy theory as a discourse — characterised by a collection of statements and texts produced in different (para)institutional contexts which promote a particular knowledge about the world. Conspiracy theory as a discourse enables specific interpretations and supports a unique knowledge about how power works.

The academic approaches to conspiracy theory often fall into three camps: those that claim conspiracy theory to be a form of latent insurrection; those that deplore it for its lack of political seriousness; and those that wish to monitor and correct its ‘worst’ (‘irrational’, ‘illegitimate’) excesses. Each is problematic. The first is a form of ‘cultural populism’. Without aligning myself with those critics, like Jim McGuigan, who characterise some work in cultural studies as an uncritical celebration of culture, it is important to question the analysis of culture that relies on measuring a practice like conspiracy theory (whether positively or in fact negatively) against a pre-given ideal of political intervention. John Fiske, the usual suspect when it comes to castigating cultural studies for producing overly optimistic readings of popular culture, claims that popular knowledges like conspiracy theories allow disenfranchised people an opportunity to narrate their place within a system that renders them powerless. Fiske asserts that ‘skepticism is a way of coping with the inescapable contradictions between top-down and bottom-up power and the ways of understanding social experience which each produces’ (Fiske, 1993: 199). He looks towards conspiracist or sceptical narratives and finds a method by which the negative experience of capitalism can be, if not rectified, then at least articulated.

The other side of the analytical coin would be to chastise conspiracy theory for being a poor or inadequate engagement with politics — ‘a poor person’s cognitive mapping’, to use Fredric Jameson’s well-known phrase (1988: 356). Although Mark Fenster usefully details many contemporary manifestations of conspiracy theory and considers some of its semiological and rhetorical characteristics, he eventually dismisses conspiracy theory for not being a politically viable outlet (1999: xvii). Fenster writes, ‘totalizing conspiracy theories suffer from a lack of substantive proof, dizzying leaps of logic, and oversimplification of the political and economic structures and power’ (xvii). For Fiske, of course, this act of simplification is precisely the point — it allows those unversed in the sophisticated rhetoric of politics to engage with issues of power and their experience of subjugation. But for Fenster, the inequalities conspiracy theorists read as proof of conspiracy are, rather, the defining characteristics of capitalism and would be more fruitfully addressed as such. Fenster claims that while apparently showing increased public participation in political spheres, ‘conspiracy theory ultimately fails as a political and cultural practice’ because it does not constitute or encourage political action in democratic terms (225). Fenster is concerned at how studies like Fiske’s praise the empowering effects of conspiracy theory without pushing the logic of this far enough to acknowledge who is dis-empowered by a conspiracy theory. While a diagnosis such as Fenster’s assumes a model of a political cultural text which conspiracy theory fails to live up to, Fiske’s praises the resistance conspiracy theory can provide for historically disenfranchised groups such as African Americans, while overlooking (as Fenster in fact himself points out) the racist tracts that can also be termed conspiracy theory.

While these analyses have much to offer in the way of situating a practice like conspiracy theory within its socio-political context, the idea of politics itself is never addressed by these studies; nor, because of the transcendental position it has been ascribed, can it be.1 As a transcendental signifier, ‘politics’ organises and limits the kinds of questions that can be asked of conspiracy theory and even of politics itself. If made to respond only to this agenda, if mobilised only within this discourse, many aspects of conspiracy theory remain unthought.

Elaine Showalter gives a different spin to the second more pessimistic account of conspiracy theory in a way that exacerbates the problem of addressing one discourse according to the concerns of another. She positions conspiracy theory as a symptom of contemporary hysteria that should be dealt with in private as individual psychological ailment rather than in public as social narrative ‘reality’. Showalter’s objective is to appeal to her readers to ‘interrupt or halt these epidemics’ (Showalter, 1997: 12). Any understanding of these so-called ‘epidemics’ is to be only a step towards the strategic erasure of them. We must combat these ‘epidemics’, she suggests, with the very media – television and the press – that have helped create them: ‘We can … use the media to fight rumors as well as to spread them’ (12).

Showalter’s quest to counter the message of conspiracy theories is a familiar trope. In their Times Higher Education Supplement book review, Alasdair Spark and Peter Knight describe how the authors of a spate of studies concerned with conspiracy and conspiracy theory, including Showalter, present their sense of duty as alarmism about popular paranoia (Knight & Spark, 1998: 22). The authors cited by Spark and Knight perhaps unsurprisingly ‘identify paranoia as pseudo-scholarship’, but more significantly, they ‘feel they have to correct [paranoia’s] inaccuracies’ (22). Spark and Knight explain the general tone of these works:

It is not enough to examine and interpret conspiracy theories, these writers seem to suggest. Responsible writers must also take a stand, push back the tide of increasing gullibility by presenting What Is Really Going On in simplified form; in short, they must correct and instruct. (1998: 22)

At a conference in 1998 concerned with conspiracy cultures, Showalter ridiculed the discourse of Gulf War syndrome and its associated fears of government conspiracy and appealed to fellow academics to be ‘guardians of reason’ (Showalter, 1998). Though reason is placed in the transcendental position rather than politics, it is to a political end. ‘Reason’, here, is more a shibboleth for authority or academic prudence. It is the way the idea of reason is mobilised as a redeeming academic ideal that is questionable, rather than the complex concept of reason itself. I would suggest that it is more productive for cultural theorists to question why this configuration of reason needs to be guarded than to guard it themselves. Showalter is admirably reclaiming a legitimate space for hysteria and other neurological conditions, yet with her ‘call to arms’, she grounds her work in the assumption that academics share a notion of ‘reason’ never questioned in her study. It’s not clear to me, for example, that paranoia is always unreasonable: sometimes paranoia is the most reasonable response to a political situation (see Marcus, 1999). Her thesis implies that not only should academics ‘know better’ (as Spark and Knight point out), but that they should guard the organising signifiers that secure this ‘better knowledge’. By translating the conspiracist experiences described in her study into a knowable and apparently comprehensive scientific discourse, and in claiming this to be the work of academics, there is no place to consider what the experiences she wants to explain away can tell us about the very academic discourses she wants to do this explaining away. Showalter does not entertain the possibility that to ask these narratives to prove themselves ‘legitimate’ by the very criteria that root her discourse rather than theirs might constitute a Lyotardian differend:

As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy. However, applying a single rule of judgement to both in order to settle their differend as though it were a mere litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both if neither side admits this rule). (Lyotard, 1988: xi)

Rather than judge the individual hypotheses that are produced under the name of conspiracy theory from within a discourse by which it has already been deemed illegitimate, might it not be more helpful to consider conspiracy theory as a ‘genre of discourse’ which does not play by the same rules as the one from which I am writing? Especially if I do not want my very address to silence that which I hope to observe, question, and self-reflexively consider.

Cultural Studies as Conspiracy Theory

While I think that the issues raised by the approaches outlined above — the way in which we experience and articulate politics in apolitical or non-traditional ways; alternative attempts at ‘cognitive mapping’; and the legitimation of psychological problems — are important, they leave open a number of questions about the act of analysis or interpretation itself. Instead of being disappointed in conspiracy theory’s failure to formalise discontent, critique its reactionary tendencies, celebrate its disruptive potential, or correct its inaccuracies, I would suggest that we explore, as Lyotard terms it, the ‘wrong’2 that occurs when attempts are made in academia to denounce or distance themselves from conspiracy theory, or when conspiracy theory is written about as if it had nothing to do with what founds being able to make any interpretation in the first place. In addition, we will need to look for ways of addressing the apparent opposition between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ discourses, between Showalter’s discourse and the one she critiques.

What we quickly discover on doing so is that it becomes impossible to map conspiracy theory and academic discourse onto a clear illegitimate / legitimate divide. For not only does the differend expose the way in which difference is ‘violently’ reduced to something within an already knowable horizon that can then be judged; we begin to see how there could be illegitimate legitimacies (such as Showalter’s combative response to conspiracy theory), legitimate illegitimacies (such as justified paranoia), and also illegitimate illegitimacies which do not simply become legitimate. The binary opposition between legitimate and illegitimate is thus dislodged. And with this the possibility is opened up of beginning to read cultural studies itself as an illegitimate illegitimacy (as an unacknowledged conspiracy theory). This is a helpful gesture if we want to take on board something that is very much at stake within cultural studies when it comes to its analysis of conspiracy theories — namely, cultural studies’ own unstable, ambiguous and sometimes ‘paranoid’ relationship with legitimacy.

In general, cultural studies is unable to acknowledge any possible resemblance on its part to conspiracy theory. Instead, cultural studies has to maintain its ‘critical distance’ from the conspiracist text that nevertheless interests it as a form of culture. One possible reason for this could be that having begun as a marginal discipline of somewhat uncertain status, its subsequent institutionalised legitimacy can’t bear much scrutiny within that discipline; because, let’s face it, cultural studies receives enough attacks of this kind from elsewhere.3 To take just one example: the much-cited ‘Sokal affair’ — which entailed the printing of a hoax essay by physicist Alan Sokal in the cultural studies journal Social Text — obviously represented a direct attack against the legitimacy of cultural studies as a mode of enquiry (see the editors of Lingua Franca, 2000). But rather than being purely negative, I want to suggest that such an incident can also be seen as affirming the cultural studies ‘project’ — as being endemic of cultural studies’ openness to the question of what legitimate knowledge is (an openness that constantly gets rehearsed as a challenge to ‘canonised’ histories or knowledges and to disciplinarity, but rarely in terms of legitimacy per se). Instead of excusing the Sokal incident, then, and fashioning it as an aberration in an otherwise functional discipline, cultural studies should own it. In this way, the Sokal affair can reinforce the capability of cultural studies to be a discipline ‘under erasure’, if you like; because it represents a moment of undecideability around the issue of legitimacy which is central to what cultural studies, in many ways, is. Cultural studies can force us to question what knowledge is and therefore what cultural studies is. And because the answers to such questions and the rules according to which answers can be arrived at are unstable, the risk of being deemed an illegitimate discipline is definitive.

From this point of view, the Sokal affair represents something of a missed opportunity for cultural studies. For Sokal’s forgery, in common with conspiracy theory (which is a kind of forgery in its own way — a forged form of knowledge about the world perhaps), demands questions to be asked concerning the status of knowledge, including the knowledge that cultural theorists draw on. The Sokal affair doesn’t show up the inadequacy of cultural studies; rather, like conspiracy theory, it suggests that the legitimacy of knowledge cannot be decided in advance of any reading. Too often cultural studies leaves little room for questions of this kind to be asked. Instead, cultural studies has a tendency to keep such questions at bay, associating them understandably with attacks against its validity. To acknowledge the close relationship that cultural studies has to ‘illegitimate’ forms of knowledge such as conspiracy theory (both are synthetic discourses made from an indefinite amount of sources; both raise questions of legitimacy and institutionalised knowledge) would, in this view, risk undermining cultural studies. But, as I will explore below, cultural studies is vulnerable to attacks on its legitimacy, not because there is something dubious about its project, but rather because all knowledge, all interpretation relies on an aporia of legitimacy. As a ‘discipline’ (or inter- or post-discipline) conceived on the margins of the University, cultural studies just has a greater capacity for opening itself up to questions of legitimacy than others.

Hyperreal Discourse

First, however, a theoretical detour is needed in order to establish the nature of the relationship between cultural studies or any mode of interpretation and conspiracy theory further. Following Baudrillard’s formulation that hyperreal images become ‘more real than the real’ (Baudrillard, 1987: 28), we might say that conspiracy theory is ‘more discourse than discourse’. Baudrillard describes how: ‘Cinema plagiarises and copies itself, remakes its classics, retroactivates its original myths, remakes silent films more perfect than the originals, etc.’ (28). Postmodern cinema becomes more cinema than cinema, obsessed with producing the perfect replica of itself. With this model in mind, we can begin to understand how conspiracy theory can only be differentiated from other discourses in the way that it heightens their narrative concerns, accelerates their mode of signification and semiosis, and puts on display their conditions of possibility. This hyperreal operation is, like all simulation, subversive in its implicit suggestion that all discourses ‘might be nothing more than simulation’ (Baudrillard, 1983, 38). In other words, conspiracy theory can suggest that all interpretation is only ever ‘theory’; that the relationship between a sign and its referent is necessarily inflected by imaginary processes; and that any transcendental truth claims rely on contingent strategies of legitimation. As should be clear from some of my other theoretical alliances in this paper, I am citing Baudrillard’s term in an isolated sense. With regards to the way in which the hyperreal puts on display the workings of the ‘real’, such a formulation is only helpful if we complicate the apparent privileged status given to the ‘real’. In order to avoid the undue romanticisation that can be seen to permeate Baudrillard’s thought, we must think of the ‘real’ as having retained the possibility of the hyperreal, and as being in some ways constituted by it.4

To a certain degree, Baudrillard invites such an understanding. He writes that his ‘design of classification’ with regards to modes of representation ‘leading’ to the hyperreal is ‘certainly formal, but it is a little like the situation among physicists who each month invent a new particle. One does not dispel the other: they succeed one another and increase in number in a hypothetical trajectory’ (Baudrillard, 1990: 13; translated and cited by Genosko, 1994: 44). Gary Genosko comments on this same passage and on how it encourages us to read the orders of simulation as an ‘abstract problematic’; he thinks that this should deter us from a ‘strictly phasal and subsumptive reading’ (Genosko, 1994: 44). Upsetting a logic of identity or causal temporality by this idea of simultaneity at least hints at the mutual contamination of the real and hyperreal proposed above. Rather than resulting in a lack of meaning, the hyperreal can expose a condition of the ‘real’ — that it must be able to be simulated, to be iterated in a different context — that allows for its exaggerated ‘other’. Herein lies the tension. A similar tension, I want to suggest, can be located in the relation between academic discourses such as cultural studies and conspiracy theory. For what we see is that conspiracy theory puts on display a possibility of reading, the invisibility of which (through processes of non-recognition or delegitimisation) other discourses rely upon. The conditions that enable discourses to function can also be used to question their very foundations; and the close proximity between academic discourses and conspiracy theory places this risk in a public context.

However, while I think this is true for academic discourses in general, there is something specific that cultural studies can learn from conspiracy theory, not least because it is probably the discourse or knowledge most suited to analysing contemporary phenomena of this sort. We could, for example, see conspiracy theory’s self-legitimating structure (the ‘truth’ is in the telling, and the telling is often claimed to be ‘dangerous’) as similar to what Alan Sokal finds so distasteful about cultural studies. Sokal finds the apparent ‘epistemic relativism’ (Sokal, 2000: 51) he sees at work in much cultural theory highly problematic. He thinks his argument (that quantum gravity has progressive political implications) was accepted precisely because it affirmed the attitude of the editors towards social (and scientific) constructionism and an uncritical populism. His essay slipped through the net not only because Social Text was sympathetic to the apparent politics of Sokal’s essay, but also because unusually for a cultural studies journal it is not peer-reviewed (Robbins & Ross, 2000: 55). In other words, the journal could be seen as self-legitimating. Quoting Larry Laudan, Sokal claims that his hoax revealed the misguided nature of modern critical and cultural theory that ‘appropriate[s] conclusions from the philosophy of science and put[s] them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted’ (Larry Laudin, quoted in Sokal, 1993: 93). However, the focus of the emergent anxiety evident in Sokal’s hoax and response extends beyond a concern over the borrowing and decontextualisation of terms, to the systematic questioning via critical and cultural theory of the boundaries between science and other kinds of knowledge.5

Interpret This

To fully assess the implications of a close, perhaps hyperreal relationship between conspiracy theory and cultural studies, we must recognise (1) that conspiracy theory is a form of interpretation, and (2) that as such it raises questions about interpretation per se. Umberto Eco’s work on interpretation can be illuminating here, not only because he indirectly discusses conspiracy theory, but because he provides another example of the anxiety already displayed by Showalter and Sokal, one that will take us closer to deconstruction and a deconstructive cultural studies.

Concerned as he is with establishing the limits of interpretation, Eco wants to claim that some interpretations can be classed ‘overinterpretation’. He is never fully able to define the difference between interpretation and overinterpretation, but relies on the idea that overinterpretation cannot be checked against the coherence of a text as a whole and isn’t supported by community consensus. He maintains that a community provides a ‘factual guarantee’ (Eco, 1992: 144). In the end, he resorts to claiming that although it is often difficult to recognise a good interpretation, one simply knows when one encounters bad or over interpretation. Because Eco is focusing on interpretations of literary texts rather than historical events, he does not use the name ‘conspiracy theory’. But from his novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, the link between overinterpretation and conspiracy theory is clear — his novel is the dramatic exposition of what it means to overinterpret as the protagonist/narrator creates and lives by a conspiracy theory he and his friends construct.6 In Foucault’s Pendulum, overinterpretation takes the guise of a hermetic reading or what we would contemporaneously think of as conspiracy theory.

In Eco’s theoretical writings, overinterpretation includes deconstruction. Eco would have us believe that the link between hermeticism/conspiracy theory and deconstruction is one that discredits deconstruction. In order to do this, Eco (in a gesture similar to that of Sokal’s reductive characterisation of cultural theory) has to soften deconstruction and fashion it as a reader-oriented relativism that seeks to validate any and every interpretation. Eco considers deconstruction to be a continuation of the hermetic project – one that is informed by principles of:

universal analogy and sympathy, according to which every item of the furniture of the world is linked to every other element (or to many) of this sublunar world and to every element (or to many) of the superior world by means of similitudes or resemblances. (Eco, 1990: 24)

Eco’s disagreement with deconstruction hinges on what he considers to be Derrida’s misreading of Peircean ‘unlimited semiosis’ (the process by which an interpretant’s reading of a sign can always be taken up by another interpretant ad infinitum). Eco insists that the difference between ‘unlimited semiosis’ and hermetic/deconstructive drift (which he reads as being equivalent) is that the former still allows for some readings to be discounted, whereas the latter has to allow for every interpretation to be valid.7

Eco reduces the question of interpretation to one of ‘common sense’, claiming that much deconstructive theory ‘disregards very obvious truths that nobody can reasonably pass over in silence’ (1990: 36). Peirce may have endorsed a semiotics which emphasises how signs refer to other signs rather than to ‘a presence’ or ‘the thing itself’ (37), and one in which ‘the transcendental meaning is not at the origins of the process’, but this meaning ‘must be postulated as a possible and transitory end of every process’ (41). This agreed privileged meaning, as Eco points out, sits uncomfortably with the deconstructionist approach, not because it constitutes a relativism lacking in rigor, but because for Derrida meaning is always subject to deferral and differentiation. Eco’s critique of deconstruction only works along the lines of a crude characterisation. I would suggest, as with cultural studies above, that the link between deconstruction and hermeticism/conspiracy theory exists, but not to the ends that Eco assumes. The link does not delegitimise both conspiracy theory and deconstruction, but rather shows deconstruction to be the mode of thought that (like conspiracy theory and potentially cultural studies) highlights an aporia of legitimacy, knowledge and interpretation.

There is nothing unusual about Eco’s desire to make judgements about interpretations. Cultural theorists have to measure the soundness of an interpretation every time they look for information on the Internet, every time they read the newspaper or listen to someone speak on television, whenever they review the work of peers or examine student work. But Eco’s attempt to devise a system to demarcate the limits of interpretation is unsustainable. Because of iterability, an interpretation free from the possibility of misinterpretation or overinterpretation is impossible. Separating interpretation from overinterpretation ignores the way in which all interpretation is fuelled, and made possible by, the repetition, grafting, quoting of the text to be interpreted in the radical absence of its author. Derrida writes: ‘This citationality, duplication, or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is not an accident or an anomaly, but is that . . . without which a mark could no longer even have a so-called “normal” functioning’ (1982: 320-1). This radical absence, this quasi-metaphorical ‘death’, means that while one can appeal to authorial intention and historical context, they provide no final determination nor end to interpretation. Iterability means that an interpretation can never be saturated, complete; it can never preclude the need for other interpretations. Geoffrey Bennington explains that ‘the unity of the act of writing and/or reading is divided’:

. . . the gap thus introduced between the agencies of ‘sender’ and ‘addressee’ (but also within each of these agencies) implies, at the least, that writing can never fully ‘express’ a thought or realize an intention. . . The necessary possibility of the death of the writer . . . opens writing to the general alterity of its destination, but simultaneously forbids any sure or total arrival at such a destination: the presumed unity of a text, marked in principle by its author’s signature, thus has to wait on the other’s countersignature. . . But every determinate addressee, and thus every act of reading is affected by the same ‘death’, it therefore follows that every countersignature has to wait on others, indefinitely, that reading has no end, but is always to-come as work of the other (and never of the Other — a text never comes to rest in a unity or meaning finally revealed or discovered. (1993: 55-6)

If we accept what Eco says about overinterpretations being excessive failures, this is only useful if (rather than marginalise, ridicule, dismiss or demonise them as he does) it allows us to see them on a continuum with other failures (of communication) in Derrida’s thought (like unhappy performatives, or letters gone astray). These ‘failures’ of course are not failures in the strict sense, because without them there could be no possibility of ‘success’, rendering the success – in our case, interpretation – contaminated in advance. With reference to performatives, Derrida observes how J.L. Austin recognises that ‘the possibility of the negative . . . is certainly a structural possibility, that failure is an essential risk in the operations under consideration; and then, with an almost immediately simultaneous gesture made in the name of a kind of ideal regulation, an exclusion of this risk as an accidental, exterior one that teaches us nothing about the language phenomenon under consideration’ (Derrida, 1982: 323). Eco exteriorises overinterpretation as does Showalter, as though it has nothing to do with what allows them to interpret overinterpretation at all. Derrida asks, ‘What is a success when the possibility of failure continues to constitute its structure?’ (324). What, we might ask, is an interpretation when ‘overinterpretation’ constitutes its structure?

How exactly does deconstruction problematise interpretation that idealises the text, object or event to be interpreted? Derrida has shown how such idealisation is flawed because no text, no event to be interpreted, is fully present to itself. There will always be a hidden, occluded ‘element’ that cannot be revealed and resolved within a text because it is its undepletable, inexhaustible condition of possibility. This element, for want of a better word, is not a mysterious secret that a hermeneutic approach could reveal; it is a conditioning absence. Paradoxically, the implications of this absence — namely that interpretation is impossible — does not stop us from interpreting. In fact it enables anything called interpretation to take place again and again. Interpretation is never complete because of a profound absence in the text being interpreted, and because that same absence conditions any subsequent interpretative text.

Here, we have to face the implications of failing to take into account that overinterpretation, rather than subtending or deviating from interpretation, actually conditions it. For me to be able to interpret anything — analyse it away from its original context — and to enjoy the freedom that interpretation brings with it, I must in principle be able to enjoy that freedom indefinitely in a radical de- and re-contextualisation. Therefore, overinterpretation is a vehicle of interpretation’s freedom. What limits interpretation is not any natural principle of interpretation but only those institutions that have the authority to rule interpretations in or out of court. To dismiss or disqualify these readings is to overlook the way they already reside within and make possible other more ‘acceptable’ readings. If interpretation finds itself inhabited and conditioned by this ‘excess’, it can be limited only by secondary legislative, positive, empirical acts.

This regulation raises important issues for interpretation in general, and cultural studies in particular. Firstly, it puts on display an aporia of legitimacy (what founds the discursive authority to regulate interpretation in the first place?). Secondly, it enables us to find a prior politics that comes ‘before’ any cultural studies reading of a practice or text that deems it politically successful or unsuccessful. In this way, cultural studies might come to look more, I would argue, (rather than less) like the radically open ‘discipline’ it began as and has the potential to become (despite the fears displayed by the recent turn against theory in cultural studies).

Cultural Studies on/as Conspiracy Theory

Though cultural studies professes to ask questions of a self-reflexive nature — indeed is in some ways predicated on the desire to examine the political implications of university disciplinarity, canonisation and processes of legitimation — the kind of fundamental self-reflexive questions that are revealed by a deconstructive reading of conspiracy theory seem to have been largely overlooked in previous studies. What I am talking about here is not the familiar gesture of placing oneself within the interpretative field, to acknowledge how our agenda and prejudices shape interpretation (though this is of course important), but rather a self-reflexivity about the very possibility of interpretation, of being able to say anything about one’s positionality, agenda, prejudices. The apparent reluctance within some cultural studies approaches to conspiracy theory to take on board fundamental questions of this sort (about the conditions of possibility for interpretation and for politics, about the logic of supplementarity, about the kinds of issues raised in different ways by deconstruction and conspiracy theory) suggests a blind spot. I am using this term ‘blind spot’ carefully here. Unlike something that only needs to be revealed once, a blind spot requires attention every time we drive. What it hides at one moment will not be the same the next. All this can suggest a response to a strain of cultural studies that feels that we’ve been down the deconstruction or theory ‘road’ in the ’80s and ’90s and don’t need to go there again. Equally, this ever-shifting blind spot affects every countersignature: We can provide a theoretically challenging framework within which cultural practices and texts can be read, but must accept that they will always exceed this framework in ways we should not be able to anticipate.

Such a blind spot may stem from a certain paranoia within cultural studies about it’s own legitimacy; but it may also arise because, as I’ve hinted above, to take on board these questions – to perform a deconstructive cultural studies (able to acknowledge its ambivalent relationship to conspiracy theory, for example) – might put at risk any hard won legitimacy; might even risk cultural studies no longer being recognisable as cultural studies (Hall, 2002). It might mean, for example, not being able to say that a conspiracy theory (or any other strange, crazy, odd, paranoid or just plain stupid text) is outside the cultural studies’ ‘canon’, because these judgements themselves are inhabited, made possible by the necessary possibility of overinterpretation, of paranoia. The decision itself would be unstable.

Cultural studies theorists (such as Fenster and Fiske) have not explicitly tried to draw a clear line between overinterpretation and interpretation as their friends in literary studies (such as Showalter and Eco) have done. Nevertheless, in writing about conspiracy theory primarily in terms of a politically successful or unsuccessful object, they too often fail to take into account their own positionality (their own discursive legitimacy) to any radical degree. And, if what I have suggested above is true — that it becomes harder for us to decide what counts as cultural studies when we follow through the implications of questioning discursive authority — it is understandable. How, then, can we produce a cultural studies that would be able to take on board some elements of its mistaken, paranoid, conspiracy theory-like nature rather than trying to control, limit, marginalise or repress them? Does risk – or radical openness to the possibility of overinterpretation and conspiracy theory (and other ‘aberrant’ elements) – lead to a ‘cultural studies’ that looks more or less like cultural studies? Or more and less: after all, this is the ‘same’ cultural studies that Stuart Hall is referring to when he discusses the necessity of inclusivity as a way for cultural studies to remain open-ended (Hall, 1996: 150, 263). While I am sure Hall is envisaging inter-disciplinarity rather than acknowledging paranoid tendencies in this scenario of inclusion, the idea of open-endedness cannot be advocated in a limited sense. What would an open-endedness that had to be regulated, that had to ‘end’ somewhere, be worth?

I would like to thank the ‘Deconstruction is/in Cultural Studies’ panel at the ACLA conference in San Diego for their responses to my work in progress.


1 Gary Hall has written about this very problem in relation to the appeal to politics routinely made within cultural studies (Hall, 2002: 66).

2 Jean-François Lyotard writes: ‘A wrong results from the fact that the rules of the genre of discourse according to which one judges are not those of the genre or genres judged’ (1988: 9).

3 As an indicator of negative feelings towards cultural studies, comments like the following are a commonplace sentiment amongst the chattering classes: You need only glance down the list of texts in the burgeoning field of ‘cultural studies’ to bring on a fit of ‘the world’s gone mad’ fever’ (Brockes, 2003: n.p.)

4 Baudrillard’s theory of the sign is best viewed on a representational level: certain socio-economic and aesthetic contexts, that is, may make it seem as if the symbol is ’emancipated’ from its ‘referential obligation’, yet, it is a ‘freedom’ that was ‘always already’ there, enabling it to function as a symbol.

5 One of the most obvious examples of such a challenge is Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979). In this text, Lyotard shows how the legitimating strategy of science — its recourse to philosophy — relies upon that which science professes to be in opposition to: namely, narrative knowledge. In this way, ‘as resolute a philosophy as that of Descartes can only demonstrate the legitimacy of science through what Valéry called the story of the mind, or else in a Bildungsroman‘ (Lyotard, 1979: 29). Unlike narrative knowledge, ‘a statement of science gains no validity from the fact of being reported’ (Lyotard, 1979: 26). Such an opposition, however, cannot be confined to scientific and narrative knowledge. Indeed, Lyotard’s configuration risks a certain homogenisation of the latter. The philosophical discourse and Cashinahua oral tradition that Lyotard cites as instances of narrative knowledges, for example, have a less than simple affiliation. I would argue that the relationship between certain ‘popular’ narrative knowledges, and knowledges that have undergone institutional processes of legitimation such as philosophy may be as problematic as that between science and narrative knowledge.

6 See Birchall (2004, in press) for a fuller account of Eco’s concern with conspiracy theory and deconstruction.

7 Eco’s characterisation of deconstruction as hermeticism falls down early on. Hermeticism leads us on an identifiable (if maddeningly plotted) journey of connections, whereas deconstruction radically upsets how that journey can be perceived (we might, for example, be encouraged to think about that which separates as well as joins in a chain of meaning). Indeed, it is not on a promise (which can be fulfilled) of knowledge or meaning that deferment works. Cognition is not simply present in and of itself, processes of knowledge are, rather, deferred or differentiated by a non-coincidence of the subject. Meaning does not come ‘nearer’, it has not slipped through our fingers, but is structurally differentiated and cannot be thought of as an object to be discovered.


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