Peter Knight (2000) Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X-Files

London: Duke University Press. ISBN: 0-8223-2919-0.

Dietrologia: The Language of Conspiracy Culture

Niran Abbas

The language of conspiracy has become a familiar feature of the political and cultural landscape in the last couple of decades. Peter Knight’s book, Conspiracy Culture[1] chronicles narratives from JFK to The X-Files. This book examines how and why a reconfigured culture of conspiracy has become so influential over the last quarter century or so. Knight examines a presumption towards conspiracy as both a mode of explanation and a mode of political operation, which he terms ‘conspiracy culture’ (CC, 3).

Conspiracy theories have a long history in the USA. It could even be argued that the Republic itself was founded amid fears and allegations on both sides, with the leaders of the American revolution well schooled in discerning political intrigue and deception, a lesson they had learned from British politics (CC, 2). The identity of the emerging state was shaped by the continual fear of sinister enemies, both real and imagined, both external and internal. American history has seen more than the threat to God’s chosen nation, conjuring up tales about subversive forces ranging form Catholics and Communists, and from the Masons to the militias. Following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Knight claims conspiracy theories have become a regular feature of everyday political and cultural life, not so much an occasional outburst of counter-subversive invective as part and parcel of many people’s normal way of thinking about who they are and how the world works. Conspiracy theories are now less a sign of mental delusion than an ironic stance towards knowledge and the possibility of truth, operating within the rhetorical terrain of the double negative. ‘I may be paranoid, [. . .] but that doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me’ (CC, 2).

Narratives of conspiracy capture a sense of uncertainty about how historical events unfold, about who gets to tell the official version of events and even about whether a casually coherent account is still possible. In the era of transnational corporations and a globalized economy, conspiracy-minded stories and rumors in the USA also voice suspicions about who–if anyone–is in control of the national economic destiny, and what it means to be American. The first chapter of the book presents a summary of the broad changes in the style and function of conspiracy thinking since the 1960’s with an analysis of scholars such as Douglas Hofstadter, Robert Robins and Jerald Post among various others and an examination of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990). What many of these popular and academic studies have in common is their resistance on condemning and disproving the cultural logic of paranoia. Chapter 2 deals with the Kennedy assassination, the ‘mother-lode of this new conspiracy style’ (CC, 4), and explores why it functions as an inevitably ambiguous point of origin for a loss of faith in authority and coherent causality–the primal scene of a postmodern sense of paranoia. The next two chapters explore how the logic of conspiracy has shaped two of the new social movements emerging form the 1960s, namely feminism and black activism. In each of these cases, images of conspiracy have helped the analysis of institutional oppression (sexism and racism respectively), but in doing so they have blurred the distinction between a literal allegation of conspiracy and a metaphorical allusion. Chapter 5 discusses how previous fears about invasion of the body politic have mutated into an everyday panic about the viral infiltration of the body itself, as people find themselves integrated into a globalized environment of risk. The final chapter assesses, through a reading of Don Delillo’s Underworld (1998), how conspiracy culture has given expression to fears and fantasies that everything is becoming connected.

The Introduction, ‘Conspiracy/Theory,’ describes and analyzes approaches to conspiracy theory as a political practice. The most wide-ranging of academic studies by Knight documents the historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics;’ Daniel Pipe’s Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From; Robert Robins and Jerrold Post’s Political Paranoia and Elaine Showalter’s Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. All these writers suggest, according to Knight, that conspiracy theories have been and will continue to be very harmful forms of belief. Together they conclude that it is the responsibility of the intellectual to condemn the paranoid style wherever and whenever it is discovered. Their ultimate concern is less to understand the exact cause or significance of the ‘plague of paranoia’ than to help prevent an outbreak. In contrast, the present study starts from the position that contemporary conspiracy thinking can indeed be dangerous and deluded, but it can also be a necessary and sometimes even a creative response to the rapidly changing condition of America since the 1960’s. Conspiracy culture, in short, provides an everyday epistemological quick-fix to often intractably complex problems. The task is therefore not to condemn but to understand why the logic of conspiracy has become attractive in so many different areas of American culture, and how it is reshaping how people think about questions of causality, agency, responsibility, and identity. The chapter critiques both the political and epistemological assumptions of consensus, pluralism and process, and their application in recognizing the seeming Other as a form of political sickness.[2]

In many ways, the assassination of President Kennedy, according to Knight, has come to function as the primal scene of postmodernism. It is represented as an initial moment of trauma that ruptured the nation’s more innocent years, and which in retrospect has come to be seen as the origin of present woes. As Knight shows in his Kennedy chapter, the highly mediated death of JFK represents the limit case before things became (in DeLillo’s term) unmanageable (qtd CC, 116). In this way, the reshot and retold in countless media repetitions come to serve as an appropriate primal scene for the cultural logic of late capitalism that is dominated by the simulated spectacle. The increasing sense of doubt about even the most basic of facts and causal connections also makes the Kennedy case a fitting myth of origin for a cultural logic marked by its skepticism about the authoritative power of narrative. The proliferation of narratives about the conspiratorial activities of the authorities has in effect helped undermine the authority of narrative. In this way, the accumulated conspiratorial focus on the case over the last four decades has contributed to an ineradicable sense of strangeness, mystery and skepticism, making the assassination a fitting fountainhead for a widespread sense of paranoia, albeit very different to the ‘paranoid style’ outlined by Hofstadter.

‘Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy,’ Norman Mailer has remarked, ‘we have been marooned in one of two equally intolerable spiritual states, apathy or paranoia’ (Mailer 129). No one has mapped these ‘spiritual states’ as obsessively as Thomas Pynchon, whose self-proclaimed paranoids (the obsessive Herbert Stencil of V., for instance) are often set into relief against apathetic figures (like V.’s ‘human yo-yo,’ Benny Profane). Such alternatives are also essential to popular conspiracy fictions, where a potentially paranoid individual often attempts to convince more apathetic characters that a dangerous plot is afoot. The repeated connection of these rival postures in postwar literature seems to indicate a serious cultural problem: on the one hand, a deep suspicion about the causes of important social events, and on the other, a feeling that no matter how aggressively pursued, those causes will never be fathomed. It also represents a form of ‘paranoia’ that is self-critical, tempered with skepticism about its own theories. This sort of ‘paranoia’ in Pynchon’s often cited words, that ‘everything is connected’ (Gravity’s Rainbow, 703), is more than an interpretative pathology. We can begin to understand its emergence in the postwar period as part of a cultural conversation about human autonomy and individuality.

Narratives of this kind extend this scope of inquiry by staging connections between cybernetics and a wide range of concerns, including a critique of capitalism, connection between entropy and schizophrenic delusion, conspiracy theories and a persistent suspicion that the objects surrounding us–and reality itself–are illusions. The characters in Vineland display the paranoid tropes of their predecessors: the fear of psychological, corporate, and state control; the sensitivity to messages and codes; the quasi-religious obsession with words that intersect; the struggle against the guilt that freights psyches; the search for ‘higher order variables’ that survive trans-formations of life and death. Dramatizing paranoia on the global scale of Gravity’s Rainbow enabled Pynchon to indict Western culture itself for crimes committed in the name of angelic flight. As he has since announced in occasional bulletins such as ‘Is It OK to be a Luddite?’ (1984, 40-41), however, the dangers posed by the Information Age are almost as profound as those of an age we used to call atomic. The threat implicit in Vineland is not the destruction of a planet but the Frankensteinian transformation of a whole culture. Behind the references to game shows and sit-coms, behind Ronald Reagan’s ‘snoozy fan-tasy’ (Pynchon 1990, 354) of America, lies a renascent fascist state.

Arguments about the existence of secret treachery in the highest ranks of public and private leadership have rarely seemed so popular and pervasive as they seem today. The commercially successful film JFK is merely one example of the post-Watergate genre of conspiracy fiction (examples of which include the Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts film Conspiracy Theory and television shows such as The X-Files and Dark Skies). Uncovering the secrets of public and private power is also a staple of investigative journalism, political campaigns, and the everyday lives of citizens distributing pieces of information into an explanatory framework that posits an affirmative effort by a clandestine force to consolidate power and subordinate others. Implicit in this circulation of popular narratives, investigations of official perfidy, and generalized suspicion is the notion that not only is there interest in a comprehensive explanation for the failure of some political, social and/or personal order, but that such an explanation may aptly describe reality.

On the one hand, conspiracy theory is often characterized as illegitimate, pathological, and a threat to political instability; on the other hand, it seems an entertaining narrative form, a populist expression of a democratic culture that circulates deep skepticism about the truth of the current political order throughout contemporary culture.

Despite the masculinist implications of this tradition, it is essential to see that a similarly gendered conception of social control has also been mobilized for progressive, feminist purposes. One reason the masculinist tradition encodes social control as feminization is that feminization is a pervasive and tangible form of disempowerment. To depict feminization as a dangerous hollowing out and occupation of the female subject, therefore, is to advance a critique with powerful feminist possibilities. Writers such as Acker and Atwood mount just such a critique, using scenes of agency panic to illuminate the violent effects of patriarchal social scripts. Their characters discover that they have been programmed to display self-destructive, feminine behavior by the insinuation into them of something like ‘female nerves.’ If this discovery leads them to panic about the invasion of their bodies by forms of external regulation, it also gives them a feminist perspective on their own control and allows them a vision of resistance to that control.

Knight discusses feminist writers such as Friedman, Wolf and Faludi and how the language of conspiracy has led to rhetorical divisions not just between academic and popular feminism, but also with popular feminist writings. I feel that Knight’s focus on feminism and figuration of conspiracy in this section is presented in a much too general manner using a certain canon of feminist writers. However, it is interesting to see how he observes the collective pronoun in feminist writing to answer to a desire for solidarity in opposing patriarchy, yet insisting on using ‘we’ to bring an implicit polarization between those who are subjected to the conspiracy to brainwash women and those who are subject and wise subjects, able to recognize, criticize, and even to overcome its powers. Friedman, for example, mainly discusses ‘the brainwashing of American women in the third person plural, giving the impression that–as she openly admits–once was brainwashed by the feminine mystique, but now she has escaped the conditioning.’ (CC, 141). Wolf in The Beauty Myth, enacts a basic but contradictory division between those who are duped and those who are in the know. She is both ‘a victim and vanquisher of a conspiracy whose spectral form hovers over the text (CC, 141).’

The sections entitled, ‘The Fear of a Black Planet,’ named after a Public Enemy album, and ‘Body Panic’ are by far the most interesting chapters in the book. Knight takes us from the civil rights era departing from the Hoftstadter paranoid style and into the Afrocentric reworking history of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, to the world of O.J. Simpson, the Nation of Islam and gangsta rap. African American conspiracy culture has a long history with racial suspicion and hostility. What is entirely new, according to Knight, is that ‘paranoia’ in black America is a matter of fierce and explicit argument both within black communities and in the mythical mainstream of American society. Knights cites examples of the AIDS epidemic and the drug culture of crack cocaine with activists claiming it a genocidal germ warfare weapon controlled by government agencies. In ‘Body Panic’ Knight continues his discourse on the virus-infested body invasion by citing the movement from the germophobic McCarthyism and Sci-fi B films of body invaders in the 50’s to Reagan’s administration of a drug-free workplace. The use of new technology has empowered the brute materiality of the body to come full force as seen in the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination. In the 1980’s and 90’s there appeared full-color coffee-table books of assassination imagery, including the notorious (and previously unshown) full-color autopsy photos and, recently, a more enhanced graphic version on video (CC180). The compulsion and ability to show everything (albeit often in a stylized form of choreographed violence or sexuality) operates across a wide range of contemporary American culture, making the body’s terrors and passions one of its principal subject matters.

The physical body and physical sciences provide the rhetorical source for political allegories that more often than not cause confusion between vehicle and tenor in the metaphorical contract. The body as Knight discusses it can no longer offer stable metaphors for national politics because the body itself is no longer a stable entity. But in an era of rapid globalization with its erosion and reformation of national loyalties, neither can the body politic offer a fixed source of metaphors for the individual body. Drawing on Derrida’s discussion of the nature of metaphor, it might be concluded that the contemporary paranoid metaphorcity of bodily contamination produces a contamination of metaphoricity itself (149).

Conspiracy theory begins with the observation that it is an attempt to apprehend the past and the present by placing disparate events within a unifying interpretive frame. As an interpretive practice, conspiracy theory works as a form of hyperactive semiosis in which history and politics serve as reservoirs of signs that demand (over)interpretation, and that signify, for the interpreter, far more than their conventional meaning. The chapter discusses three distinct ways of conceiving of this interpretive practice: as paranoia, as desire, and as production. As with the notion of conspiracy theory as a form of political paranoia, understanding conspiracy theory as a paranoid form of interpretation is somewhat insightful: conspiracy theory does resemble the textbook definition of paranoia as a systemic and chronic delusion that is, paradoxically, logically sustained in the interpretation of perceived external stimuli, but it displaces the cultural and specifically semiotic challenge posed by conspiracy theory’s notion of pathology. Both desire and production, however, conceive of conspiracy theory as an active, endless process that continually seeks, but never fully arrives at, a final interpretation. The ‘Body Panic’ chapter analyzes the impossible, almost utopian drive of the theorist who continually fetishizes individual signs while placing them within vast interpretive structures that try to stop the signs’ unlimited semiosis. Conspiracy theory pays back more in meaning than the theorist’s original investment by recognizing, depleting, building, and destroying new signs in the perpetual motion of interpretation, producing a surplus of interpretation and affective dividends. It thus displaces the citizen’s desire for political significance onto a signifying regime in which interpretation replaces political engagement.

This book concerns the narrative framework within which this interpretive practice attempts to position the signs it seeks and so abundantly finds. The narrative frame and interpretive practices are mutually dependent elements of conspiracy theory as practice. Interpretation can’t take place in an explanatory vacuum, and so the conspiracy’s progenitors and motives are required for signs to be understood; at the same time, in order for the secret political order to be revealed in a narrative, it must be found in signs that are read for deeper meanings. Moreover, because the interpretation of conspiracy is endless, the conspiracy narrative can have no final closure. Although ‘nonfictional’ and fictional narratives attempt to resolve seemingly all-powerful cabals through the work of the singular investigator, their closures can’t fully contain the secret worlds they divulge or the challenges that these worlds represent. Instead, they offer reformist and heroic solutions in which the truth is found and order is restored by characters working within, or returning power to, the political structures previously infiltrated by the evil conspiracy. The structural challenge posed by the conspiracy can’t be fully contained within this closure–except when the conspiracy narrative is articulated within the surreal and parodic, as in the novels of Richard Condon (and the cinematic adaptation of his Winter Kills[1979]) and Craig Baldwin’s film Tribulation 99 (1991). The conspiracy narrative is an employment of power, a mapping of an explicable power structure that both serves and undermines conspiracy theory’s executive interpretive practices.

The final chapter concludes with a Pynchon/DeLillo-esque rhetoric of global connectedness under the rubric of ‘six degrees of separation.’ In the age of globalization, some forms of connectedness are paranoiacally discouraged, while others are feverishly promoted. Stern warnings against the free flow of libidinal desire are issued by the very same voices calling for the unfettered circulation of consumer desire (in the form of capital and information rather than individual workers) in the global market. In a world in which everything is connected, individual and national boundaries begin to blur, and an older, more comforting form of paranoia which dealt with rigid certainties and organizations in effect gives way to schizophrenia of immediacy. For some theorists and cultural practitioners this cyborg fluidity opens up the possibility of escape from constricting forms of identity. But for others it means that threatening forces are perpetually invading the last remnants of the private space of the self, and the very idea of a separate and autonomous self that is eroding. The most primitive response to the cybernetic construct is paranoia. The paranoic’s delusionary system is a defense against the oppressiveness of the system. In the compartmentalized epistemology based on a need-to-know policy, no one ever has the full picture except, of course, X-Files’s ‘Cancer Man’ (as Mulder calls him) who pulls all the strings in history.

To conclude, Knight cites examples from DeLillo’s Underworld, ‘Minute Maid’ orange juice to the virtual Web that provides an ideal breeding ground for conspiracy thinking in its architecture of insatiable connectivity. In this vision of total saturation the last enclaves of mystery and nonconformity will eventually disappear, as everything comes under the control of the media-military-industrial complex that no longer even has to hide its power-crazed domination. It is tempting to conclude the book with dire predictions about the dangers of mass paranoia, but Knight portrays a rhetoric of conspiracy that has given voice to a world in which the notions of self-sufficient agency, self-contained bodily identity and straightforward causality are no longer convincing, but which has not yet come to terms with, or come up with, the terms for a posthumanist alternative (CC, 244).

In its apocalyptic narrative vision and semiotic apparatus, 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 and utilized by good people for the good of all. It may appear as a righteous apocalyptic that would claim to be acting on behalf of divine or human justice, positing a necessary end to history through dreadful but deserved events that would lead to the victory of the fellow righteous; it may appear as an ironic apocalypse, facing an unavoidable end with distance and cynicism; or it may appear as a sublime vision of an infinite power-inspiring awe, terror, and pleasure, enabling the assertion of regressive authorities that promise protective repression from the great hovering threat. Nascent in all of these appearances is a critique of the contemporary social order and a longing for a better one. Beyond its shortcomings as a universal theory of power and an approach to historical and political research, conspiracy theory ultimately fails as a political and cultural practice. It not only fails to inform us how to move from the end of the uncovered plot to the beginning of a political movement; it is also unable to locate a material position at which we can begin to organize people in a world sectioned by complex divisions based on class, race, gender, sexuality and other social antagonisms.[3]


1 Hereafter cited as CC.

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

3 For an elaborate discussion see Mark Fenster (1999) Conspiracy Theories: Society and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Derrida, J. (1981) Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mailer, N. (1992) ‘Footfalls in the Crypt.’ Vanity Fair. Feb :124-29.

Pynchon, T. (1984) ‘Is It OK to be Luddite?.’ New York Times Review 28 Oct. 1: 40-41.

Pynchon T. (1990) Vineland. Boston: Little, Brown.

Pynchon, T. (1995) Gravity’s Rainbow. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Pynchon, T. (1995) V. London: Vintage.

Niran Abbas is Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, UK.