A conspiracy theory is an odd kind of story, one whose principal characters are mostly out of sight and with a climax that is always about to arrive. As Richard Hofstadter puts it in the essay that more or less initiated conspiracy studies, the conspiracy theorist “constantly lives at a turning point.” This description implies a particular kind of reading, too, and a mode of readerly interpretation that is either clear-sighted or paranoid depending on your point of view.
The harm caused by conspiracy culture is so pressing right now (provoking riots, corroding relationships, aggravating medical crises) that it might seem frivolous to turn to literature and history for an analysis of conspiracy culture. The two parts of this lecture propose these turns can help us out of some of the impasses in which are thinking about conspiracy theories are stuck. These social behaviours are deeply reliant on types of narrative (e.g., the detective novel); and a common criticism of conspiracy theorists invokes notions of (bad) reading, even though genres of fiction have trained us to read suspiciously. As well as outlining some recent research on the entanglement of literature and literacy with conspiracy theories and their reception, this lecture attempts to describe the problem of conspiracy without simply describing theories as dumb stories and theorists as bad readers.