Are conspiracy theories everywhere and is everyone a conspiracy theorist? This ground-breaking study challenges some of the widely shared assessments in the scholarship about a perceived mainstreaming of conspiracy theory. It claims that conspiracy theory underwent a significant shift in status in the mid-20th century and has since then become highly visible as an object of concern in public debates.
Providing an in-depth analysis of academic and media discourses, Katharina Thalmann is the first scholar to systematically trace the history and process of the delegitimization of conspiracy theory. By reading a wide range of conspiracist accounts about three central events in American history from the 1950s to 1970s – the Great Red Scare, the Kennedy assassination, and the Watergate scandal – Thalmann shows that a veritable conspiracist subculture emerged in the 1970s as conspiracy theories were pushed out of the legitimate marketplace of ideas and conspiracy theory became a commodity not unlike pornography: alluring in its illegitimacy, commonsensical, and highly profitable.
This will be of interest to scholars and researchers interested in American history, culture and subcultures, as well, of course, to those fascinated by conspiracies.
Table of Contents
Part I. Theories of Conspiracy Theory
1. From Fears of Conspiracy to Fears of Conspiracy Theory: The Stigmatization of Conspiracy Theory in Academic Discourse
Part II. Conspiracy Theory Culture
2. Preceding Stigmatization: The Red Scare and Conspiracy Theories in the 1950s
3. Reflecting Stigmatization: The Kennedy Assassination and Conspiracy Theories in the 1960s
4. Embracing Stigmatization: Watergate and Conspiracy Theories in the 1970s
Conclusion: The State and Status of Conspiracy Theory in the Age of Trump(ism)
Katharina Thalmann is Assistant Professor in the American Studies Department, University of Tübingen, Germany.
‘Conspiracy theories are as old as the hills, but they only became the object of scholarly study and concern after 1945. In this meticulously researched study, Katharina Thalmann traces the discursive history of conspiracy theory, revealing how it became a familiar concept, a widely derided form of explanation, and a perceived threat to democratic rationality. Thalmann's approach helps to explain the persistent public fascination with conspiracy, from the rise of a postwar "culture of paranoia" to contemporary debate about the politics of conspiracy discourse.’ Professor Timothy Melley, author of The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State (Cornell University Press, 2012).
‘Thalmann’s bold and timely book updates and challenges longstanding concerns that conspiracy theories have become increasingly respectable. In offering precise and nuanced readings of conspiracy theories and their reception within academic and media discourses, Thalmann produces a convincing argument about the changing status of conspiracy theories during the Twentieth Century. Thalmann also addresses the contemporary moment. While other commentators see Trump’s ascension as proof of conspiracy theory’s increased legitimacy, Thalmann suggests that Trump and other influential conspiracy theorists on the populist right today gain traction through their links to conspiracy theory precisely becauseof its fringe, illegitimate hue. Getting airtime is not the same as legitimacy in Thalmann’s eyes. Reading against the grain, with careful conviction, Thalmann’s book is a key intervention into the lively field of conspiracy studies.’ Dr Clare Birchall – Reader in Contemporary Culture, King’s College London, UK.