Spring Term 2013: Session 5

Are Critical Theories Conspiracy Theories?

Dr Devorah Baum

6-8pm, Wednesday 20th March
Room 264, Senate House, Bloomsbury

This talk will trace certain of the strains and influences on the ‘suspicious hermeneutics’ of 20th Century critical thought – with reference to Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Derrida, Sedgwick, Bloom, Žižek, &c – back to their origins in the Enlightenment (Cartesian) rationality to which these thinkers are normally counterposed, and forward on to our current era, described by journalist Jonathan Kay as the age of the conspiracy theory. In so doing, the talk will describe an ineluctable mirroring between conspiracism and rationality itself, making the case that claims to knowledge are, in a certain sense, bound to be paranoid. With examples from postwar literature (e.g. Saul Bellow) and with reference to Trutherism (a major contemporary conspiracy movement suspicious of the ‘official’ version of events on 9/11), it will be seen how the ‘radical doubt’ espoused by many critical theories and all conspiracy theories is very often a form of radical certainty predicated on parallel claims to have evaded worldly deceptions by means of the inoculating promise of self-knowledge. 

Dr Devorah Baum is Lecturer in English at the University of Southampton. Her interests include the return of religion, the influence of religion on contemporary literature and philosophy, the relationship between religion and violence and between religion and psychoanalysis, and Jewish literature and philosophy; as well as more generally hermeneutics, critical theory, Jacques Derrida, psychoanalysis, and post-war American literature. 

Dr Baum has recently begun working on a project exploring the affective and rhetorical roles of Knowledge. Be it social, political, economic or scientific, Knowledge is widely assumed to be an unquestionable good whose validity and durability persists irrespective of the motives, desires, fears, needs or ambitions of those who pursue it, and seen variously as empowering, beneficial, and at base context-independent: transferable without fundamental changes to what it is. 

The project considers some of the side-effects of the ‘Information Age’ and the ‘Knowledge Economy’ (including paranoia, conspiracy theories, information addiction, fundamentalism, managerialism, political correctness, &c) and examines the ways in which Knowledge is variously used as a defence, refuge and inoculation against the anxiety of uncertainty, not Knowing, or the inevitable but strangely unbearable thought of being (in the) wrong.

This is our final session of the Spring term. All are welcome to attend.

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