Over the weekend I was reading Knowledge Goes Pop, by Clare Birchall. It’s a cultural studies book on what the author calls “popular knowledge,” the sort of knowledge embodied in gossip and conspiracy theories, and uses a Foucauldian / poststructuralist apparatus to analyze this knowledge and its relation to truth, or what the author would call “legitimate” knowledge (scare quotes, of course). She also considers its relation to cultural studies itself, which makes a lot of sense. After all, cultural studies as a field of inquiry often shares a point of view with conspiracy theories, especially the belief that everything is connected and nothing is what it seems to be. Structurally, is there much difference between the conspiracy theorist arguing that the US government deliberately destroyed the World Trade Center and the academic arguing that all of us (excepting the few academics who agree with the author) are all complicit in some dominant political ideology that we don’t understand but which nevertheless manipulates us?
So far I like the book, though it manifests the typical ideological conformity of most cultural studies writing I’ve read. Anything “marginalized,” “subversive,” “radical,” “disruptive,” or “resistant” is good and worthy of our attention; anything “legitimate” or “official” suspect. It’s not that I mind; it’s just that the attitude of such politicized scholarship is so predictable in its assumption that things are marginalized because of some reason other than they’re stupid or useless, as if marginal were in itself interesting and subversive always beneficial, regardless of what is being subverted. This sentence sums up a lot of that attitude: “There is a risk that the aestheticization of conspiracy theory only serves to depolitize any challenging or radical potential it might have (we could, however, think this is a good thing in relation to right wing Militia groups)” (41). I’m happy to take that risk.
However, while reading it I decided to do a bit more research on some conspiracy theories. As I’ve written before, conspiracy theories are a minor hobby of mine. I find them fascinating as objects of study. In particular I was going to follow up on my favorite conspiracy theorist, David Icke. He’s the one who claims that many world leaders are actually half human / half alien reptiles that allow them to shape-shift and pose as humans as they implement the fascistic new world order on behalf of the Illuminati. Needless to say, he’s a lot of fun. He’s also a dynamic and amusing speaker. Search Google Video for — david icke freedom fascism — to see a six hour presentation of his on conspiracies. As an example of his style, in the second video of three he criticizes Bush for continuing to read a children’s book about a pet goat after Andrew Card has informed him that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. “Okay, Andy. After I find out what happens to this goat, I’ll be right out.”
Icke’s written a lot of books on his conspiracy theories, but the latest one seems to sum up his past books, so I thought it would be a good place to start: The David Icke Guide to the Global Conspiracy (and How to End It). I don’t know why I found it surprising, but according to Worldcat, of the 45 copies in American libraries, none are owned by academic libraries. Based on a very cursory glance through the holdings list on several other of his books, that’s for the most part true of his other books as well. Here and there an academic library may have one of the books, but almost all of them are held by public libraries, which means that eventually almost all of them will be weeded when they have passed their popularity date.
The question for research libraries is, does this matter? These books are part of what Birchall calls “popular knowledge.” They are decidedly not part of what we would call scholarly knowledge, which is typically what we buy. It’s obvious to me why few academic libraries ever buy these books. They’re books by kooks, right? We don’t buy those. We librarians act as filters to keep them out of our scholarly collections, and the scholars apparently agree with our decisions, because they’re not clamoring for more books by David Icke or other conspiracy theorists. There are few scholarly books on these kinds of theories, after all. Why would anyone want to study this intellectual gibberish?
The obvious argument against such collections is that scholars don’t take these things seriously. We tend not to have major research collections on astrology or self-help, either, because the unserious and intellectually suspect nature of these books makes them unimportant as contributions to the scholarly record, yet at the same time the books pose as argumentative non-fiction, which is one way to describe scholarly books. Conspiracy books are in many ways like scholarly books. They consider evidence. They make arguments. Only they tend to do it badly and are often unverifiable. Still, we collect other books that pose unverifiable theories about the world, especially in the humanities. Are most of the assertions of French theory any more verifiable than those made by the 9/11 Truth Movement?
However, we collect non-scholarly works as objects of study as a matter of course. Novels, letters, diaries, films. Why don’t we also collect conspiracy books in the same spirit? Perhaps it’s because of the pseudo-scholarly nature of most of these books. Novels rarely pose as fact. Films don’t claim to be true. David Icke presumably believes what he writes is true, and so do a lot of other people. Because of this pseudo-scholarly nature, perhaps the scholarly consensus to ignore these works makes more sense. Conspiracy books aren’t proper objects of scholarly study because they compete with scholarly study. Taking them seriously even as objects of study would give them some sort of interest, would perhaps validate them in some way. Is this why we don’t collect these things?
Are we the filters that guard scholarly knowledge, or even “legitimate” knowledge? Or is the truth darker? Perhaps academic librarians are part of the fortress guarding scholarly standards of knowledge, or perhaps instead we are all victims of false consciousness or even part of the conspiracy. Is this active non-collection or merely neglect? Are we repressing or merely ignoring conspiracy books? Do we not buy these books because we don’t want them widely distributed, thus “marginalizing” them? Or is it that we don’t want the theories to survive for later study, because we don’t want people to know the truth?
It could be the absence of conspiracy collections in most research libraries is the result of benign neglect, but maybe, just maybe, something else is going on. We could be either reactionary dupes marginalizing the subversive radicals among us, or tools of the Illuminati doing our best to suppress the disruptive truth about the conspiracy to establish the new world order. Either way it doesn’t look pretty for us. We may look like ordinary librarians widely dispersed doing out best to collect works of scholarship and objects of scholarly interest, but it might be naive to believe this, because it could be that everything is connected and nothing is what it seems.