ENGL378F - Special Topics in English; Paranoia, Conspiracies, and Fake News
The world is flat. The world is hollow. The world is just a simulation, and all of us are just creations of an inconceivably powerful artificial intelligence. The Mafia assassinated JFK. No, it was the CIA. LBJ called the shot. Or was it the Soviets and Fidel Castro? No matter what we think we know about politics, culture, or even the basics of science, there is a conspiracy theory to tell us that, actually, that’s all wrong and just what “they” want you to think.
In this class we will consider the rhetoric and ramifications of the conspiracy theory, from classics like the Knights Templar and alien autopsies to new favorites like Roko’s basilisk and the Reptilian elite. We will look at how conspiracy theories serve as an outlet for a wide array of cultural anxieties, and also how they can channel some of humanity’s ugliest impulses. In particular, we will consider how conspiracies and theories about them—which seem to be as old as human history itself—have gained a particular urgency in our always-online Internet era, where anyone can claim to know the truth about anything and find others to subscribe to their views.
We’ll watch a few movies (e.g. National Treasure, The Parallax View, They Live) and read some fiction (by the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion, Ishmael Reed, Robert Anton Wilson), some creative nonfiction, and some things that defy categorization, with the goal of understanding how conspiracy theorists construct arguments and how to recognize when we might be buying in to paranoid narratives or fake news. Assignments will include two essays, weekly shorter writings in a range of rhetorical styles, and the creation of one new conspiracy of your own design.