Constructing Conspiracy: Epistemology and Secret Publics in Eighteenth-Century Countersubversive Discourse
Hancock, William Robert
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This paper engages in a literary study of late eighteenth-century conspiracism. In the wake of the French Revolution, the conservative reaction to Jacobinism often took the form of conspiracy theories. The now-familiar secret society conspiracy narratives—like those involving the Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati—developed during this period. Focusing on the Anglo-American context, the paper surveys a wide variety of texts and examines how different genres engaged with countersubversive discourse. These texts range from conspiracist manifestos like John Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy, to canonical political treatises like Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men, and literary fiction like Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond; or, The Secret Witness and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. While not all of these texts are explicitly conspiracist, each deals with themes of secrecy, suspicion, and concealment. These recurring themes and motifs reveal patterns of thought, argument, and rhetoric that align the texts with conspiracism. The paper argues that these disparate texts—whether fiction or nonfiction, revolutionary or counterrevolutionary—are united by a fundamental sense of epistemological unease. Relying on conspiracist tropes, these texts express an ambivalence with Enlightenment forms of knowing and emphasize the limitations of human understanding. The paper first discusses Robison’s Proofs, examining the text’s treatment of secret micro-publics. The paper then turns to the Burke–Wollstonecraft debate and analyze their use of the conspiracist unmasking trope. Finally, the paper addresses Brown’s Ormond and Memoirs of Carwin, discussing how these works map the nexus between knowledge and power. Each of these texts reveal that questions of knowledge and questions of power are inextricably intertwined, as complex power relations undergird the quest for Enlightenment.
Franklin and Marshall College Archives, Undergraduate Honors Thesis 2017
- F&M Theses Collection