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Conspiracy culture goes back to the French Revolution, #FakeNews?

  • 09 July 2019

In an era when ‘fake news’ has become mainstream, it seems that conspiracy is everywhere. With a world of information at the touch of a button, it has become all too easy to fall prey to ‘alternative facts’. Fuelled by the rise of the Internet, some may argue that conspiracy culture is a recent phenomenon. However, in her award-winning doctoral dissertation, Caius Research Fellow Dr Rebecca Sugden makes the case for a much longer history.

Dr Sugden, who was recently awarded the 2019 George Sand Association Memorial Prize for ‘the best doctoral dissertation on George Sand’, is researching the relationship between conspiracy theory and literature in a period of nineteenth-century French history known as the July Monarchy (1830-48). In her dissertation, ‘Conspiracy in Balzac and Sand’s July Monarchy Fiction’, she works against the idea that “conspiracy culture is the preserve of the post-war United States”. Instead, her project shifts perspective in terms of both time and space, focussing on Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Dr Sugden suggests that the literary text played a previously unexplored role in the development of what has been called “the paranoid style” of writing history. The nineteenth-century novel, she explains, “was informed by the conspiracy theories that were circulating ever more rapidly with the rise of print journalism and mass literacy. But these conspiracy theories were also, conversely and crucially, informed by the novel.”

“My thesis argues that this relationship allows us to imagine a new literary genre, which I call the novel of conspiracy,” adds Dr Sugden. Her aim, in turn, is to encourage reflection on the boundaries between the categories of ‘literature’ and ‘history’ in nineteenth-century France.

The multilingual researcher first discovered Sand – a pseudonym used by Armandine Lucile Aurore Dupin – when she was an undergraduate here at Cambridge. The author’s work has been a big part of her intellectual landscape ever since. Dr Sugden describes Sand as “undoubtedly the best-known female writer in nineteenth-century France”. She says: “her works were hugely popular during her lifetime, but she fell out of favour and was rarely studied by academics until the 1980s. This was largely thanks to the work of feminist literary critics, who looked to Sand in their attempts to understand how our idea of literary ‘value’ is conditioned by underlying – and almost always unacknowledged – political assumptions about race, class and gender.”

Dr Sugden will spend part of her research fellowship at Caius revising her thesis for publication as a monograph and says she is “immensely grateful to the College for the support and freedom they have afforded [her] to concentrate on developing [her] research over the next few years.”





Image: George Sand by Nadar

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