Outsider Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas by Jonathan P. Eburne (review)


The title of Outsider Theory is artfully contrived. By the end of the book, it figures as a near tautology, for Jonathan Eburne here contributes to the study of knowledge production a disclosure of high theory’s intimacy with unrespectable systems of ideas. These systems include the outsider science of Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, the amalgam of outsider science and the pick’n’mix theology that is Scientology, and gnostic fictions that tease with a key to all mysteries such as The Da Vinci Code. The book’s first origin story, one out of many, is related in its Preface, with Eburne’s purchase of a large library of popular esoterica, “hundreds upon hundreds of titles” (xiii) found on Craigslist; this library was surely awaiting Eburne and he was primed to receive it. As a starting point, it immediately reconfigures “outsider” as a popular and pervasive phenomenon, something akin to conspiracy theories. The subsequent Introduction sets out the stakes: Eburne brings his discussion of the Sokal hoax to bear on a present where any scientific evidence can be dismissed as ‘just a theory.’  What is striking, though, is the subtlety of Eburne’s take on Sokal; what he traces is the perverse effect of a hoax designed to strengthen the boundaries of scientific thinking under pressure from social constructionism, in serving a popular hermeneutics of suspicion that rebounds upon scientific evidence.

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