On Conspiracies

Occam Was In On It

It’s an uncomfortable thought to consider that the world is not as organized and smooth as we would like it to be. It’s much better to think that the complex problems of the world are the product of an organized and – crucially – rational intelligence. Therefore, in a manner not unlike the bronze age men who invented gods when confronted with incomprehensible natural phenomena, people conjure up tales of sinister, furtive groups who exercise the levers of power. While proclaiming to reveal the man behind the curtain, conspiracy theories preclude the possibility of there not being a man behind the curtain.  For at the heart of this mythology lies the reassuring idea that someone, somewhere is, albeit malignantly, in control.

Consider the various conspiracy theories that have historically surrounded the financial industry. The world’s financial markets are nothing more than the anarchic play of free-floating signifiers whose only value is determined by the arbitrary fiat of mutual agreement. Money, and all forms of capital, only has value because we agree that it does. When this illusion is called into question (“Hey, these securities are actually just an agglomeration of bad mortgages!”), the system collapses. One recalls the Monty Python sketch about housing projects built by hypnosis.  The towers stood up so long as their occupants believed in them. The point is that there isn’t any controlling agency at work here. (Indeed, one could say that we, as subjects of this system, are actually produced by it: the system controls us). When faced with this lack of human agency over the world of its own production, it’s a lot easier to imagine that the world economy is in actual fact a plaything of a Bilderbergian cabal (possibly in collaboration with the Lizard People, we can’t be too sure) who, from their lair deep in the bowels of Swiss Alps, are able to micromanage the various details of international capital flows for their own nefarious purposes. Sure, they may be working against us (or, at least, not for us), but, damnit, at least someone’s got the wheel of this infernal machine.  At least the machine is controllable.

Consider also 9-11. For most, the collapse of the Twin Towers represented a violent irruption of global politics into the everyday lives of ordinary Americans. Blowback, they call it. Similar to the vagaries of the financial sector, 9-11 also revealed the anarchy of the international system. The mightiest military in the world with all its sexy, phallic planes, tanks, and ICBMs has no defense against zealots with boxcutters. The response of some – a strange marriage of fashionable, leftist anti-Americanism and the old skool über-right black helicopter brigade – to this newfound vulnerability was denial. Rather than demonstrating the weakness of an outdated cold war machine, 9-11 could only be the product of that very same machine. As such, the various conspiracy theories of the 9-11 Truth movement attribute (to various degrees ranging from nonchalant impending awareness to complete orchestration) the attacks to the machinations of the Bush-Cheney administration. In doing so, they affirm the power and competence of the very government whose weakness and impotence was forcefully demonstrated that morning. While it might be disconcerting to attribute to a government the murder of its own citizens (a crucial practical difference from various governments’ consistent willingness to murder citizens of other countries), this charge is ultimately based on the assumption that the paternal state does indeed retain the ability to protect its populace (it simply chooses not to).

Aside from being a somewhat contrarian form of wishful thinking, conspiracy theories also exhibit what I would call “negative epistemology” in the way they deal with and conceptualize knowledge. In the epistemology of the conspiracy theory, knowledge becomes two-faced: each stated fact is also its own negation as any proffered proof which contradicts the narrative of the conpiracy theory is in actual fact – and at the same time – just further proof of the conspiracy. Indeed, when faced with contradictory evidence, the conspiracy theory survives by absorbing that evidence as proof of the increasing scope of the conspiracy. For example: the idea that the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile and not a jetliner on September 11th is contradicted by the numerous eyewitnesses in nearby apartment buildings and the busy commuter highway that, every morning, brings thousands of workers into DC from the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Yet, in the epistemology of the conspiracy theory these eyewitnesses are testament to the massive and insidious extent of the conspiracy. What about the lack of plane wreckage at the site? Well, actually there is photographic evidence of plane wreckage at the site, but obviously this was planted and/or photoshopped.  Debunking a conspiracy theory can only make it stronger.  Like some kind of Wonderland quicksand, any attempt to extricate oneself from the conspiracy theory, has the adverse effect of pulling one deeper into the rabbit hole.

As a result of this Janus-like understanding of knowledge, conspiracy theories multiply and proliferate into heterogenous and contradictory webs of (dis)information. Indeed, one could conceive that conspiracy theories themselves are in fact part of a conspiracy theory themselves – a kind of a meta-conspiracy, if you will. Consider Roswell, 1947. The “accepted” story goes that an object of some kind crashed in the New Mexico. The initial Army Press Release stated that they had recovered a “flying disc,” but later that same day, the story was changed to a “recovered weather balloon”. Over the years, various alleged former military personnel emerged with tales of cover-up and alien spacecraft which, by focusing the discussion on little green men and their fantastical flying machines, remove from consideration other possible, more mundane theories ranging from reasonably sinister (the object was a crashed spy balloon – not something the US government at the time would want in the papers) to the criminally inept (I know a man who lives in Roswell and who firmly believes that the recovered object was actually a mislaid nuclear weapon and that the military allowed the UFO myth to propagate in order to cover up their own incompetence).

A similar phenomenon can be seen in the 9-11 Truth Movement. Amongst the conspiracy theorists themselves, people who espouse the more outlandish and easily rebuked theories such as the “no-plane theories” are in actual fact plants – referred to as “pod people” – designed to poison the well and undermine the credibility of the “legitimate” theories. Indeed, one prominent “9-11 Truther” believes the so-called “Pentagon Hole” theory (that the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile) to be a psy-op aimed at discrediting all 9-11 conspiracy theories (incidentally he also says that he nonetheless still “hopes” the story is true!).  Of course, this can be gainsaid: by the same logic, the so-called “pod people” could be the legitimate theorists marginalized by the derogatory characterizations of the true agent provocateurs. In either case, the conspiracy theory is itself the conspiracy. For example, one wonders if the hoopla kicked up by the Catholic Church over the Da Vinci Code was born out of the calculation that it would be better for critics of the Church to focus on the alleged cover-up of Christ’s sex life rather than that of the Priesthood and the all too real cover-up of Church-sanctioned child abuse. It is certainly (and unfortunately, perhaps) more interesting to imagine a byzantine counter-history of Christianity than to confront grim and mundane reality.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on March 24, 2009.

One Response to “On Conspiracies”

  1. Very much enjoyed reading your writings on conspiracy theory.. More than ever it seems, now with the constant attention of mass school shootings in the US, conspiracy theories are rampant as ever.

    Looking forward to hearing/reading more about how far this rabbit hole goes.

    until then, keep writing.

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