Conspiracy and the Hamster Wheel (2/2)

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This year I plan to follow the advice of my friend Erik: keep the hamster wheel turning, with the least amount of effort possible.

The wheel must be well oiled, and it is oiled by dull repetition. I have no illusions about ‘writing every day’ as the best writers do. I am too anxious, distracted, and vain for that. But I can at least use the hamster to excuse my errors, weakness, and lack of energy.

“Energy”, is not a normal resource. It’s not that I wake with 10 units of energy, and if I use 5 on writing, have 5 left for the rest of the day. Energy is odd: if I use too much, my work becomes thin, perhaps playful, but meaningless. If I use too little, my work becomes thick, unreadable, too much in a small space. Between diarrhea and constipation there is the consistency we all desire: the soft but cohesive daily shit. That’s what I want my writing to be.

Here is some shit I think about conspiracy theories. I tried to articulate it on Erik Davis’ lovely podcast, but it didn’t work as well as we had hoped. Podcasts are far harder than I would have thought. He has been kind enough to suggest that we try again one day, on the subject of skepticism. In the meantime, I want to keep the hamster wheel turning, so here are the things I wanted to say, but didn’t, or did, but poorly.

Thoughts on conspiracy:

Opening assumptions

  1. Conspiracy theorists are not stupid.
  2. Conspiracy theorists are more ‘on our side’ than cynics, even if the cynic is a better conversationalist. The cynic is excellent at predicting things, provided nothing changes. The conspiracy theorist is better at predicting things when they are in flux. Both are inadequate.
  3. Conspiracy theory is arrogant, because it is incomplete critique. The conspiracy theorist knows that all information is suspect, but is magically exempt from the cycle of poisoned data.
  4. In this sense the conspiracy theorist is like the 20th century figure of the gnostic: transformed by knowledge. They have a secret, and this secret has changed them. They are no longer part of the world.
  5. Almost no one will admit to being a conspiracy theorist. This is largely unmentioned in the literature, and a major distinction between conspiracy theorists and groups they are compared to. You can productively compare a conspiracy theorist to a millenarian Christian, but the millenarian identifies as such. The conspiracy theorist does not. In this sense, they mirror the ‘men behind the curtain’, who would never admit that they are actors in a conspiracy.

Methods

  1. The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is not only derogatory, used to dismiss as critique as quackery, it is also unclear. It is best defined ‘as we go,’ not in advance.
  2. Conspiracy theory is social. Conspiracy theorists form communities and subcultures, which provide intimacy. Oddly, they rarely act as communities. Conspiracy theories may have a political effect, but one sees far les political action than you would expect. 25% of Americans once believed that 9/11 was an inside job—you would expect riots, but there were none. Perhaps because conspiracy tends towards fatalism (‘there is nothing you can do, it’s all controlled by the Jews/Illuminati/lizards, etc.). More to the point: conspiracy theory, while quasi-communal, is about individuals knowing: what matters is that I know x, and this knowledge elevates and frees me. Once systems hit a certain complexity, there is no freedom in individual knowledge: collective problems require collective action. The conspiracy community is communal only intellectually. It is thus ripe for manipulation. It mirrors elements of the university.
  3. The true/false distinction matters when examining these communities. Often social theorists study groups without asking “are the things this group believes, true?”. Such questions are considered invasive, or ‘not the point’. I study some tribe (be they Anglicans, college students, or conspiracy theorists) and report on ‘what they believe’ and ‘how this belief structures their tribe’. I, most emphatically, do not ask if the belief is true. This is a terrible mistake. One of the most striking things about (some) conspiracy theories is how obviously untrue they are, and yet, they are believed. How is this possible? What sort of group requires that we believe that the earth is flat and run by lizards? The fact that this is clearly false is exactly what stands in need of explanation, not academic agnosticism. To not ask ‘is it true?’ is to miss what’s going on.
  4. There is a link between Critical Theory, and Conspiracy theory, but it is not one of permission (where critical theory opens a relativist crack that conspiracy creeps through, or postmodernism is to blame for the rise of Bannon and Alex Jones). It is not the case that Latour and Foucault opened the door for relativism. All the permission granted by critical theory, postmodernism, and so on, was granted long ago. Read Sextus Empiricus.
  5. If anything, permission for conspiracy is granted by the hypernomian impulse, not the sceptical or critical one. Those who believe that the law is ‘created’ or embodied, by the exceptional, are far more likely to engage is conspiracy than either law abiders or law breakers. The conspiracy theorist is not a relativist: the conspiracy theorist thinks that truth is formed by two things: extraordinary powers (lizard people or the CIA) who create the false truth, held by the many, and extraordinary insight, which allows you to break out of the false truth, and see the real picture.

Diagnoses

  1. Conspiracy theory almost never goes far enough.
  2. In terms of critique: conspiracy theory does not critique itself. ‘The media’ may be false, but why are my youtube videos true? A possible solution: They are both ‘false’, in different ways. The conspiracy theorist judges, but escapes judgment. They see the game, but escape it in a ‘gnostic’ manner. They claim to question everything, but do not question if this is even possible. (It isn’t—everyone has things they cannot question, and no one knows what those things are).
  3. In terms of emotion: conspiracy theory is too comforting. It presumes that someone is in control. It asks ‘who profits?’ (always a good question) but then assumes that the person profiting arranged the situation they are profiting from. This is often false: the profiteer is an opportunist, a flexible being able to exploit a number of situations. This does not require that they arranged the situation, just that they were ready for it. The conspiracy theorist likes the idea that someone is in charge: “daddy may be abusive, but daddy still runs things”. Daddy is just another huckster.

Cautions

  1. Insofar as there is a solution here, it is to ask the conspiracy theorist to go further. Conspiracy theory, when it is not a mere grab for power, is often an incomplete desire for critical education and intimacy. These are urges worth fostering.
  2. What will not work is bullying theorists to accept ‘reason’ (itself often little more than an ideology,) ’sanity’ (which in this case is just liberal consensus), or ‘science’ (presented as a monolith of facts, and not the exciting and confused web of inquiries that it is). Conspiracy theory is a poor way to wed thinking with politics, but it is worse to pretend that there has been no wedding.
  3. What will not work is seeking to deprive them of the media conditions that make conspiracy possible. Too much blame is placed on the internet. This is nonsense—the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were widely disseminated long before facebook.
  4. It is true that nothing is as it seems. But this realization changes nothing. Helping the conspiracy theorist recognize the weakness of pure knowledge is a good start.
  5. Michael Barkun is the best writer on conspiracy theory. But he overemphasizes the importance of millenarianism. More or less everything is millenarian right now.

 

Erik’s podcasts are worth checking out–he is one of my favourite public intellectuals.

You can find one of his websites here.

10 thoughts on “Conspiracy and the Hamster Wheel (2/2)

  1. I do not regard myself as a conspiracy theorist. I certainly don’t dwell endlessly on theories about coalitions of criminal activity. But I do read various investigations of how criminal activity, both political, and economic is organized and also how good political and human activities are organized and accomplished. To me this is the essence of both History and Journalism. Some information is more accurate than others and everyone who is interested in the truth about what is going on has to develop a way to sort the good from the bad.
    THERE REALLY ARE CONSPIRACIES
    There is a rather gigantic flaw with what you lay out in this article and it makes me wonder about why you are so eager to dismiss what you call conspiracy theories. This flaw consists of the fact that there is great deal of criminal behavior that is organized and requires multiple participants. Every instance of such behavior is a conspiracy. Any time 2 or more plan a crime, that is a conspiracy. Historically there have been many conspiracies that are rather large and involve coordination of police, politicians etc. These have sometimes been uncovered in elaborate detail by law enforcement agencies and by investigative journalists and by determined individuals, or by records kept by the conspirators.
    UNDERSTANDING AND EXPOSING CONSPIRACIES REQUIRES THEORIZING
    Take the case of Gary Webb. He began to look for the roots of a local drug influx and it led to exposing a CIA conspiracy to fund an illegal war with drug sales. Along the way he was labeled a conspiracy nut and his evidence impugned by other journalists who presumed that such a conspiracy was not possible. He absolutely needed to form working theories to investigate throughout the process. There is no way to get at The workings of a conspiracy without proposing and testing theories and collecting evidence that supports or refutes the theory. The premature dismissal of evidence of a conspiracy can be socially and personally destructive as it was for Webb who was either killed or committed suicide. The CIA admitted he was right.

    There is no way to think about activities that are deliberately secret without some kind of theory based on available evidence. Some theories are wrong, some are deliberately tailored to prejudices and fears and hatreds, and some turn out to be highly accurate. The entire field of journalism is organized around theories of how institutions and individuals behave.
    Many conspiracy theories are delusional. Some are supported by evidence but have not risen to the level of something that demands further action or investigation. Some produce hard evidence indicative of dangerous crimes that need to be stopped, and criminals that should face legal proceedings.

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  2. I just re-read your piece and find myself more sympathetic. I understand the compulsiveness and circularity of an obsessive conspiracy theorist.
    On the other hand when it comes to events that change the world I want to hear and weigh the interpretations even if they veer into plausible conspiracy theories . A single example may help. I find it hard to dismiss out of hand the theories that 9-11 was an inside job using demolition techniques. I do not dwell on this and rarely mention it to anyone. But I spent days reading and trying to understand the arguments on both sides. I simply feel the research of skeptics has revealed serious problems in the media narrative. I don’t have a theory of who or how, just a that there was conspiracy that included more than arab terrorists in jets.
    My concern is that trusting institutions that lie is dangerous and usually fatal to many. One necessary corrective is the attempt to expose when there is criminal behavior. So In my thinking it is not conspiracy theories that most dangerously muddy the waters, but the ever growing lack of transparency that pushes a society away from democratic process and toward becoming paranoid factions mired in fear and hatred.

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  3. I agree conspiracy theory is a social phenomenon, and best defined as we go. However, I think it is important to set a few parameters around a concept (even those lacking individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions) before listing assumptions about it. If you mean for the assumptions to serve as parameters here, they could be more exhaustive. I, being a member of the conspiracy theory community for several years now, was immediately put on the defensive by them.

    But after listening to your podcast with Erik Davis, I see a willingness to distinguish between conspiracy theory as a culture, and conspiracy theory as an ideology. Your most critical analysis seeming to apply toward the latter. This distinction deserves a place among your opening assumptions, I think.

    Conspiracy theory culture is not so much about ‘questioning everything’ as it is about questioning official narratives. We are united in our skepticism of authority and institutional dogma. But the culture does not demand we hold any particular beliefs. Most of us prefer to explore our suspicions without committing to any conclusions.

    Ideological conspiracy theorists are different. They make lighting fast inferences, and become militant in their defense of them. Their problems seem to mirror those of any other kind of ideologist. These folks are actually a minority within the culture. Threads about demonic Jews, lizard people, herd-culling, etc., are not the most popular on conspiracy theory message boards. And when they do rear their ugly head, they’re lambasted. Many within the community believe these grotesque narratives are propagated for the sole purpose of discrediting conspiracy theory as a whole. More on that later.

    It is also worth mentioning that many in the community (who practice the culture) are there for no other reason than to refute popular conspiracy theories. The merits of their critical discourse provide them a loving home in the community nonetheless, some of them being among the most celebrated users on these kinds of forums. This is because conspiracy theorists love to argue, even if they’re not very good at it.

    People like me are usually there because one theory in particular (whether it be conspiracy, fringe, or esoteric) brought us there in search of an open discussion about it. Though we don’t subscribe to the full catalogue of beliefs commonly associated with conspiracy theorists, we do enjoy discussing them. Because it’s fun. And even though the conclusions of conspiracy theorists may be wonky, their premises are often rich sources of information we’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

    Anyway, after distinguishing between conspiracy theory as a culture and conspiracy theory as an ideology, I think we can better identify conditions in defining who belongs to which and why. I agree with most of what you say about conspiracy theorists (if we’re talking about the ideological subset), and have plenty more to say about it. But I will have to do so at a later time.

    Soon.

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  4. Looks like Mr Atlas follows most of the others who demonize conspiracy theorists, but then insulate themselves from public interaction Not especially forthright or brave

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      1. I was a philosophy major so all the talk of the cynicism,, solipsism, relativism is not a mystery to me .They are certainly mice tools for exacting themes and patterns from human interaction However they can often be used as a shield from the application of rules of rationality in terms of forensic investigation Why not delve for a moment in the world of the concrete and give more information in terms of the hard facts which you claim to have used to confront conspiracy theorists and their resultant supposed inability to rationally respond to

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  5. Atlas, like so many of those who wish to dismiss the investigations of conspiracies, is stuck on the implications of conclusions or a preconceived analytical bias rather than discussing the general attitude towards investigation itself

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  6. My friend Merovech, noted leftist, nobleman, and dipsomaniac, left me the following questions.

    2. How is “cynicism” related to sophism?
    I am using Sloterdijk’s notion of cynicism here, and I have not thought enough about this distinction. Sophism seems more playful to me, but there is certainly a parallel between the Platonic image of the sophist and the cynic. But, the actual cynics themselves seem to be more interested in the mechanism of reason, and in establishing a kind of general humility. I need to think more.
    When assessing a thing that looks like a conspiracy, it’s often unclear if it is collective self-serving behaviour (but inexplicit, and therefore not a conspiracy) collective idiocy (maybe conspiring idiots, maybe not) or cynicism. Cynicism is weird, because it has the over-all structure of a conspiracy, but cynics are the masters of not making plans explicit (the hint of a smile, or cheap sentiment, suffices to make known what ‘we all know’).
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/488361?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    3. “Arrogant” implies condescension and deliberate ignorance – I’m not sure whether this is what you actually mean here.
    I actually do mean arrogant, and not just because more or less every person I know who identifies with their own thinking is arrogant. Add to that the machismo of the conspiracy-world, and you have a lot of guys who are perhaps the smartest among their friends, lecturing large rooms about ‘the way things are’.
    The conspiracy theorists I know (barring one) are in love with the notion that they are operating on the margins, but this gives them a kind of permission to believe that they are cowboy-like outsiders. But this isn’t the worst of it: conspiracy theory (like bad critical theory) is a knife turned outwards. In a sense, it is structurally arrogant, like Gnosticism. It’s also defensive. Most other structures of knowledge can bear critique, and internalize it. But my two stupid blog posts, which are by no means dismissive of conspiracy theorizing, have generated several hostile responses.
    This might just be because right now we’re all supposed to be fans of everything. As an aside, Star Wars is shit.

    4. Gnostics aren’t simply “transformed” but redeemed by knowledge. Are ct’ists redeemed by their knowledge too?
    I’m not Christian enough to really understand redemption. And there is certainly no redemption of the world, or a group. This is probably a very important distinction to think through. They certainly, more or less never, engage in political action. The more I think about it, the more this confuses me: if you believed what CTists claim to believe, wouldn’t you collectively mobilize ?

    5. The functional equation of “admitting to be a conspiracy theorist” and “admitting to be a millenarian Christian” seems not to work: flat-earthers e.g. are very keen on “admitting to be flat-earthers”.
    I agree my claim needs nuance, but, in general, I still disagree: flat earthers rarely call themselves conspiracy theorists, but flat earthers. 9/11 people are ‘truthers’, not conspiracy theorists. Same for ‘birthers’ (the racist Obama conspiracy)

    6. “dismiss as critique” -> “dismiss critique”
    Fixed, thanks.

    7. The communalism of ct should perhaps be qualified as exclusive (as opposed to the inclusive function of communities one thinks of first). I remember talking to a U.F.O. believer once who told me that there actually was no point in our discussion since I ‘confessed’ my disbelief. The “intellectual communalism” of ct’ists might resemble the communialism of late antique Gnostics.
    This is a valuable connection. I know something about the Manichean social structures, but I am not thinking of them when I think of Gnostics, because their organization is ritual and food based, and is not about transformation via knowledge, but dietary practice (and for this reason they seem much more like Catholics or Jews to me, than the 20th century ‘Gnostic’ I keep picking on)

    8. You’ll find “obviously untrue” beliefs which “are believed” nonetheless almost everywhere. How would you differentiate ct beliefs from the virgin birth or the trinity?
    Well, they might not be all that different as regards community formation: the absurdity of the belief might be a good way to police the boundaries (“if you’re willing to believe, or pretend to believe, such an idiocy, [lizards, 9/11 as inside job, Illuminati] you’re in”).
    But, I think we can consider a few basic distinctions, too. Can you imagine a CTist saying “I believe because it is absurd?”. Are these insane beliefs re-interpreted as analogies, metaphors, midrash? I think there is a distinction if only here. For many religious people, these oddities are scandals to be managed as part of a tradition, for the CT, they are the whole point. Do you see what I mean? Can you help draw this distinction.
    Fundamentalists and CTs are in this regard almost exactly homologous

    9. I’d want you to elaborate on that “link”. This seems to be one of the crucial points in ct-ology!
    Yes. I need to think. If I write another thing on this, ir will be on this one point. It is the most important (for me)

    10. Isn’t there a Schmittian trait here (the law is based on a state of exception)?
    Yes, and this refers back to (9)—there is a weird affinity that both share for fascist hypernomian thinking, and antisemitism.

    15. (cf. 😎 What’s the difference between ct beliefs and “mere ideology(ies)”? The point about politics I don’t understand.
    Here I meant only that ‘reason’ as presented by the bullies, or ‘Enlightenment’ is itself just an ideology. We all have to have beliefs (I believe I am very charming)—ideology is something that structures our political/social perceptions , and we need not even really believe it, or know we have it

    17. What is “the weakness of pure knowledge”? Is it expected of me to know about some theoretical concept here (which I don’t)?
    Nope, I made this up. I just mean that knowledge independent of a transformation of some kind of practice is ‘weak’. Weakness can be good, but not in this case: the weakness of knowledge about power leads to a kind of resentment, and compensatory arrogance.

    18. (I have to read Barkun.) How can you “overemphasize” sth which is everywhere? Or is the counter-argument missing here?
    If something is everywhere, it’s no good at explaining a particular. ‘What makes CT different from other forms of theorizing’ cannot be answered by referring it to something that it shares with everything else.

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  7. I am finding much more writing on conspiracy theories & their theorists these days. It is refreshing to see public dialogue on this, not just bashing of their quackishness.
    I am not a conspiracy theorists but I find them fascinating & deserving of consideration. Some interesting thoughts here.

    Like

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