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:
- Conspiracy theorists are not stupid.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Conspiracy theory almost never goes far enough.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.