October 10th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Cultural Paranoia - The Collapse of Time and the Apocalyptic Imagination - Part One

Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.
       - Philip K. Dick, Valis

In the classical formula paranoia sometimes relates to circumstances in which a traumatic reality is embedded in fantasy, and historical truth in delusions. Is this not a definition of Conspiracy Theory? As I've begun a tentative study of that counter-mirror world of contemporary thought, moving through the looking-glass of cultural and political theories of paranoia and conspiracy I'm  beginning to limn a set of ideas, crystallize patterns from both the left and right social and political spectrums of the Culture of Conspiracy. One definition has it that in most paranoid delusions, the individual believes that there is a pattern to random events which is somehow connected to him or to a group, and or Nation to which he belongs. Elias Canetti laughingly said: "The paranoiac is the exact image of the ruler. The only difference is their position in the world. One might even think the paranoiac the more impressive of the two because he is sufficient unto himself and cannot be shaken by failure." As one wanders the web and reads the writings of these new paranoiacs of our socio-cultural milieu one begins to doubt the veracity of that laughter but not the wisdom of its message. I'm beginning a series of essays concerning cultural paranoia and conspiracy which hopefully will enlighten and entertain. With that I give Thomas Pynchon: "Paranoids are not paranoid because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations."

The idea that there is a Secret History of the World has become a stock theme for both fabulists and conspiracy buffs alike. One could almost read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as a parable of our cultural paranoia, as a final testament to the end game of western civilization, and as a counter-myth to the whole gamut of conspiracy that seems to ride the waves of our global brain, the internet:

"The rest of us, not chosen for enlightenment, left on the outside of Earth, at the mercy of a Gravity we have only begun to learn how to detect and measure, must go on blundering inside our front-brain faith in Kute Korrespondences, hoping that for each psi-synthetic taken from Earth's soul there is a molecule, secular, more or less ordinary and named, over here - kicking endlessly among the plastic trivia, finding in each Deeper Significance and trying to string them all together like terms of a power series hoping to zero in on the tremendous and secret Function whose name, like the permuted names of God, cannot be spoken... plastic saxophone reed sounds of unnatural timbre, shampoo bottle ego-image, Cracker Jack prize one-shot amusement, home appliance casing fairing for winds of cognition, baby bottles tranquilization, meat packages disguise of slaughter, dry-cleaning bags infant strangulation, garden hoses feeding endlessly the desert... but to bring them together, in their slick persistence and our preterition... to make sense out of, to find the meanest sharp sliver of truth in so much replication, so much waste... [Gravity's Rainbow, p. 590]"

So begins the first law of cultural conspiracy: Thou shalt find the connections, the correspondences hidden among the rubble of civilization, and formulate a grand mythos, a message of hope for all those lost ones, those slaves of the dark system, the New World Order. Seeking patterns in history is in itself not a subject of conspiracy, but the use of patterns to mythologize a Manichean vision of good vs. evil is its core value.  One discovers at the heart of all conspiracy theory a Manichean vision. The late Ioan P. Couliano in his study of gnosis, The Tree of Gnosis, suggested that at the heart of all dualistic systems lies the "verticality of the oppressive layers of the universe, beyond which looms the promise of liberation(p. 264)." At the heart of Couliano's theory was the idea that religion and many other forms of thought and culture(i.e., Science) are maps of reality, mind-games that help us navigate the structures of human emotion and reality. "To many the description of religion as a game of mind will come as a shock, and many believers will be repelled by what may seem a diminshment of their faith(p. 268)." He advocated the idea that both religion and science often overlap and coincide in many ways and that where data of sufficient complexity are available both religion and science could be shown to correspond not only in operation but likewise in the territories of reality they explore. He hoped that in time humanity might form an ecumenical vision, one that would go beyond fundamentalist nightmares of global apocalypse toward a vision of human solidarity wherein humanity creating viable institutions to tame and channel its aggressiveness into creative modes of realization might finally create a viable alternative to war and destructiveness.  Otherwise "such a game, played by the wrong minds in the wrong places, may seriously jeopardize two of the noblest conquests of the Western mind and society: that freedom of thinking out everything to its ultimate consequences should never be interfered with by any authority; and that the dangers of freedom are not lessened by its suppression(p. 269)."

In an age when authorities both cultural and political seem to be suppressing both free speech and thought one wonders how prescient Professor Couliano's words have come to be.

John Crowley, author of a group of novels portraying a version of the Secret History, recently said:

"I believe (and I think it's central to the kind of books I have written, and I'd hazard it's true of many of the readers of my fellow interlocutors's work) that the appeal of a Secret History is universal, not necessarily because it promises to tell a secret; rather because it offers an alternative to the usual story we have to live with all day every day. Conspiracy addicts want a different story that's the real story; readers of secret histories just want something different, topsy-turvy, reversed or bottom-up." read more...

So the idea that conspiracy theory is a type of game, one that provides alternative histories, ideas, and visions rather than revealing secrets to be deciphered is revealing. Tim Powers another author of fictional conpsiracies agrees and adds: I think John's right, conspiracy theorists want "an alternative to the usual story we have to live with all day every day"... But it has to be secret, too! There has to be that element of "I know the real story, and most people don't." I'm a sucker for that effect myself, so I like to try to evoke it in my books." One could lump this alternate reality complex of Alternate Histories, Ufology, New World Order, etc. as a form of escapism, a carnival of underground counter-culture where the masses congregate to feed on the dead corpse of late capitalism. Powers goes on to add the idea of secrecy and the dumbing down process of education and government cover-ups to the mix: "I also believe that the resurgence in interest in the secret history is that readers have become aware in recent years how much information is being kept from them by their government (either for good or bad, depending upon your political and moral persuasion) and how much the truth is obfuscated by the press (FOX News and all the other news shows run through corporate interest), by politicians (WMD's in Iraq), corporations (ENRON)." So the rise of the National Security State seems to be an important, unstated undercurrent throughout, and an aspect of people's frustration with hidden agendas and secret histories is one way of dealing with the abuse of this secret governement and its hidden agendas.

Tim Powers relates a story of how his research sometimes leads him toward conspiracy views:

"I agree that after doing heaps of research--going through the laborious initiation--there comes a point where you stumble across eerily perfect sources one after another. I remember finding a battered old tourist guide book on Beirut in 1963--including restaurants, what TV shows were on what channels, advice on seasonal clothing and God knows what all--just as I was setting a book in Beirut in 1963. These become the most valuable books you own, for a while! And then I get to a stage where I belatedly find one more book which seems to confirm the screwy theory I've cooked up for the book, and I think, "Uh-oh, you haven't invented a theory, you've stumbled onto the truth!"

I think this deja-vu view of things has probably happened to us all at one time or other. John Crowley emphasizes: "What Pynchon got was that we'd rather be titillated by the possibility of the secret history than to hear it explicated." Maybe that's the heart of all conspiracy theory, that titillation of the possibility of a secret history rather than the dark impenetrable facts of the case. I'll begin to explore these titillations of the secret history in future essays.