October 12th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Cultural Paranoia - Part II

"There are stories, like maps that agree... too consistent among too many languages and histories to be only wishful thinking.... It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything."
Thomas Pynchon (Against the Day)

Mark Fenster states that conspiracy theories proceed from an assumption that is undoubtedly correct, even banally so: we don’t all have equal access to power and capital. In his book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture he offers two basic claims: (1) that academics and journalists have wrongly assumed that conspiracy theories are necessarily a pathological cry from the political and social margins; and, (2) Conspiracy theory needs to be understood as a subset of populism, which has a long and important tradition in American culture and politics. As he tells us in a recent interview conspiracy theorists "seek evidence of the extent to which the system by which those assets are distributed—the state and economy—is both hidden and corrupt, and they construct elaborate stories that explain the conspiracy’s secrecy and villainy. These steps are shared not only by the most committed conspiracy theorists; political novelists and investigative reporters, for example, also try to explain and narrate a world of unequal power. They do so differently, but they share with conspiracy theorists many of the same interpretive and narrative strategies. The move from a theory of power to interpretive and narrative acts is a part of our cultural and political landscape. To call it “pathology” is to miss its pervasiveness, attraction, and authority in the present day." read more...

One take on conspiracy theory based upon populist assumptions is the idea of parapolitics:

Parapolitics is a term that covers the practice of attaining political ends through secrecy and covert operations by intelligence agencies, think tanks and private networks. As such it is only a manifestation of "deep politics," defined by Prof. Peter Dale Scott as "all those political practices and arrangements, deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than acknowledged." read more...

Dale Scott defines it as a form of Deep Politics:

“The key to understanding Deep Politics is the distinction I propose between traditional conspiracy theory, looking at conscious secret collaborations towards shared ends, and deep political analysis, defined as ‘the study of all those political practices and arrangements , deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than acknowledged’ (Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, 1996, p.xi)"

"This is the age of conspiracy . . .the age of connections, links, secret relationships."
Don DeLillo, Running Dog

One could also say that this is the Age of Information Overload. Jodi Dean tells us of two ruling ideas of the information age "that things are not as they seem and everything is connected, are primary components of how we think about and experience the information age. They are also the guiding impulses of conspiracy theory.(Theorizing Conspiracy Theory)" She goes on to say:

"In contrast, then, to thinking about conspiracy theory in terms of style, plot, or pathology, I think it makes better sense to understand it as an informational assemblage linking lines of power (legitimacy/authority) and possibilities for agency (intention/subjection) along the axis publicity/secrecy and through nodes of evidence. Such an understanding allows for changes in the context, content, and role of conspiracy thinking over time. It recognizes conspiracy theory as an account of power and political agency. And, it highlights the dynamic of secrecy and publicity as central to the logic of conspiracy theory."

The idea of secrecy and publicity, which is at the dark core of the security systemic and propaganda regimes, with their logic of disinformation and cover-ups that provides conspiracy theorists of political, economic, and religious ideologies the substrate for their paranoid visions and nightmare prophecies offers us a parapolitical thread to guide our endeavors through the modern and postmodern labyrinths of fact and fiction. As I delve deeper into this bewildering world of paranoia and political populism I will cover the main threads of conspiracy theory in our time. I will trace the popular conspiracies as they relate to what has been termed the supermythos or Grand Myth of Conspiracy that ties all the historical conspiracies together. Strange realms ahead... yet, interesting, too.

Jodi Dean sees conspiracy as the Quest for Revelation wherein the conspiracy theorist is caught between a will to know everything(the hidden agenda revealed at last) and the need for transparency(a world where secrecy and oligarchies would be eliminated):

"Conspiracy thinking is a method for thinking critically when caught within the governing assumptions of a public sphere. So the problem with conspiracy thinking is not its failure to comply with public reason but its very compliance, a compliance that reiterates some of these assumptions even as it contests others, a compliance that demonstrates all too clearly the paranoia, surveillance, and compulsive will to know within the ideal of publicity. Thus, conspiracy theory rejects the myth of a transparent public sphere, a sphere where others can be trusted (and, importantly, conspiracy theory doesn't claim with certainty that no one can be trusted; it claims an uncertainty as to whether anyone can be trusted), although it continues to rely on revelation. In so doing, it demonstrates the constitutive antagonism between transparency and revelation, the antagonism of a notion of the public that ultimately depends on secrecy: if everything and everyone were transparent, there would be nothing to reveal."

Stay tuned....
S.C. Hickman

Cultural Paranoia - Part II continued...

"Distrust of the big Other (the order of symbolic fictions), the subject's refusal to "take it seriously," relies on the belief that there is an "Other of the Other," a secret, invisible, all-powerful agent who effectively "pulls the strings" behind the visible, public Power." 
     - Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek sees conspiracy theories as a "form of cognitive mapping", as a way of countering the hegemonic disappearance of myth and the tradition of "large narratives". He goes on to say:

"In our era, when global, all-encompassing narratives ("the struggle of liberal democracy with totalitarianism", etc.) no longer seem possible in politics and ideology as well as in literature and cinema the paranoiac narrative of a "conspiracy theory" appears the only way to arrive at a kind of global "cognitive mapping." We see this paranoiac narrative not only in right-wing populism and fundamentalism, but also in the liberal center (the "mystery" of Kennedy's assassination) and left-wing orientations (the American Left's old obsession that some mysterious government agency is experimenting with nerve gases to regulate the behavior of the population). It is all too simplistic to dismiss conspiracy-narratives as the paranoiac proto-Fascist reaction of the infamous "middle classes" which feel threatened by the process of modernization: it would be much more productive to conceive "conspiracy theory" as a kind of floating signifier which could be appropriated by different political options to obtain a minimal cognitive mapping."

Zizek emphasizes the idea of the "Big Other" the conspiracy that certain groups(i.e., Elites, Experts, Media, etc.) control our view of the Real:

"Contemporary experience again and again confronts us with situations in which we are compelled to take note of how our sense of reality and normal attitude towards it is grounded in a symbolic fiction, i.e. how the "big Other" that determines what counts as normal and accepted truth, what is the horizon of meaning in a given society, is in no way directly grounded in "facts" as rendered by the scientific "knowledge in the real."

This seems to align well with Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, Except that they state as their objective that the propaganda model is not based in conspiracy theory but rather in a 'guided market system'. Which is a little disengenous and is a trite form of obfuscation concerning their critics on both left and right since their theory centers itself upon the premise that elites control the media and the message(i.e., that a superclass controls a version of reality against the uneducated and ill-informed masses). As Herman says, "Clearly the manufacture of consent by a 'specialized class' that can override the short-sighted perspectives of the masses must entail media control by that class."

He goes on to iterate:

"In retrospect, perhaps we should have made it clearer that the propaganda model was about media behavior and performance, with uncertain and variable effects. Maybe we should have spelled out in more detail the contesting forces both within and outside the media and the conditions under which these are likely to be influential. But we made these points, and it is quite possible that nothing we could have done would have prevented our being labeled conspiracy theorists, rigid determinists, and deniers of the possibility that people can resist (even as we called for resistance)."  read more...

Noam Chomsky has qualified his statements showing how the American system is based upon a secretive fascistic corporate state wherein economic "policy is determined in secret; in law and in principle, popular involvement is nil. The Fortune 500 are more diverse than the Politburo, and market mechanisms provide far more diversity than in a command economy. But a corporation, factory, or business is the economic equivalent of fascism: decisions and control are strictly top-down. People are not compelled to purchase the products or rent themselves to survive, but those are the sole choices.

"The political system is closely linked to economic power, both through personnel and broader constraints on policy. Efforts of the public to enter the political arena must be barred: liberal elites see such efforts as a dangerous "crisis of democracy," and they are intolerable to statist reactionaries ("conservatives"). The political system has virtually no flow from bottom to top, apart from the local level; the general public appears to regard it as largely meaningless." read more...

James Joyce had his character Stephen Daedalus say: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Agent Smith in the film, The Matrix, stated: "Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. NO one would accept the program. Entire crops /of the humans serving as batteries/ were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization."

Zizek shows us that agent Smith stands in as the great psychoanalyst of human desire, his lesson is "that the experience of an insurmountable obstacle is the positive condition for us, humans, to perceive something as reality — reality is ultimately that which resists." He goes on to tell us that the Matrix "renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation is effectively its exact opposite, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being. We are not dreaming in VR that we are free agents in our everyday common reality, while we are actually passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the Matrix; it is rather that our reality is that of the free agents in the social world we know, but in order to sustain this situation, we have to supplement it with the disavowed, terrible, impending fantasy of being passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the Matrix." 

What he is describing is the idea that conspiracy theories do not help free us from our socio-cultural matrix, but instead supplement it with fantastic nightmares and apocalyptic fictions that make us more helpless and passive in our helplessness. Is this true? Is conspiracy theory a part of the very symbolic system of disinformation and control? Or is it rather a Manachaen system, a binary linguistic trap, a set of filters that is used by the elite to create impossible and fantasmatic fictions of oppression? Maybe conspiracy theory is a nightmare fiction that is trying to awaken the masses from their lethargic sleep within the system of control that keeps them pursuing trivial games and entertainment rather than political and social change. We will need to dig deeper into the conspiracy theories as they unfold their stories of Global Crime Inc. before we can begin to decipher the twisted message of these latter day prophets of despair.

Let us fall together down the rabbit hole of modern conspiracy theorists...