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Hunting for Conspiracy Theories, Part Two

This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories on 27 June 2013 by

Hunting for Conspiracy Theories, Part Two

I finished the previous blog with two questions: if we go hunting for conspiracy theories, where should we look? And what are the actual beasts we can expect to encounter? In some ways, what follows is therefore a first stab at some kind of taxonomy of conspiracy theories. It is undoubtedly possible to build such a taxonomy on abstract principles (e.g. the postulate of a localized conspiracy vs. the vision of a singular, all-embracing conspiracy theory). But the following taxonomy does not appeal to principles which give rise to logical distinctions between conspiracy theories. It is based rather on a consideration of the different ‘habitats’ of conspiracy theories. As such, it is geared primarily to the hunter, i.e. the empirical researcher.

1. Creatures of the undergrowth: Let’s begin with these small, rodent-like creatures, which often seem to scurry back into the thicket of news and social communication at the first sign of any attempt to apprehend them. For the serious hunter they might seem to hardly constitute real game, but much of what passes today for conspiracy theory undoubtedly belongs less to the class of ‘theory’ and more to that of ‘chatter.’ Of course, one can try to get hold of individual specimens of ‘conspiracy chatter’ through polls or occasionally by more controlled observations of a sample group (most often students if the researchers are from a university psychology department). The value of these results is, however, often highly questionable – in many ways, these experiments testify to the difficulties in getting a handle on this variant of conspiracy thinking.

A more promising approach in catching these creatures is to be found in the field research that lends a sympathetic ear to the stories and rumours circulating within a particular culture. This approach does not confront relatively random groups of people with pre-formulated questions that skewer objective observations by already suggesting the terms of the response. Rather, it simply allows people to tell stories on their own terms. An example of this kind of work was provided by Patricia Turner’s study I Heard it through the Grapevine (1993). Turner looked at the rumours which had developed among African-Americans and which posited malign and secret plans hatched within white culture. Though its status is not made explicit, I suspect that her use of the term ‘conspiracy’ represents an import from her own descriptive vocabulary and not something she extracted from the encounters which form the basis of her study. This does not diminish the standing of her work as an exemplary demonstration of the insights to be achieved through such fieldwork.

There is yet another possibility which in this project Theo and John will be exploring in greater detail. The internet has created new possibilities for the dissemination of conspiracy theories, and indeed, one might plausibly argue that this age of ‘conspiracy chatter’ has been inaugurated by this medium. But the internet also holds out to the empirical researcher the exciting potential of mapping and tracking this dissemination. There are methodological issues here awaiting fuller resolution, but there is also the prospect of exciting research free of the clumsy intrusiveness characterizing earlier approaches based on questionnaires and polls.

2. Lumbering quadrupeds: Now we come to the big game, and a closer encounter with most specimens belonging to this category will quickly disabuse most people of the notion that there is anything “sexy” about conspiracy theories. The allure of conspiracy theories is understandable on the basis of an age-old fascination with secrecy, but whenever I encounter this sentiment then I feel like responding: “forget about the conspiracy theories, have you ever met a real life conspiracy theorist?” Because there is nothing “sexy” about those who find a place in this lineage of unsavoury characters extending from the Abbé Barruel to Anders Breivik. Instead, they collectively constitute a veritable monument to human obtuseness. Dip into any of these writings and you will find a mix of turgid prose and tendentious logic, all informed by a frame of mind verging on paranoid and animated by base resentments and spiteful prejudices. None of it is particularly edifying.

But because these works are at the same time some of the most impressive creatures a hunter of conspiracy theories is likely to encounter, it behoves us to spend a little more time considering them as a class. In particular, it is worthwhile to consider what separates them from the previous class of conspiracy theories discussed above. In these last weeks, Hugo, Alfred and I have spent some time considering recent research which suggests that people can believe contradictory conspiracy theories. Although this is undoubtedly irrational, it seems to me to be irrational in a healthy way. These people tune into the ‘chatter’ but do not make too many emotional or intellectuals investments into the suspicions and aspersions articulated within it. That is quite different from the actual conspiracy theorists whose suspicions of subversion crystallize into visions of conspiracy, which are, if not highly sophisticated, often incredibly detailed. Such conspiracy theorists are not blasé about their world-view. They cannot abide any incoherence. Instead, they have worked everything out – and it is can be exasperating if one gives them the opportunity to listen to them expound on their world-views.

Once more, however, the new possibilities of communication associated with the internet compel us to add a caveat. Whereas traditionally the investment of time and energy and other resources required to get something published and distributed acted as a genuine selection filter, meaning that it was a fairly marginal group of conspiracy theorists who released these ‘lumbering quadrupeds’ into the wild, the internet has changed all that. To return to the Abbé Barruel, his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme required over two thousand pages and four volumes to outline the conspiracy behind the French Revolution. By contrast, when in the run-up to the last presidential election in America, Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, used a tweet to suggest that the Obama administration had manipulated the job figures, the media immediately labelled it a “conspiracy theory”.  Consider the difference: over two thousand pages (Barruel) vs. under 140 characters (Welch). Both are regarded as conspiracy theories, and yet the marked disparity in the levels of detail and the degrees of commitment seems to affirm assigning them to the different categories posited here.

At the same time, new media are undoubtedly breaking down the hard lines of divisions between these categories. Whereas once rumours of conspiracy circulated within an oral culture and conspiracy theories were a facet of printed culture, the internet and the other electronic media allow them to exist side by side and even create possibilities for cross-breeding, suggesting that the creatures of the undergrowth and the lumbering quadrupeds might actually be part of the same species. But what is to be said of those creatures soaring in the sky above us?

3. Feathered Beasts of Flight: ‘Flight’ here alludes to flights of abstraction. We are dealing with winged creatures that take to the sky and can often elude the hunter of conspiracy theories because they fly at the rarefied heights where serious theoretical discourse occurs – they are certainly not rooted to the ground by any use of so crude a notion as ‘conspiracy.’ But every now and again, there are moments when the hunter gets close enough to one of these creatures to recognize a family resemblance to the more prosaic, earthbound variants of conspiracy theory. “Is Marx a conspiracy theorist?,” David asked in a recent meeting. An interesting question, for there are legitimate doubts about how effectively one severs the ties to conspiracy theory by replacing agency with structure. Certainly Karl Popper was attuned to the way much of the reception of Marx’s writing tended to relapse into conspiracy theory. In The Open Society he spoke in this context of vulgar Marxism. But let us recall the full title of Popper’s work: The Open Society and its Enemies. Does the title indicate an opposition of good and evil, which in turn justifies the suspicion that Popper himself was a conspiracy theorist?

And so we could continue in this vein, chasing up numerous forms of intellectualized conspiracy theory. In fact, one of the classic cases is Noam Chomsky: do his critiques of contemporary politics merely represent conspiracy theory masquerading as institutional analysis? In dealing with this category, the real challenge lies not in raising suspicions about the conspiracist proclivities of major thinkers. We need to go beyond this by firstly working out precise criteria which turn our vague hunches of an affinity into meaningful characterizations. And then we need to secondly determine how intellectualized conspiracy theory relates to its more low-brow, terrestrial variants.

4. Unicorns: Unicorns? This might finally be the ultimate indication that the hunting analogy is wearing a little thin, because not only are you not supposed to shoot unicorns, but general opinion holds that they don’t even exist. But a lot of what passes for conspiracy theories is also fictitious, and I mean this in a very literaI sense. Novels and fiction provide one of the main media for transmitting conspiracy theories. Some of these novels are very bad (and when talking about the productions of someone like Dan Brown, I feel like staking the claim that such an assessment is more than just opinion and, indeed, a matter of objective fact), while some are far more sophisticated in the way they employ the conspiracy narrative, meaning that they not only convey conspiracy theories but also encourage a reflection upon them (DeLillo, Pynchon, Eco, etc).

There is a part of me that is a little sceptical about the need for research here – there are hundred of articles churned out by literature departments around the world on these authors, and there must be literally thousands of papers written by students. If I write yet another paper on Foucault’s Pendulum, am I actually engaging with the phenomenon of conspiracy theories? And yet when it comes to conspiracy theories, we need to consider the relation between what counts as fiction, what counts as authoritative history and perhaps also what counts as counterfactual history. It is only necessary to consider how the historical pulp fiction of a figure such as Hermann Goedsche fed into the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or how Nesta Webster moved from history to fiction in peddling her conspiratorial vision, – numerous other examples could be cited – to appreciate the complex interaction of fiction and conspiracy theory. Thus, there is an unwritten chapter in the research in this field which goes beyond a limited text-based interpretation of literary fiction and examines the real-world reception of these texts. That implies a more thorough consideration of the historical processes by which a creative re-imagining of history assumes the guise of a suppressed, but true version of history.

So there are the four strains of conspiracy theory identified through a consideration of their generic habitats: creatures of the undergrowth, lumbering quadrupeds, feathered birds of flight and unicorns. I don’t necessarily claim that this taxonomy is exhaustive – it is derived, after all, not from logic but from observation, and if someone can think of another empirical category of conspiracy theory, then I would be keen to hear it. One might ask, for example, about conspiracy theories which have arisen in the course of private correspondence. Letters were traditionally a medium which fostered the cultivation of interpersonal relationships. Has their exchange on occasions created the echo chamber in which fears and anxieties flower into elaborate visions of conspiracy? One thinks in this case of the infamous letter sent by the Italian army captain Simonini to Barruel in which he revealed to the author of Mémoires that the Jews had concocted an even deeper and more sinister conspiracy. Even though Claus Oberhauser and Reinhard Markner have recently pointed to evidence which rebuts the presumption that the letter was a hoax, it was a one-off piece of communication. Are there genuine cases of conspiracy theories unfolding in the communicative space created by an extended exchange of letters?

Finally, let me return to a point touched upon in the first post, and that was that after a long period in which academic researchers long shunned any serious engagement with conspiracy theories, this situation has changed. As indicated, the research is starting to accumulate at a pace suggestive of what was for a long time missing, namely, an academic discussion – with the noted concomitant that momentarily tuning out of the discussion entails real challenges in catching up on what one missed. While we can therefore feel reasonably assured of the legitimate grounds for studying conspiracy theories, there are plenty of occasions when doubt sets in. The conspiracy chatter and rumours of category one can often seem incredibly trivial, the paranoid logorrhoea of category two can seem highly marginal, the conspiratorial inflexions of sociology are often both impressionistic and abstruse and, finally, conspiracy fiction, as the last category mentioned, often seems just plain frivolous. Taken all together, do they add up to something more profound or relevant? We will see. At the moment, some consolation can be taken from one last appeal to our analogy, for whatever else might be said, hunting for conspiracy theories is a better use of one’s time than hunting and shooting animals, be they real or otherwise.