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Second Thoughts on Conspiracy Theories

This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories on 9 May 2013 by

Second Thoughts on Conspiracy Theories

A few months back we all sent around our initial thoughts on conspiracies and conspiracy theories. These were anonymised and put together in one document, which has also been posted on this blog. I think the idea was to have a discussion in which we would come up with a working definition of conspiracy theories. It didn’t work out like that for me. Not only was I unable to be at the meeting. I couldn’t even find time to make much of a response to all the other – excellent – contributions. Until now!

There’s a lot of richness in those contributions, almost all of which I’m going to completely ignore. I just want to say that re-reading the posts has helped me clarify one aspect of my thinking about conspiracy theories. It’s made me consider the idea that that today’s conspiracy theories belong to the broad family of critical theories, which in turn suggests a distinction between theories of conspiracy and conspiracy theories proper.

On the view I’m exploring here, a theory of conspiracy attempts to explain an event (often a crime or other bad thing) in terms of the secret coordination of a small group of persons. This is the sort of thing the FBI does all day (or so we might hope – rather than sitting around eating donuts and playing solitaire). The official account of the plot of the 9/11 hijackers would be a theory of conspiracy. It is a theory about people plotting in secret with malign intent. Now, it’s worth noting that in principle both the conspiracy and the theory of conspiracy can proceed in full secrecy. The conspiracy itself is secret by definition. But the theory of conspiracy can itself be secret, and it’s probably helpful to rooting out actual criminal conspiracies that it stays secret. In this respect a theory of conspiracy is very different from a conspiracy theory.

conspiracy theory, by contrast, is a kind of critical theory (perhaps not a very good kind, but that’s another question). This, to me, means that a conspiracy theory necessarily involves two elements. First, it involves a theory of conspiracy, that is, a more or less causal account of what is really going on with respect to some phenomenon. It aims to produce knowledge (again, whether it succeeds is not the point right now). Second, and crucially, a conspiracy theory aims to change the consciousness of those who come to acquire that knowledge. A conspiracy theory of 9/11 involves not just a causal explanation of an event – what really happened (a controlled demolition or whatever) – but the idea that such knowledge would transform the consciousness of those who come to acquire it, such that they would see that their government does not pursue their interests, or that public opinion has been manipulated to serve the interests of western oil companies or the military-industrial complex or some such. A conspiracy theory aims to produce a kind of knowledge that will unmask the real motives and interests of those who present the dominant account.

This means that conspiracy theory proper involves publicity, in at least two senses. First, a conspiracy theory requires a public audience. As one of our contributions to the earlier conspiracy theory discussion put it, “a conspiracy theory appears to require a third party (aside from the conspirator group and conspired-against group) that observes the phenomenon with some sort of perspective on occurrences.” This is to say that a conspiracy theory is an attempt to persuade or otherwise change the consciousness of some actual audience (even the smallest and most reclusive conspiracy theorists produce websites and pamphlets that aim to win new converts). This might have implications for how we understand conspiracy theories in authoritarian or closed societies, where such an audience does not take the shape of the public sphere of a democratic state.

Second, conspiracy theories invoke a normative ideal of publicity, in that they involve unmasking a motive or interest that could not be made public without fatally undermining the enterprise of the conspirators. So a conspiracy theory of climate change posits motives and interests among climate scientists that, were they to be made explicit, would cause people to stop believing in it. One of our contributors (not me, I hasten to add!) gets to something like this point when he or she suggests that conspiracy of the sort posited by a conspiracy theory requires not just secret coordination with malign intent; it “requires that the nature of the malign intent is itself being concealed… if none of the other elements are secret, a conspiracy’s aims must be secret.” (My emphasis) This, I think, is why the conspiracies posited by many modern conspiracy theories don’t so much concern the event itself (or the absence of an event – the Apollo moon landing never happened!), but rather a more diffuse conspiracy to deceive the public about the real motives behind some conventional or official account of events. The point of a conspiracy theory, then, is not simply to correct a misunderstanding about some historical event or practice, in the way that various experts might try to correct each others’ understandings of the transmission vectors of some new strain of influenza, but rather to unmask hidden motives and thereby influence the consciousness of others by making present to them the real causes of their beliefs. A conspiracy theory necessarily involves unmasking motives or interests that could not be made public. There needs to be a hidden agenda. (This agenda, I suppose, could even be hidden from the “conspirators” themselves. Perhaps conspirators need not have malign intent – the claim of the conspiracy theory could be that the conspirators own true motives could be opaque to them. Maybe?)

What does this all mean for studying conspiracies and conspiracy theories? I think (and Hugo at least would join me on this) that it suggests one line of inquiry in which we look more systematically at the connections between conspiracy theories in our era and critical theory of the 19th and 20th centuries. Bruno Latour (in his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?…”) has also suggested a connection between conspiracy theory and critique: “Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularised… version of social critique? … Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but it worries me to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of pow- erful explanation from the social neverland many of the weapons of social critique” (p.228-230). While Latour sounds an anxious note about the proliferation – and perhaps even democratisation? – of this form of critique, Karl Mannheim, writing in the late 1920s, was outright bleak: “in the measure that the various groups sought to destroy their adversaries’ confidence in their thinking by this most modern intellectual weapon of radical unmasking, they also destroyed, as all positions came to be subjected to analysis, man’s confidence in human thought in general” (Mannheim 1936, p.41). I’m not sure I share that pessimism, but I think it would be interesting to explore more carefully the historical and conceptual relations between conspiracy theories and critical theory, and we might usefully think about the effect of the popularisation of such weapons of critique in regimes whose legitimacy is grounded in the possibility of public discussion, namely, modern liberal democracies.

I suspect thinking of conspiracy theories as a species of critical theory may also have implications for how we analyse and study them, and how we study conspiracy theorists. But I’ve already gone on a good deal longer than I intended, so maybe that’s for another day…