The Conspiratorial Queue? Perceptions of ‘anti-government’ aesthetics
What does a conspiracy look like? What are its visible, outward signs? The visual images that we associate with the idea of conspiracy often relate to secret plotting, to scenes that emerge into public view only fleetingly – even if their effects are long-lasting – or to events that occur outside public sight: ‘hidden hands’ that pull strings from covert nooks; businessmen in sealed off, smoky rooms; a lone corpse found stashed away; a spectacular yet momentary explosion; or a heist conducted with utmost furtiveness, its agile perpetrators gone in a flash.
President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela believes his government to be facing a conspiracy of a different visual order: one whose defining features are its resolute public visibility, grand scale and physical endurance over time. These visual characteristics, moreover, are intentional parts of the plot. The conspiracy takes the form of a stretched out queue. A queue that runs a block and turns a corner too, peskily refusing to abate as hour after hour passes. Citizens hoping to buy basic supplies populate it, noisy chatter no doubt accentuating the physical presence of the winding line that leads into the pharmacy. Nappies are among the latest ‘luxuries’ for which Venezuelans are queuing up; supply is reportedly so limited that shops sometimes ask consumers to produce a recent birth certificate before permitting them to purchase a pack.
Maduro has been careful not to further alienate already disgruntled Venezuelans, for whom queuing ranks high as a source of anxiety, by describing the queuers as conspirators. The head of state presents these lingering line-formers instead as innocent pawns in somebody else’s game; they are, in his account, the visible markers of the anti-government agenda of seditious capitalist plotters. Maduro has accused Farmatodo, the country’s largest chain of pharmacies, of orchestrating the queue by deliberately opening insufficient cash registers and maintaining shorter opening hours than usual. He has had Farmatodo executives arrested for the apparent conspiracy; for attempting to produce the public appearance of short supply, generate the image of consumer desperation at the hands of the government and stir civil unrest. This official narrative suppresses any mention of wide-scale import freezes on varied products, from medical equipment to the light crude oil needed for blending with local, thicker crude to pharmaceuticals including condoms (required, Maduro reportedly suggests, as a result of ‘capitalist pornography’). The queue is not only the dominant visual image of this apparent anti-government conspiracy; in the official narrative, the effectiveness of this false flag conspiracy lies also in visible citizen involvement (even if participants are unaware of their role) and ongoing public conspicuousness.
Another domestically embattled South American president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, also perceives one kind of anti-government conspiracy to take the shape of people amassed in public spaces. On 19th February, members of the Argentine judiciary organized a multi-party silent march, breaking with the sonic overload of the pot-banging that has punctuated most Argentine protests since the financial crisis of 2001. The official demands of the protest organizers, as enumerated in national newspapers, were investigatory independence and justice in the Nisman and AMIA cases. Fernández saw the event as something else. She identified a ‘hidden and implicit objective’; 18F, as the march is known, was not ‘a tribute to a person who died tragically’ or ‘even an unusual demand for justice’, she determined, but ‘purely and simply an opposition rally’ (partisan slogans were officially banned, if not totally absent) and ‘the baptism of fire of the Judicial Party’, the politicization of the courts evident to her in every footstep that trod the streets. This agenda, she noted, could be discerned ‘in gestures and in words and quite visibly’, the true objective only really ‘hidden’, then, to those who looked with insufficient care – or perhaps chose not to see.
Fernández indicated that the march was not what it looked like in another sense; that it had been the object of aesthetic manipulation by wily anti-Kirchnerist media (in partnership with the judiciary) bent on ‘institutionally destructive and predatory work’. Describing the images of the protest that flooded social and other media during the protest and afterwards, she explained that ‘the photographs and their use of perspective, the texts, the occupied common physical space and their capacity’ made ‘the lie far too blatant’. Like Maduro’s ‘conspiratorial’ queue, this ‘lying’ protest preoccupied, then, because of its expansive visual appearance and its endurance. Not only crossing time zones as people congregated outside embassies abroad, the march was also captured in photographs widely circulated online, refusing to vanish from public international view (perhaps a reason for the official translation into English of the presidential condemnation).
Some members of the Argentine judiciary and high profile media sources dislike Kirchnerist politics; they often say so openly. Professionals in what remains of the shrunken private sector in Venezuela are also unlikely to be proponents of Maduro. Aversion is not evidence, though, of anti-government plotting. Both cases demonstrate a ‘paranoid style’ in current domestic politics, at the centre of which is a president quick to identify anti-government conspiracy in the public gathering of people. These official conspiracy narratives share a common vision of the aesthetics of one variety of attempted state destabilization. This visual subtype of apparent anti-government conspiracy is public, showy, boldly languorous and filled with human life. In these official narratives, the supposed plotters may seek to hide their true identities or intentions, but the events that they plan are intended to reach the public limelight and remain there; to sap power from the state through their assertive, unflinching physical and visible presence. What does a conspiracy look like? In these recent presidential accounts, one kind of anti-government conspiracy looks like a lot of people, in a lot of public space, over a long period of time.