Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

World Book Night, 2013, Late Edition: Conspiracy Reading and Patterns

Because I'm on Pacific Standard Time, I get the news late. Let me explain international time zones to you. Some places are 15 minutes off. Others 30 minutes. If you're in Nepal you're 15 minutes behind Bangladesh, but Myanmar (Burma) is 30 minutes ahead of Bangladesh, which means if you're a major player in the Myanmar junta and want to call your friend in Nepal to say "Wassuuuuuup!?"...add 45 minutes. Which just seems Discordian to me. London is something like nine hours ahead of me; it's already tomorrow's middle-of-the-morning there "now."

Wait a minute: I can't explain that. The half-hour thing, I mean. I'm used to New York being three hours "ahead" of us. Tokyo is something like 16 ahead, so presumably they Know Things that I don't. The inscrutable, Wise East, aye. I'm not really sure how I started off on this time zone crap when the title of this blogspew was supposedly about books and conspiracy "reading and patterns." Sorry.

Anyway, from where I stand/sit, from my relative inertial position and perspective, it's still April 23, or World Book Night, which, if I can trust Wikipedia, started around 1995 in London.

Buncha do-gooders tryna get more folks to read. Okay, I admit I'm a sympathizer...

April 23 - on or about - is also the day the demonic, horrible events in the 805 page tome Illuminatus! Trilogy begin. If you haven't read that book but are thinking about starting it: don't. It screws with your mind. It most definitely wrecked me forever. I'll never be the same. Others have said very similar things. I know it's "only" a novel, but at least half of it refers to actual historical events.

Many have admired the Book for its wry satirization of conspiracy thinking. I have adopted that point of view, if only for my own sanity.

There's been a long strain in academic discourse about books belonging to one long thread of previous books. All books are in some sense a response to previous books. I like this idea a lot, although I'm not totally sold on it being "correct."

There's some interesting fancy computer research being done on "macroanalysis" of texts based on an author's word choice, style, themes, and "overarching subject matter" that suggests some interesting things about relative "originality" and the influence of a previous author, whether a writer knew they were influenced or not. See, for example, HERE.

I've made very many guesses about the influences on Shea and Wilson in the writing of their damned Illuminatus!, but I'd like to see what some future computer algorithms say about Robert Anton Wilson's influences. He's openly stated about 30 or so; what would the computer say?

Anyway, the Illuminatus! cites innumerable books - mostly ones that "actually" exist in my own phenomenological/existential sensory-sensual world in space/time. Possibly yours, too.

And today's "real world" news feels like it's been influenced by the aforementioned book. Just a sampler:

  • Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an Alex Jones fan. Maybe? Quite possibly. And let's not even address the insanely delicious irony, but I'm reminded of Shea and Wilson's "Tar Baby Principle" mentioned in Illuminatus!: You will become attached to what you attack. This idea always seemed a cousin to Buddhism's "you become what you behold." But wait a minute...
          ...if Tamerlane was really influenced by - or "understood"? - Jones, he sorta horribly ironically
          got it wrong, because Jones thinks attacks blamed on Muslims are really set-ups or "false flag"     
          attacks engineered by the Evil Gummint. So...how does some pernicious idea about terrorism in 
          the name of Islamic jihad figure in? (I still see the brothers Tsarnaev as more like Harris and    
  • Glenn Beck thinks that whatever imbecilic conspiracy theory his own pea-brain imagines, it must be accepted as true unless the government can prove it's wrong. The word "thinks" in the previous sentence should be taken ironically. Of course. This is ethics, law, and logical thinking straight from the Idiot's Fun House. Lemme see if I can get on Beck's wavelength here. <Ahem> Okay: Hey, Glenn Beck? I'm not so sure that the decent real Americans haven't not negated their "misunderestimation" of you. Now: prove me wrong, or you're Evil Incarnate and I'm the True Bestest Murrkin who truly loves his country, mom, the flag, a baby's smiling face, Betty-Sue's halter top, NASCAR, and hard cider on a sweltering Missouri summer night, etcetera! <the OG wept>
  • It appears as if the paranoid Elvis impersonator from Mississippi who mailed Ricin to Obama may have been framed. This seems whacked enough to have been in Illuminatus! In case you haven't been following this story (i.e, you "have a life"), the Elvis impersonator who apparently did NOT send Ricin to the POTUS did think he was trying to expose a shadowy world of human organ harvesters. I am not making this jit up.
Meanwhile, some pretty hardcore scholars see a network of global corporate control.

Professor Jennifer Whitson says, based on her research, that if we feel out of control, we will find patterns and connections and "see" things that aren't there; our brains so need to feel like things "make sense." See reportage on her findings HERE, HERE, and HERE. It's interesting stuff, and those who've read Kahneman will be familiar with this. But I'm not sure if it describes all conspiracy thought. That's far too rationalistic for me. Why? Because, well, Watergate really happened. There are conspiracy laws on the books and people go to prison for it all the time. Watergate really was a conspiracy. "Conspiracy" seems a huge semantic spook that needs some robust and fairly massive and creative intellectual work in order for us to be able to think more clearly about the concept. The idea that aliens from another planet or dimension have been controlling us for our entire history as a species ought not, it seems to me, be on an equal epistemic footing with the idea that the Neo-Cons lied Unistat into the Iraq War.

But hey, I'm biased. (And so are you.)

Does Whitson's work account for all "ritual" and "superstition" and "religion"? Maybe a lot of it, is my guess as of this date.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Society, everywhere, is in conspiracy against the manhood of each of its members." Let's be charitable and update his 19th century assumptions to include the fairer sex. What does Emerson mean here?

In Castaways of the Image Planet, Geoffrey O'Brien writes about Fritz Lang's Spies and the 20th century mindset and logic of paranoia and conspiracies: film, the bureaucratic state, the collage-like logic of images. Those who are fans of Lang's (like me!) know he saw Osama bin Laden and Goebbels figures long before those guys were doing their schtuff. (See his Dr. Mabuse films!) Is all the "news" about secret underground terror networks and the Deep State - secret networks that operate within and outside government agencies who cooperate (at times) in order to maintain the status quo - is all this really "new"?

Would it help to stop calling some ideas "conspiracies" and start thinking of them as "normal primate-mammalian politics"?

Or, yet another of many paths to take: conceptual blending? (More serious writers on conspiracy need to become thoroughly acquainted with this idea!)

So far, the best and most underrated book by academics that takes conspiracy theories seriously as a philosophical problem - a problem of epistemology - is Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, ed. by David Coady. (Get it via your library: that's an insane price.) Robert Anton Wilson is mentioned in there. Such problems of demarcation lines vis a vis Karl Popper! And what about the pragmatic approach?

"Any epistemological elite, religious or secular, must develop a system of cognitive defenses to defend its claims against the outside criticisms, but also, very importantly, to assuage the doubts harbored by insiders..." - Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, by Peter Berger, pp.36-37

An academic writer with a law degree, Mark Fenster, had a hit with Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power In American Culture. So much so that he's updated it for the post 9/11 era. He's the only academic I've read that seems to understand the philosophical aspects of deep play - the ludic aspects - in Wilson's work. When citizens feel like voting isn't enough to satisfy their need to participate in the power process, they resort to conspiracy narratives as a way to participate. And largely, they draw upon popular culture's narratives, and creatively tweak and combine. Some of it should give us much cause for alarm. With further and further connections and deeper, hidden orders uncovered, there's a quite-human neurobiological buzz of adrenaline...and "wonder and awe." And let's face it: delight. Conspiracies are exciting.

"Let us not, in the pride of our superior knowledge, turn with contempt from the follies of our predecessors...He is but a superficial thinker who would despise and refuse to hear of them merely because they are absurd." - Charles MacKay's 1852 ed. of Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Professor Timothy Melley's Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America reminds us of Jennifer Whitson's thesis, but combines the multifarious ideas about mind control and surveillance and other aspects of "control" a citizen may feel is in the hands of Others. Melley's key term is "agency panic" and I think he was not drilling in a dry hole in that book.

"Or maybe it's the repetition. Maybe you've been looking at this stuff for so long that you've read all this into it. And talking with other people who've done the same thing." - Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, p.109

There are many other above-average, well-researched books on conspiracy thinking and paranoia. But I still see Robert Anton Wilson's oeuvre as an ideal Ground Zero for all that. Or rather: a Staging Area.

Yes, yes, yes! These books refer to other books, which refer to others ad inifinitum. Nice bibliographies. Reading about reading and interpretations about interpretations. Does something seem...missing there? Maybe?

Fiction about truth can be stranger than whatever "reality" seems. And the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.

Happy reading! (But you've been warned about the Illuminatus! Trilogy)

The opening 2 minutes and 17 seconds from Fritz Lang's 1928 film Spies:


Eric Wagner said...

Thanks for the interesting blog post. My wife and I just watched the terrific new documentary "All the President's Men Revisited." (It did sadden me that they didn't mention William Goldman who wrote the terrific Oscar winning screenplay to the film.) Relatively sober journalists kept mentioning "conspiracy" without irony when referring to Nixon.

Anonymous said...

What I find disturbing about the pie chart is that nowhere could I find
the reference to they contain large
chunks of factual material.

To me that is what fascinates, here's
some facts and here's what connects
them together. Now the material that connects my be gossamer or ectoplasm
but somebody took the time to look
for the connections.

Were they wrong, I can say with some authority that they were but
only because humans are always in
error when attempting to rationalize aggregate behaviors.

On the other hand even a stopped
clock shows the right time twice a
day. This is what makes the subject
have such a hold on those who think
about the world around them.

Trying to decode what's real amid
the Spin of the days media events
isn't going to get you far unless
you suffer from true believer in the BS of the consensus based life.

Chechnyan mom is a classic of todays robust fact seeking media,
Putin on the other hand has all the
answers neatly packaged for US.

As for Syria, there is a war which
seems to be no holds barred and a
horror to be around. Did someone
use poison gas in the middle east?

I seem to recall the British having
gassed the Kurds as the first gas
usage in the area, imitation is the
sincerest form of flattery.

Do we need a third army bogged in
the area ?

I'd say no but nobody has listened to reason previously and
probably won't start now.

The one conspiracy that makes no
sense is for the fundies to keep
hoping they can torch the Middle
East with nukes so Jesus will show
up and say "oh Gehannum I came too
late to save them !!"

michael said...

@ Eric: I didn't even know the Revisited film existed. I'll look for it. Goldman's name deserved mention indeed.

In another area of the Net that I read and comment frequently, someone has begun talking about "new" ideas that Nixon was set up by the CIA. I mentioned Oglesby's Yankee and Cowboy War, and I realize: I've joked about it before, but there seems to be some sort of CONSPIRACY that that book has gone out of print and someone hasn't picked up the rights and brought it back. Which reminds me: Note To Self: write the guys as Soft Skull Press about this.

michael said...

@Anon: the pie chart I threw in (get it?) to remind us of the majority mindset about CTs, how people who "believe" them "are" to be mocked. I guess it makes you feel smarter than everyone else; I'm not sure.

I like Wilson's idea of making at minimum seven models for any complex event, and conspiracies seem perfect for this. Also: some non-Aristotelian logic on the part of all the "educated" liberals would be pretty goddamned refreshing if ya ask me. How about "I doubt that Oswald had any accomplices and, in my current state of investigations and readings on the JFK hit, I think there's about a 95% chance that he acted alone."?

My main model for the assholes who crave Armageddon (literally) is that they are Emotional Plague carriers; they don't enjoy living life and they despise those who die enjoy living, so they can't wait to have some imaginary Divine Justice meted out. Stay the fuck away from such people!

Of all the Anonymouses that comment here, you're in my Top Two favorites, if only for your rhythm and sharp shards of poetic paragraphs. Thanks for reading.

michael said...

NB my Freudian typo where I wrote that Emotional Plague carriers "despise those who die enjoy living." Of course I meant "do" enjoy.

Chalk one up for Siggy!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I'm pretty sure the new Jesse Walker book, The United States of Paranoia, will be a good addition to the shelf of other books you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Nothing like a carefully delivered
pie to some subjects. I hear Jello
is back performing again...GRIN

michael said...

@T-Jack, Mos Def da Cleveland Okie: I've been looking fwd to Walker's book and hope it comes out in codex soon. I have a very strong hunch it'll be as good or better than the academic books I liked and briefly glossed in the blog.

I'm still waiting for Higgs's KLF book.

I found the time to read those books because I'm completely fascinated by the subject, the academics wrote in a non-over-the-top, non-pretentious-academic opaque style, and had a wealth of good ideas about transmissions of texts and memes and human nervous systems, symbolic interactions, and fear/anxiety..and action. I will lose sleep if a book is good enough, and I consider it sleep well lost and to be possibly made up at a later date.

michael said...

@Anon: the pie thing: a symbolic assassination?

Which reminds me of Bobcat Goldthwaite's film from 2 yrs ago: God Bless America. An ordinary Joe (played by one of Bill Murray's brothers, Joel, with perfect Chicago accent) is fed up with American social reality, finds out he has a brain tumor and almost kills himself, but then decides that "reality" TV stars and Faux News-like loudmouths and people who take up two parking spaces or talk in the theater...all deserve to die more than he does. It's sorta like Natural Born Killers marries Idiocracy, with sly homages to Bonnie and Clyde, Taxi Driver, Juno and a few other films.

He just thought people should be kinder and more considerate.

Tom I. said...


I'm a bit new to all this. Wondering if you have any thoughts about the CT surrounding the topic of energy security, peak oil, depletion, etc. In this model, the threat is an impending breakdown of the complex petroleum circulation system on which civilization has depended these 100+ years. The conspiracies here are thought to be (a) in gov't and big oil and the PR industries they support, for those who think there is a peak oil danger, and (b) in the online communities who fume incessantly about (a), and huck their survivalist wares, for those who can't or won't entertain the peak oil premiss.

It's kind of a depressing world to get into, and some people were making money hand over fist in 2008 during that historic spike in oil prices, before people "realized" it was mostly financial speculation. Now with all the new technology, fracking, etc. I've grown too bored to keep up with the empirical questions. I somewhat resent the peak oilers now, especially james howard kuntsler, richard heinberg, and the classic fear-mongering 2004 documentary The End of Suburbia, for making me as paranoid as i was in 2008 post-Lehmann Brothers. In a way I'm still torn between (a) and (b), though certainly I live (don't we all!) as if our techno-corporate prosperity gravy train will keep chuggin till the last trumpet.

Anyway, wanted to suggest that the oil question illustrates the idea that CT and (political) reality have more to do with each other than we sensible liberals suppose.

Anonymous said...

At least Taibbi had the good sense to
apologize to the CT crowd when he did
his latest epic on Bankster/Govt
The collusion implicit in the lawyers
list boggles the mind.

Be of good cheer, the one thing I
have learned is that those who think
they are getting off scot-free have
to live in the world they have made.

michael said...

@Tom I: Great comment, and it points to the epistemological and ontological problems brought up by ideas about "conspiracy theories."

When I read Kunstler, I truly believe he believes the Peak Oil stuff. There are others who scare me as much on the topic as Kunstler, but he really got to me. I never got the feeling he was fomenting a CT; if I'm right and he believes it all (and why do I believe he believes? something about his style, tone, voice...and that's flimsy to a certain extent, I know), then Kunstler isn't responsible for any hucksters who use his work. Or that's my main model for the way I see this.

There seem other writers who, by possibly temperament, are pessimists and non-cautious about fomenting varieties of panic, fear, loathing, etc, vis a vis declining finite resources and the Engine that runs our rich society.

I do think there are writers who feel dirty fossil fuels have become too much of a problem for what they're worth and have a renewable/solar ideology that's pretty hardcore and they may be overdoing it.

Or maybe: we really are doomed because of demand, we're like junkies, and the environment be damned: we'll use it all, and surviving humanity will never be the same.

But the more I read in this area the less I'm sure about anything. My temperament and current state of ignorance says no fracking way, no more subsidies to oil companies, and something like a stimulus for a Manhattan Project for renewables, etc.

The End of Oil is blockbuster paranoia-inducing. The scenario of Murrkin fat-assed consumer society suddenly going, "Why is gas $25 a gallon? Impeach the President! Fuck these brownouts! The illegal immigrants are using our energy!" Etc. People using guns to rob others for their gasoline to fill their SUVs, etc. Oy! Oil!

The one thing I feel fairly certain about: if the already rich can scare people into not paying attention, or paying attention to the wrong things, they will continue to buy off Congress and wring more money from consumers. I thought Bush-Cheney were the last great hurrah of the Oil Men: they saw the writing on the wall (Peak Oil) and went for One Last Heist before "getting out." Maybe I watch too many movies.

Peak Oil as a CT: that's a meaty one there. I'd love it someone else would weigh in on it.

michael said...

@Anonymous: I read your comment and said to myself, "Taibbi said WHA? about CTs?" I had not yet seen his latest pice on international price-fixing...

Agreed: what a breath of fresh air for a major journalist to acknowledge that some of us have been Cassandras.

Me too: utterly mind-boggling how rancid the Bankster State has become. Libor, now this. And austerity for all the Little People now that we've broken the world economy, despite the theoretical underpinning of austerity being utterly debunked: no $$$$ will be paid back by the 1%: everyone else must suffer. And most Murrkins just blame the brown people and then up the ante on their mainlining of whatever anesthetizes them.

Did you see the article in Alternet about how a hedge fund honcho makes in one hour what it takes a middle class family to make - actually working! - in 47 YEARS?