Pluralistic: 05 Jul 2021

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Conspiracy fantasy (permalink)

When we talk about conspiratorialism, we tend to focus (naturally) on the content of the conspiracy. Not only are those stories entertainingly outlandish – they're also the point of contact between conspiracists and the world.

If your mom is shouting about "Hollywood pedos," it's natural that you'll end up discussing the relationship of this belief to observable reality. But while the content of conspiratorial beliefs gets lots of attention, we tend to neglect the significance of those beliefs.

To the extent that we consider why the beliefs exist and proliferate, the discussion rarely gets further than "irrational people have irrational beliefs." This is a mistake. The stories we tell one another are a kind of Ouija board, with all our fingertips on the planchette.

The messages it spells out don't describe external reality but they do reveal our internal, unspoken anxieties and aspirations.This is why we should read science fiction: not because it predicts the future, but because it diagnoses the present.

Sf is an ever-mutating ecosystem of fears and hopes, and readers apply selective pressure to those organisms, extinguishing the ones that don't capture the zeitgeist and elevating the ones that do, a co-evolution of our fantasies and our narratives.

This is why Alternate Reality Games are so central to their players' lives. They're a form of narrative co-creation, with the players throwing out theories and the game-masters actually changing the story to incorporate the best of them.

ARGs are an environment where your coolest and most deliciously scary ideas become reality. It's a powerful way to galvanize collective action.

As anthropologist Biella Coleman writes in Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, it's the organizing principal behind Anonymous.

Anon Ops begin life as victory announcement videos. If the vision of success captures enough Anons, they execute the op.

In other words, the degree to which a shared fantasy of victory compels its audience predicts whether the audience realizes its fantasy. Long before the alt-right, Anons were memeing ideas into existence (no coincidence, as both were incubated on 4chan).

On the Conspiracy Games and Counter-Games podcast, three left academics – Max Haiven, AT Kingsmith, Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou – analyze "conspiracy fantasies" (as opposed to conspiracies, e.g. the Big Lie behind the Iraq War) for what they reveal about late capitalism's anxieties.

As leftists, they naturally focus on the relationship between material conditions and people's behaviors and beliefs. This is an important part of the discourse on conspiratorialism that's often missing from liberal and right-wing analysis.

Conspiracists aren't just "irrational" nor are they just "racist." They may be both of those things, but unless you look at material conditions, then the surges and retreats of conspiracism are mysterious phenomena, strange tides raised by unseen forces.

A decade ago, then-PM David Cameron – the architect of a brutal, authoritarian austerity – dismissed the Hackney Riots as "criminality pure and simple," and demanded a ban on discussion of the relationship between austerity and unrest.

But without that discussion, there's no explanation. Even if you believe that "criminality" is a thing that is latent within some or all of us, what explains a rise or fall in that criminality? Is it like pollen that alights upon some of us, turning us bad? Or the full moon?

Likewise the "conspiracists are just racists" or "they're just deranged." Without looking at the material world, there's no explanation for why that racism suddenly became more (or less) important to how conspiracists live their lives.

We can't talk about conspiratorialism without talking about material considerations, and we have to talk about the form and substance of the conspiratorial belief. The ARG-like structure of Qanon is a hugely important part of its popularity:

Memeing things into existence in a game-like way is hugely compelling. You can tell when a D&D game is hopping when the players and the DM start co-creating the story, with the DM slyly altering the dungeon and the NPCs to match the players' super-cool theories.

A recent episode of the CGACG podcast present a mind-blowing analysis of the interplay of the material conditions, mythology and structure of Qanon. It's a two-part interview with Wu Ming 1:

Wu Ming 1 is part of Bologna's Wu Ming Collective, the successor to the 1990s Luther Bissett net-art collective. Bissett did many wild, weird things,including publishing "Q," an internationally bestselling conspiratorial novel in 1999 (!!)

The plot of "Q" involves a high-level government official, privy to top-secret info about a state conspiracy. It closely mirrors Qanon beliefs, right down to a call for a Jan 6 uprising (!!!!). The major difference is that "Q" is set during the Protestant Reformation.

In the interview, Wu Ming 1 talks about the proliferation of conspiratorial, ARG-like 4chan hoaxes that predated Qanon, and hypothesizes that the original Q posts were plagiarized from the novel.

The strange experience of seeing a novel turn into a cult prompted Ming 1 to write "La Q di Qomplotto" ("The Q in Qonspiracy"), a book that defines and analyzes "conspiracy fantasies."

Ming 1's interview digs into this in some depth, including setting out criterial for distinguishing conspiracies from fantasies (for example, a conspiracy doesn't go on forever, while a fantasy can imagine the Knights Templar running the world for centuries).

I was taken by Ming 1's discussion of the role that "enchantment" plays in conspiratorialism – the feeling of being in a magical and wondrous (if also anxious and terrible) place. He says this is why "debunkers" fail – they're like people who spoil a magic trick.

Ming 1 and the hosts talk about replacing the enchantment of conspiratorialism with a counter-enchantment, grounded not in the conspiratorialist's oversimplification and essentialism, but in the wonder of reality.

Ming 1 analogizes his "counter-enchantment" to the "double-wow" method of Penn and Teller: first they blow you away with a trick, and then they blow you away with the cleverness by which it was accomplished.

He describes how the Luther Bissett collective performed a double-wow during Italy's Satanic Panic, creating a hoax satanic heavy metal cult and a counter-cult, promulgating stories of their pitched battles, then revealing how they'd faked the whole thing.

The action was taken in solidarity with actual Bolognese heavy metal fans who'd been framed for imaginary Satanic "crimes." Luther Bissett wanted to demonstrate how a panic could be created from nothing, to reveal the method behind the real hoax with a fake hoax.

The double-wow method reminds me of Richard Dawkins' manuever in "The Magic of Reality," his excellent children's book about the virtues of the scientific world, revealing how the numinous wonder of faith is nothing compared to the wonder of science.

The idea that conspiratorialism is a leading indicator of capitalism's anxieties is a powerful one, and it ties into other compelling accounts of conspiracy, like Anna Merlan's REPUBLIC OF LIES, which discusses the importance of trauma to conspiratorial belief.

Like Ming 1, Merlan stresses the kernel of truth underpinning conspiracy fantasies – the real aerospace coverups that make UFO conspiracies plausible, the real pharmaceutical conspiracies to cover up harms from drugs that underpin anti-vax.

In the podcast, Ming 1 and the hosts stress the importance of identifying and addressing the kernel of truth and the trauma it produces in any counter-conspiratorial work – that is, a successful counter-enchantment must address the material conditions behind the fantasy.

I really like this approach because of its empathy – its attempt to connect with the conditions that produce behaviors and beliefs, not to be confused with sympathy, which might excuse their toxic and hateful nature.

It reminds me a lot of Oh No Ross and Carrie, whose hosts have spent years joining cults and religions and digging into fringe practices and beliefs in an effort to understand them; they laugh a lot, but never AT their subjects.

But Ming 1 brings something new to this discussion: an analysis of the role that novels have played in conspiracy fantasy formation: not just the plagiarizing of "Q" to make Qanon, but things like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion plagiarizing Dumas.

The interview also brought to mind Edward Snowden's recent inaugural blog-post, "Conspiracy: Theory and Practice," which seeks to separate conspiracy practice (e.g. the NSA spying on everyone) from theories (what Ming 1 calls "fantasies").

Snowden connects the feeling of powerlessness to the urge to explain the world through conspiracies, relating this to his experience of revealing one of the world's most far-reaching real conspiracies, and then becoming the subject of innumerable conspiracy fantasies.

Snowden's perspective is one that has heretofore been missing from conspiracy discourse – the perspective of someone who has been part of a real conspiracy and then the central subject of a constellation of bizarre and widespread conspiratorial beliefs.

These different works, focusing as they do on the character of conspiratorial beliefs, the nature of conspiratorial practice, and material conditions of conspiracists, comprise a richer analysis of our screwed-up discourse than, say, theories about "online radicalization."

As I wrote in my 2020 book "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism," the "online radicalization" narrative requires that you accept Big Tech's unsupported marketing claims about its power to bypass our critical thoughts at face value.

Claims to be able to control our minds – whether made by Rasputin, Mesmer, pick-up artists, MK-ULTRA or NLP enthusiasts – always turn out to be cons (though sometimes the con artists are also conning themselves).

But there's a much more plausible, less controversial set of powers that Big Tech possesses. By spying on us all the time, it can help scammers target people who are ready to hear conspiratorial explanations.

By monopolizing our discourse, it allows SEO scammers to create default answers to our questions. By locking us in, it can keep us using a platform even if the discourse there makes us angry and anxious.

And by corrupting our political process, it creates "kernels of truth" for conspiratorial beliefs.

As with Scooby Doo, the monster turns out to be a familiar villain in a fright mask: a monopolist whose abuses and impunity create the anxiety that make conspiracy plausible.


Podcasting "Self Publishing" (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Municipal code's list of code-words for escort services that may not be used in classified advertising <a 07doctorowcommentary.html"="" 2006="" href="></a>

#15yrsago Sf is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet <a href=" http:="" issues="""">

#10yrsago Steven “Jumper” Gould’s new novel 7TH SIGMA: genre-busting science fiction/western kicks ass

#10yrsago RIP, Len Sassaman: cypherpunk and anonymity hacker

#5yrsago Peak indifference: privacy as a public health issue

#5yrsago Nigel “Brexit” Farage, having tanked the UK economy, retires to “get his life back”

#5yrsago Hidden “anti-crime” mics are proliferating on US public transit, recording riders’ conversations

#5yrsago Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July the Fourth for the Negro,” read by James Earl Jones

#5yrsago New York’s stately libraries sport hidden apartments for live-in caretakers

#5yrsago Tories use Brexit as an excuse to slash corporate taxes to the lowest of any major economy

#5yrsago UK cops routinely raided police databases to satisfy personal interest or make money on the side

#1yrago The real racial wealth gap

#1yrago What to the Slave Is the 4th of July

Colophon (permalink)

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This is off-topic, but wanted to pass this on to @doctorow. Audacity, the free, open source audio editor, updated it’s privacy policy to include their parent-company’s data mining activities.

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