Conspiracy Theories

Leading Editors:
Wojciech Hamerski, Krzysztof Hoffmann
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Conspiracy Theories

Wojciech Hamerski, Krzysztof Hoffmann

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Section: Conspiracy Theories

Abstract:

In Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s A Grain of Truth, the main crime plot deals with a triple homicide. Near the remains of a woman whose throat has been slashed, the police find a strange knife, defined by Teodor Szacki, the officer in charge of the investigation, as a “razor-machete.” The knife turns out to have been originally used in Jewish ritual slaughter. This clue immediately directs suspicion toward a Jewish perpetrator. And because this takes place in Sandomierz, where to this day there hangs in a church a picture depicting the legendary extraction of blood from Christian children in order to make matzoh from it, the Jewish thread has dramatically heightened resonance. “I think it’s all very odd and theatrical,” Szacki remarks with regard to the knife. “Even with squalid crimes of passion, every drunken thug remembers to take the murder weapon with him. I don’t believe it was left in those bushes by accident.” If a traditional investigation involves attaching signs to their signifieds – and is therefore fundamentally a semiotic operation – then the overly obvious presence of a murder weapon by the body tells the experienced detective to double-check the simplest interpretation.

Dział: Conspiracy Theories

Abstrakt:

With the fall of twentieth-century totalitarianisms, students of conspiracy theories developed a prognosis according to which belief in such theories would gradually lose its political importance and be fed upon only at the margins of discourse. That optimistic vision was, however, brutally checked by the early years of the twenty-first century. In reaction to important and tragic events, from the attacks of September 11, 2001 to the current refugee crisis, successive conspiracy narratives have only multiplied; according to reliable research, four million Americans believe that the world is ruled by Lizard People, reptiles from space. The White House is forced to issue a public assurance that it is not planning to invade Texas, France has introduced special courses in schools to combat the growing belief in conspiracies among pupils, and pro-Putin propaganda is working full steam to advance conspiracy narratives in the realm of public opinion, exposing alleged perfidy on the part of the West. In Poland, too, the conspiracy-centred mentality is thriving, although– in keeping with the traditional national imagination – the role of the villain is played here not by space lizards but by Jews, Russians, and Germans, to whose company Muslims have also been recently added. Two years ago, the Polish Minister of the Environment, before assuming his post, addressed a question to the Prime Minister about the possible advisability of producing chemtrails – smog left in the sky by planes, believed by adherents of conspiracy theories to contain specific chemicals that cause impotence and serve the purpose of artificial population control.

Dział: Conspiracy Theories

Abstrakt:

What links contemporary conspiracy theories with messianism? We can certainly observe the return of the Romantic style as defined by Maria Janion, Janion, Czy będziesz wiedział, co przeżyłeś, Warszawa 1996, pp. 5–23.] and the domination of political discourse by figures of rhetoric universally associated with the Romantic tradition. Jarosław Kaczyński consistently plays on a cultural amalgam of messianism, quoting Juliusz Słowacki and Józef Piłsudski alternately. Paweł Kukiz echoes the views of such neo-messianic thinkers as Stanisław Szczepkowski, who speaks of national industry and refers to the idea of an independent Polish strain of “unofficial prophets, these unfit revolutionaries […] gifted with intuitive clairvoyance.” “Let us recall,” Andrzej Walicki wrote, “that the ‘national messiah’ anticipated and invoked by Mickiewicz was supposed to overcome, as his first order of business, ‘factionalism,’ and to ‘concentrate’ in himself all the powers of Poles.”]

Messianism is undoubtedly becoming a tool of political strategy. Rather than analyze contemporary performances of power, I would like to demonstrate the historical and material parallels between messianism and conspiracy theories. This may also serve to answer the question as to why neomessianic political strategies have exerted such a strong influence on Polish minds in the present period. I wish, however, to avoid the structuralist approach to the study of Romanticism proposed by Maria Janion. Messianism presents itself to me not as a closed, historical intellectual current, but as a mediatized attempt at a negotiation of national identity and reconciliation of political interests, in which it quite obviously resembles conspiracy theories. Through the approach I am suggesting, the same elements can be perceived to condition both of these forms of thought.

Section: Conspiracy Theories

Abstract:

Conspiracy theories are often closely linked to various kinds of technological artefacts. These include mediums that transmit data (tapes, hard disks, USB drives), as well as recording devices (wires, dictaphones, cameras). While the history of the recording and reading of data falls within the realm of popular culture and art, its true heritage traces back – as the “godfather” of media materialism, Friedrich Kittler, has emphasized – to military, espionage and surveillance technologies. The problem of conspiracy theories shows with particular acuity how interwoven these two threads are. The culture of popular media and the “grown-up world” of politics, the military and various other organizations have become embroiled in a network of multifarious connections, at the intersection of which alternative knowledge of the world and its history emerges. It would seem worthwhile to focus our attention on the place occupied in this network by material artefacts.

The material “infrastructure” of conspiracy theories is not only integral to their functioning, it also forms the basis for their coming into being. It would be impossible to imagine what we call “conspiracy theories” existing without material media, even in those cases where such narratives are themselves transmitted by gossip rather than through official media channels (in the era of social media, this distinction seems to be losing its usefulness). It is the existence of a shared culture, together with its shared technological media, that enables conspiracy theories to take flight, to become something more than simply local intrigues or paranoid scenarios dreamt up by mentally disturbed individuals, to the point where they become a broad-ranging social phenomenon. As Franciszek Czech observes, the twentieth century saw the emergence of the concept of conspiracy theories as we understand it today. Czech suggests that the reason for the development of this state of affairs was primarily the sociopolitical ferment of the postwar era, in which various kinds of critical analysis of the preceding years’ tempestuous politics and ideology were undertaken. It is an inescapable fact, however, that the period in question also represents the beginning of a vast expansion of the media. Technical discoveries during made during the Second World War, such as those relating to early information technologies, found applications in peacetime, and the development of other technologies which had been suspended during the war, such as television, intensified after the Allied victory. It was precisely in this context that contemporary conspiracy theories and similar paranoid narratives took shape.

Section: Conspiracy Theories

Abstract:

Contrary to widely-held views, popular literature constitutes an important component of culture and a source of extremely incisive observations on the reality from which it emerges. As a particular form of art, popular literature is simultaneously a resonator of widespread moods and a sphere in which they become reified – sometimes in an allegorical fashion, sometimes rather allusively, and sometimes expressed straightforwardly – reflecting a variety of social, economic, political, quotidian and other discourses. The perception of this process is relevant in that it relates to the problem of the plausibility of observations made by those authors who choose to work within the conventions of fantasy. Their perceptions and artistic achievements become entangled in the particular kind of binary relation formed from the supposed antagonism, referenced in scholarly discourse and enduring in our collective consciousness, between fiction and reality. As Krzysztof M. Maj insists, “the main problem lies […] in the fact that since the time when most important theories of fiction and fantasy genres were developed at the same time […], the realm of fantasy has also witnessed the postmodernist turn, and as a result, it would really be necessary now to […] talk about post-fantasy rather than fantasy as a strictly defined genre. […] In what we would thus call post-fantasy narratives, the world ceases to be simply a stage on which characters appear and disappear, marking successive stages in the development of the plot by their presence – and becomes instead a particular kind of virtual reality, an epistemological construct possessing high cognitive potential.” Proof of the justice of this claim can be found in elements that explicitly relate to authentic reality and penetrate the world of fiction as components contributing to the creation of the plot. One example of this predilection consists of works that develop apocalyptic scenarios, representing an artistic consequence of the global crises proliferating in many areas of our social, political, and economic life.

Section: Conspiracy Theories

Abstract:

Contemporary popular perception of distant times deviates substantially from what was actually specific to them. M. Karas (ed.), Historia filozofii. Meandry kultury. Teksty i studia ofiarowane Jackowi Widomskiemu z okazji 65. urodzin, Kraków 2014, pp. 121–137; I. Kowalczyk, I. Kiec (eds.), Historia w wersji popularnej, Gdańsk 2015.] Historical narratives on the subject of the past life of one’s own community (for example, of Poles) are often built on the basis of national myths or an idealized, great power image of military and political history. Gaps in historical sources and a lack of familiarity within the greater society with the current consensus among academic scholars result in amateur efforts to replace the lacunae in our historical knowledge with the creation of stories about the nation’s or our ethnic group’s history that depart from the “official” scholarly record. The “non-scientific” nature of these historical narratives relates to the lack of a consensus as to their correctness (meaning: accuracy) inside academic circles.

Section: Conspiracy Theories

Abstract:

The series of explosions that took place in Madrid on March 11, 2004 furnished food for the Spanish mind, giving rise to different theories, chief among which were those concerning the culprits responsible for that brutal crime. Following its investigation, the public prosecutor’s office declared Islamic jihadists to be the guilty party. At least two counter-narratives have arisen, however; in addition to the official version, there is an unofficial one that throws suspicion on the Basque terrorist organization, ETA. Such a version of events was seen as the most probable by the public prosecutor’s office at the outset of its inquiry. Denials by the Spanish government some years later have been interpreted as evidence of a lack of transparency in official proceedings and a form of political manipulation.

Section: Conspiracy Theories

Abstract:

Postmodern novelistic strategies violate epistemological paradigms in a meaningful way, especially when the focus of the game involves the lexicon of fundamental concepts – history, facts, reality, rationalism, reference. Such play is also engaged in by the Czech writer Josef Urban, author of a novel whose title not coincidentally corresponds to the object of the historical and literary quarrel discussed above – Poslední tečka za Rukopisy (The Final Mark on the Manuscripts, 1998). The “driving force” of the author’s concept, placed at the dividing line between two cultures, the world of seriousness and the world of fun, lies not in the possibility of heightening tension between them, but rather violation of the antinomy itself and the functions arbitrarily assigned to both spheres. Here we can talk of a parody of the literature of fact or, holding with the formula suggested by the narrator, of a “new literature of fact” (notlitfak for short), a particular way of engaging in “new journalism,” an ironic commentary on authentic literature, an intertextual carnival, a paradocumentary game, the Czech national imaginary in miniature, a “double hoax” (Joanna Czaplińska), a polemic with scientific axioms (Lubomír Machala) or a new emancipatory novel, whose liberationist element would inhere not in the projection of a conspiracy theory, but in the intention of revealing the skeleton of such a theory. Such a novel would thus be situated close to the concept described by Leszek Kołakowski of a “philosophy of the clown,” and thus would to a certain extent be “a vehicle of change and an appeal to rethink the foundations of our culture anew.” The driving mechanism of its functioning turns out to be fiction, but fiction that has undergone multifaceted redefinition.

Section: Conspiracy Theories

Abstract:

Chris Carter, the writer and director of the TV series The X Files, pulls no punches in the first episode of the new season – long-starved fans get to see a dramatic UFO crash straight away, with off-screen commentary by Agent Fox Mulder. His monologue ends with a series of questions that, as usual, receive no answer: “But we must ask ourselves are they really a hoax? Are we truly alone? Or are we being lied to?” For aficionados of the series, it only gets better, i.e., the same thing as before only more so – in the reactivated FBI agent’s fevered reasoning, everything is connected with everything else; the conspiracy theories most persistently mulled over in pop culture fit into a readable pattern – from Roswell and Aztec encounters with aliens to the CIA’s deliberate distribution of crack-cocaine in American inner cities or manufacturing the AIDS virus, to deliberate efforts made by pharmaceutical concerns to harm communities.

This cocktail of conspiracies would be hard to swallow without some familiarity with the pastiche conventions of the series. As Peter Knight, author of the book Conspiracy Culture. From Kennedy to the X Files, has argued, American identity from its very beginnings “was shaped by the continual fear of sinister enemies,” though only since the 1960s (and what we may call the symbolic moment of the Kennedy assassination) have conspiracy theories become “the lingua franca of many ordinary Americans (…).” Knight describes the process of demonumentalization of conspiracist explanations, which were once associated with dangerous political paranoia and are now a routine practice among both creators and consumers of culture, and not just popular culture. A peculiarly “world-weary paranoia” in the contemporary world contains “its own built-in diagnosis” and The X Files “deliberately and wittily exploits a self-ironizing aesthetic” in order to lay bare its own links to conspiracy culture.3 In the series, we always more or less know what is going to happen – Mulder will maintain his resistance to common sense persuasion, while Scully, no matter how many times she encounters proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life or a government conspiracy, will remain sceptical. The erotic-ironic tension of the situation, in which Scully’s “masculine” rationality is frequently tested by Mulder’s “feminine” imagination, offers a powerful illustration of the contemporary romance between conspiracy theories and critical analyses of them made by representatives of various disciplines in the social sciences.