The Invisible Root. On Contemporary “Conspiracy Culture”

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.