The Reels of Truth – Material Faces of Conspiracy Theories


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.