Conspiracy and Entropy

Note: This is the beginning of Chapter One, "We Are All Conspiracy Theorists."  I'm going to try to pick up the pace a bit, with two posts a week when I can manage it.

If you spend enough time on the Russian Internet, flipping channels on state television, leafing through extremist newspapers, or simply reading the latest action-packed potboilers, it's easy to come to the conclusion that Russia is under siege, from within as well as from without.  The country's apparent enemies include Muslims, Communists, oligarchs, the CIA,  the FSB, Georgians, Ukrainians, a rainbow coalition of "color revolutionaries," homosexuals, Harvard University, and let's not forget the Jews (because trust me, no one else has).  The building blocks of conspiracy may change (or, more likely, simply increase in number), but their possible combinations and permutations are limitless only on the level of small details.  Otherwise, conspiracy in Russia, as elsewhere, follows predictable masterplots that subtly prefigure or constrain a given conspiracy theory's development.   Perhaps a better metaphor for the components of conspiracy is not "building blocks," but the "Garanimals" line of children's clothing, whose animal-themed tags are supposed to help little boys and girls coordinate their wardrobe without clashing.  You could always match a tiger with a giraffe, but would you really want to?      

If it seems that I'm picking on Russia, I hasten to point out that anyone with a Facebook friend who watches Fox News can testify that America is hardly immune to syncretic conspiratorial thinking.  After all, this country has, on two separate occasions,  elected a gay Kenyan Muslim black separatist socialist secular antichrist(proving yet again that for a black man to succeed in America, he has to overachieve). And even this seemingly contradictory set of qualifiers turns out to fit together predictably, if you understand right-wing demonology. 

So Russia is not alone when it comes to conspiracy.  Indeed, we could see the growth of conspiracy theory in both Russian and the United States as yet another manifestation of a decades-old rivalry: which country can outperform the other in conspiracy theory production? The rise of conspiratorial thought in the United States is a familiar, well-studied phenomenon, and this chapter will direct readers to the relevant literature on the topic.  Russia’s multiple brands of conspiracy are far less familiar to an English-speaking audience, but the country has not been idle:  for at least fifty years, Russia (along with the Russophone diaspora) has been a reliable provider of conspiratorial narratives, overfulfilling virtually any conceivable paranoid plan with Stakhanovite zeal. 

I use the hackneyed metaphor of the Soviet shock worker advisedly, since it has been decades since Russia could be accused of the hyperproduction of anything.  Or at least, of anything tangible. In a marvelous essay entitled "Labor of Lust,” Mikhail Epstein demonstrates that any failure to produce factories, heavy machinery, and weapons on the scale demanded by the various five-year plans was easily remedied by by a proliferation of images and texts (i.e., discourse) about factories, heavy machinery, and weapons.  In the symbolic realm, Russia/the Soviet Union was a powerhouse of productivity, an indefatigable manufacturer of simulacra and simulation.  

Conspiracy, however, is more than mere simulation.  It takes all the various mythemes available to it and turns them into a persuasive narrative; that is, conspiracy is a kind of discursive bricolage.  Even this formulation is not entirely satisfactory, since it looks at conspiracy on too large a scale.  The basis of all the mythemes and tropes that form a conspiracy theory is a much more fundamental substance: information.  Conspiracy is a disease of information, and a communicable disease at that.  A better word, though,  would be disorder, if it weren't for the fact that conspiracy's relation to information is to take what is dis-ordered and express it as a surfeit of order.  It is a disorder of signal to noise, in which all noise is construed as signal. 

It is helpful to recall that quantum physics teaches us to think of the entire universe in terms of information.  Conspiracy does what centuries of crackpots' failed attempts at perpetual motion machines couldn't do: conspiracy fights entropy without increasing entropy.  Operating according to an inversion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, conspiracy concentrates all information into an increasingly orderly system.  

 

Next: Karl Popper: Open Societies and Closed Minds