While much of contemporary conspiracy theory scholarship pays less attention to the theorizers and more to the theories, when the belief in a conspiracy theory comes up, the flaw attributed to the believer is generally posited to be epistemological: as Cass Sunstein puts it, conspiracy theorists suffer from a “crippled epistemology.” Volker Heins calls conspiracy theorists “hyper-rationalists who do not simple proclaim a truth, but actively track it.” (790) Frederic Jameson sees conspiracy as “the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age,” while Mark Fenster argues that
- “[c]onspiracy theory works as a form of hyperactive semiosis in which history and politics serve as reservoirs of signs that demand (over)interpretation, and that signify, for the interpreter, far more than their conventional meaning” (95)
It is possible to attribute the problem less to the believer than to circumstance; Victoria Emma Pagan finds that conspiracy theories are “characterized by an epistemological gap caused by the secrecy and silence that shroud the event.” In other words, excessive secrecy is just a way of begging for a conspiracy theory.
Most of these approaches are united by an emphasis on the believer’s insistence on seeing connections. “Conspiracy theorists are,” Keeley asserts, "some of the last believers in an ordered universe.” (116) But it is the work of Michael Barkun that most thoroughly explores this particular understanding of conspiratorial epistemology: “A conspiracist worldview implies a universe governed by design rather than by randomness.” Barkun finds this “emphasis on design” expressed in "three principles found in virtually every conspiracy theory”: “Nothing happens by accident”’ “Nothing is as it seems”; and “Everything is connected.” Where others might find these principles frightening, the conspiracist finds them reassuring, "for it promises a world that is meaningful rather than arbitrary.”
Barkun’s emphasis on connectivity leads him to think big. In A Culture of Conspiracy, Barkun pays particularly close attention to the “super conspiracy”: the conspiracy that encompasses all other conspiracies. For Barkun, the essentially syncretic nature of conspiracy theory means that what nonbelievers might dismiss as contradictions are easily assimilated into the conspiratorial logic. What the hapless heroes of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum do as a joke (forging a master conspiracy as a satirical response to the conspiracists whose work they publish), Barkun studies as the ethnography of the digital age.
The superconspiracy is a compelling concept, and will have enormous resonance with the Russian material examined in the present study. The alternative I’m presenting will be as much micro- as macro-; while not ignoring connectivity, it will dwell on the specific, singular moments of connection. But there is one last question that needs to be addressed before I can make my own case:
What if the conspiracy is real?
Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. 2nd Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Fenster, Mark. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Revised and Updated Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 200
Heins, Volker. "Critical Theory and the Trap of Conspiracy Thinking." Philosophy and Social Criticism. 33.7 (November 2007.): 787-801.
Jameson, Fredric. "Cognitive Mapping." Cary Nelson and Lawrence Greenberg (eds.) Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 347-360.
Keeley, Brian L. "Of Conspiracy Theories.” The Journal of Philosophy 96.3. (March 1999), 109-126.
Pagan, Victoria Emma. Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.
Sunstein, Cass. Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.