How to Do Things with Plots

In the Introduction, I made the case for treating both ideology in general and the various narratives about Russia in particular as if they belonged to the genre of fantasy.  Now I’m arguing that conspiracy’s natural home is art rather than politics.  Is this just perversity for its own sake (not that there’s anything wrong with that)? Or is there, as a conspiracy theorist might say, a hidden agenda?

Actually, there are several.  The first might be called methodological, but only in the spirit of generosity rather than rigor.  Without getting bogged down in the depths of High Theory, there was always something productive in Derrida’s insistence on reversing binaries and exploring the result, most notably his assertion of the primacy of writing over voice.  As a thought experiment at the very least, such perverse reversals capitalize on estrangement and generate new connections and approaches. 

The second would be archeological, and amounts to recognizing Barkun’s contribution to the genealogy of conspiracy, but with a shift in emphasis. As the first half of Culture of Conspiracy shows, so many of the tropes of popular theories have their origins in literary and paraliterary texts:  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were lifted from a French satire by Maurice Joly and German novel by Hermann Goedsche.  The infamous lizard people best known from the rants of David Icke come from a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (yes, that Edward Bulwer-Lytton), while the connections between alien abduction narratives and low-rent science fiction could not be more clear. [1] 

It is the third and final agenda that is most important, in that it circles back to our discussion of intent and belief: what does it mean to take conspiracy theory “seriously”?  And, more provocatively, what would it mean to treat conspiracy as un-serious:  playful, artificial, artistic?  


In a polemic with John Searle over ordinary language, Derrida offers a critique of John Austin’s Speech Act Theory that, however, indirectly, help make my case. [2]  In How to Do Things with Words, Austin initially divides utterances into two categories:  constative (statements that can be evaluated according to their truth value, such as “the cat is on the mat”) and performative (statements that are best considered as either succeeding or failing in doing something (“I sentence you to life in prison.”) After explaining this distinction in exhaustive detail, Austin then concludes that it is not quite accurate:  many utterances have truth value and an effective result, as well as an effect on the listener.  The sentence “Your hair is on fire!” is either true or false, contains the deep structure of a performative act (“I declare that your hair is on fire!”), and no doubt has an effect on the person to whom it is addressed.  

Derrida commends Austin for what he sees as a fundamentally deconstructive move:  establishing a binary (performative/constative), showing its limits and contradictions, but leaving the binary available as a nonetheless useful construct despite its problems. But where he takes Austin to task (and where he argues with Searle) is on the question of seriousness:  Austin insists that, for an utterance to be evaluated according to its felicity (that is, its effectiveness), it must not be a joke or part of a fictional context.  Thus the statement “I now pronounce you husband and wife” has to be made by someone empowered to do so, and in a serious context (and not, for example, on stage). 

Derrida’s objections are twofold: first, Austin’s distinction requires that we evaluate an utterance according to the speaker’s intent (which can be unknowable, contradictory, and in any case irrelevant); second and more important for our purposes, it leaves the entire category of playful speech outside the realm of ordinary language.  Instead, Derrida argues that playfulness and seriousness are simply another binary along which an utterance can be assessed, and that any theory of language can claim validity only if it allows for play (which he sees as a fundamental part of both speech and writing). 

The same, I would argue, holds true for conspiracy theory: since we cannot always be sure of the intent behind articulation of a given conspiratorial idea, we should be able to address it separately from its seriousness as a political program or political critique.  In the Russian context, this releases us from the obligation to determine if a given political actor (including Putin and his top aides) is serious or cynical when indulging in conspiratorial speculation.  More generally, we can examine both “sincere” conspiracy and its satire through not just the tropes common to both, but also the epistemological stance adopted and/or satirized.  

But the most important consequence of the acceptance of play is the recognition of the weakness of the boundaries between the political and the artistic, between conspiracy as argument and conspiracy as entertainment.  In other words, we are back to conspiracy as plot, in all the senses of the word. 

Next: The Play’s the Thing  


[1] See Barkun’s chapters on UFO conspiracies.  In The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, Thomas M. Disch traces the overlap between Whitley Strieber’s work as a popularizer of allegedly non-fictional alien abduction accounts and his prior career as the author of science fiction about the same subject. 

[2] Derrida, Jacques. "Signature Event Context" in Limited, Inc. Northwestern University Press, 1988.