If conspiracy can be a game and paranoia can be playful, we need to broaden our understanding of both phenomena. More and more critics reject the “paranoid” label for conspiracy theorists as a way to fight against a social hygienic impulse (“conspiracy theorists are all raving lunatics wearing tin-foil hats”), but their goal is, more often than not, to rehabilitate discussion of “real” conspiracies by distinguishing them from their lunatic-fringe counterparts. The distinction still comes down to truth (for conspiracy) and sanity (for paranoia). My point is broader: “true” and “false” conspiracy theories share the same basic structure, and all of them function as the predicate for a paranoid subject position.
Moreover, I want to complicate one further category that often frames these discussions: sincerity of intent vs. cynical manipulation. Presumably, at least some of those who espouse a given conspiracy theory are concerned more with the theory’s utility than its veracity. Here, too, we have an often unanswerable question of another person’s motivations. And here, too, I propose setting aside this question as functionally irrelevant.
This brings me back to my earlier proposal of a conspiratorial continuum, a paranoid spectrum to locate anything from a discrete utterance to a full-blown narrative. If we can adopt a paranoid stance when enjoying conspiratorial entertainment, or, more broadly, when analyzing an artistic text under the assumption that it is a maximally consistent system rather than a set of randomly arranged events, we can adopt (and discard) a similar paranoid stance towards more “serious” matters, such as politics, ideology, or world affairs.
If I seem strangely comfortable with the word “paranoid” when most contemporary conspiracy scholars do their best to avoid it, it is because the word is not attached to a person, or at least not as a long-term or permanent attribute. Therefore it is not a diagnosis, because there is no person to diagnose.
True, the paranoid or conspiratorial subject position does imply a subject, but it is a temporary subject, or a subject at a given moment rather than over a long term, In a distinction that probably works better in Spanish (ser vs. estar), that subject is not paranoid, but is being paranoid.
This is where Hofstadter’s notion of a paranoid style can be reclaimed. As a style, paranoia does not have to be a long-term attribute or characteristic of an individual subject. But where Hofstadter’s unit of measure is an entire text (say, the speech of a particularly radical conspiracy theorist), mine is the sentence itself, or the utterance. I propose treating paranoia not as a style, but as a mode. This brings paranoia closer to irony, which is, of course, ironic: more often than not, irony is conspiracy’s kryptonite.
So what does conspiracy look like, when broken down to its smallest units?