So far, the study of conspiracy has focused on the obvious targets: full-blown conspiratorial narratives and full-time conspiracy theorists. But for most of us, conspiracy and paranoia are part-time jobs.
When we call something a conspiracy theory, or when we label someone (non-clinically) paranoid, our primary motivation has less to do with the objective truth of the theory or assertion than it does with our evaluation of a point of view. Can the assertion be treated as implicit evidence of a highly suspicious stance? Does it suggest a possibly excessive emphasis on connectivity and a rejection of coincidence? Can we then assume that the author of the assertion is habitually suspicious, preoccupied with making connections, and dismissive of mere chance? Or, if we turn it around and recall the Iran-Contra example, could it be that both “warranted” and “unwarranted” conspiracy theories are more likely to be uncovered by someone with precisely these habits of mind?
Even the most earnest attempts at rehabilitating conspiracy cannot escape the hygienic impulse to distance conspirators from everyone else. By the same token, the attempts to decouple paranoia and conspiracy try to free conspiracy from its stigma by entirely displacing it onto paranoia.
Part of the problem with our discussion of conspiracy theory and paranoia is that it is predicated on a Cartesian model of the subject, one which presumes an integral self. When we talk about belief in conspiracy or about debunking conspiracy, we implicitly posit a subject that is either thoroughly rationally or wholly irrational. But what if we try to think not in term of subjects, but subject positions?
To do so requires that, instead of isolating conspiracy from paranoia, we double down on the connection between the two. What I am proposing is a continuum from isolated instances of suspicion to full-fledged paranoia, a conspiratorial spectrum on which we can all be located (even as those locations may be subject to dynamic change).
The primary components of a conspiratorial outlook are features of human psychology that can generally be considered adaptive and useful: the search for patterns and the assumption of intent. The issue of pattern recognition in conspiracy and paranoia has been raised by a number of scholars, and its role is rather obvious: the urge to connect disparate events into a conspiratorial pattern is akin to the tradition of assigning random starts to constellations. Moreover, patterns once seen are difficult to unsee.
Daniel Dennett argues for the primacy of what he calls the “intentional stance” in the operations of human consciousness and folk psychology:
- Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do. (17)
Simon Baron-Cohen extrapolates an “intentionality detector,” which is key to typical infant development (and whose impairment may play a role in some cases of autism). I would add that both the ability to determine an intentional stance and the tendency to see patterns are inherent to the experience of any narrative (even avant-garde, non-linear narratives, which exploit the frustration of these very impulses in the audience or reader). At its most benign, paranoia is not psychosis; it is phenomenology.
It is is a mistake to use politics and the “real world” as a starting point for understanding conspiracy. Conspiracy belongs first to art, then to ideology.
Narrative is conspiracy. Paranoia is how we read and understand it.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.
Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989.