Question: So what, then, is a conspiracy theory?
Answer: This is the wrong question.
Rather than develop yet another definition of conspiracy, we instead have a broader understanding of the spectrum on which conspiratorial thought lies. At one extreme we find Barkun’s superconspiracy, predicated on the epistemological obsession with connectivity. At the other extreme is conspiracy not as a full-fledged theory or worldview, but as a mode; here, conspiracy is a subject position that can be adopted and dropped at will or unconsciously, invoking the individual memes of a coherent conspiracy theory without necessarily elaborating or committing to the theory itself. We have also rehabilitated the concept of paranoia by divorcing it from the person (as a diagnosis) and attributing it to a possibly temporary stance (a paranoid subject position) that we all rehearse as consumers of media. Most important, we have an approach to conspiracy and paranoia that is not conspiratorial or paranoid.
Since this book is concerned primarily with narrative, there is always the danger of privileging the elaborate, methodical conspiracy theories that tend to get the most attention. But the Russia narrative I elaborated in the introduction, while largely conspiratorial, is not always about a full-fledged conspiracy. To confine our inquiry to full-fledged conspiracy would be misleading in two regards: first, it would overestimate conspiracy by aligning it solely with the semiotic expansionism that marks the biggest conspiracies, thereby playing into their incessant self-aggrandizement. But second, its would underestimate conspiracy by restricting it only to identifiable conspiratorial narratives, and thus ignore the multiple ways in which the conspiratorial mode expresses itself in the short-term adoption of a paranoid stance, as well as through the invocation of conspiratorial memes.
And finally, we no longer need speculate about the state of mind or intent of those who espouse conspiracy (are they serious, or just cynical)? This may be an important question for politics, but it does not have to mater for the discursive approach adopted for the purposes of this book.
The rest of this book will shift back and forth along the conspiratorial continuum. The next chapter, on conspiracy and melodrama, is more concerned with totalizing theories than with memes and modes, while others (such as the chapter on the imagined PC threat), are a bit harder to place. The chapter on “Zombification” is about the moment when conspiracy becomes the snake eating its own tail: here paranoia becomes not just a discourse, but a metadiscourse (with paranoid accusations of paranoia as part of mutual accusations of brainwashing).
“Plots against Russia” is not a simple trip down the proverbial rabbit hole; there are multiple rabbits spread throughout numerous interconnected warrens. And just when it seems as though we have reached stable enough ground to sustain a metaphor, it turns out the rabbit has instead been pulled out of a hat.
Chapter 2 Begins: Catastrophe of the Week