Conspiracies seem to thrive according to a law of increasing complexity: the longer a conspiracy theory lasts, the more likely it is that the underlying storyline has been growing ever more convoluted. Here conspiracy theory resembles serial narrative: for the plot to continue, it must be able to add and recombine new elements. Yet underlying both the paranoid worldview of conspiracy and the melodramatic underpinnings of most serial entertainment is an easily graspable simplicity rather than complexity, in that both serial melodramaand conspiracy are based on a binary, Manichaean model. Quite simply, there are good guys and bad guys, the embattled forces of virtue (the counter-conspirators) and the hidden manipulators hell-bent on ruining the nation or dominating the world (the conspirators).
Conspiracy can account for complexity rather than simply rejecting it, but the complexity becomes immediately comprehensible as a superstructure built on binary simplicity. The world is much more complicated than it might initially appear, but it is not chaotic; indeed, it is the antithesis of chaos, since conspiracy emplots what might otherwise be senseless and random, transforming it into story. And the resulting story is inevitably a melodrama.
Melodrama is the default narrative form that conspiracy takes when it leaps from the rarified world of pseudo-scholarly tracts to fiction (even if the fiction itself is often a thinly-disguised tract). Though popular melodramas are usually concerned primarily with personal dilemmas, they nonetheless share an essential dualistic and even paranoid worldview with conspiracy theory. As Peter Brooks argues in The Melodramatic Imagination, "the center of interest and the scene of the underlying drama reside within . . . the ‘moral occult,’ the domain of operative spiritual values which is both indicated within and masked by the surface of reality” (Brooks 5).
Characterization in melodrama can seem highly schematic, especially given the tendencies of the protagonists of classic melodramas to verbalize their motives and identify their values, but this insistence on rendering everything explicit serves the larger philosophical purposes of revelation: “The melodramatic mode in large measure exists to locate and to articulate the moral occult” (Brooks 5). Such an emphasis on revelation is a perfect vehicle for the agenda of conspiratorial narrative, whose dramatic impetus depends on a similartension between secrecy and disclosure. To be compelling, conspiracy must first convince or remind the audience that the real truths about our world are being hidden, whereupon much of the rest of the narrative is concerned with exposing the secret truth.
Conspiracy and melodrama share more than just the structural principle of secrecy and revelation; despite the different scales on which they operate (the global vs. the personal), they distribute truth and secrecy among a common cast of characters reflecting a single, shared worldview . Melodrama depends on the deployment of the moral occult as an “intense emotional and ethical drama based on the manichaean struggle of good and evil” (Brooks 12). The melodramatic world is one in which
- what one lives for and by is seen in terms of, and as determined by, the most fundamental psychic relations and cosmic ethical forces. The polarization of good and evil works toward revealing their presence and operation as real forces in the world. Their conflict suggests the need to recognize and confront evil, to combat and expel it, to purge the social order. (Brooks 13)
Thus melodrama requires two consecutive actions from its heroes in relation to evil: recognition or revelation, and confrontation. Thistwo-step path is also followed by the heroes of conspiracy fiction, who must have their eyes opened to the true causes of the evil around them (essentially a conversion experience), and then dedicate themselves to the just cause of the opposition.
Neither conspiracy nor melodrama recognizes any middle ground. Melodrama is governed by the law of the excluded middle, a denial of any path other than total commitment to good or evil (Brooks 15). Brooks sees a strong connection between the Manichaeism of melodrama and revolutionary politics:
- Like the oratory of the Revolution, melodrama from its inception takes as its concern and raison d'être the location, expression, and imposition of basic ethical and psychic truths. It says them over and over in clear language, it rehearses their conflicts and combats, it reenacts the menace of evil and the eventual triumph of morality made operative and evident. (Brooks 15)
Such revolutionary oratory presupposes that the truth is already being rendered public, yet the same insistence on simplicity holds true when the political opposition remains underground, operating along conspiratorial models. In the world posited by conspiracy, the convoluted web of secret organizations, mysterious weaponry, and insidious propaganda is ultimately the superstructure resting on a binary base.