Paranoid Style

“[We] should not reduce[conspiracy theorists] to the phenomenon of modern mass hysteria…. the problem is not that ufologists and conspiracy theorists regress to a paranoid attitude unable to accept (social) reality; the problem is that this reality itself is becoming paranoiac” – Zizek

Great new post up from Cockydooody on paranoia, the proliferation of conspiracy and the Sorel-Gramsci-etc line: The Million-Pronged Seesaw of the World (amazing title). There’s a passage that Cocky quotes from Boris Groys’ Communist Postscript that is simply sublime:

Revolutionary suspicion is the effect of paranoia. But this is not a case of ‘subjective’ paranoia, which could be cured psychiatrically or psychoanalytically, but rather of an ‘objective’ paranoia, the conditions of whose emergence lie in the object itself, which arouses suspicion by appearing as an obscure object, one that recoils from the coherent arguments of reason. The whole world appears to us in this way as just such an obscure object, one that necessarily arouses the suspicion of harbouring in its interior a diabolical reason that rules through paradoxes.

This description of the world as an “obscure object” that brings forth an “‘objective’ paranoia” brings immediately, to my mind, Jameson’s critical take on conspiracy theory, which he airs in The Postmodern Condition and later texts like “Cognitive Mapping”. To summarize it briefly, Jameson borrows this concept, cognitive mapping, from MIT urban planner and architect Kevin Lynch. It’s deployed initially by Lynch to sketch out the relationship between people and spatial totalities that they inhabit—namely, the city. Over time one forms a sense of place, comes to internalize representations of the landscape dotted by buildings, monuments, roads, park, etc. This mapping allows the individual to situate themselves within this space through the production of coordinates that grasp the whole.

In the dizzying world of capitalism (particularly its more contemporary, overly financialized, information technology-drenched de-industrialized zones) the city becomes, in Jameson’s gloss on Lynch, ‘alienated’. For Lynch, the problem is that people find themselves unable to draw forth the cognitive map”—a loss of the ability to grapple with the urban totality. In the case of Jameson’s Marxist remix, it recedes into misty recesses, the fundamental structures of the world or the base become shrouded in a web of pure contingency, a nihilistic chaosmos—or, in the case of conspiracy theory, the imperatives of unseen actors and their byzantine plots.

Jameson suggests that Lynch’s cognitive mapping aligns with the Althusserian/Lacanian understanding of ideology: “the representation of the subject’s Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence”. The conspiracy theory is bid to establish representation, but one that ultimately fails. In the text “Cognitive Mapping”, he writes of conspiracy theory as “the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is the degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content”. This passage on conspiracies in The Postmodern Condition spells this out in further detail:

I want to suggest that our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely, the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself. This is a figural process presently best observed in a whole mode of contemporary entertainment literature—one is tempted to characterize it as “high-tech paranoia”—in which the circuits and networks of some putative global computer hookup are narratively mobilized by labyrinthine conspiracies of autonomous but deadly interlocking and competing information agencies in a complexity often beyond the capacity of the normal reading mind. Yet conspiracy theory (and its garish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt—through the figuration of advanced technology—to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.

Jameson’s conspiracy theories here are specific to the postmodern epoch, as opposed to conspiracy theory as such: the mad compounding of narratives and counter-narratives that are best perhaps pictured through the way they manifested in the 90s, in pure Baudrillardian hyperreal form and millenarian gloss. The libidinalized ravings of doomsday preachers on the eve of the millennium and ecstatic dread of the militia man scanning the skies for swarms of black helicopters, pilgrims in the desert journeying to the outer perimeters of secret military bases, the electronic glow of the computer screen, the grainy tape images on public access television and the crackle of the shortwave radio, all whipped together into an apophenic fury at the end of history. Today this all returns again, albeit in heavily in heavily commodified and controlled form. Russiagate theorizing is the curious left-liberal echo of the right-populist fear of the New World Order, itself an echo of their predecessor’s imaginary conception of Soviet power. The brooding social negativity of survivalist is fodder for National Geographic reality shows for us to gawk at, and Area 51 becomes the staging ground for corporatized raves. The pedophilic power elite becomes realized as reality via Epstein, with the ramifications of this and his death immediately liquidated and prevented from having any impact on public consciousness. Reality, as Zizek says, might be becoming paranoiac, but as it approaches a general condition that doubles back upon itself…

Jameson’s account can be broadened from remaining relegated to the postmodern epoch, as the link between the apprehension of the conspiracy and political action appears as fundamental, repeating again and again in the accounts of great revolutions and wars. It’s in the persistence of the totality: Lukacs, in History and Class Consciousness, suggests that Marxism is distinct in that it begins from the position of the totality, in contrast to the bourgeois ideology that begins from that of the individual. “It is no accident because the moment you abandon the point of view of totality, you must also jettison the starting-point and the goal, the assumptions and the requirements of the dialectical method. When this happens revolution will be understood not as part of a process but as an isolated act cut off from the general course of events”. He identifies Blanquism as one such form of political action that eschews the position of the totality—but one might also make the point that populism more generally, in both its left and right forms, tend to emerge on this basis. Here we move from the concrete and particular manifestations of conspiracy theory to a more abstract form that Richard Hofstader once (insufficiently) termed the “paranoid style” of politics, which is the expression of a ‘mistrust of the elites’ on the part of neither the proletariat or the individual, but the sub-class understanding of the objective bonds between individuals: the social bloc described simply as “the people”.

Populism has been labeled a degradation of ‘class conscious’ politics in that it mistakes the effect for the cause. There is a mistrust of the elites, but it is grounded in the activities of the elites, as opposed to the underlying structures that give rise to those very activities. This is the position that Mark Fisher advances in an old K-punk post called “Left Hyperstition”; here, the populism takes the “form of a hystericalized liberalism…  an insistence that an evil oligarchy are responsible for capitalism”. Yet the post concludes by calling for the creation of fictions to operate in the manner of a Pascalian ‘belief-before-belief’: following Badiou, he writes how “only fictions are capable of generating belief… since capitalism is itself inherently fictional, it is essential that counter-capitalist fictions be produced”. The irony is that this itself comes close to the understanding of populism in the tradition of Laclau, where the mission of the ‘people’ is invested with a series of imaginal coordinates that propel it forward (perhaps this is why, nine years after his denunciation of populism in ‘Left Hyperstition’, Fisher could write that “Owen Jones is correct about the need for a left-wing populism”, and then proceed to argue for a revival of a cultural ‘popular modernism’)

Since I’m short on time, here’s a few compressed suggestions (in the manner of the Fisher post above):

  1. Populism can’t be understood only as a sub-class struggle or anti-class struggle form of politics. It’s best understood as a mutable field capable of giving rise to class struggle, emerging from the concrete experience of people under the domination of capital. From this point of view, conspiracy theory and the ‘paranoid style’ is not just a degraded form of cognitive mapping (Jameson) or pattern of reactionary behavior (Hofstader), but both a sensible response to prevailing conditions and a potential ground.
  2. There’s a deep affinity between Fisher’s ‘counter-capitalist fictions’ and Jameson’s attempts to find ways of mediating with totality in the limited vantage point of our concrete circumstances: for Jameson, totality in postmodern capitalism has become intractably shrouded, necessitating aesthetic forms of mediation to grapple with it, or (in the manner of his literary work) allegorical depiction. This seems to me to be much closer to the conspiracy theory than Jameson would like to admit, as the conspiracy theory is already a sort of unconscious allegory. This allegorical function is admittedly more related to the function of reflection, while Fisher’s counter-capitalist fictions is related to action—but in the case of populism each of these tend to undergo a short-circuiting.
  3. The spiral of proliferation-commoditization of paranoiac discourse doesn’t serve to undercut further it, but perhaps even spurs its further development. As the crisis of capitalism mounts, we can only expect the paranoid style to widen its grasp and deepen its reach.

3 thoughts on “Paranoid Style

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