First off, I want it to be clear that I am not an advocate of conspiratorial worldviews. When I say they are ‘real’ I mean to suggest that they are an object-event (a phenomenon which we can point at) which is happening. The subscribers of these worldviews, by subscribing to them, give them this form of reality. My interest is in their social implications. Ever since I read Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form as an undergrad—which contains ‘The Rhetoric of Hitler’s “Battle”‘—I have maintained the opinion that nothing is undeserving of critical analysis. Burke felt obligated to qualify his reasons for writing the essay, as people questioned the viability of his efforts. After all, Mein Kampf was written by an undeniably evil person, something everyone was/is in agreement with. This led to the conclusion that Hitler’s book be dumped in the dustbin of history, off limits as taboo. Burke qualified his endeavour by stating something along the lines of: if we don’t understand how the rhetoric works through analysis, we miss an opportunity to learn from it. We, moreover, cut-off our mode of access to a method of learning from history. I am in agreement. As I see it history is a difficult thing to learn from because of voices cut off while the history is happening. Burke was fortunately only almost silenced by convention, which he was able to evade because he was in fact informing the convention. An important input. Maybe we need to become comfortable with writing history in real time, if only to secure a multiplicity of voices, so as to secure the narrative itself for posterity.
Writing about conspiracies is the same, though admittedly not as intense as understanding Hitler’s rhetoric. I am not aligning this with Nazism, only with the act of enabling access, which Burke’s non-conformist attitude teaches us the importance of, especially in our current circumstances. I don’t think de-platforming is a necessarily helpful action, as it just shifts the locus elsewhere. Alex jones is a pretty good example: he lost his platform but continues to go on Joe Rogan (where he is watched by millions, uncensored), and to find spaces for his own show in other online milieus. What this has done in the case of conspiracy theories is spawn a whole network of online milieus, which are dedicated to conspiracy-oriented information. In this spatium, conspiracies propagate without censorship and maintain greater freedom to express and develop their ideological framework, and ultimately, the number of their subscribers. They have already spilt into the real world and after garnering the attention of reputed media sources—albeit derogatory criticism—have subsequently emerged into their focused loci. So it is imperative we understand how it is these worldviews are developed.
InThe Parasite Michel Serre explains how ‘noises’ within ‘milieus’ cause perturbations of the smooth-functioning of systems, which milieus are, ‘thus noise is the fall into disorder and the beginning of an order’ (79). According to Serres ‘the noise is a joker’ (67), a sort of trickster that remains a withdrawn potential of objects. This perturbation of para-sites, the thing that sits at the periphery waiting to make a noise, is the reason for the restless movement of social flows. It is a fitting metaphor for the chaos unfolding currently, because of a parasite. What the para-site does by parasiting, is extract from things a potentiality. What Covid has done is perturb into visibility a new form of conspiracy theory, which is a noise reverberating through social milieus. How this has come about I hope to interrogate here.
Since the emergence of the novel strain of coronavirus, covid-19, conspiracy theories have developed into something different from the cowled lunacy commonly associated with their paranoid character. They have become transmuted into po-faced, brazen responses in radical disagreement against the restrictions Covid has forced on society. They come armed and proud with their own “facts” and heroes of reason. They are ‘real’, what they think has ‘real’ affective consequence, not just for them, but the whole socius. They vote and are buying loaves of bread, baked beans and tea bags in the next aisle.
Conspiracies are part of the minefield of mal-information, which more and more people are navigating on their way toward understanding what is happening to them. Unfortunately, some are not finding their way through the Camus’ (not the French existentialist) forest of illusion. Often, these days, a friend will explain how someone they know (a girlfriend’s parent, a colleague, a mother, father, or friend) is in some large or small part persuaded by the convoluted narratives of these conspiratorial worldviews. What these worldviews amount to isn’t easy to pin down. It is enabled by paranoia—a form of schizophrenia, propagated by decades of neoliberal whitewashing of what is being carried out beneath the thin, volatile veneer of our various social infra-structures. This is evidently so, still!: we need only remind ourselves of the Tory cronyism, which is an ongoing, partially withdrawn problem in UK politics. The parasite perturbs the parasite into para-siting. Something like that.
The schizophrenic exists in a ‘reality’ without fixity. The neat alignment of word/object shape-shifts unexpectedly, without prior warning. The signifier, significantly anchors a large part of the socially conditioned conscious-mind: the object is always coupled with the word we give it, even if we choose to designate interpretative meanings to signifiers, as poets do through metaphor, or theorists do with terminology. But for the schizophrenic this relationship between the signified and its signifier is radically disrupted, so much so that the delusion is made visible. The conspiracy theorist displays a similar disruption. They superimpose circumstances onto the “world”, which is signified a way-things-are mentality, which is accepted as such. This way-things-are is called into question by the conspiracy theorist. This may range from a healthy scepticism to fully manifested delusion, as was the case in my example of two people trying to remove their family member from a Sussex hospital (https://danielpaulmarshall.com/2021/01/27/covid-and-world-risk-society/). This is the extreme end of the scizo-conspiracist gauge.
What has occurred, since the emergence of neoliberalism into politics and business is the wholesale erosion of fixity. People used to have skills that placed them in a single profession for extended periods of time, maybe even their whole working life. People generally knew where they stood in regard their identity. There were anomalies as always, but their identities were not normalised into ready acceptance.
Planes of Consistency
The capitalist ‘plane of consistency’ (to borrow Deleuzian terms) is not, in fact, all that consistent. Its consistency is established via differentials, which emerge in spite of and because of it. What differentials do, in D+G’s system, is become repetitions, or bizarrely, planes of consistency. What D+G terms the plane of consistency is not dissimilar from what I oversimplify as the way-things-are. The reason Deleuze & Guattari titled their landmark project Capitalism and Schizophrenia is because of a tension between the establishing of a consistent plane and the heterogeneity of assemblages coded into it, which shift or take ‘lines of flight’ through the strata of what D+G call ‘the body without organs’ (BwO). A body without organs (if I understand it correctly) can be an identifying trait of a personality, or something given a value despite having no body, as such. Some examples are currency values, a love of music, a sexual fetish, capitalism, a religious belief. Think… intensities. As D+G put it:
You make one, you can’t desire without making one. And it awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t…You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. People ask, So what is this BwO?—But you’re already on it, scurrying like a vermin, groping like a blind person, or running like a lunatic: desert traveller and nomad of the steppes. On it we sleep, live our waking lives, fight—fight and are fought—seek our place, experience untold happiness and fabulous defeats; on it we penetrate and are penetrated; on it we love (174).
The metaphor of the nomad is important here, as it indicates that objects move through the capitalism plane of consistency, because capitalism generates this momentum due to peaks, troughs, convolutions and convulsions of varying intensities of stability and instability within it. These just are a form of consistency as they continually occur.
These ‘experimentations’, which are inherently intensive, become stratified into layers which are coded into (or rather as) the expression and expressive capacity of society. And which, in response and reaction to each other, are being constantly deterritorialized and reterritorialized (thus the oscillation between stability and instability).Territorialization is a means of visualising the abstract spatiality which BwOs code as the social atmosphere we respond to and, due to these responses, alter the trajectories of. As D+G explain: ‘The BwO causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree—to the degree corresponding to the intensities produced’ (178). There is a continual tension between the responses stimulating the body of intensive spatiums emerging to be the socius.
Why D+G develop such a sophisticated and peculiar body-territory paradigm is in order to illustrate how society propagates and maintains itself, which is what bodies do as the molecular units of the social body—think of the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, where the despot’s body is composed of its subjects. D+G represent not only the structure, but how the structural affect of capitalism moves the socium.
Capitalism requires continual movement through phases in order to continually self-generate. Planned obsolescence is nothing but a mechanism that stabilises returns, which establishes this act of renewal as a characteristic function, self-enforced and coded into the value system of society: why do you think products look so clean and nice in their sheen of transparent plastic.
We see this same renewal in innumerable sectors of society. What follows these acts of renewal is a generation of people, who associates and informs itself on the current expressive renewal of the capitalism-machine. This provides a plane of consistency which hums as the background shifting of production-consumption, which we as desiring-machines (as D+G phrase it) enable the existence of, because we identify objects with ourselves in order to create identities. If we weren’t persuaded to desire renewal—or if this wasn’t discovered to be a capacity of our being—then how would an economy such as ours be able to function?
I am not sure if we can, following D+G’s ideas, disentangle capitalism from schizophrenia. They produce each other, because they are within and constitute a rhizomal matrix of stratified intensities existing in tandem and perforating one another. In short, you don’t get capitalism without schizophrenia, because capitalism is a coded signifier, which signifies something to us, and which we must attempt to interpret, in real-time. Because capitalism enables within it the continual shifting of coded signifiers, it necessarily produces a system which is fundamentally schizophrenic. Capitalism then just is schizophrenia.
Brief Encounters with Newly Manufactured Visibilities
The newly manufactured visibility of conspiracies is a hybrid of the previous (and still extant), more far-fetched conspiracies of nefarious secret organisations. This is coupled with an idiom and aesthetic, which parodies left-wing media organisations like the Guardian. For example, the OffGuardian with its tagline ‘because facts really should be sacred’ is establishing itself as a beacon of meticulous, fact checked information. Which the Guardian has always professed itself to be and its readership (may, arguably) attest to.
The OffGuardian sells a form of hope in good, common sense. Wielding its zeitgeisty tone, it believes it offers an informed alternative. This is not a collection of falsehoods or speculative rumination, not to its subscribers. It is ‘real’. As real as the nose grafted to your face.
One of the voices from this newly formed conspiracy visibility is CJ Hopkins, a playwright and satirist. I honestly thought when I first read his article ‘The Covidian Cult’ (https://consentfactory.org/2020/10/13/the-covidian-cult/) that it was a joke. Mostly because he pointedly acknowledges he is a satirist, but moreover, because he can actually write in somewhat of a critical idiom, which we must suppose conspiratorial information requires treatment with. Why this made me laugh is anybodies guess. CJ Hopkins writes like someone educated in critical theory, but with the bitter finish of a cynical know-it-all whose insights permit him to talk with fierce, biting frankness. If anyone can be held up as an example of conspiracies crossing from the threshold of badly composed, agitated lunacy, to well composed, persuasive, faux-critical countermeasure, it is Hopkins. Hopkins, despite all the trappings of paranoia, angst and non-conformist rhetoric, does so in a way that is genuinely persuasive. He is sauve, well-dressed and educated by a career spent in liberal, artsy circles. This is unusual for conspiracy theorists. It’s as if you could replace his content with that of any respected journalist or theorist, and the language would cozy up quite satisfactorily.
Hopkins does not self-identify as a conspiracy theorist and when he says this in his honied drawl, you believe him. He is being reasonable. He isn’t anti-mask, he merely believes the enforcement is unjust. He’s even said that were it a choice he’d probably acquiesce to restrictions.
Hopkins’ analysis of the situation is that a cult-like attitude is gripping people, who are hasping to it as an ideology, encouraging them to band together under the banner of good-sense and righteousness. Hopkins is a radical non-conforming, individualist. His problem is with the herd mentality, which has led to people being unable to question the dominant narrative, which Covid has created. This is far different from an outright denial of the existence of the virus and indicative of the nuances, which conspiracies have evolved into.
However, like any conspiracy-oriented theorists Hopkins leaves factual voids. Where Hopkins makes a significant blunder is here: ‘The Head of the Health Emergencies Program at the WHO has basically confirmed an IFR of 0.14%, approximately the same as the seasonal flu (https://consentfactory.org/2020/10/13/the-covidian-cult/).’ The statistic is true, it seems. However, this is not exactly the same as flu. According to Anthony Fauci (https://www.health.com/condition/cold-flu-sinus/how-many-people-die-of-the-flu-every-year) flu has a mortality rate of 0.1%, which is significantly different from 0.14% which is 0.13% higher. At the time Hopkins wrote ‘The Covidian Cult’ (October 2020) we were still attempting to accurately gauge the virus’s potential severity, with some predictions of the fatality rate going as high as 3.4% (which Hopkins derides). This projection was likely based on Covid not being met with restrictions across all sectors of society, and without the prospect of a vaccination program. In addition, Covid isn’t seasonal like flu is: 1000s were dying weekly in the UK and US during the spring/summer of 2020. So we could expect that Covid would just keep killing people all year, as it is in India currently.
How Hopkins can so easily omit this factual nuance is because people are not really capable generally of understanding the nuances between numbers with a decimal point, as they are with whole numbers. I was guilty of this, until I looked at the numbers of flu deaths per year and how many have died from Covid. People think the differences of decimal numbers are negligible. But, actually there is a significant difference between 0.1% and 0.14%. Flu is certainly a deadly contagion, killing anywhere between 200-600,000 people annually. However, the current figure for Covid after just over a year is 3,435,192. That is a significant discrepancy, which is only as low as it is because countries are under abnormal restrictions. We must be cautious not to attribute the same intensity to all conspiracies. Hopkins, for example doesn’t deny Covid’s existence, so much as he denies the austere response to what is a low fatality rate. Again, he quotes the survival figures, which are:
- Age 0-19 99.997%
- Age 20-49 … 99.98%
- Age 50-69 … 99.5%
- Age 70+ … 94.6% (https://consentfactory.org/2020/10/13/the-covidian-cult/)
But again, this doesn’t account for the nuance of small percentages. A fatality of 5.4% globally for over 70s is a huge number of people dead. At first glance, a survival expectancy of 99.997% invites a scoff of exaggerated disapproval at the profound disruption Covid has caused. But it ignores the amount of affected life 0.3, 0.2, 0.5 and 5.4% really amounts to in a global community of 7.8 billion people.
Hopkin’s ideas is on a different gradation of intensity compared to out right denial that the virus exists and is actually being orchestrated by a global elite with a nefarious plan to subjugate 7.8 billion people. They share the same schizophrenia, as well as a belief in a plot against us. Their delusions are different in degree rather than kind.
It is the complexity caused by different intensities, which makes the new visibility of conspiracies so concerning. The information has reached such a critical mass that it has become a field of study in its own right. The subscribers talk of ‘doing your own research’ or claim to be an authority because they spent late nights reading things people don’t usually read. You only have to read comment sections to harvest an understanding of what ‘research’ means in the conspiracy milieus. Moreover, having expanded its milieu, it now occupies more territory, with a greater number of subscribers. It is now a self-generated milieu, with an affective reach into popular media. It is a fully-fledged BwO.
We are just beginning to realise that this is a subject worth speculating about. Something which has withdrawn and incubated itself in our collective dissatisfaction with authority, and in return done little, actionably, to assuage our state of disaffection.
Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Serre, Michel. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Minnesota UP, 2007.