Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Reduction to Ignorance: Spinoza in the Age of Conspiracy Theories

I was obsessed with conspiracy theories at some point in my adolescence. I listened to late night radio shows dedicated to alien abductions, satan messages on records, and a more local phenomena known as the mellonheads. These were jokes to me, or at least half jokes, I never took any of them seriously. However, they did contribute to growing sense that there was more to the world than what I was told. Adolescence and conspiracy theories go well together. In recent years, however, it increasingly seems like conspiracy theories have moved from the periphery to the mainstream, and from entertainment to politics. It is hard to avoid the fact that we are living through a profound transformation of knowledge, authority, and politics, and a revival of mystical and mythic forms of knowledge that go beyond any dialectic of enlightenment. It may then turn out that the old arguments regarding superstition have taken on a new relevance. As is often the case on this blog, I am starting here with Spinoza, I have a plan to continue this with a post on Hegel and then Marx, (we will see how it goes).

Perhaps the best way to approach Spinoza on this point is through a joke (one I made awhile ago), "Conspiracy theories are what happens when the attempt to understand the world through final causes reaches its culmination." In other words, conspiracies often begin with the effect of an action or an event and then constructs the intent from that effect. To take two examples, the 9/11 terrorist attacks made possible both the massive expansion of government powers domestically and well as an expansion of empire globally. Or, a little closer to home, the COVID-19 pandemic undermined Trump's presidency, presenting what had up until then been a four year victory lap for winning the election with an actual problem--ruining all the fun, thus it must be a conspiracy. In the mind of a conspiracy theorist the effect becomes a cause, the reason why the event happened in the first place. Since they had these effects that must have been the reason that they happened. 9/11 was an inside job and COVID was an attempt to undermine Trump. To cite Spinoza "For what is really a cause, it considers a an effect, and conversely what is an effect it considers as a cause."

Conspiracy theories are in some sense the secularization of final causes. It is no longer the intentions of god that we see behind the world, but darker forces orchestrating devious plans. Everything is interpreted according to intentions and plans. What remains the same is not just the final cause as the interpretive principle, understanding things through their effects, but also that the world then becomes a series of signs, things to be decoded in order to see intentions. While truth for Spinoza might be "the standard of itself and the false," making the light and darkness plain, signs need an interpretation, which in turn needs an interpretation. This instability is both their limitation and possibility. The instability of signs opens them to interpretation making it possible for anyone to interpret them according to their desires and knowledge. Interpreting signs is a kind of joy, a mastery of the world, and imposing your interpretation on others is a way to dominate and control others. Once everything becomes a sign of something else then it becomes possible to see even more nefarious intentions. Everything is interpreted and everything means something. A simple gesture of kindness becomes a dark plot. How we interpret is an an effect of our history and our desires. The more we see dark forces, the more we see dark forces.

Superstition on this reading is less a matter of a specific content, scripture, the anthropomorphic idea of god, etc., than it is a form, or what Althusser called a matrix. This matrix is dominated by final causes, by the notion that everything that has an effect must have been done for such an effect, and signs, by the idea that grasping who or what are working for such an effect can only be discerned by perceiving everything as a sign. This brings me to what I think might be the most provocative and useful passage from Spinoza with respect to conspiracy theories as the new superstition. In the appendix Spinoza writes the following passage that I quote at length, 

Nor ought we here to pass over the fact that the followers of this doctrine, who have wanted to show off their cleverness in assigning the ends of things, have introduced--to prove this doctrine of theirs--a new way of arguing; by reducing things, not to the impossible, but to ignorance. This shows that no other way of defending their doctrine was open to them. For example, if a stone has fallen from a roof onto someone's head and killed him, they will show, in the following way, that the stone fell in order to kill the man. For if it did not fall to that end, God willing it, how could so many circumstances have concurred by chance (for often many circumstances do concur at once)? Perhaps you will answer that it happened because the wind was blowing and the man was walking that way. But they will persist: why was the wind blowing hard at that time? Why was the man walking that way at the same time? If you answer again that the wind arose then because on the preceding day, while the weather was still calm, the sea began to toss, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will press on--for there is no end to the questions which can be asked...And  so they will not stop asking for the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of god, that is, the sanctuary of ignorance.

Spinoza could be understood to describing a particular kind of trolling that is often described as "sea lioning" thanks to the comic by David Malki. However, beyond the persistent questions there is a second point from Spinoza that is no less important. Despite the fact that there are, as the passage suggests, causal conditions for everything, these causes and their connections often exceed our (largely inadequate) knowledge. An ignorance of how the world works, how weather patterns emerge and why people do what they do, is in some sense irreducible as we will never grasp all of the causes. In its place conspiracy theories seem to offer at least an answer to the question. Beyond the specifics of Spinoza's example it is worth noting that most of us, even the well informed and philosophically inclined, float upon a sea of ignorance. We might know a little about the science behind climate change, a little about what is happening in this or that part of the world, but all in all our ignorance exceeds our knowledge. We often then defer to others, the meteorologist explains weather to us, and so on. Conspiracy theorists have a name for the implicit trust in others' knowledge and expertise that underlies our daily life, and that word is "sheeple." We might say that the reduction to ignorance becomes often a reduction to an appeal to authority; at some point, when confronted with questions about how we know climate change is a reality that we must face or how we know that there is not an evil cabal of satanic pedophiles running the country at some point we have to defer to some sort of authority, to some source other than our own experience. Thus in some sense, authority is an unavoidable fact of human existence, even if it is constantly overreaching its limits and eliciting contestation. Authority is both useful, and excessive, contesting authority is also both useful and excessive.

Of course one could argue that all immediate knowledge is a combination of experience and authority, of what Spinoza calls things directly experienced and knowledge gathered from signs. It is from this combination that we construct knowledge of the world. From this angle we could argue that a conspiracy theory is a particular way of combining experience and signs, of knowledge and interpretation. The central aspect of this sign, that which is in need of interpretation, but no less central is the privilege such knowledge attaches to experience. As Jodi Dean argues, the antechamber of the modern conspiracy theory is the UFO encounter or alien abduction story, which put privilege on testimony, of the authenticity of experience. Neglected or recovered experience has played a role in a whole history of conspiracies from alien abductions to satanic panics. The subject of contemporary conspiracy is less someone who directly experienced things kept secret from the rest of us, but has decoded or discovered a secret closed to most of us. They have not been onboard the space ship, but they can pinpoint the exact moment in the video that the lizard person reveals his or her true nature. The central claim of every contemporary conspiracy theory is less "this happened to me" than "I did the research." The first person is the privileged mode of this research. It is not what "they" say, but what "I" have come to know. As much as this "I" is constructed in opposition to "they" to what it perceives as conformity to authority, as we have seen it is also framed in terms of another "they," that of the conspirators it imagines. One could add here Spinoza's remark that we imagine the other's temperament, their constitution, through our own, projecting our strivings and struggles onto them. They are just like us, and that is why they cannot be trusted.

What is the experience behind the conspiracy theorist's claim to knowledge? For Spinoza the first kind of knowledge, that drawn from experience and signs, is inadequate knowledge. Inadequate knowledge involves an encounter between our body and another body, between us and something in the world, but it tells us little of either. What we get is a mix of our own desires, fears, and hopes and some qualities of the object, of what we encounter, but these appear jumbled, as our perceptions and projections shape and distort the object while the object only reveals part of who we are. It is from this perspective that we can grasp contemporary conspiracy theories which often begin from certain kind of empiricism, not the empiricism of experiments and labs, but of immediate everyday experience and desires. It is this experience, the experience of the world as one sees it, an experience that seems increasingly insignificant in the face of contemporary society, that conspiracies bestow with a new importance and dignity. Anything that does not conform to this immediate experience, Helen Keller remarkable life, or even the way snow in Texas melts is discounted because it does not conform to this experience. The last example is particularly instructive, the videos of people melting snowballs demonstrates that sometimes empirical evidence is just another word for inadequate ideas.

Flat earthers, people who believe Covid is a hoax, and even those (white people) who claim that racism does not exist base their claims on what they have directly experienced without examining the limits or conditions of that experience. This then is combined with a particular desire, whether it is a desire to believe that one is the center of the universe, in the case of flat earthers; that we are not in the midst of a pandemic, in the case of Covid deniers; or that we are absolved of history, in the case of people who refuse to believe in racism. The final ingredient is then research; this research is, as has often been remarked, a particular kind of confirmation bias, people find sources which confirm what they think, a tendency that is increased by the algorithms of youtube and facebook, which are increasingly engineered to confirm our biases and desires. Spinoza wrote that we are born conscious of our desires and ignorant of causes of things; to which we could add that the contemporary individual is born conscious of their desires but ignorant of the algorithms that show them what they see. 

To return to a theme I have been thinking about a lot recently, it is not just that contemporary subjection is treated as salvation, but rebellion. Those who seem themselves as rebelling against the mandates of mask orders, of belief in global warming, and other conspiracies, are in and through their rebellion conforming more than they know to a society that has no real ability or desire to stave off a pandemic or avert a global catastrophe at the expense of profits. 

Conspiracy theories are, to use a Deleuze and Guattari formulation, a particular assemblage, a particular combination of experience, desire, and technology. A particular way of combining what is experienced, what we want or fear, and the technology mediations that make up much of life. Viewing it this way, as an assemblage, makes it possible to think about how the same elements, how experience, desire, and technology could be used to construct a different assemblage a different kind of knowledge, one that is not suspended between two subjects, the one who is supposed to know and the other who is supposed to conspire, but sees the world defined not just in terms of intentions, but structures and relations, and because of this such a world cannot simply be grasped by the immediacy of experience. This is a question I hope to address in future posts. 


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  2. Congratulations for the post. Thanks a lot for your spinozian analysis about conspiracy theories, Jason. But is not the question of salvation and rebellion tightly knotted in the contemporary covid denial theories? Is there not in the heart of this narrative structures a kind of collective pattern of illumination and salvation? Even if it is against someone.

    Waiting the next chapters of your reflection.

    Mario Espinoza