After High Weirdness was published in 2019, I started doing the usual round of podcasts and readings. I expected to mostly talk about Philip K. Dick, and maybe round out the chats with some takes on Terence McKenna, whose dark-elf charisma is greatly missed amidst the slick nostrums of today’s psychedelic discourse (at least by me). But I wound up mostly riffing about Robert Anton Wilson, the most obscure character in my triumvirate of high weirdos.
The reason was simple. RAW speaks most directly to one of the central features of our times: the massive uptick of viral conspiracy theories and tricky darkside counter-narratives that, as both symptom and cause, seem to be further eroding the already rickety foundations of consensus reality. True, PKD did map many a gnostic racket, and Terence also tossed fuel on the fire—seeding Alex Jones’ DMT rants, not to mention that whole 2012 thing, which these days looks merely hasty. But RAW’s work is the most relevant to the task at hand: to understand and navigate the matrix of rabbit holes that has rendered our once sorta solid modern world a Swiss cheese of suspicious plots and phantasmic speculations.
“Conspiracy theory” is a vexed term, of course, though still a useful one, especially when Republicans are nominating QAnon proponents, and your high school buddy on Facebook can’t shut up about Bill Gates. That said, for over fifty years, the phrase has also been deployed by academics, politicians, and mainstream media outlets in order to marginalize alternative or threatening ideas, histories, and claims—some of which, needless to say, eventually prove to be true, or at least generally accepted as such. And even when they are not true, these stories sometimes serve as valuable allegories of real conditions—the feverish images of a pop sociology that need to be reckoned with, and not merely left to fester in the waste-basket of rejected knowledge.
Perhaps we are all conspiracy theorists now, but if not, we definitely all have theories of conspiracy theory now. Secular liberals fear and misunderstand QAnon (and maybe overstate its reach), while conservatives—rightly in my view—point to the media’s inflation of Russiagate as an example of conspiracy mongering on the blue side of the aisle. In other words, both conspiracy theories and “conspiracy theory” have become tactical moves in the larger Great Game that is now afoot: a global mindshare struggle that involves narrative warfare, attention algorithms, meme magick, cognitive biases, a splintered Internet, weaponized fear, and infectious phantasms.
Don’t wanna play? Too late!
Let’s call this open-ended augmented reality game Wilderness of Mirrors. That phrase comes from the notoriously paranoid CIA counter-espionage maestro James Jesus Angleton, who cribbed it from T.S. Eliot in order to describe, during the Cold War, the “myriad of stratagems, deceptions, artifices, and all the other devices of disinformation which the Soviet bloc and its coordinated intelligence services use to confuse and split the West … an ever fluid landscape where fact and illusion merge.”
Ring a bell? Angleton’s image reminds us that today’s digital remix of Cold War struggles with Russia, alongside the freshy we’ve got going with China, directly contributes to our own juicy landscape of factualized illusions and illusory, or elusive, facts. Whatever the reality, our beliefs about the power of Russia’s insidious election hackers bounces back on us regardless, while the Man Behind the Curtain’s latest Oz volume is clearly Tik-Tok from Red Square.
But Angleton’s image covers a broader terrain in my mind than today’s global Realitypolitik, and a much more intimate one as well. Wilderness of Mirrors also names and maps the peculiar optics, alienated claustrophobia, and epistemological uncertainty that characterizes the mazy chaos of screens that has drawn us into the not-so-funhouse of Circus Hypermedia. You might want to pin Wildnerness of Mirrors above your monitor, or etch it onto the face of your mobile, not unlike the medieval map-makers who scrawled Here be dragons in the margins.
The wilderness is a weird place, in the specific senses that I unpack in High Weirdness: uncanny, tricksy, and ontologically unstable. This makes the wilderness a ripe zone for the religious or occult imagination, as well as for cosmic mindfucks and what Bob Wilson (and his writing partner Robert Shea) called “the paradoxical paranoidal paranormal parameters of synchronicity.” What haunts mirrors, after all, are appearances. Pragmatically speaking, these appearances are representations of the world that are generally good enough to go by, even if they are not always quite what they seem. But what makes our present situation a wilderness is that these good-enough appearances are increasingly impossible to sift from reflections and projections, from phantasms and tricks of the light, even as the underlying infrastructure of those networks of screens grows ever more unpredictable and entropic.
This confusion is so discombobulating that it invokes the Imagination whether we want it to or not. The Imagination furnishes the glue to link disparate events; its phantasms are manipulated by spinmasters; Hollywood and immersive designers engineer it into entertainments; and wild youtube self-aggrandizers create conspiratorial exposes out of magical thinking and ancient folklore. But despite these distortions, the Imagination is not mere fantasy or delusion. (That’s why I am capitalizing it.) What I am talking about is something deeper, “archetypal” if you want, but at the very least haunted with patterns and presences that stretch far beyond our individual fancies, even beyond the limits of “the human.”
As scholars of conspiracy theory have noted, a number of the classic plots are feverish revisions of older religious imaginings. The whole New World Order thing, for example, derives in many ways from ideas about the reign of the Antichrist that premillennialist Protestants wove from the visionary figures of the Book of Revelation around the turn of the last century. If you are one of those noble fools who try to argue with conspiracists head-on, using common sense, logic, and conventional knowledge, you have probably encountered more than a touch of this sort of millennialist fervor in response: intransigent conviction, an apocalyptic urgency, and, especially, an overwhelming Manichaean tendency to split the agents involved between good and evil, white hats and the very blackest.
These religious and apocalyptic drives are crucial to keep in mind—QAnon makes a lot more sense when you see it as an emerging faith, with hope and community woven into dark obsessions with pedophilia. But for my purposes, its important to somewhat tease apart these apocalyptic patterns from the more esoteric and aggressively surreal oddities that also haunts conspiracy narratives. Claims about the Trilateral Commission and chemtrails are one thing; invocations of extraterrestrial blood lines within elite families, or secret societies that stretch back to Sumer, or sorcerous Illuminati “twilight language” lurking in pop media, are another.
Weirdo scholars like me have been tracking this stuff forever. Recently the mainstream has cottoned on, as an anxious and unraveling system of authority tries to outrun Q drops, the dangerous denialism of Plandemic, and 5G infrastructure freakouts. Their push-back, of course, is almost exclusively a secular-rational one. Conspiracy theory, in this Enlightenment light, represents a delusional kink in our evolutionary psychology, or an Internet-driven meme plague, or a rightwing politics of fear and resentment. As an infectious social-cognitive disease, conspiracy theory should be met with gentle logical argument, university discourse, and proper information hygiene.
Go for it folks, I wish you the best of luck, but forgive me if I don’t hold my breath. As my readers and listeners know, I am a fan of critical thinking (despite its blinkers), science (in its usually understated complexity and ambiguity), expert knowledge (taken, as always, with Himalayan pink salt), and the critical methods of historical scholarship (however fragile and sometimes deceptive). But as all these parentheticals indicate, such approaches have their limits, and sometimes we find ourselves—spiritually and existentially, individually and societally—beyond those limits.
Here and in a few posts to come, I want to sneak up on conspiracy theory more obliquely: with some commentary on California-bred texts by Wilson, Thomas Pynchon, and Ishmael Reed with some personal tales and gnostic reflections. With one possible exception, I won’t be hacking my way through the dense underbrush of particular theories—work that is made particularly tedious and exhausting by the obsessional, data-dense, and flabby, pile-it-up associational logic that characterizes many (but not all) such narratives. For now I want to stay away from the nitty-gritty. You have plenty of that between your toes already.
Instead I am interested in something more general, but also more esoteric, ironic, and imaginal. I want to probe, from the inside as well as out, the underlying mindset that Thomas Konda calls conspiracism—the cognitive and mythopoetic attitude that expects, discovers, and extends narratives about the hidden agents behind historical events into massive and sometimes paranoid designs, cosmic plots that sprout all manner of strange and baneful phantasmagoria. Conspiracism is a different beast than conspiracy theory proper, and both are different from the broader conspiracy culture—in which I must admit participation, up to a point—that enjoys conspiracies as a mode of fringe entertainment.
Here’s my esoteric wager: I want to suggest that conspiracism, and the paranoid vibes that often fuel it, can be seen as a kind of initiation, or a simulacrum of initiation, or an initiation gone awry. It is no accident that secret societies, whether occult or elite or both, play such a central role in so many conspiracy narratives, because secret societies centrally involve structured forms of initiation. It’s a wilderness of mirrors, remember? Catch a glimpse beyond the veils of the conventional, and follow one of the bouncing data-points in the right (or wrong) direction, and then you’re in the know, chasing the white rabbit down the hole, like Ahab after his whale, your cognitive and moral framework shifting invisibly as you descend. Well jeez, when you think about it that way…If you don’t keep your wits about you, or your ironic distance, you can lose that thread of yarn or trail of doughnut crumbs that keeps you tethered to the tangible. Then, oh wary knight errant, you may stumble into Chapel Perilous.
Chapel Perilous is an enigmatic locale scattered through the medieval lore of the Holy Grail, where it sometimes suggests a ritual encounter with death and its foreboding mysteries. In his book Cosmic Trigger, which I wrote about extensively in High Weirdness, Bob Wilson uses the phrase to name a quasi-psychotic weigh-station of paranormal possibility, one that folks sometimes find themselves in if they seek too long and hard after conspiratorial plots, occult entities, and full-throttle psychedelic experiences (especially all at once, which was Wilson’s practice, along with reading and writing weird texts). Once you are in the Chapel, Wilson insisted, there are only two ways out: as an agnostic, or a stone-cold paranoid. “There is no third way.”
This is, admittedly, fringe stuff. Most of us personally don’t wind up in the Chapel, even if we hunt the weird and hidden, or even if we believe this conspiracy or that (I am sympathetic to a few). But in my more paranoid moments, I fear that we are entering a collective Chapel Perilous. In this case, it’s not only important to understand why so many gun nuts, Instagram influencers, and future members of Congress get into Pizzagate or vaccinations or pancake earth or yet another imminent UFO “disclosure.” We also may need to learn how to mix some of Wilson’s saving agnosticism—not the usual bland variety—into the mix of reasons, intuitions, and rules of thumb we ourselves use to navigate the Wilderness of Mirrors.
Of course, I can only peel back the layers of the onion I hold. My strong hunch is that the Imagination is more intimately tied to objective, historical, material reality than secular moderns are led to believe, and that conspiracy narratives flourish in this zone we have been led to not see. The other important hunch here is one I learned from the penetrating post-Jungian writer James Hillman, who argues that the Imagination, in its full, archetypal, more-than-Romantic-poet sense, is both a healing balm in demented disguise and an irremedially pathological place to be. (Not unlike California.)
Like so many drugs, the Imagination is both poison and cure, and we are not getting rid of that paradox any more than we are getting rid of pop paranoia or conspiracy politics or apocalyptic psyops. Living with Imagination does not involve the transcendence of pathology, but something more daemonic, more ironic, and also probably more tragic. The Imagination provides forms of sense-making that do not deny the chaotic disorders of our inner wilderness, and it nourishes us to the degree that we approach it as an ally to barter with rather than an overlord to slavishly believe or a “cognitive bias” to avoid. As Hillman wrote of Greek lore, “Mythology, without its pathological side of animal monsters, cruel slayings, perverse arrangements, wanton rapes, ruinous penances, no longer touches the passions or speaks of and to the individual soul in its distress.”
I don’t know about you, but with California burning, America unraveling, and climate change out of Pandora’s box, my soul is in some distress. And it is hardly alone. All the nightmares have come today, at least online, and it looks as though they’re here to stay. This phantasmagoria is, in part, a soulful response to the global distress, however distressing the response itself has become. I can only hold out hope that the trials ahead, which are psychological and spiritual as well as brutally material, equip us to move through the wreckage that is upon us with more grace, empathy, and humor. But first we need to escape the Chapel—and to choose the right door.
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I have different take on the topic, because of something you noted in the first part of the essay. Many have used the term conspiracy theory and its association with junky paranoid stories like pizzagate to deny that there could be any conspiracies of powerful people or within powerful organizations. This strikes me as incredibly dangerous. So in the interest of reasoned dialectic I will try to make the case that the exploration of a conspiracy theory can definitely be necessary and fruitful in clarifying and acting on important social and antisocial happenings. I will in fact argue that the proper and sane engagement with conspiracy theory can be critical to our very survival. By proper engagement I mean 2 things 1)refuting and exposing false conspiracy theories( for example the state propaganda that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, was connected to 9-11 and was a viable and immediate threat to the US), and 2) considering very seriously more plausible theories and not covering up uncomfortable facts.( The Neo-cons were pimps for US Imperialism, believed the Straussian notion that lying for their cause was fine, had very dubious and self serving interests in starting wars, and proposed outcomes that were laughably naive)
We need to start with the term conspiracy. If there are no conspiracies, if all conpiracies are non-existant paranoid delusions, then all theories about any given possible conspiracy are a silly indulgence. So first what is a conspiracy and do they actually exist? Here is a common definition:
conspiracy - noun (plural conspiracies)
a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. the action of plotting or conspiring: they were cleared of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
Asking if there are conspiracies is like asking if people lie, steal, or start wars. I think our answer is pretty clear. There are many many conspiracies large and small to circumvent law and the well being of others, almost always for personal gain of those involved, but sometimes for ideological reasons. Every criminal act by 2 or more starts as a conspiracy.
One of the main contentions against conspiracy theories is that conspiracies cannot be large because people do not keep secrets well. This is shoddy thinking. In many of the worst and largest conspiracies, secrecy is either not needed, or the needed secrecy can be confined to a small group. The concentration camps of the Nazis were not publicly announced, the bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam war was kept secret from the public, the catholic leaders hid widespread rape by priests, the investment bankers who got AAA ratings for shoddy real estate loans kept their ponzi scheme on the qt. If a large armed group with a unifying identity( a nation, religious sect or your standard horde) wants land and needs to remove the inhabitants of the land to get it for themselves they can generate a mythology that justifies the theft and simply exteerminate or marginalize the occupants. This is exactly what happened in the United States to the tribal peoples of Turtle Island and what happened globally in various forms throughout the age of European colonialism. Eventually the criminality of all these conspiracies was revealed, though only in a few cases have the mythologies that fueled them been widely rejected.In fact violent xenophobia and access to guns should have us all thinking about how to address the threat. Robert Anton Wilson actually listed several major historic conspiracies to show that conspiracies happen and sometime conspiracy theories are correct. I rememeber at least one in Italy involving hundreds of secretive insiders.
The other main argument about conspiracy theories is that they foolishly propose a super secretive globally powerful elite who are trying to control everything. (Partly an intellectual inheritance or mirror if you will of the myth of an all powerful God controlling everything) While the current global powers of US militarism and capitalism easily lends credence to that idea, and while there are doubtless many like Henry Kissinger who made shitloads of money channeling these paranoid delusions, this notion of an all powerful elite is not necessary to identify actual conspiratorial plans and actions, and to recognize where things are headed. The Kissinger/CIA operation Condor and subsequent mass killings were predicted and forseen and enacted, and recorded and largely ignored without need to invoke the illuminati, the Rothschilds or alein lizards. Greed, fear, denial, egotism cowardice and apathy are all that is needed. A simple respect for human life could have warned us and prevented this; just as a willingness to listen to the largest global anti-war demonstration in human history could have combined with a skeptical fact checking press and stopped the war in Iraq. The ideas of the Neo Cons should have been exposed and confronted as the highly fascistic conspiratorial criminality and madness they were. In fact the theoretic predictions by anti-war activists of what the war would cost in life and money was very accurate, the thoretic predictions of how it would fail to achive the stated goals was also accurate as were the theories of who would benefit. The fact that the mainstream press failed to take this widespread critical analysis seriously or to admit their mistakes when the accuracy of the leftist analysis proved true only added to the widespread mistrust of official sources and led to a less grounded kind of conspiracy theory ala Alex Jones, climate denial, birthergate, or russiagate. My main point here is that this is very serious stuff and many lives hang in the balance.
THE ROLE OF THEORY WHEN CONSIDERING A POSSIBLE CONSPIRACY
Sanity in the human world requires skepticism about governments, political parties, corporations, religions and other powerful organizations that would recruit us into believing that what they say and what they do is wise, good, true or necessary. Everyone agrees on the importance of this skepticism, the disagreements are about what to trust, what not to trust, and why. The biggest problem with any given conspiracy theory is whether the purveyor of that theory is trustworthy and whether they are encouraging honest open consideration of verifiable and relevant facts. Is the theory open to falsification. Will it admit mistakes? This can get very dicy when the mistakes are large and destructive, or when motives are mixed. There is a lot of money and power to be gained by selling junk to the gullible, and the media tools for doing so are constantly improving.
How does a valid and useful conspiracy theory emerge and are there examples of such theories. I think the case of the Catholic Church’s handling of priests raping children, and the exposure by the Boston Globe qualifies. This abuse had probably been going on for longer than we will ever know but in just recent generatons is illustrative in several ways. First is the way it generates shame and denial in its victims while endorsing the power and positive status of the abusers and those who conspired to cover up the crimes. Only thorough research by journalists willing to risk anger and outrage in a very catholic city revealed that there was more than an isolated incident and showed that priests were being moved around by bishops and cardinals to cover their crimes. There is a pattern here. First there are too many coincidences to ignore, then there is research based on a theory, and ultimately the process spreads around the world exposing a conspiracy of immense proportions and forcing major institutional change, reparations and greater transparency. Another example follows a different path but with similarities.. This was the theory held by anti-vietnam war activists that the FBI had illegally infiltrated and sought to undermine and incriminate anti war activists engaged in lawful dissent and organizing. A handful of activists in Pennsylvania decided to break into an FBI building, steal files and see if there was evidence for this theory. It was a big personal risk but they did find enough evidence to ultimately, through many other efforts expose a large secret program called cointelpro with many criminal aspects. Again the evidence looked like more than a coincidental pattern and generated a theory of conspiracy that led to exposure of facts supporting the theory , and exposing its dimensions to the public leading to at least some temporary reform. Unfortunately in the longer term it has led to an extreme crackdown on whistleblowers, leaked information and investigative journalism of the type done by Sy Hersch.
I find this non-pathologizing discussion helpful, being conspiracy-challenged to my core. To belong, to be initiated, to be in the know and on the inside; these are motivations for which I have empathy. I may not escape the lemming stampedes, but I'm proud my thirst for Kool-Aid is still nil.