Conspiracy, DMing, and Epistemic Anxiety

Occupy Wall Street Sign
Sign from Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in New York, fall 2011

There is an enlightening bit of journalism about the Qanon phenomenon written by Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins over at NBCnews.com that has prompted me to write this morning.

I’m not familiar with the specifics of the conspiracy being unfurled by the Qanon media ecosystem, but I do like a good conspiracy. This is in part because of my heavy ingestion of Robert Anton Wilson’s writings on language, epistemology, and magick when I was a younger man. As a philosopher, I tend to think that conspiracies are useful mental exercises because they force me to practice my logical reasoning. Conspiracies help me remember that there is a difference between having a reason and using good reasoning. What certifies one as valid rather than the other is a matter of artistic license, ultimately (as RAW winks and reminds us, Reality Is What You Can Get Away With). I will explain in a little more detail why I claim that what certifies one reasoning as valid and not the other in a moment. First, let us pause and admire the strange reality wherein mainstream baby boomers (for whom, let’s face it, Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary are essentially avatars; their companion faces being Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh) have somehow gotten involved in the smelly butthole of the internet. They have been enfolded into these chans through the virtue of an Italian leftist philo-fiction.

Last week Buzzfeed offered some reportage that suggests evidence that the darlings of the turn of the century antiglobalization theory and fiction crowd, Luther Blissett (aka Wu Ming), may be the of Qanon.

I think this conspiracy-for-cash structure that Zadrozny and Collins present is the best lens for understanding our contemporary situation. Infowars, #MAGA, Qanon: each of these are, essentially, Dungeon Mastering activities. They are producing emotional contexts for folks starving to feel (to feel empowered, to feel meaningfully-connected, to feel smart, to feel righteous, etc.)

We read in the Zadrozny and Collins piece, “Recently, some Qanon followers have accused Diaz and Rogers of profiting from the movement by soliciting donations from their followers.”

Further into their report we learn about an Jerome Corsi, an Infowars editor (and all around heel from Harvard) who apparently sees an opportunity to divert some audience (read: market share) from the Qanon conspiracy by denouncing it. But Corsi doesn’t get the traction he was hoping for, so he applauds his marks/rubes for their “excellent research.” Why? Because he’s working the long con on them.

Here a basic truth needs to be reckoned with: most people, including folks at fancy R1 universities, don’t know what “research” means. Among the cognitariat there are plenty who can discuss research methods, but what research is…

Hannah Arendt, in her essay “Auschwitz on Trial,” parenthetically tells the readership that this trial was “so poorly covered by the press that it took some ‘research’ to determine whether it happened at all.” Note that she places the term in scare quotes, “research,” as if she doesn’t quite trust the use of the term in this manner. In reading the essay we come to learn that this essay is, essentially, a book review. Is that “research”? What do we name this activity in which a person doubts the validity of the presentation (or the absence of reporting) of world events and so then makes their own presentation and interpretation of what one has found? In the social sciences this is, effectively, a description of research.

Small wonder there is a crisis of reproducibility in the fields given that the methods sections of papers are rarely emphasized in favor of tracing the genealogy of the project in the opening lit review and then skipping to the discussion and future studies sections. P-values-based studies abound but rarely do folks, myself included, reflect on the double meaning of confidence values.

The conman preys upon the the trust and confidence that their marks give to him. In the absence of better understanding of the empirical limits of one’s methodology, there is the trust and faith placed in the numbers.It’s not only a crisis of numeracy but also a crisis of meaning itself. The more intoxicated one becomes by the robust predictions possible when inducing relationships from particulars out to generalizations of the global whole, the better one gets at assuming that knowing being is the same thing as knowing the meaning of those beings.

Certifying the right reason

I wrote above that there is a difference between having reasons and valid reasoning. What I am pointing to here is an example of the occasional poverty of the English language (other areas where we have this poverty include terms like being or love). In English we use the term reason to mean several different things. If you’re one of my students you may recall these distinctions from my lectures on reason and on understanding. Reason can connote explanation, justification, and the formation of judgments; it can also refer to the mental power to do those things.

The term comes into English from the French, raison, itself a Gaulicization of the Latin term ratio, which the Romans used to translate the Greek’s logos. This Greek term, logos, is pregnant with possible meanings: cause, word, sentence, account, number, etc. Because reason has this constellation of meanings possible it is necessary to distinguish and partition-off possible renderings of the term. This decision, I am arguing, is an aesthetic one. I say that in part because I am a scholar of philosophy and also as a scholar of art and practitioner. I am particularly interested in the thinking about technologies and the ways in which human relationships are mediated by these technologies. These may appear to be far-removed from conspiracy theories and art, but I see a relationship (isn’t this the heart of conspiracy thinking?) between them.  To get at the matter we need to continue to look at the truth of/worlds created by these words, this is an exercise in etymology (etumos logos, true-causal word).

Today we think of “art” as an object created for the sake of perceptual engagement. Often one’s formal training, if there is any, in analyzing art is fairly stunted and remains at the examination of the content and medium of the art object. This is a shame and something I hope to correct. This problem is in part the result of historical processes. Prior to the twentieth century there was an emphasis placed on the “Fine Arts” which could be distinguished from the Liberal Arts and the Mechanical Arts. We get our English word “art” from the Latin ars but its meaning was sharply inflected by the Greek analog, tekhnê.

For the Ancients fabrication was the only concern of what we today would call art (Greek tekhnê, Latin ars). What we today would refer to as a technique or a technology was included under the broad umbrella of making that tekhnê named. So there is not a distinction between an object made for being pretty and an object made for being useful for addressing a problem. If we look at Plato’s Gorgias we see that art-technology early on was prescribed the role of examining the nature and cause of those things that the person is dealing with and the conditions that arose for this fabrication.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, characterizes art-technology as a body of know-how that reacts to chance, unlike what we would today call “science” (although he called it epistêmê, from which we get the field of Epistemology). This latter body of knowledge is not reactionary because it is concerned with rooting-out the causes of the phenomena we experience. Thus technical art is a matter of the proper practice of jurisprudence (phronêsis), the artisan relies upon their practical experience (empeiria) to guide them in the execution of their solution. Thomas Aquinas marks the distinction thusly: technical art is recta ratio factibilium (the right reasoning for creating) and phronêsis is recta ratio agibilium (the right reasoning for acting). Goyet explains that the word recta “refers to the idea of a rule, from regula ‘regulation.’” (This rule or regulation is what makes it possible for the practitioner to overcome contingency and enter the domain of something like a science (in the way that medicine is characterized as both a science and an art): the application of the rule is a matter of creating a particular effect in the world. It is through this practice that one discovers and activates the stable principles in a changing world.

This is the meaning of certification: the rule that has been discovered through practice will bring about predicted results. So, this imagined knowledge is no longer only a matter of chance, but imitates the kind of creation that belongs to the Divine logos (John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with Him and He was the word, En arkhêi ên ho lógos, kaì ho lógos ên pròs tòn theón, kaì theòs ên ho lógos). In practicing conspiracy theorizing one is practicing a kind of world-reordering by finding the right account, and the right causes, and the right words. The conspiracies make sense of the seeming chaos of our contemporary moment.