Reading for the plot

In the current climate, conspiracy theory is no longer a minority interpretation of the spectacle of politics, but the very substance of political debate (fake news, enemies of the people, and alarming interpretations of extremist terror attacks).

In the current climate, conspiracy theory is no longer a minority interpretation of the spectacle of politics, but the very substance of political debate (fake news, enemies of the people, and alarming interpretations of extremist terror attacks).

To quote Theodor Adorno, “Where art is experienced purely aesthetically, it fails to be fully experienced even aesthetically.” But literary analysis might be one way to understand these conspiracy-minded times; its narrative techniques, varieties of “plot,” withholding and disclosure of secrets; all of these formal (“aesthetic”) qualities, and their history, supply the conventions that are the tools for analyzing much of the fear and doubt of daily life. Literature has always been conspiratorial in its construction of intimate relations between writers and publics. Bruno Schulz, in the section of his Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass titled “The Book,” asks if “under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other’s hands?”

Conspiracy beliefs are often treated as socially harmful, pathological distortions of reality. Sometimes they are. But to start with this assumption is to participate in the same exercise of judgment (distinguishing between the true and the false, the healthy and the unwell) as the conspiracy theorist. So the best place to start might be from a field of study—the study of literature—that is already invested in systems of secrecy and disclosure, intimacy and repulsion, the analysis of plot.

A Weekend in the Bilderberg Hotel

Just as some restaurants have a wall filled with signed headshots of actors or sports celebrities who once ate there, the lobby of the Hotel de Bilderberg is lined with back-lit photo-portraits of its famous guests. Henry Kissinger looks curiously ill at ease in the central place in a triptych, flanked by two men in more conventionally self-assured poses. Paul C. Rijkens, the founding chairman of Unilever (and the Bilderberg Group) is on his right, and David Rockefeller is on his left. If they are the architects of a secretive, all-powerful new world order, no effort has been made to conceal the post-war coordination of banking, industrial corporations, and superpower politics; one of the bookable meeting spaces is even called the ‘House of Influence’. The Bilderberg Group is both a real programme of political coordination and one of the better-known shorthands for the secret cabal thought to be controlling world affairs. Its associations aside, the hotel is open for business, so it is surprising that we were the first group of academics to choose the Hotel de Bilderberg as a venue to discuss conspiracy theories.

I chose to walk from the station, arriving late in the day on an April afternoon just as the hot weather set in. Oosterbeek is a picture of European success, and the rewards of that success. We’re not unused to wealth in the UK, but what struck me was the consistency of the grand houses, placed behind cultivated lawns, whose tall bay windows were untroubled by peeling paint and provided views into rooms sparsely furnished with bookshelves, objets d’art, and wide doorways into other immaculately proportioned rooms. This may be the result of living in the South West, where the distribution of housing and wealth is so uneven. There are always closed shops within easy walking distance. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, like Wales, was designated a ‘less developed’ region and received considerable Objective 1 funding from the European Union, which underwrote developments such as the Eden Project, the Combined Universities in Cornwall project, and infrastructure project; also like Wales, it voted by a definite margin to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. This investment evidently wasn’t enough to win people over, though its withdrawal will be keenly felt. There was bitter laughter in the national press when Cornwall Council asked for ‘urgent confirmation’ that European funding would continue after the referendum result; it seems that the peripheries, while distrusting the Benelux heart of European political rule, also took its largesse for granted. What have the Europeans ever done for us (apart from build roads, fund educational projects, support regeneration, etc.)?

Perhaps it is on the outer edges of the European project that it is easiest to forget that we were part of it, not territories at risk of colonisation. Once, during the heady optimism of New Labour before 2003, Britain felt like a force for cosmopolitan politics. I was living in Lisbon in October 2001 when Tony Blair gave his speech in favour of European integration at the Warsaw stock exchange, signalling the UK’s push for EU expansion and with it, Poland’s membership following a referendum in 2004. This struck my partner, who is Polish, and me as entirely good news. For us, it suggested that eventually we would no longer have to spend entire days queueing and being processed at the Portuguese immigration office. Cornwall, Lisbon, Warsaw; these three points of a triangle were all removed from the heartlands of European politics, but became coordinated through common market membership and fredom of movement, though in none of these countries has integration been straightforward. This personal history of hovering around the edges explains in part why Oosterbeek felt so odd. Its pristine accomplishments, like any achievement with utopian accents, implied displacements. Without any coast, or border posts marking a line between it and beyond, the self-assurance of this affluent suburb seemed a little precarious and complacent. Forests of carbon-fibre bikes were parked in rows beside the filled terraces of restaurants and cafés that lined the roads leading out of town (I was nearly at the hotel). Riders at leisure in harlequin shirts awaited refreshment. The only persons I saw of any colour other than the flushed pink of good health were among the young staff who served in immaculate livery. I reached the hotel finding it all a bit unreal, a social tableau managed a little too effectively while edges were fraying. In England, less diverse regions (such as my own) are alarmed by reports of schools elsewhere that are overrun with children who do not speak English, or of indigenous cultures being eroded by immigration. The southern coasts are chaotic and the Brexit campaign made full use of these fears. When those fears are at made visible—think of Nigel Farage in front of a poster of refugees—but downplayed by those with more wealth and power than a majority of voters, the stage is set for questions of race and culture to be presented conspiratorially, as a hostile force that is officially denied but secretly encouraged by metropolitan elites, here and in the major European capitals.

By treating the EU as a foreign power, and the Polish and Ukrainian and Romanian travellers who come to work and settle in Britain as unwelcome, we imagine ourselves to be conspired against from without and within. Invasion fiction, a genre that flourished in the final decades of the nineteenth century and until the start of World War One (when its predictions were no longer speculative), gave narrative expression to this unease. Britain was threatened by her enemies abroad and by cosmopolitanism at home. A treacherous foreigner, or even a corrupted member of the aristocracy, was always ready to open the gates in these immensely popular fictions, and the popular imagination. When a tunnel under the Channel was first proposed in 1882, the signatories to a letter petitioning against it on security grounds included Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, T. H. Huxley, Cardinal Newman, Herbert Spencer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, several journal editors, five dukes, 10 earls, 26 MPs, 17 admirals, and 59 generals. The invading army would be aided and abetted, it was thought, by the many French nationals living in the south east of England.

Conspiracy culture is most often studied as an aberration of knowledge, but the conspiracy theorist has a lot in common with the academic, especially of disciplines that are energised by the aura of the arcane and stimulated by impulses to unmask and reveal. Luc Boltanski writes that, like detective and spy fiction, ‘Sociology constantly tests the reality of reality, or, to put it another way, it challenges apparent reality and seeks to reach a reality that is more hidden, more profound and more real.’ Literary analysis likewise practises what Paul Ricoeur referred to as the ‘hermeneutics of suspicions,’ a phrase that prompts Rita Felski in her latest book (The Limits of Critique), to wonder what might succeed the scholar’s habitual determination to read ‘against the grain and between the lines’. The critic (alongside the art historian, psychoanalyst, and detective) has long been ready to ‘pounce on the insignificant trace as the gateway to a hidden reality’. With my own inclination towards discovery and revelation, I imagined the Bilderberg hotel having locked doors and subterranean levels, but there are more prosaic elements of a secret history here. The Bilderberg Group were part of a post-war strategy of resisting socialism, another part of which was the formation of the ECHR and the protection of individual, not collective rights. It’s ironic that the institutions of European integration and their potential dissolution have been driven by Atlanticist plotting. That word ‘plotting’ is perhaps too suggestive of secrecy; I was greeted in the hotel lobby by Kissinger, Rijkens, and Rockefeller after all. The Bilderberg Group has a website.

Committed conspiracy theorists tackle the puzzle of why a secret group should operate and deliberately leave clues in plain sight with byzantine arguments. I went to a terraced cottage in Redruth, west Cornwall, in April 2017 to meet Dean, who told me stories of magic and evil for two uninterrupted hours. I had been trying to arrange an interview with a famously reclusive music producer, with a view to talking about sound and paranoia. When one of his friends and gatekeepers suggested I meet with Dean, it occurred to me that this might be an initiation and test of my commitment. This was not the case. The house was cramped already, and further reduced by a profusion of belongings and boxes piled high in the hallway and every room. Daniel Pipes describes the theorist of conspiracy’s method as auto-didactic and heterogeneous, with a knack for building ‘huge edifices out of odd and unrelated items’. Collecting, pattern-seeking, are styles of thought and housekeeping. There is a standard scene in the crime drama where the ordinary cops enter the secret HQ of their fixated colleague and discover a nest of documents and photographs, manically connected with threads and arrows around the walls.

I was offered coffee but had to remind my host twice that the kettle had boiled, so relentless was the torrent of secrets, and while he talked and the cup of coffee cooled beside him, I eventually told him I would prefer to drink it before it got any colder. This visit took place shortly after the car and knife attacks outside the Palace of Westminster, so this was our entry point, from a cramped kitchen covered in empty cat-food tins, into a web of interconnected theories. The attacks in London and the US airstrikes on Syria, were symptoms of the turbulence brought about by a rising Aries Moon, and would be become worse. Dean pointed out how obvious the clues were. The attack had taken place on the 22nd of March (22.3) at 22 minutes to 3. Case closed. I asked him the obvious question when numerology is perceived in the organisation of historical events: Why take this trouble? Dean explained that a regime of karmic balancing operates when secret societies make these public incursions. They need to let us know that they are responsible, and that they know that we know and can do nothing, and by making a (coded) public disclosure, through the numerical timing of such attacks or the symbols placed in cartoons, they have met some necessary regulation. If they were to leave out these clues, then according to the mechanics of magic the consequences would rebound back upon the instigator. This reminded me of the IRA’s procedure of planting bombs, and then alerting the authorities to their presence, but the comparison he used was of the announcement of a planning application on waterproof sheets nailed to telephone poles. Once these sheets have been displayed, there is nothing that the public can do; they have been informed in advance so the development is legalistically sanctioned. Anyone who has had an application turned down will dispute this.

While I drank tepid coffee, he mentioned the satanic child abuse and sacrifice which had been practised by senior judges, City of London financiers, politicians, and members of the royal family; witchcraft and familiars (of which his cat was one); the power of ‘empaths’, for instance one of his acquaintances who could, he told me, enter my thoughts just by speaking to me on the telephone. I learned that the ancient settlements on the Orkneys and Shetlands were originally Egyptian—the first ‘Scota’ that gave its name to Scotland being an African goddess. I didn’t recognise at first the reference to events ‘pre-flood’ until he repeated them later. Conspiracy theories seem to combine extreme scepticism with extreme literalism. There were suggestions of space-ships and aliens (actually gods-giants) and the secret purpose of the Pyramids, which open-minded archaeologists were ostracised for talking about. Repeating a familiar Victorian heresy, instituted religions were continuations of much older faiths and the name of Israel was a composite of ‘Isis’, ‘Ra’, and ‘Bael’. These pieces of what Dean called ‘occult knowledge’ had in common the fact of being suppressed by an accommodating ‘they’ whose members could be anyone and everywhere. It may sound a lot of material for two hours, but in fact there were many more items of belief than I could recall even later that day when writing up my notes. The conversation moved at an edgy, restless clip from one secret to another; the exposition of the web was more important than the plausibility of any single strand of it. Dean really did want me to wake up from my credulous belief that things were as they seemed. In my opinion, his level of intensity was not principally the manifestation of internal confusion, as a pathological view of conspiracism would have it, but the consequence of the diversity of times, topics, systems of history and belief that a conspiracist worldview sets out to synthesise into its theory of everything.

Beyond a certain level of intensity, conspiracy theories lose any outer edge beyond which the straightforward might be found. From this point, matters become so complex and entangled that they can only be apprehended with this rapid movement between subjects: pyramids, symbolism, finance, child-abuse, networks of masons and public schools, the media, satanism, and astrology. Challenge a conspiracy theory, and its advocate will more often move onto another than defend it.

One explanation of beliefs in unseen forces, united in intricate and secret alliances, is that they accompany the emergence of modern societies. Leo Braudy contextualises the ‘world-historical villains’ that came to haunt the cultural imagination as theological structures of good and evil were transferred to the intricate networks of (early) modern life. Fredric Jameson makes a similar claim about a later transformation when he identifies the labyrinth and the conspiracy as the limiting figures of popular culture that mark the inability to comprehend the extent and complexity of global capital flows. At the conference, one delegate showed me a series of images on his phone, from Hungary and Poland, replicating visually the same choice between social breakdown and healthy patriotic order. In each, a native citizen, seen from behind, confronts a Manichean choice. To one side (the left, not accidentally) is a cosmopolitan hellscape of drug abuse, same-sex relationships, rioting, and despair. In one case, George Soros (the exemplary world-historical villain) looks approvingly on the scene. To the right is a social order ‘restored’: the nuclear family embrace in a pastoral setting—a vernal alpine meadow or similar. White ethnicity is universal under the national flag. In ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, the essay that initiated conspiracy studies in 1963, Richard Hofstadter makes the point that the conspiracy theorist always believes that ‘he lives at a turning point’.

The observation seems especially apt right now, given the separation from the EU facing for the United Kingdom (or parts of it if it does not remain intact). The fundamental disagreement concerns the character of the four freedoms that are the EU’s red lines: whether they are insidious or necessary, negotiable or indivisible, and whether a nation state can break free of these ‘freedoms’ and still prosper in the modern world. The tone or rather ‘paranoid style’ of the debate is becoming apparent, and involves the characterisation of former allies as the enemy who are out to stitch us up in revenge for our opposition to their grand plan for a federal super-state. It is becoming more and more difficult to imagine a discussion of options and consequences that does not rely on accusations of conspiracy as we get to the business end of the Brexit process.

The conspiracy theory may be a manner of political analysis, but it is one that arranges its materials in advance into foreground and background, initial appearances and deferred revelation. In this sense, it establishes narrative form. Boltanski likens the unmasking of the conspiracy late in the detective story to a ‘coup de théâtre’, and the stage is the preeminent metaphor for the spatial and linear emplotment of the conspiracy theory, with its staple figures of actors, subterfuge, and off-stage direction. The soliloquy is a type of confession, but more importantly also a presentation to the audience of a private scheme at odds with the speaker’s avowals to the other characters; the divergence and convergence of these two streams of information constitutes the plot’s interest and shape, and the rogue is never so compelling as when he lets the audience in on his plans. Practices of overhearing and soliloquy, within the architecture of the stage, produce calibrated levels of information, distributed unevenly among actors and audience. These conventions apply just as much to the audience watching the public spectacle of Brexit unfold on the political stage, as reported and analysed by a vast, sceptical commentariat. Never, surely, has a political event attracted such sustained analysis. We are all critics now. The insight of the conspiracy theorist is that this theatre has no exits.

Ballistics, Conspiracy, Theatre

That history should copy literature is inconceivable

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”

            The mass shooting in Las Vegas of 1 October has been swiftly interpreted as a carefully orchestrated false-flag attack, with the now-familiar identification of “crisis actors” by online commentators—the curtain pullers of online conspiracy culture, who skirmish with the broadcast media corporations and their “official narratives.” On messaging platforms, theories are swapped and revised as to why the attack could not have happened as described by the mainstream media. The sceptics in this case have pointed to the absence of appropriate quantities of blood, the apparent slips and inconsistencies of the hired actors who (so the theory goes) can be spotted over and again in news coverage of terrorist attacks, and the impossibility of people being struck by bullets in the way that they were. These objections, especially the first and third, recall the features of the conspiracy theories that refused to accept the official account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy over 50 years ago, theories that have just been given a fresh infusion of classified files. The algorithms of news distribution on social media may be the mechanisms of contemporary conspiracy culture (links follow links down the rabbit hole), but the coordination of space, time, and action to articulate history as plot can be traced much further back than JFK, to the of stagecraft; which is a terribly apt comparison when the latest atrocity has taken place in the world city that more than any other resembles a theatre or movie set.

The language of political commentary turns time and again to the figures of set and spectacle. Politicians play to their audiences, and behind the scenes there are puppet-masters and wire-pullers. We talk about political theatre and describe the entrances and exits, bit-parts and villains of government. Some aspects of political life are presented to the public but others can only be speculated upon. Analysis relies on and can be characterized by its distinction between on- and offstage. Political drama, from House of Cards to The West Wing to Veep, is compellingly watchable for its invitation behind the scenes, to see things as they really are.

Other disciplines turn to literature when reflecting on their ability to describe the world accurately. Luc Boltanski writes that, like detective and spy fiction, “Sociology constantly tests the reality of reality, or, to put it another way, it challenges apparent reality and seeks to reach a reality that is more hidden, more profound and more real.” The plots of espionage allow for unveilings and denouements that are satisfyingly stagey: “This is why the moment when the conspiracy is unmasked has the properties of a coup de théâtre, a dramatic turn of events.” The first modern analyst of political power, Niccolò Machiavelli, while drawing on the Greek and Roman poets and dramatists, was particularly amenable to the theatre of his own age. He observed that seeming was not only a feature of political life, but a skill that the effective prince needed to cultivate: “to be a great hypocrite and dissembler.” The character of “Machiavel” appeared on the English renaissance stage before any English-language translation of The Prince; to be one was to be a villain and a plotter. In Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta (1598), Machiavelli’s spirit is the speaker of the prologue, and takes pride in his contaminating influence upon the English and their drama: “Though some speak openly against my books, / Yet will they read me […] and, when they cast me off, / Are poison’d by my climbing followers.” Shakespeare’s Richard III expresses his villainy competitively against his Italian model, the “murderous Machiavel” who will be “set […] to school.” As well as serving as shorthand for the modern villain, Machiavellian political analysis lent itself to the stage by furnishing the material for its plots and theatrical conventions. The soliloquy is as often not a confession but a presentation to the audience of a private scheme at odds with the speaker’s intentions professed to the other characters on stage. Iago lets us in on his plans, and for all his protestations against ‘seeming’, even Hamlet discloses a determination for “my tongue and soul in this [to] be hypocrites.” Practices of overhearing and soliloquy, within the architecture of the stage, produce precisely calibrated levels of information and insight, between actors and audience, and establish a system of representation at the centre of the English literary canon. Frank Underwood’s asides to the camera in House of Cards re-establish the connections between subterfuge, political story-telling and theatre.

The sense of intrigue that we associate with the word “plot” came from its associations in the sixteenth century with the techniques for surveying a parcel of land, which relied on mathematical and mechanical science—branches of contemporary knowledge that were dangerously close to the insurrectionary networks of black magic, Catholicism, and astrology. Plans to overthrow the king in Henry IV  situate the word in figures of engineering (the plot is “too light too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition”) and surveying (“a good plot as ever was laid”), and is specifically distinct from narrative (“my lord of York commends the plot and the general course of action”). “Plot” occupies a variable meaning in the midst of what Henry S. Turner calls the spatial arts of structure, movement, and representation; the disciplines of all three were coordinated on the English stage, with its requirements for a built environment in which narrative action was emplotted within a system of representation that was spatial and dynamic. Most importantly, stagecraft divided events into the action that takes place onstage and the “story” which “vanishes backstage into an unrepresented space of invisibility and implication.”

The prologue to Act 3 in Henry V refers to “the nimble gunner / With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,” immediately followed by the sound of “alarum, and chambers go off.” Ballistics was a spatial science that the practicalities of production required to be represented offstage, and which the audience were asked to imagine. The appearance of the survivors onstage, grazed by bullets and blackened by explosions, then required the spectators to understand a logic of causation that articulated what was visible with what was invisible within a theatrical system of representation. Bullets and cannon-fire in particular rely on the audience’s willingness to accept the relations of what is said to have happened elsewhere with action presented to the audience’s view; otherwise the narrative coherence of the play disintegrates. After the events in Las Vegas, self-identifying audience members challenged the coherence of the sanctioned interpretation—the articulation of the visible and invisible that they describe dismissively as the “official narrative.” In a familiar process, alternative plots are immediately proposed, for instance the multiple-shooters interpretation, or that the gunfire came from helicopters; the preferred medium is a collage of clips with audio commentary and red-pencil markings that indicate impossibilities or inconsistencies. This has been the case with many of the attacks, bombings, shootings that have taken place (or been staged) in recent years. After the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May 2017, conspiratorially-minded analysts denied that any tickets had been sold or anyone actually killed. The conspiracy theory thus tends to explain these events as theatre, with the appearance of disaster and tragedy the performance of crisis-actors.

The mindset of those who torment the bereaved with accusations of lying is hard for many to imagine: the YouTube videos that theorize that the disaster is fabricated are so speculative that most normal people would presumably not risk the possibility of being wrong. The implacability of the disbelievers suggests the presence of an previously established conviction to which this and other disasters are only further, corroborating evidence. One reason that Eva Kosofsky Sedgwick describes paranoia as strong theory in her essay on “Paranoid Reading” is for its power to explain phenomena both near and far within a single interpretive frame; it also performs the function, in an unstable world, of preparing oneself for the worst. “The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises.” The interpretations of the Ariana Grande concert attack or the Harvest festival in Las Vegas as fabricated events wrap them an envelope of theatricality that cannot be penetrated, even by bombs or bullets. Screaming, panic, stampeding crowds, the sound of gunfire—inconsistent with the weapons found, so the sceptics say—are all part of the performance. The news reportage and interviews are reduced to the same reality-status as the noises off, or reports of battle from the actors; though in a complicated contemporary twist, there are said to be a real team of directors and special effects artists, behind the Greek chorus of media commentary.

To explore a worldview that insists on the artificial character of public life means coming across some very strange claims. According to a theory of “chartered reality,” corporate media pursue profit by any necessary means, including the fabrication of a spectacle of news, politics, and celebrity, using a roster of actors who are retired and recycled. So Walt Disney was Adolf Hitler, Bill Hicks (in a wonderful irony) is now Alex Jones, and so on. Princess Diana did not die, and her character was simply retired until enough time had passed for her erstwhile actor to be assigned a new public role. She is now familiar to us as the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. This fact is demonstrated by comparing still images of the two characters hands, which have distinctive marks; another favourite proof is the analysis of the signature shape of ears which the stage makeup cannot disguise. The author of the Diana-Theresa revelation explains:

You will eventually learn that the world that we live in is run by the media conglomerates that own the TV, radio, print, books, everything. Their job, their objective, is to create profit; people are naturally boring, nobody wants to kill anybody, nobody wants to fight anybody, everyone wants to be left alone in their world. So in order to create content, these individuals have to stir up the pot. Well, they can’t do that legitimately, because they would get sued if they caused damage to somebody. So they create a fake world, that you believe is real, just through the television, and they use their family members, that are the owners of the conglomerates, to play the roles as the characters you see on the screen. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCxkLq4-UDE]

The invitation to “shake off the stranglehold that they have on your life, and start to live,” is to become “woke” from the daydream of spectacular life, but—perplexingly—that realization is not so much a stripping away of props and subterfuge as a recognition of the world as a theatre without exits.

In Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” a descendant of the Irish hero Fergus Kilpatrick is a celebrated insurgent against English rule in the early nineteenth century. He is found to have betrayed the conspiracy, however, and sentenced by his fellow nationalists to a death that does not harm their cause: to die “at the hands of an unknown assassin in deliberately dramatic circumstances; those circumstances would engrave themselves upon the popular imagination and hasten the rebellion.” Kilpatrick accepts his role in a hastily constructed plot which copies scenes from Julius Caesar and involves a cast of hundreds, culminating in his shooting in a theatre. Borges is only making explicit the entanglements of history, plot, and drama that close in after public shootings , the spatial and narrative conventions which derive from stagecraft and structure the reception of those events as in some way staged. Lincoln’s assassination in the theatre confirms the analogy of drama and political intrigue in the literal space of the theatre, in which a stage performance is echoed at one remove by an assassination taking place in the auditorium, which has its own backstage passageways that the murderer can navigate. Following the logic behindology, conspiracy theorists always insist on a backstage behind the spectacle of public life, which history’s self-plagiarism reveals. Conspiracy-minded observers note the parallels between Lincoln’s murder and that of John F. Kennedy, whose assassin was also only a puppet in some greater plot. The director remains out of sight, but his or her direction can be felt in Lee Harvey Oswald’s decision after the event to hide in a movie theatre.

Reading as a “Great Derangement”

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they – what can they – do other than conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

So writes Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. This is to see reading and writing–or at least the reading and writing of “our time”–as an unwitting system of self-enchantment while the world burns. To respond to his claims about the realist novel would take a longer post than this one, but two immediate reactions come to mind–one that is probably too literal-minded and one that is too literary. 1. I don’t think that the architects of the oil industry or the culture (and industrial production) of climate scepticism rely on the efforts of individuals who have read too many books. 2. What might these museums and art and literature of the future be like, whose visitors are so enlightened enlightened that they seek for “traces and portents” of the imminent disaster? What would be a sample exhibition, or catalogue notes?


Quo Vadis, Nero and the burning of Rome, Altemus Edition, 1897. Illustration by M. de Lipman [link & permission].

It seems to me that the realist novel can endeavour to register the portents and electric hum of the future; and that the utopian novel set in the future also agitates the present consciousness in its readers into a greater alertness. Museums and archives in utopian literature tend to be neglected or disused. In H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the reader of 1895 is presented with the derelict condition of a museum in 802,701, one that tilts dangerously into the subterranean domain of the morlocks. William Morris imagined a future Nowhere in 1890, where the houses of parliament were used to rot manure and art had moved into everyday social space. Imagining improved futures, Morris was always aware, involved the recognition of the intoxications of intentional dreaming–until one day men and women would “see things as they verily are, and no longer enchanted by the gleam of the moon and the glamour of the dreamtide.” Until then, writing and reading are both forms of derangement, and or becoming less deranged.

Poem “X”

In poem ‘X’ of Twenty-One Love Poems, Adrienne Rich explores the idea that her lover’s dog has been spying on their affair.

In poem ‘X’ of Twenty-One Love Poems, Adrienne Rich explores the idea that her lover’s dog has been spying on their affair.

Your dog, tranquil and innocent, dozes through

our cries, our murmured dawn conspiracies

our telephone calls. She knows—what can she know?

If in my human arrogance I claim to read

her eyes, I find there only my own animal thoughts:

that creatures must find each other for bodily comfort

Though the poem’s preoccupation is not so much with the dog’s  actual surveillance, the lines nevertheless exhibit distinctively conspiratorial patterns of thought. The dog only seems “tranquil and innocent” and the speaker suffers from doubts about the distribution of knowledge through her immediate social space. What does the dog really know? This anxiety presents itself to the reader immediately after the trope of underwater secrecy in the previous poem in the series: the poet refers to her lover’s “silence today” being “a pond where drowned things live / I want to see dripping and brought into the sun.” The conspiracy theorist, according to Adrian Wisnicki (appropriating Žižek) appears in social and literary history as “the subject who tries to know.”

Conspiratorial thought isn’t commonly associated with such intimate social spaces, and there is a historical tendency to think of the conspiracy in socio-political terms, more often than not as a pathology of the social body. But the word itself, conspiracy, derives from with and breathing: it descends, etymologically, from the activity of breathing together, and a history of conspiracy as the secret association of plotters in particular spaces—drinking establishments and discussion clubs, the “radical underworld” of the C18 described by Iain McCalman. And lovers breathe together, in those “dawn conspiracies” that Rich mentions, third in a sequence of physiological actions: dozing (with its connoted exhalations) and the “cries” which may be the expression of disagreement or passion. Given the development of the poems, from the rush of intimacy to the suggestion of separation, those “murmured conspiracies” may be liable to betrayal. Luc Boltanski notices the intense scrutiny of everyday objects (dust, footprints, notes) that define the detective and the the “paranoid” subject, both of which appeared in public consciousness around the end of the C19. Doesn’t the erotic tradition of the sonnet form pay similar attention to the lips, nose, mouth, tongue of the poem’s object?

The collection in which the twenty-one love poems were (re)published is The Dream of a Common Language (1978). The dog’s presence at dawn by the bedside recalls another piece of anxious writing about the possibility of inter-species communication. Jacques Derrida’s essay, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” opens with another bedroom scene: the philosopher finds himself naked and confronted by his cat’s arch gaze.

I have trouble repressing a reflex dictated by immodesty. Trouble keeping silent within me a protest against the indecency. Against the impropriety that comes of finding oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see. […] It is as if I were ashamed, but also ashamed for being ashamed.

He wonders, if animals could respond to us, what form would the communication would take. Not speech, but some animal expression which would not express the species, but the cat itself. The object of Derrida’s enquiry is not to conceive of a feline language—what the cat would say if it could speak. It is to question what would be a reciprocity between species, an understanding implicit in meeting the gaze of the cat and for comprehension to take place.

Donna Haraway approves of Derrida’s question, but not of his failure to consider the wealth of fieldwork done in animal behaviour. In When Species Meet, she cites Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, and Barbara Smuts as examples of people who know how to look at and be with animals. Smuts studied Baboons in Kenya, where she learned to abandon the empirical techniques of observation so entrenched in the histories of material science and anthropology. “Smuts had been advised to be as neutral as possible, to be like a rock, to be unavailable, so that eventually the baboons would go on about their business as if data-collecting humankind were not present.” Eventually, though, “Smuts recognized that the baboons were unimpressed with her rock act. They frequently looked at her, and the more she ignored their looks, the less satisfied they seemed.”

Rich’s dream of a common language isn’t just one that permits equal exchange between men and women, old and young; across intimate, social, and political space. Here at least she looks at the dog and recognizes through such looking the presence of “animal thoughts” and seems to remember a level of awareness beneath the speech of conspiratorial thought and telephone conversations, that of physical comfort, or the “tenderness” of the poem’s last line, without which “we are in hell.” The conspiracy that the poem celebrates, is between lovers and their “companion” species, and their breathing together.