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.

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