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.