Critical Theories and Conspiracy Theories

There has been a veritable explosion of counter-stream movements in the last few years that have not only gained ground but have actually had serious social effects: Anti-vaccination (fear of medical professionals in general), anti-chemicals-in-food (or “chemicals” in general), continued climate change denial, etc. These movements all operate with a very similar rhetoric which points to a nefarious plot to profit off of an ill-informed and vulnerable public. The key to resistance is to arm yourself with the true scientific (or “alternative”) knowledge that isn’t being produced for profit. The recent surge of hidden camera footage produced by pro-life activists in an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is exemplary of this logic as well. That case is particularly interesting because we have a now decades old position (anti-abortion/pro-life) being presented as an exposé of a conspiracy to profit from the sale of dead babies and in the name of “mainstream science.”

For those of us arguing against this kind of rhetoric, it often feels like talking to a wall. The response is typically that we have been sucked in, are blind to the reality that is all around us, are uncritical shills ourselves. It often feels as though the very arguments that we generate against these theories get turned on us. “You think I’m being uncritical? You’re the one being controlled by Big Pharma/the liberal media/the abortion industry/etc. Wake up!” The script is flipped. And the truth is, the rhetoric of these claims is eerily similar to the kind of social philosophy that has been the core of the humanities since the middle of the 20th century–the kind of social and cultural criticism out of which many of us are attempting to build a career. Furthermore, given the proliferation of the theories mentioned above, we are force to ask: What is the difference between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory? Why can’t a conspiracy theory be critical or vice versa–or are those in fact interchangeable?

The French sociologist Bruno Latour thinks, in general, they are. In his 2004 essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Latour laments this very thing: that a suspicion of “fact” first leveled in the post-structural and critical theory of the mid-20th century has become almost indistinguishable from contemporary conspiracy theories. He begins the essay citing a number of examples where dissenters engaged in political discourse surrounding particular matters of fact cast those facts as somehow “undecided,” “produced,” “contested” in some way. For example, even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty.

Do you see why I am worried? Latour writes. I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

Latour’s concern here is heightened even more today in a way that he probably could not have imagined even just ten years ago. Though the Internet was already showing signs of movement toward larger and larger echo-chamberfication, there were certain mediums that did not yet exist; namely, vast networks of social media. YouTube didn’t exist. MySpace, Friendster and the like were at nowhere near the level of information production and circulation that Facebook and Twitter are today. But for this reason, Latour’s “criticism of criticism” is perhaps even more important in our contemporary climate. Latour continues, chastising those of us making a career out of social and cultural criticism:

Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu [. . .]? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

Before I get to Latour’s solution, I want to parse this relationship between the structure of conspiracy and critique a bit more. Drawing a sharper distinction between critical and conspiracy theories at this point will help us to see how we can further distinguish them using Latour’s solution. Latour points out here, I think, only a surface level rhetorical similarity between these two discourses. He is right that there is a structural or formal similarity, but even that is only superficial. Take any of the examples I mentioned at the opening of the post; those are all structurally similar to each other. There is an entity of some kind that has duped the public into thinking its motives have been above reproach when, in fact, it has been profiting from the public’s suffering, actually putting the public’s well-being into very serious jeopardy. Arguments for the existence of institutional racism or structural socio-economic injustice also seem to follow this same pattern. There is an entity to which certain segments of the population are blind. Their continued blindness has perpetuated a threat that has always been there but is now institutionalized through its normalization (i.e. because these segments of the population think of it as normal, they can’t see it as a problem.)

However, we can already begin to see in these examples the important differences to which Latour does not give enough attention in his initial analysis. These differences, I think, can be summed up in the difference between entities. Latour does admit that while conspiracy theories identify a physical group of people, critical theories are interested in abstractions–society, discourse, etc. But this isn’t a small difference. To be sure, critical social and cultural theories accuse more “visible” entities too. For example, we implicate Halliburton and Dick Cheney in the creation of the second Iraq war. We point to a conspiracy there. The difference is that both the effects of that conspiracy and the conditions that made it possible extend far beyond the aims of the conspirators and into the realm of abstractions such as “capitalism,” “discourse,” “neo-liberalism,” etc.

Those abstractions themselves are not conspiracies in the same sense because those who participate in them are not “historically” complicit in their original creation; they are complicit in their perpetuation and thus their creation by cultural inheritance. In fact, it would be hard to say that these abstractions, though they certainly exist, were “created” in the same way that conspiracy theorists want to say Big Pharma created the “myth of vaccinations.” That’s a really important difference. The latter kind of conspiracy theory is the stuff that Hollywood dramas are made of. They begin and end with the people involved. Critical theories may point to people who are consciously involved in a phenomenon “conspiratorially”–but those conspirators are always only an example, a particular manifestation of a larger systemic problem that always transcends their specific conspiracy.

Latour, I think, downplays too much the necessity of critical cultural and social analysis of discourse, of structures of power, of political economies, etc. Of course, I too have written here in the past about my desire to move beyond mere critique and toward a more constructive discourse. And though I disagree that the state of critique is in as dire a situation as Latour claims it is, I think Latour does provide us with an interesting proposal for doing that.

Latour’s solution to this problem, the confusion between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory, is to move our attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” In other words, while our previous modes of social critique, e.g. discourse analysis, deconstruction, critical theories of race, gender, and class, etc. have insisted that we move away from “facts” as such and toward the production of those facts, Latour argues the aim of critique “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” A “matter of concern” is a way of talking about phenomena as states of affairs in all of their complexity rather than uncritically accepting what a matter of fact is, thereby limiting our analysis to the production of “bare facts” for the purposes of power. Matters of fact are “objects in the world” in the old, Enlightenment sense of that phrase. They are dead, concretized, and neutral, available for our observation but also our manipulation. Matters of concern, comparatively, are Things in the Heideggerian sense–an object that is struck by an inexhaustible set of connections.

A better way of putting this, I think, is to say that Latour is adding a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique. Matters of concern extend beyond matters of fact precisely because they take into consideration the values that traverse them and make them what they are. By “value” I mean descriptions that are not facts–attributions of beauty, certain attributions of goodness or badness, attributions of fear or disgust, etc.

I would contend, then, that Latour’s proposal shares more similarities with the projects of Simmel or Weber, with the added dimension of an ethical standpoint from which analysis is performed–that is, with the dimension of social critique. When Horkheimer and Adorno abandoned the old sociological descriptive project, which was epistemically relative and anti-empiricist, and was championed by the Neo-Kantian sociologists of the early 20th century like Simmel and Weber, we might say, anachronistically, that they also shifted the focus of social analysis from matters of concern to matters of fact. That maybe seems counterintuitive, particularly because these figures (especially Weber) argued polemically against using sociology as a platform for social criticism. Weber thought that had no place in scholarship. But his approach to social phenomena is exactly what Latour describes here. The “historical individual” (a concept I’ve written about here) in Weber’s sociology is almost identical conceptually to what Latour is calling a Thing here. That is, a Thing for Latour is an historical-cultural concept that is formed out of the nexus of other Things and values which cross it and give it its character and significance.

Using this framework casts an even sharper distinction between critical theories and conspiracy theories because we can show how the latter will always be trapped in the logic of matters of fact while the former can easily move beyond facts to concerns. In other words, critical theories are equipped to talk about values (fear, comfort, danger, safety, familiarity, violence, privilege, advantage, etc.) and show how they become transformed into facts: “White people attribute the values of danger and violence to young black men” becomes “Young black men are violent and dangerous” through the normalization of police and other state violence against African Americans as evidenced by the disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers and the disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, can only describe what they take to be the facts: Big Pharma wants to profit from the death of our children; Mexico is sending us its most violent rapists and other criminals; Abortion is a means for profit from the discarded body parts. You get the idea.