Peter Saul, ‘Government of California,’ 1969, acrylic on canvas, 68″ x 96″. Collection of Brian Donnelly, New York. © Peter Saul. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
The conspiracy lives. It goes on without you and within you, and it’s big—a perfect example of a hyperobject. That word, coined by Timothy Morton to describe those features of our existence too vast to apprehend entirely, to get our heads around, is frequently applied to global warming—which, taken as an example, in turn helps to clarify Morton’s odd term.
In a triple sense, global warming, or “climate change,” is a notion pervaded with an atmosphere of conspiracy. First, of course, the outstandingly real and simple disaster somehow stands under accusation of being the concoction of special interests (ecological, Chinese, or what have you). Second, its onset—so gradual, and now so sudden—proposes the existence of a nonhuman conspiracy against capitalism. It’s as if, instead of machines rising up against humans (as in The Terminator, or that old Twilight Zone episode in which the electric shaver comes slithering down the stairs like a cobra), it is the laws of nature that will ultimately act, like a Marvel supervillain, to topple humanity. Third, and most poignant, it has demanded in response a manifestly useless “conspiracy of good sense”; right-thinking people everywhere attempting to conspire in saving the world and … getting nowhere in particular. In this regard, or in all these senses put together, you could say we live in the era of the first truly global conspiracy that actually matters, one with sway over every human prospect. Masons, secret lizards, CIA LSD, Scientology, Tupperware, all pale in comparison.
Morton’s notion of the hyperobject also illuminates a paradoxical feature of the conspiracy: in its limitlessness, tenuousness, invisibility, and threat, it begs to be denied absolutely. Either the conspiracy infiltrates everything, or it doesn’t exist.
But that’s not right, or not right enough: the conspiracy is real partly because we make it real—like a god. One central source of the conspiracy’s power is the fact that we can’t agree, not only on what it looks like or what its purposes might be but on whether or not it’s there at all. It feeds on belief and disbelief, a billion-footed Lovecraftian creature running amok because each of us is knitting one of its socks—and those of us who deny its existence are knitting some of its most useful socks. Though the image is absurd, the word knitting suggests the knit brow of the worried person, and Shakespeare’s “sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.” We dwell on malign conspiracies while we’re suffering insomniac episodes.
Conspiracies also unravel, like a sweater, when they’re exposed. Or we hope they do, though actually it is more often the harmless or bogus ones that are most eligible for exposure and unraveling. The deeper and more tenacious conspiracies hide in plain sight, yet remain miraculously denied and therefore immune to simple exposure. This is where the notion of conspiracy dovetails with the concept of ideology, and with an understanding of the kinds of power baked into Foucauldian institutions. The more local and frantic and isolated variety of conspiracy thinking, in fact, often does the labor of distracting us from the oppressive operation of background power, of those “deep states” of family, nation, corporation, church. Seeing conspiracies everywhere is often denounced as a mug’s game, a dark inversion of wishful thinking: how convenient it would be if everything oppressive were the fault of some nameable bad actor who could be apprehended and punished! And yet this discrediting of the notion of conspiracy is one of the deepest operations of the conspiracy, isn’t it?
Jim Shaw, ‘Martian Portraits,’ 1978, photograph, gelatin silver prints, image 14″ x 11″, frame 14 1/8″ x 11 1/8″. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2016. © Jim Shaw. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles / New York / Tokyo.
Conspiracy is a truly American motif, since ours is a nation conceived—rigged up from available parts—by a gang of slave-owning freedom fighters whispering in candlelit rooms, exchanging frantic drafts of improbable manifestos. The Masonic pyramid on the dollar bill is also a Ponzi-scheme emblem. It was Melville, in The Confidence-Man, who perfectly located that site where conspirator and con man converge—an image of the darkly veiled American huckster, making all our Manifest Destiny happen. The westward migration was a conspiracy along these Ponzi lines: keep selling the next sucker on the terrific arable land just down the track. Worse still is the conspiracy of genocide. We’re easily able to see this in Nazi trains to Nazi camps, less ready to accept it in smallpox blankets and “Urban Renewal,” those periodic and convulsive schemes to raze black middle-class cities like East Saint Louis, or slow-acting but effective “kill the poor” trickle-nowhere Republicanism.
Yet for all the conspiracy’s bigness, its political implication, the image of the knitter—knit one, purl two, repeat ad infinitum—points us as well to the intimacy and intricacy, the miniaturized and obsessional nature of the conspiracy theorist’s mind-set. It’s always personal, sometimes it’s a little masturbatory. The devil is in the details, and if it’s a forest in which the monster lurks, it’s a forest made of trees—always notice the trees, I think they’re creeping closer!
What was I saying? Everything is connected, and everything matters. The research and scholarship necessary for managing a universe in the clutch of malign powers can seem rather poignant, even abject, but that’s only to say it’s sublimely human. The knitter’s yarn is also needed to provide the string between the pushpins and thumbtacks on the “crazy wall,” that staple of so many television shows and movies in which a person’s patternmaking madness is rendered explicit in a handcrafted flowchart of interconnections. It’s usually a scene of horror and/or pity, and yet another part of us knows the maker of the crazy wall is onto something, and we’re going to be playing catch-up by the end of the story. We need our paranoiacs and our detectives combined in just the right proportion, into Sherlock Holmes or Naomi Klein or Philip K. Dick, to lead us out of the wilderness, or at least show us what it looks like.
Sarah Anne Johnson, ‘House on Fire,’ 2009, mixed media, 31″ x 33″ x 45″. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchased with the assistance of Michael F. B. Nesbitt, 2009. © Sarah Anne Johnson.
Most of our own crazy walls lead nowhere certain or, worse, into greater dark. Yet the coping individual subject, under the vast conspiracy known as contemporary life, isn’t something we can safely patronize or disclaim. We’re all we’ve got, now and forever, unless we want to surrender control of the whole thing to the post-human artificial intelligences who are already plotting to supplant us, who may in fact be the second globally relevant conspiracy we’ve conjured up for the twenty-first century.
Moving further from forest to trees, burrowing from macro to micro, it’s worth observing that consciousness itself is a kind of conspiracy. Our construction of self—memories, dreams, projections—is a thing there and not there, a machine raveling it all together by an unknowable and dubious mechanics, hiding crucial facts and features from view, and riddled with fissures and incongruities while proposing a seamless and perfect surface. We have conspirators within ourselves, in the form of our Freudian and Darwinian ghosts, strange operators with no duty of obedience to our daily agendas, our objectives inside the ordinary waking life. What a mess! Then again, why shouldn’t we be as gnarled and obscure as the larger forces manipulating us? Maybe it takes one to know one; perhaps we’re the right tool for the job.
Still, entertaining a live nerve for conspiracy feels craven and creepy, deeply at odds with the path of mindfulness, of good faith in others, of choosing your battles, and of getting off the grid. What to do, when we all understand both that the conspiracy is real and also that looking at it or thinking about it is bad for our individual health, sanity, and capacity to thrive as a participant-servant to the Matrix? What’s worse, the details are so bo-ring! Nobody wants to be that guy unveiling the conversational black hole at the dinner party.
The answer may be here, in the pages of this book. “Paranoid art is where Copernicus goes to be persistently overthrown, for it has noticed that consciousness is itself a permanent conspiracy theory, and one that is ipso facto correct: I think, therefore I am the center of this story … While paranoia in everyday life asks questions it believes have terrifying answers, paranoid art knows the more terrifying (and inevitable) discoveries are further questions. For paranoid art, unlike paranoid persons, also distrusts itself. And so, paranoid art is the ultimate opposite, the urgent opposite, of complacent art” (Jonathan Lethem, Fear of Music). I couldn’t have said it better myself. By suffusing themselves in the affective texture of left paranoia—the morbidity, the self-reproach, but also the adrenaline spike of obsessive due diligence, of clue discovery, of pinning a new three-by-five card to the crazy wall and seeing it shed light on its neighbors—the artifacts and tableaux assembled by these thriving canaries in the coal mine of late capitalism are evidence of our collective capacity to endure and abide, to detect the galaxy in a grain of sand, and to laugh in the dark. Like Don DeLillo in his JFK-assassination-conspiracy novel, Libra, these artworks don’t resolve the conundrums they entertain but instead provide a kind of mirrored room or resonating chamber that allows us to visit such apprehensions in their natural state, and to locate ourselves in them, in various states of outrage, bewilderment, complicity, arousal, and despair. This we’d better learn to do, since the only alternative is to ignore the conspiracy completely.
Jenny Holzer, ‘Red Yellow Looming,’ 2004, thirteen double-sided LED signs with red and amber diodes, 11′ 11″ x 9′ 1″ x 52″. Collection of Cari and Michael Sacks, New York. © 2018 Jenny Holzer, member, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Jonathan Lethem is a novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. He teaches in the English department of Pomona College, Claremont, California. His latest book is The Feral Detective, out tomorrow from Ecco. Read his Art of Fiction interview.
“Knitting the Monster’s Socks,” by Jonathan Lethem, excerpted from Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, by Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © 2018. Reprinted by permission. The publication is available for purchase at The Met Store and Yale University Press. It accompanies an exhibition of the same name at The Met Breuer, on view through January 6, 2018.
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