Conspiracy Theory as Literary Theory

This is an extremely long (and dated) post. It was my Master’s thesis for Literary Theory and Criticism, discussing conspiracy theory as a type of literary theory, attempting to move beyond postmodernism. I am including it here only as a reference for other articles. I plan to expand on it and examine not only literature and film, but hopefully art and music as well. I will also be incorporating the use of light (knowledge, Illumination) and dark (ignorance) in many artistic works that illustrate hidden meanings (e.g. the notion that the Bible is a multi-layered text: a collection of stories as guides to living a decent life for the uninitiated, and an instruction manual full of coded messages for the initiated. “Let there be light” could be read to mean “Here is knowledge” as light represents knowledge or ideas — hence, the halos around the heads of spiritual figures or the light bulbs above the heads of cartoon characters). For now, it is just here to serve as a reference for some of the ideas in this blog.

Conspiracy Theory as Literary Theory

“Conspiracy theory” can mean many different things, depending on whom you ask. To most modern Americans, these two words conjure up images of Richard Dreyfus mulling over a pile of mashed potatoes and muttering to himself, “This means something…”. Perhaps the image conjured is not that image exactly, but it is most likely an image similar to that of the paranoid, possibly schizophrenic recluse locked away in a basement somewhere, poring over peculiar books with one bleary eye focused on a computer screen showing stills from the Zapruder film. “Conspiracy theory” means Kennedy, extraterrestrials, mind control and Freemasonry, all heaped together in a hodge-podge of evil schemes.  Such information is considered unreliable by most, mainly because it has not gained acceptance by what is considered “legitimate” media.

Conspiracy theory, however, is a much more vast and unwieldy subject. Taking it out of the immediately suggested context, we are left with a method of interpretation — interpretation of not just history or current events, but many other subjects, including literature. It can also be seen as a method for interpreting a sense of reality itself. It is, essentially, a way of taking seemingly unconnected or unrelated ideas and stringing them together in a linear, coherent fashion. The human mind loves linear thinking, although we are shown up time and again by this apparent psychological flaw in that nothing, really, is linear but our perspective. Much has been written on the subject of dreams throughout history, but all we know for sure is that dreams are random impulses of the brain that take place during R.E.M. sleep. The “story” of a dream is just the attempt of the conscious mind to make linear sense of these random thoughts and images. This is why they seldom make sense to the fully awake person. Conspiracy theory mimics this attempt at linear thinking in that it is a method for connecting seemingly unrelated subjects, ideas and/or images. Conspiracy theory can take on many perspectives, not the least of which is social consciousness taken to another level, one that deals with ideas not as individual concepts but as interconnecting links to a larger truth.  It can be a means of defining history through the eyes of someone who may have a better view from the top, or someone on the inside who has privileged information to which the average seeker may not have access. Such perceived information offers clues to a pathway for accessing that inside view. But the information selected as useful or telling depends on the individual’s interpretation and their personal experiences or beliefs.

Guy Debord dealt with similar concepts in writing his views on modern-day capital, cultural imperialism, and the role of mediation in social relationships. Conspiracy theory resembles Debord’s concept of the spectacle, which “brings together and explains a wide range of apparently disparate phenomena” (p.14). Furthermore, conspiracy theory, just as Debord’s spectacle, can be expressed as “a visible negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself,” the analysis of which requires us to “engage the methodology of the society to which the spectacle gives expression,” the core of which is socialization and the “material reconstruction of the religious illusion” (pp.15-18). Both are tautological, in that both their means and ends are identical, and both have at their root the specialization of power. Conspiracy theory can be viewed as an attempt at tracing that power to its sources, or, as conspiracy theorists like to say: “Follow the money.” Qui bono, or ‘who profits?’ And is it indeed a conspiracy, or just another coincidental aspect of spectacle? For an example, consider the world of marketing: Advertising, product placement, labeling… all of these things are studied and defined into a near science of convincing consumers to consume. Nothing in this arena is left to chance, and coincidence cannot exist in a world ruled by purpose and intent. It’s getting so that people don’t even believe in coincidences anymore. Everything happens for a reason. And it is into this mindset that the biggest flow of random information in human history is pouring.

What do you see?
What do you see?

Countless papers have been written about the near-omnipotence of modern media and the intrusion of countless bits of information into our daily lives. Conspiracy theory can be seen as an attempt to make sense of this onslaught of imagery and information. In ten minutes of watching television, the average adult human mind has a thousand new thoughts flashing through it at a split-second pace. The computer age and the advent of the internet has added to this constant hum of information, as has the advertising industry in finding new and ever more overt ways of selling its ideas to the public. We see more advertisements in a year than our grandparents saw in a lifetime. The average person has less time to process all of the available information. In this way, conspiracy theory is, in fact, akin to information theory, which is a recent undertaking of the study of today’s excess flow of information and an attempt to define it by mathematical terms. Some of the problems of information theory are related to finding the best methods for separating the wanted information, or signal, from the extraneous information, or noise. Conspiracy theory works in a similar way, whether you are looking at the evening news, a web site, or a novel.

In his essay Detectives in a Crazy World, Benjamin Marius Schmidt hypothesizes:

The point to be made here is that contemporary conspiracy theory emerges as a hybrid of at least three constitutive factors: It comprises (1) a particular mind-set, (2) a reaction to a particular sociological and ontological situation, and (3) a particular mode of reading. In other words: Conspiracy theory is (1) a psychotic attempt (2) to read the modern/postmodern/media universe (3) as a detective story.

While I do not fully agree that the mind-set of the interpreter must necessarily be psychotic, I do agree with Schmidt’s association of conspiracy theory with the detective story. This is a fairly accurate analogy for what is taking place, in that the interpreter is trying to pick out pertinent information (signal, clues) from extraneous information in order to figure out what, exactly, has happened, is happening, or will happen. Schmidt focuses his attentions on two examples of conspiracy literature: Friedrich Schiller’s Der Geisterseher (1789) and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965).

With critical theory and literacy, conspiracy theory could be regarded as a method similar to those of Marxist theory, Feminist theory, Deconstructive or Psychoanalytical theory, New Historicism, etc. It is a way of perceiving or interpreting a particular text by deriving select information from it. Whereas New Historicism deals not with how history is interpreted, but what that interpretation tells us about the interpreters, conspiracy theory also gives us some insight into the interpreter based on what s/he brings to the text from personal experience, prior knowledge, and current mind-set. Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 takes this concept to heart with the main character as interpreter: One Oedipa Maas, who finds herself investigating/interpreting a possible conspiracy in much the same way as one might explore a literary work.  In an excellent essay and hypertext companion to the novel, Nathan F. Piazza writes in America as Glyph: Thomas Pynchon and the Problem of Multiplying Cultural Contexts:

Pynchon is as much aware of the interpretive and discursive habits of the culture of literary criticism as he is of any. He knows that literary critics are accustomed to tracing only a single allusive vector, that between institutionally accepted “literary” materials. So he introduces distracting allusions to television and technology, to nonexistent texts like Driblette’s Courier’s Tragedy, and in the course of doing so he embeds a misdirection within a parody of the act of literary interpretation. Oedipa Mass [sic] goes on a wild goose chase to reconcile a series of editions of the play (a staple activity of literary critics).

More telling is the passage on page 62 of Lot 49 in which Driblette, the director of the play The Courier’s Tragedy, describes his motives for interpreting the play the way he has chosen to. Piazza addresses this passage:

With this deceptive softball of a passage, Pynchon leaves the literary critic with two obvious choices. Either Driblette speaks with the authority of the author, and Pynchon is asserting the epistemological privilege of the individual over a community (a community of scholars or a linguistic community), or his words are simply rhetorical drivel. It is such an irresistible choice that [this passage] is one of the most quoted in any full-length book devoted to the author.

Truth is, essentially, in the eye of the beholder/interpreter, and it is a patchwork creation of that individual’s own personal experience. The interpreter is the detective in his or her own reality. Schmidt’s article deals with this similarity: “The Oedipal story tells of the detective who finds himself to be the criminal he has been looking for. Translated into the terms of conspiracy theory, this reads as a warning: What we see out there, beyond the perimeters of conventional reality, is our own mind.”

Nwar Detective Cartoon - Conspiracy Theory Bulletin Board

In the lens of conspiracy theory, Pynchon’s technological allusion to city housing blocks resembling a printed circuit (p. 14) can be seen as just as telling as his description of Oedipa’s first impressions of the Yoyodyne plant she sees: Outside its main gates stand two sixty-foot missiles, like two pillars (p. 15). According to Masonic symbolism, two pillars mark the passage from one place to another quite different one, announcing the egress from a familiar world to an unknown one. Whether or not this was what Pynchon had in mind, it still suggests to anyone with that previous bit of knowledge that Oedipa has entered not just a new town, but a new world. Interestingly, author and conspiracy guru Robert Anton Wilson noted Pynchon’s novel in his encyclopedic book of conspiracies and cover-ups, cleverly entitled Everything is Under Control: “…it did not help the present author’s detachment to actually see a Yoyodyne factory in New Jersey one night (near Morristown). Was this proof that Lot 49 is based on fact, or does it merely show that some young entrepreneur is a Pynchon fan and a prankster himself?” (p. 137)

Wilson’s observation is an excellent example of how conspiracy theory can cross that fickle line between fiction and reality. (Incidentally, I looked up the Yoyodyne factory in New Jersey on the internet. They make motorcycle parts.)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the Vietnam War turning into a long and bloody slough, race riots in major cities and the impending Watergate scandal, popular distrust of the federal government was at an all-time high. It was around this time that an odd bit of literary text found its way onto the market. Entitled Report from Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, it was apparently a study done on behalf of the US government that found that peace posed a threat to the economy and the stability of the national order. The report was compiled, it said, by fifteen experts known as the Special Study Group (SSG) who first met in 1963 at a secret underground nuclear hideout known as Iron Mountain. They held periodic meetings over the course of two and a half years to discuss the problem the US would face if it entered a period of permanent peace. War, they agreed, was too important a part of the global economy, and so it was necessary to continue a state of war indefinitely. Suggestions for creating situations that promoted this agenda were made, and included creating artificial threats from foreign “rogue” nations. The report followed the protocols of similar reports conducted at the time, right down to the think-tank style jargon. The book was a tremendous hit, ended up on the New York Times best-seller list and was eventually translated into fifteen languages. President Johnson was particularly upset by the book’s success. However, long story short, the authors of the book eventually stepped forward to announce the whole thing had been a hoax based on a discussion stemming from a recent headline in the New York Times that blamed a dip in the stock market on a “peace scare.” Nonetheless, even though the report was an admitted hoax, there are still some people who believe it is an official government document that was leaked to the public. An ultra-right-wing group known as the Liberty Lobby is one such group. The fact that the report itself seems steeped in reality, borrowing bits of factual information such as the name and location of Iron Mountain, make it that much more difficult to separate truth from fiction.

A real page-turner
A real page-turner

Now, nearly forty years later, the United States again finds itself in a war that is becoming another bloody slough. The war in Iraq, is, they say, just one theater in the ever-escalating “War on Terror.” This “new kind of war” is the result of a nation feeling itself becoming less and less secure as the world seemed to take a turn for the worse: Domestic terrorists blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. TWA flight 800 blew up in the skies over Long Island and many believed it had been hit by a missile. Two students went on a killing spree in Columbine, Colorado, setting off a rash of similar, seemingly random shootings across the nation. The Millennium grew ever-closer with the threat of a Y-2K meltdown that never happened, but which still raised the sense of uneasiness in the public (many of whom had diligently stocked up on rations and bottled water). This was followed by the closest and most heavily-contested presidential election in American history. And then 9/11 hit and the whole world seemed to come crashing in with so much imagery and information that three years later no one can seem to get their stories straight. And each and every one of these incidences (along with several others) are bogged down in a quagmire of conspiracy theories, all of which can be connected in some way to one another. As Debord noted, “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.”

Is it any wonder, in this uneasy climate, that a simple off-the-cuff comment made by former secretary of State Madeleine Albright would make headlines the world over and divide the political pundits even further? In the make-up room at Fox studios, she told commentator Mort Kondracke that President Bush was probably hiding Osama bin Laden until he could unveil the terrorist just before the upcoming election. Kondracke and other Republicans took this as hard evidence that the Democrats had lost all moorings in reality when it came to Bush and terrorism. But the fact that Albright quickly released a statement saying that she had only been joking gave Democrats the chance to construct conspiracy theories of their own. Now if bin Laden is indeed captured before the next election, the Bush administration may pay for it with what remaining credibility they may have left.

These are just a few drops in the river of information that people feel obligated to process during the natural course of their daily lives. I once had a friend who was a tremendous conspiracy buff. He likened the experience of sorting through the overabundance of information to that of trying to assemble the pieces to one particular jigsaw puzzle from a tremendous pile of jigsaw pieces from a billion other puzzles. I asked him why it was worth the effort since most of these theories were seen as absurd, even ridiculous? He replied, “Just because an elephant is pink and wearing a sombrero doesn’t mean it won’t hurt when it steps on you.”

The conspiracy theory has once again come home to roost in America, and indeed in most other western countries. Western Europe and Australia are hosts to countless conspiracy-oriented organizations and websites. Even in China, Western visitors are often approached by Chinese citizens who wish to know if UFOs are seen in other parts of the world. And today researchers and scholars are looking at conspiracy not as simply a bunch of crackpot theories, but as a social phenomenon – as a way of processing information in order to perceive one’s environment. Conspiracy theory has made a strong come-back and is becoming closer and closer to the “mainstream” sense of reality.  President Clinton’s troubles with the press were attributed by his wife to a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and this terminology became a mainstay of public discourse. As Schmidt wrote, “In dealing with conspiracy theory… we are moving within a twilight zone, where exactly the status of this distinction between reality and fiction is negotiated more and more on the side of reality.” Conspiracy theory raises epistemological quandaries of all sorts.

Descartes claimed that there is one definitive reality, one true sense of ‘real’, but all we can see of it is what is filtered through our limited physical senses. He was no doubt thinking about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which people within a cave believe the shadows cast on the walls of the cave to be “real.” Not until the individuals venture outside into the daylight do they realize their mistake. Hence, they “saw the light,” or became “Illuminated,” a term that today sparks the conspiracy-oriented mind with visions of a secret global organization bent on world domination: The much-hyped but seldom realized “Illuminati.” This concept is most likely a popularly fabricated capstone on the pyramid structure of other more familiar “secret society” networks like Freemasonry, Knights Templar, Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, etc. There was an organization known as the Bavarian Illuminati that was started in Germany in 1776 by a man named Adam Weishaupt, but very little is known to remain of that organization today. Officially, it was declared an illegal organization by the Bavarian government in 1783 and was disbanded. Many of its members, including Weishaupt, allegedly fled the country, taking their ideals abroad.  The idea of the secret society as a pyramid scheme was spelled out by Weishaupt, who described his organization thusly: “I have two immediately below me into whom I breathe my whole spirit, and each of these two has two others, and so on. In this way I can set a thousand men in motion and on fire in the simplest manner, and in this way one must impart orders and operate on politics” (Marrs, 239). And they can get you a really good deal on detergent, too.

Illuminate your laundry!
Illuminate your laundry!

Descartes’ view of the diluted perception of what is “real” carried tell-tale signs of what was truly thought to be “real.” He wrote that all individual perceptions of reality share some common traits, or threads. No matter how people may differ on the finer points of view, there were some things that could be considered shared truths. Just as most religions or ancient cultural histories the world over agree that there was a great flood at some point in the distant past, each individual the world over carries in their consciousness common truths that are shared by the majority of the world population. That there is some sort of Greater Being watching over us could be considered one of these shared views. Another could be that, despite the debate over the truth behind the Illuminati, organizations like Freemasonry, in fact, do exist — but what the actual intentions or goals of these organizations may be remains a subject of much debate. So who can tell for sure which interpretation of their existence is real? This is true of any shared truths: once it is agreed that they are there, no one can really agree on why they are there.

French social theorist Jean Baudrillard builds on Descartes’ idea of the misinterpreted “real”, taking the idea further to express it as “simulacra”: The idea that there is (or was) a Truth, but we are too far removed from it to ever really perceive it. Baudrillard says that our initial false interpretations of reality have spawned further misconceptions; that our initial simulation of the “real” has itself been simulated, and these simulations have also been simulated, and so on. It has gotten to the point, he says, at which we have lost all notion of the true sense of the “real.”  Anyone who is familiar with the problems of cloning, or simply trying to copy a tenth generation copy of an audio recording, knows how this usually goes: Each copy of a copy degenerates a little further, becoming a less and less definable version of the original. The modern Bible is a remarkable example of this degeneration, and the subsequent flaws in its evolution are a constant source of information for conspiracy theory.

To actually study religious history through a historical lens makes most scholars wonder how organized religion can get away with all that it does. The same few scrolls and books are touted as the truth while many other historical documents (which most scholars maintain as more accurate) are suppressed and ignored simply because they do not support the dogma on which many modern religions rely. The Nag Hammadi scrolls are a common example of this. Discovered in Egypt in 1945 and dating from around 400 A.D., they are hand-inscribed copies of earlier original manuscripts that were written no later than 150 A.D., before the standard New Testament gospels. Many scholars believe many of the Nag Hammadi scrolls to be as authentic as, and less altered than, the accepted gospels. The only problem is that, according to the Nag Hammadi scrolls, Jesus was never crucified, but another man, Simon, had been cleverly substituted to suffer Jesus’ fate. Of course, this idea is suppressed for the damage it could impose on a much-relied upon faith-based social structure. Whether or not the information contained in the scrolls is indeed true is irrelevant, for very much the same reason as the falsehood of the Iron Mountain report mentioned earlier is irrelevant: It still has the potential to be interpreted as truth. The symbolism of the Stations of the Cross only further feed the controversy, as when Jesus stumbles for the third time on his way to Calvary, it is a man named Simon who “takes up His cross.”

"Don't sweat it, buddy, I got this!"
“Don’t sweat it, buddy, I got this!”

Simulations of simulations, copies of copies, will inherently produce conflicting information. And depending on how ingrained this information is in the social structure, it can present some interesting problems of varying severity. So, it is thought by some, rather than put these conflicting points of view on the social market and risk the shaking of our collective foundations, some of our more troubling information is hidden away, to be discovered by those who are ready for it when they are ready for it. If they are of such a mind, then this hidden information takes on a deeper meaning for the very fact that it was hidden in the first place. This reinforces the idea of it being a truth. Truths are hidden, after all; lies are bandied about like wooden nickels. This belief is a cornerstone of conspiracy theory. It is illustrated extremely well by the success of a recent conspiracy novel, Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code, which at the time of this writing, has sold over six million copies in the U.S. alone.

Brown’s novel is centered around the secret society known as the Prieure de Sion, or Priory of Sion, that have been the guardians of an ancient secret regarding the life of Jesus that has been suppressed by the Catholic Church since the Nicene Creed was written in 325 A.D. The Nicene Creed was the end result of a conference held at Nicaea (now Iznik in Turkey), which was organized by Roman Emperor Constantine to decide once and for all what Christians would believe. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity as the official religion of Rome. It is suggested that he did this in order to put an end to the violence between the early Christians and Roman Pagans that threatened to tear Rome apart. To satisfy both parties, Constantine incorporated many Pagan beliefs into the Christian faith, deifying Jesus as the Son of God. This title, as well as the birthday of December 25 and many other details of Jesus’ official life, were shared by a staggering number of gods that reigned before Him. The symbol of the fish that is associated with Christianity today originated with the Babylonian god Nimrod, who was part fish. Even more perplexing is this bit of information from author and conspiracy nut David Icke in his book The Biggest Secret:

 Who am I talking about?

He was born to a virgin by immaculate conception through the intervention of a holy spirit. This fulfilled an ancient prophecy. When he was born the ruling tyrant wanted to kill him. His parents had to flee to safety. All male children under the age of two were slain by the ruler as he sought to kill the child. Angels and shepherds were at his birth and he was given gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. He was worshiped as the saviour of men and led a moral and humble life. He performed miracles which included healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, casting out devils and raising the dead. He was put to death on the cross between two thieves. He descended to hell and rose from the dead to ascend back to heaven.

Sounds exactly like Jesus doesn’t it? But it’s not. That is how they described the Eastern saviour god known as Vishna 1,200 years before Jesus is claimed to have been born (p.91).

This account is corroborated in a number of other texts, but again we are left with nothing tangible except that some people do accept this as true. Some historians even claim that crucifixion would not have fit Jesus’ crimes, according to Hebrew laws of the time. Blasphemers were stoned to death, not crucified. This, however, only confuses the issue further in that it nullifies not only the Biblical account but also that of the Nag Hammadi scrolls. So we again see that simulacra clouds our view of what is true, so that it exists nowhere but in the mind of the perceiver.

This is the mindset with which one would most thoroughly enjoy Brown’s novel. While his base facts are accurate and generally accepted, that:

  1. There is a Priory of Sion
  2. That Leonardo da Vinci is listed in historical documents as having been the Head Master of this organization between the years of 1510-1519
  3. That the Priory claims to have inherited some great secret regarding the life of Jesus that was unearthed from beneath Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem during the Crusades
  4. That this secret was unearthed by the Templar Knights, who, after making the discovery, became extremely wealthy and were given carte blanche by the Catholic Church until they were declared heretics by Pope Clement V who ordered their arrest on Friday, October 13, 1307 (this is where we get the superstition about Friday the Thirteenth being unlucky).

The rest of Brown’s tale is fiction built around these facts. Yet even his purported ‘facts’ are found wanting when scrutinized by historians. Most of Brown’s so-called ‘facts’ were lifted from another dubious historical study entitled The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in 1982.

The title of Brown’s book comes from the belief that da Vinci hid some clues as to this secret truth about Jesus’ life in his artwork. For da Vinci, it was a way to silently strike back at the Catholic Church which he detested, even though he made most of his money on their commissions of his work. The hidden secret deals with the belief that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, which would make sense considering the social norms of the time and place: It would have been considered very unusual for a man of Jesus’ age to not be married. Of course, one could argue, would it not also be considered unusual for a man of Jesus’ age to be able to raise the dead? Nonetheless, the belief of Jesus’ marriage carries a heavier note: That Mary Magdalene bore at least one child to Jesus, a daughter she named Sarah.

Brown sites the works of several historians (most notably that of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln) to support the idea that the “Holy Grail” is actually a legend hinting at the truth that Jesus’ bloodline was carried out of the Holy Land by Magdalene with the help of Joseph of Aramathea. In the legend, Joseph allegedly caught Jesus’ blood as He hung on the cross in the chalice He had used at the Last Supper. This “Grail” has been sought after by historians and religious zealots alike. Brown’s novel suggests that da Vinci hid clues to this secret in his painting The Last Supper.

"Hey, anyone seen my cup?"
“Hey, anyone seen my cup?”

In the painting, Jesus sits at the center of the table, flanked by His disciples. Yet the individual seated to his immediate right, whom many believed to be the disciple John, is, in fact, female. If one studies the painting closely, the figure is obviously female, as da Vinci was too familiar with the details of the human form and how to paint it to make such a distinction unintentionally. Fair skin, dainty hands and the hint of breasts indicate that this is indeed not a male figure. Many believe this is supposed to be Mary Magdalene. Positioned next to Jesus the way she is, joined at the hips, the two figures form an ‘M’ in the central portion of the painting: The initial of Mary Magdalene.

Peter, an alleged misogynist who apparently did not like the idea of Christ turning over His ministry to a woman, is depicted making a violent head-chopping motion towards her neck with his hand. And to the left side of the painting, there is a disembodied hand that, on close inspection, belongs to no one seated at the table. It wields a dagger in a menacing way, suggesting, Brown notes, the malevolent specter of the Catholic Church (Brown, 248). Also, any viewer of the painting will notice that although there is food on the table, there are no cups — hence, no literal grail.

This interpretation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper is very convincing in light of his other information gleaned from a variety of sources. However, as with all other convincing truths from simulacra, there is always another version of the story. Another view of the same painting is offered by conspiracy theorist Icke, who maintains that Jesus Himself was a fictional character, based on his earlier points of the similarities between Jesus and that of a handful of other gods. Real or not, Icke claims that da Vinci’s The Last Supper was painted to parody an old engraving of the zodiac that showed the twelve months broken up into four groups of three, separated by a cross in the center, which was encircled by an image of the sun (which in ancient astrology was symbolized by a cross). Icke writes:

Leonardo da Vinci, the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion (Sun), used this same symbolism in his famous painting of the Last Supper. He divides the twelve disciples into four groups of three with Jesus, the ‘Sun’, in the middle of them.  Again this is astrological symbolism painted by a high initiate of the secret societies and mystery schools who knew the truth. It may well be that da Vinci has portrayed one of the disciples as a woman to symbolize the Isis, Barati, Semiramis deity. This became symbolized as an ‘M’ for Mary or Madonna (Semiramis) (Icke, 94).

While Icke’s work is largely regarded as poor science, he cannot help but get at least some of his information right. Da Vinci’s painting does indeed show the disciples broken up into neat groups of three.


In order for Jesus to be regarded as a demigod, much of His identity as a man had to be erased. Along with it, many believe, Constantine also wiped out any mention of Mary Magdalene’s real relationship with Jesus. Rather than keeping her as a respected descendant of the House of Benjamin, they recast her as a prostitute, maintaining the Church’s image of the female as corrupted. Perhaps this is what Levi Strauss and others should be considering when they claim that Christianity has lost its touch with the feminine aspect and become, as da Vinci himself called it, “life out of balance.” Incidentally, da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa, some say, is a representation of this balance between the male and female. The name “Mona Lisa”, it is suggested, is an anagram for the god and goddess Amon and Isis. Amon, whose name means “hidden,” was the Egyptian god of male vitality. He was often depicted as a ram, which again refers back to the zodiac. “Lisa,” in this same vein, comes from “l’Isi”, or “Isis” in Italian. Hence, Mona Lisa is the balance of male and female sexuality. This, say those that follow this line of thinking, is the reason for her curious smile. This balance is also emphasized in Brown’s book.

The book is filled with many other clues to actual (“real”) people and places, one of the most notable being the name of the character whose murder at the beginning of the tale is the catalyst for the story. The character is the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, Jacques Saunière. Judging from Brown’s in-depth knowledge of the history behind the da Vinci code, it is no coincidence that “Saunière” was also the surname of François Bérenger Saunière, the young parish priest who in 1891 discovered some hidden secret in the small Languedoc town of Rennes-le-Chateu. Many speculate that the thing he discovered was the very secret hidden there by the Knights Templar, the secret of the “Holy Grail.” Whatever Saunière’s discovery was, it brought him the same notoriety that the Templars enjoyed prior to their demise.  This clue is compounded with several other odd items that Brown mentions in his book, including a short lecture on the “Divine Proportion,” 1.618, and how this mathematical signature seems to turn up in every natural structure including the human body. Such a powerful piece of fiction laced together with bits of historical and scientific fact is ideal fodder for conspiracy theorists. A grain of truth can sell even the most creative fiction. As Brown notes more than once in the text, “Everyone loves a conspiracy.”

Regardless, again we walk away with no clearer idea of the true sense of “real.” Again, it is all up to the interpreter to make some coherent sense of the information offered. Also, it is up to the interpreter of what is “real” to decide how swayed or convinced s/he will be to let go of old notions in favor of those offered by others. This decision is based on the quality of information offered, and the quality of the information is also up to the interpreter. Any idea, it seems, can be argued convincingly, as can any counter-arguments of the same idea. Although all may make strong arguments, who can say which one is “true”? As Baudrillard attributes to Ecclesiastes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” (p. 169). Regarding literary texts, this statement could be rephrased as “The author is never one who writes the text – it is the text that hides the fact that there is no author. The text is true.” The text is meaningless without a mind to read it and attribute meaning to it. The same could be said of the individual’s perception of any outside phenomenon. As with the da Vinci painting of the Last Supper, in literary texts many different elements combine from sources beyond the scope of the work itself. These sources include, but are not limited to, the personal knowledge and/or experiences of the interpreter. In the da Vinci painting, Peter’s hand-gesture toward the female figure might not seem interesting to a viewer who has no prior knowledge of Peter’s relationship to Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Only the influence of “insider” knowledge into the painting, historical discourse, and the painter himself would cast such a light on the work’s possible intended message.

Although it helps to sell a conspiracy theory if it has one foot planted in reality, it is not always necessary to use facts to intrigue a reader. Pynchon’s novel deals with a completely fictitious location, fictitious characters, and a fictitious play. And yet readers will still apply the same methods of gathering information as they would in interpreting anything else in the “real” world. As I quoted Debord earlier, the reader will “engage the methodology of the society to which the spectacle gives expression.” The interpreter is just as comfortable with works of pure fiction as s/he is with the information coming in from the real world, in that the coping strategy remains the same. As Debord notes, “The closer his life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically he is cut off from that life” (p. 24). Also, “The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere” (p. 23). So the interpreter, or spectator, copes with the agreed upon “reality” in much the same way as s/he deals with works of pure fiction, simply because they are viewed as largely the same on some conscious level. The interpreter today stands just as much apart from the “real” as the fiction.

Today, this is a global phenomenon that spans every country and culture. Globalized media have introduced most of the human population to the same images, ideas, and level of involvement and/or detachment.

Another example of the conspiracy theory as literature is Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s novel, A Wild Sheep Chase. Like Pynchon’s Lot 49, it deals mostly in fiction. It is the story of a young advertising agent who inadvertently draws the attention of a criminal dynasty, a secret society that is being headed by a mysterious “man in black”. “Men in Black” are an icon of conspiracy folklore. Most recently, they have gained notoriety among UFO researchers in that they often show up to harass eyewitnesses. But, if one is to believe some historical accounts, the “Men in Black” have been with us since the dawn of history. They turned up in Europe just prior to the outbreak of the Black Plague. They were described by author William Bramley in his well-researched and much-maligned book Gods of Eden:

Strange men dressed in black, “demons,” and other terrifying figures were observed in other European communities. The frightening creatures were often observed carrying long “brooms,” “scythes,” or “swords” that were used to “sweep” or “knock at” the doors of people’s homes. The inhabitants of those homes fell ill with plague afterwards. It is from these reports that people created the popular image of “Death” as a skeleton or demon carrying a scythe. (p. 185)

Thomas Jefferson used to joke that it had been a mysterious man in a black hood that had given him the design for the Great Seal of the United States. John Keel, author of the best-selling The Mothman Prophecies, goes on at length about strange Men in Black in the Ohio River Valley in the late 1960’s. The image of the Man in Black didn’t elude Pynchon, either, who described the Trystero assassins as mysterious black-garbed men.

But in Murakami’s work, the man in the black suit is simply that. No allusions are made to him being supernatural in nature. Only the object he pursues is supernatural.

The object is a mutant sheep, one of a species that doesn’t exist, with a black star on its back. This man in black is the secretary for a character known as “The Boss.” The Boss built his criminal empire from the ground up, but fell ill from a brain tumor he contracted in WWII. The man in black is his secretary, who is searching for the mutant sheep in order to save the Boss, or to take over his empire. The sheep, the novel reveals, is actually a supernatural being that uses people like “shells,” or a parasite in a host, entering them and using them to further goals of global domination.

The sheep is regarded as legend until a friend sends the young advertising agent a photograph, and he uses it in an advertisement. The photo shows a field of sheep, one of which bears a star on its back. The agent is coerced into finding the sheep by the man in black, and the story moves forward like a surreal detective novel.

One characteristic of Murakami’s novel is that none of the characters have names.  The narrator is simply “I,” and everyone else is referred to by their relationship to the narrator or by their occupation: “My girlfriend,” “The Boss,” “The Limo Driver,” “The Hotel Owner.” There are two exceptions, the nicknames of the characters “The Rat” and “J”. Either Murakami is giving the reader some creative license and trying not to distract them from the plot with proper names, or he simply does not like to dream up names for his characters when they enter into his work. I know from personal experience that stopping a train-of-thought to conjure up a fitting name can interrupt the creative process.

A Wild Sheep Chase moves in a mode similar to Pynchon’s book, the detective-genre gone weird. But whereas Pynchon’s novel seems to carry a nervous, almost neurotic run-on sentence investigation, Murakami’s is more thoughtful and self-actualizing for the narrator. Still, both follow the same style, almost formulaic in design. Schmidt’s description seems to fit this idea the best:

Detective stories and conspiracy literature, i.e. narratives of crime detection and narratives of conspiracy uncovering, have this in common: 1) They are stories about how to arrive at a coherent narrative (account of the crime, conspiracy theory) from an incoherent, chaotic, contingent situation via symptomatic hermeneutics. 2) The protagonist (detective, conspiracy theorist) is confronted with the situation of a rupture of order, and s/he is or feels called upon to restore order. 3) An analogy is presupposed between the coherence of the final narrative, the identification of the original agent (murder, conspirator), and the restoration of order.

The “original agent” in Murakami’s novel shifts as the story proceeds, a common tactic in these types of literature. Finally, the original agent is a supernatural sheep, which makes an unreal tale surreal.  There is, however, one bit of historical information that I have not been able to corroborate, but which could enhance the reading as conspiracy theory. This is the account on pages 221-222 in which the “Sheep Professor” is informing the narrator of the history of the mutant sheep:

“In parts of Northern China and Mongol territory, it’s not uncommon to hear of sheep entering people’s bodies. Among the locals, it’s believed that a sheep entering the body is a blessing from the gods. For instance, in one book published in the Yuan dynasty it’s written that a ‘star-bearing white sheep’ entered the body of Genghis Khan. Interesting, don’t you think?”

Very interesting, indeed. Could this, perhaps, be the origin of the term “sheepish”? Regardless, this bit of information serves to draw the reader into the narrator’s world more completely. Now the line is blurred between fiction and reality. The detective story has eased closer to the genre of conspiracy, or vice-versa. Schmidt continues with this comparison:

 The difference between both types of narratives, however, is that the detective story is about the social and moral order, whereas conspiracy literature is about the ontological and semiotic order. It seems that a similar pattern, a mode of reading typical of the detective model, persists into a new form of representation. The shift from modernist to postmodernist narrative fiction can roughly be explained as a shift in the underlying ‘trivial’ paradigm from the detective model to the science fiction model. While modernist fiction was concerned with epistemological issues and thus relied on the detective story as its secret paradigm, postmodernist fiction is more interested in ontological issues and thus tends to take science fiction as its secret paradigm. Conspiracy literature seems to be uneasily hovering between both models: On the one hand, it is clearly concerned with (postmodernist) issues of ontological and semiotic uncertainty, while at the same time it relies on a (modernist) mode of reading typical of the detective model.

Modern culture has found itself inundated with more and more information with the rapid evolution of technology, but ironically, it has less and less time to make sense of it all, or to understand exactly where it all is coming from. Satellite communications, the internet and twenty-four hour news channels give the average person a lot to choose from, and very little time to be selective. And in our current political climate, distrust of the government has turned conspiracy theory into a booming business. Conspiracy Theory was welcomed into the popular consciousness with a wider embrace in the 1990’s with the popularity of such TV shows as The X-Files and pseudo-documentaries like Sightings.  Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon and churned out such motion pictures as Conspiracy Theory, The X-Files (based on the popular television show) and Independence Day, a movie in which it was admitted that not only did Area 51 exist, but that the president was kept out of the loop.  On the internet, the most popular websites by far are those that deal in either pornography or conspiracy. In literature, tales of conspiracy are very popular items. Although most readers seem to prefer a little fiction with their theories, as conspiracy texts that present themselves as pure historical fact usually don’t fare so well. On average, most books like Marrs’s Rule by Secrecy and Icke’s The Biggest Secret sell very well when they initially hit the stores, but sales then take a dramatic drop after their first year on the market. This is according to an article published in The National Review.  The author, Andrew Stuttaford, makes this remark about one of Marrs’s earlier books, Alien Agenda: “In a saner time, Alien Agenda would have been a crudely mimeographed pamphlet, pushed into your hand by a disheveled gentleman on a street corner. In the America of 1997 it will probably be a hit.”  Yes, Brown was right: Everyone (especially Americans, it would seem) loves a conspiracy.

Conspiracy theory is simply a coping mechanism for the multitude of unknowns that we are presented with in this modern culture.  As Baudrillard writes in The Masses:

The result is therefore not to provide any additional information or to shed any light on reality, but on the contrary, because we will never in future be able to separate reality from its statistical, simulative projection in the media, a state of suspense and of definitive uncertainty about reality. And I repeat: It is a question here of a completely new species of uncertainty, which results not from the lack of information but from information itself and even from an excess of information. It is information itself which produces uncertainty, and so this uncertainty, unlike the traditional uncertainty which could always be resolved, is irreparable (Baudrillard, 213).

Irreparable? Perhaps. But think of conspiracy theory as that reliable band of duct tape that may just hold some of it together, at least for a little while, and give the whole thing a certain… unique appearance that keeps it interesting. It is that odd bauble discovered in a dingy shop on some backstreet that the shopper buys as a curio, not because it is particularly attractive, but because it is bound to spark some interesting conversations. (For a light-hearted example of how this can work, see the article exploring the possibility that Abe Vigoda is Jesus.)



Marrs, Jim. Rule by Secrecy. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 2000.

Brown, Dan. The da Vinci Code. New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2003.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1999.

Murakami, Haruki. A Wild Sheep Chase. New York: Random House, 2002.

Wilson, Robert Anton. Everything is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-Ups. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1998.

Bramley, William. Gods of Eden. New York, N.Y.: Avon Books, 1993

Icke, David. The Biggest Secret. Wildwood, MO.: Bridge of Love Publications USA, 1999.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA.: Stanford Univ. Press, 2001.


Stuttaford, Andrew. “Lost in Space.” National Review July 28, 1997: Vol. 49 Issue 14

Schmidt, Benjamin M. “Detectives in a Crazy World: Conspiracy Theory from Schiller to Pynchon via Lacan and Luhmann.” Conspiracy Culture Conference, King Alfred’s College, Winchester: 17-19 July 1998. <>

Published by pookabazooka

I am an ape living abroad, writing to stay focused and to remember the things I think about. I post them here in case you'd like to spend a bit of time thinking about them, too.

3 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theory as Literary Theory

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