Hey Bettina, thanks for bringing this up — I haven’t really done any work on soap opera or similar forms, so anything I can say about this must remain speculative, but I would think that the activities of soap opera audiences are (typically) guided by a somewhat different interest. I would agree that speculating about further developments is an important appeal of soap operas as well — and of serial storytelling in general, no matter what genre, format, or medium. But the interest of audiences of conspiracy fictions — and other kinds of crime fiction — is not only to find out ‘what will happen next,’ i.e. to guess what dramatic developments will unfold in the next chapter, episode, or season (this, btw., is what Todorov calls the appeal of ‘supsense’ that is obviously important for conspiracy fictions as well). The ‘mysteries’ that the ongoing plots of these programs circle around usually aren’t revealed or cleared up at all (at least not conclusively or exhaustingly), since they are not something that is really ‘inside’ or part of the ongoing (and serially unfolding) narration. Rather, the mystery is usually something — an event, or a series of events — that has occurred before the narration has set in, something that is in the past of the ongoing narrative and that needs to be unearthed and found out — like the crime in classical detective fiction that preceedes the onset of narration. I would say that conspiracy narratives are a subset of crime fiction (as, for example, Todorov has described the genre in his “Typology of Detective Fiction”), that derive their main appeals from both the suspense about what will happen next, and the speculation about what happened before. Unlike other crime fictions, however, conspiracy narratives never really offer a convincing solution for their mysterious events and the motivations, goals, and details of conspiratorial activity are never quite cleared up — and precisely this open-endedness inspires ongoing theorization and speculation. The mystery in the conspiracy narrative is a bit like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock movie: it doesn’t really matter what it is exactly, but it keeps the story going. Obviously, though, there isn’t any real clear-cut boundary between what happens on soap-operas and the kinds of television series I am talking about here. In fact, I think many soap operas make use of conspiratorial narrative structures as well — especially when the plots become more outlandish and feature supernatural events, alien abductions, murder mysteries, etc. Does that make sense?
Hey Felix, I was just wondering if you have thought about analogies between these kinds of audience activities that are spurred by ‘conspiratorial’ television and other formats, as for example soap operas. It seems to me that while the information politics of these formats are very different, the activities of gathering clues and speculating about further developments and resolutions by the audience are quite similar.
Ilka, thanks for commenting! That makes perfect sense, and I think your comment goes right to the center of what’s at stake in both conspiratorial thought and the trajectories of narratively complex television series, since both forms have to engage with the problem of managing an increasingly vast and complex amount of narrative material (the endless flow of media content available to us in the case of conspiracy theorists; and the increasingly complicated and convoluted backstories of complex television series that need to be dealt with if the show wants to remain accessible). The figure of the conspiracy — i.e. the idea that a complex network of conspirators secretly pulls the strings behind events like 9/11 and steers history in general according to its needs — can give coherence and meaning to both. The complexities of our social reality can be nicely explained away if the answer is “XX must be behind this”; similarly, even the outlandish plot twists on shows like Lost can be legitimized by reference to an existing ‘masterplan’ (be it of diegetic conspirators or TV authors — a plan whose details nonetheless must always remain obscure). The narrative logics of conspiracy (theory) can thus be understood as a strategy of information management — as a way to connect otherwise disparate events and things within a broader (if bizzare and implausible) explanatory frame.
By the way, here’s where my clips to the left come from (in order of appearance): the Torchwood: Miracle Day episode “The Middle Men,” the Lost episode “Lockdown”, and (the last two) the Rubicon episode “Connect The Dots”.
Hey Shane, thanks for stopping by and thanks for commenting! And thanks for giving me the opportunity to elaborate a bit on the ‘seemingly apolitical nature’ of the active audience practices these shows encourage: Committed viewers and fans of such ‘conspiratorial’ television shows are not only invited to come up with their own theories and speculations about the narrative enigmas of these programs (what’s behind the mysteries of Lost’s Island, what are the loyalties and motivations of Homeland’s Brody, what’s behind Fringe’s ‘pattern’ of paranormal events, etc; i.e. to solve narrative puzzles that invite ‘conspiratorial’ explanations), the user activity on online forums dedicated to the discussion of these series (like Lostpedia or Fringepedia) also exhibits a striking similarity to the interpretive practices of conspiracy theorists (as they are on display, for example, on websites like http://vigilantcitizen.com/). The latter frequently engage in close readings of popular media texts (Hollywood movies, TV series, music videos) and read them as evidence for the activities of imagined conspiracies — as examples for the illuminati control of Hollywood, mind control via the mass media, etc — and document their findings with freeze frames taken from films and the detailed analysis of key scenes — i.e. they make use of interpretive practices eerily similar to those of Lost fans debating the relevance of key scenes on Lostpedia. The obvious difference, of course, is that proper conspiracy theorists imagine themselves to be on the trail of actual conspiracies that are really out there in the world — whereas the dedicated viewers of these programs try to make sense out of narrative material that is clearly marked as fictional. Trying to make sense out of the conspiracy plots on shows like these can therefore pass as an apolitical recreational activity — even though viewers might rely on interpretive logics that aren’t that different from the ones employed by proper conspiracy theorists.
Of course, dedicating one’s free time to the detailed discussion and analysis of television shows online isn’t at all apolitical — committed and active fans who participate in online forums like Lostpedia freely give their time and labor to create semi-official paratexts that contribute to the accessibility and popularity of commercially produced popular texts. Contemporary serial formats like these shows find different ways to encourage such an active (or ‘participatory’) audience behavior because it’s profitable — and the emphasis on the motifs of mystery and conspiracy if one way of doing this.
Thanks for sharing your insight, Felix - great essay, great choice of clips. Something I was thinking about when I watched the video is the management of information. The old guy in the grey shirt (please excuse my inability to identify what show it was from) speaks about the endless availability of information and the impossibility to filter it for meaningful info (the lady at the algerian market, youth in a liverpool basement….). I have been thinking about this in the context of crime shows and I think that it could be a recurring theme especially for 21st century narratives. It’s not about gathering hidden or secret information, but about managing the immense amounts of info that are avaliable and organizing them into a meaningful structure… do you think that could make sense for conspiratorial tv series?
Btw: I like how you talk about serials instead of series. makes sense.
Great post, Felix, and a really fine choice of video clips to illustrate what you’re getting at! Together, your text + video offers a compelling picture of “logics of conspiracy” as more than just themes: as not only structuring the diegesis and its narrative unfolding, but also as central mechanisms for binding viewers and sustaining interest. You note at the end that such logics offer viewers “seemingly apolitical opportunities” to engage with conspiracy theories. Am I right to read this as a suggestion that it only seems that way, and that there is in fact nothing apolitical about it after all? If so, would you care to elaborate a bit on the (conspiratorially hidden?) politics of the engagement?
Again, great post, and a great theme week so far!
Thank you for this very interesting post to start of the conspiracy week. You’ll find out tomorrow that we are both talking about responses to major record label recording artists, especially in their relation to young people. Censorship discourse especially seems to deal with the agency (or supposed lack thereof) of young people and their reaction to messages, subliminal or otherwise, in music. Though situations like the Belknap and Vance trial avoid the term, the accusation that the prosecution makes is one of mind control. While scandal disturbs the division between public and private, mind control profoundly violates it, as media power fully controls the actions of individuals. In my post I make connections between tabloids and celebrity conspiracy theories. I wonder what connection we can find between accusations of media supposedly violating the space of the individual mind, and the pleasure media consumers derive from experiencing private content about celebrities in tabloids.
What a provocative post! And what insightful commentary, Felix. I am curious about the aside about “Americans” as daft, conspiratorial people in the video. It seems as if civilizational Others are as often accused of being conspiracy-theory prone as they are of conspiring.
Second, upon watching the video, I felt a strong craving for peppermint. I was wondering whether there are any connections between Jason and the peppermint industrial complex.
Dear Jason, thanks for a great post and a great clip (which, coincidentally, features some of my favorite music)! I really like your connection of conspiracy theory and scandalous media events, because it seems to point us to the moment where conspiratorial thought moves beyond the confines of a somewhat sub- or countercultural practice and becomes available to a broader media public. Of course, conspiracy theorists don’t need a scandal to offer conspiratorial explanations for puzzling events — following Jameson, the “ultimately unrepresentable…enormous global realities” of the capitalist world system alone are complex and intransparent enough, seemingly removed from personal experience and yet determining enough of it that anxieties about hidden influences and loss of personal agency do not seem to be too far-fetched. Media events such as the Judas Priest trial (or the upsurge of publicly expressed conspiratorial explanations for 9/11) for me seem to be the moments where such a way of explaining the world becomes (more) public and available to a broader audience.
Aside from that, I think your clip also illustrates another aspect of the relationship between media (or rather, media technologies) and the practices and proliferation of conspiratorial thought. Namely the latter’s (usually not thematized) indebtedness to a media-technological infrastructure which makes it possible to decipher, decrypt, take apart and rearrange media texts of all sorts (in this case, Judas Priest records) in order to read them as evidence for the existence of hidden, nefarious influences. Without the technical infrastructure to play records backwards, and to edit them in a manner that seemingly makes hidden subliminal messages transparent, it would be much harder to make the argument for heavy metal’s satanic influence here (and in the clip Rob Halford nicely demonstrates how to use the same technologies to turn such an argument on its head). This points us to another of Jameson’s points: unmediated perception of the complexities of the social totality is impossible, since all we have to access it are narrativized texts of different media whose grasp on the world must always be limited by their formal and material properties.
I’m fascinated by the responses from students in the video here — these all seem fairly ad hoc and easily refuted in almost every instance with a number of counter-examples. “Reality TV doesn’t generally ask a question of its subjects”; “reality TV isn’t real”; “reality TV is [merely] the tracking of everyday activities”; “reality TV is scripted” — none of these are even remotely accurate of documentary practices. I usually point students toward Troy Devolld’s supremely cynical insider’s guide, “Reality TV: A Guide to the World’s Hottest Market,” where the shaping in editing and post-production is discussed extensively, but one thing that is absolutely clear is that “scripting” as we understand it in fiction is not really on the table *even when producers are self-consciously manipulating their subjects*. If anything, reality TV tends to abide by a different set of *ethical* standards around subject participation, but that speaks more to the disparate nature of filmic doc production and the lack of any “one” system of ethics outside of larger industrial practice. They’re still banking on things to happen relatively spontaneously and serendipitously, albeit with some major assumptions about how subjects will interact in a space. To me this is no different than approaching an interview understanding how a subject will respond, taking a subject to a key location to speak to his or her experiences, or any other forms of subtler staging that nonetheless lead to a wide but still delimited set of responses expected and manipulated by the documentarian.