Casual Apocalypticism: Conspiracy Theory, Masculinity, and American Religion

by Donovan Schaefer

Conspiracy theory follows power’s secret moves through the telltale signs inscribed on banal surfaces.  It takes the vaguely lived sense that something isn’t quite right and then snaps it into a puzzle form, a search for underlying causes.  It dreams of a return to a pristine past and the redemption of a human agency born in an act of vengeance against the actual state of things. – Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 88f

Earlier in August, Dan Barry of the New York Times published an article on a grave marker placed next to the burial plot of Lee Harvey Oswald in Fort Worth, TX.  Barry had learned that the mysterious marker–on which is printed the name NICK BEEF–sits over an unoccupied grave purchased by a New York-based artist who sometimes works under the pseudonym “Nick Beef.”

A week later, Barry wrote an entire article covering the reaction to his initial piece:

While some readers wrote to say nice job and have a nice day, others got right to the point: I was a government patsy, employed by a newspaper that has worked in concert with various insidious powers to suppress what really happened in Dallas. One reader charged me with a “virtually treasonous act.”

Barry’s experience mirrors one that many people–especially people who have conversations on the internet–have had with conspiracy theory culture: the experience of being on the receiving end of what seems like an endless tide of viscerally charged words.  Bodies situated on the political right–especially libertarians, gun advocates, and racist/anti-immigrant groups–are especially prone to this style of discourse, but it also finds a home on the political left.

Conspiracy theory offers a sort of “apocalypticism lite.”  It takes the genre of religious apocalyptic–in which towering cosmic forces of evil orchestrate a climactic showdown–boils it down, and sprays it into everyday life–what Kathleen Stewart calls “ordinary affects”–like an air freshener.

But what Barry discovered, and what many who have watched conspiracy theories unfold from the sidelines quietly suspect, is that, like the genre of apocalypse itself, conspiracy theories are not simply neutral exercises in knowledge production.  There is a fascination with conspiracy theories that exceeds their status as archives of political knowledge.  Somehow, conspiracy theories and the truth of conspiracy theories are irresistibly desirable for their consumers and evangelists.  Stewart writes,

There’s pleasure in conspiracy theory.  An intimate knowledge of secret collusions, clandestine activities, and little collaborative worlds of an ‘us’ tracking what ‘they’ are doing.  There are the small, inventive interpretive practices, the indeterminate trajectories of where things might go, the panics, the dream of popping up into the limelight with some kind of final truth or something, the moment of the ‘Ah ha!  That’s what this is all about!’ (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 89)

For Michel Foucault, knowledge is always saturated with power.  But conspiracy theory culture makes a revision of this formula glaringly necessary: power-knowledge configurations are also saturated with affects–with pleasure and desire.  Conspiracy theories stand out among other archives of knowledge in the way they become predatory in their insistence that other bodies assent to their truth.  This is why affect theorist Eve Sedgwick writes:

Like the deinstitutionalized person on the street who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier bristling with his precious correspondence, paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known.  That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility. (Touching Feeling, 138)

What is it about conspiracy theories as casual apocalypticism that makes them function as magnetic cores of desire?  Conspiracy theory functions as a way of jacking up the tension of the world, of sharpening contrasts until they become a simplex chiaroscuro of black and white, good and evil.  Chris Hedges writes that “[t]he eruption of conflict instantly reduces the headache and trivia of daily life.  The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation.” (War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, 9) This fantasy of noble, total war animates the cousin genres of apocalypticism and conspiracy theory.

Sedgwick attributes a gendered pronoun to her paranoid evangelist: he.  My intuition is that the fascination with conspiracy theory has something to do with the activation of a particular frame of masculinity, especially American masculinity.  In the theater of the conspiracy theory, the play of forces in the world is made into something more and more cohesive.  All of the disparate centers of power in the world coalesce into a heavy brick, a wall of sinister purpose, something that you can sink your teeth into, throw your weight against, something that justifies an uncompromising fixation and the abandonment of distractions and reservations.  It instills a sense of dignity and nobility in the fight against a ruthless, expansive evil.  These are some of the coordinates of the desires of American masculinity–often with a gun in its hand.

In his interview with Barry, Beef was asked why he bought the plot and the marker 20 years later:

Mr. Beef has often asked himself why. “It meant something to me in life,” is the only answer he can come up with. “It was a place I could go and feel comfortable.”

Conspiracy theory is predicated on the belief that everything must have a reason.  It sees the world in epic terms, foreclosing the possibility that bodies might act on much more modest scales of self-indulgence, consolation, or foolishness–small bubbles of affect rather than soaring, focused global networks of power.

Conspiracy theory is only secondarily about knowledge, justice, and accountability.  Although conspiracy theory discourse as a practice sometimes overlaps with important investigative work that serves these ends–as Barry writes, “conspiracies, in fact, do take place, and at our best we seek out the stories behind the stories”–US conspiracy theory culture has veered away from these ends, becoming primarily a mechanism for the distribution of affects, an apocalyptic fantasy, a self-indulgent addiction, often with a gun in its hand.

Donovan O. Schaefer is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities. His graduate work was done through the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, and he has taught at SU and Le Moyne College in addition to Haverford. In his research and teaching, he looks at the intersection of religion and embodiment using feminist, poststructuralist, and evolutionary biological approaches. Specifically, his interest is in the relationship between religion, bodies, and emotion, and in his dissertation, “Animal Religion: Evolution, Affect, and Radical Embodiment,” he argued for understanding religion in terms of a set of affective bodily practices that are shared by human and non-human animals. He is currently preparing his dissertation for publication and preparing a new project on atheism.

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