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Self-sealing arguments and conspiracy culture

Recently participating in a very interesting doctoral prospectus defense, where the topic of the proposed dissertation is the cultural force of conspiratorial discourses (the project intends to focus on the Warren and 911 Commission Reports as signifying different moments of American receptivity to conspiracy claims), I basically hijacked the conversation by putting on the table my own resistance to treating conspiracy claims as anything but fallacious arguments.

I am a little sensitive on the subject because I’ve just finished reading Jack Bratich’s Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture (SUNY Press, 2008), which is interesting and well argued, but which insists on mainly sidestepping the traditional ways of thinking about conspiracy claims.  The traditional view, at least as I understand it through the lens of argumentation theory, is to treat conspiracies as dangerous hermetically sealed (if memory serves, David Zarefsky calls them logically self-sealing) worldviews, and on that account they make inevitably fallacious demands on the body politic.  Conspiracies are so perfectly conceived, one might say, that no possible counter-evidence can be imagined that would invalidate their narratively tight logic.  I say the World Trade Centers were felled by attacking spaceships, and offer the testimony of someone who says she saw the firing ray guns.  You offer up the witness, who turns out to have recanted the whole thing.  Aha!, I say, this only proves how dark the conspiracy is:  Of course she denies it now, for doing so simply proves the lengths to which the High Space Command will go to cover its tracks!

Bratich mainly sidesteps this dismissive tradition, and understandably so, as wholly irrelevant to his project.  The book starts and ends by disclaiming an interest in the Truth or Falsehood of conspiracies, preferring to take account of conspiracies more as cultural symptoms than as logically flawed arguments.   Bratich thus prefers to go meta:

Despite the value of analyzing conspiracy theories as unified narratives (elaborating their characteristics, delineating their rhetorical tropes), I am more interested in assessing the forms of rationality and politics that lead us to be concerned with interpreting these narratives.  In John Fiske’s terms, I evaluate the “strategies by which… belief is validated and… counterknowledge is discredited.”  Rather than positing the conceptual unity of conspiracy theories in order to identify their deep meaning, I analyze the discursive practices that channel, shape, incite, and deploy conspiracy theories as meaningful. (7).

And this is how he puts it at the end of the book:

Why conspiracy theories?  This question is often translated as Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?  In this form, the question typically provokes speculations about innate human traits of suspicion, the “American character,” an age of uncertainty or relativism, or the failure in recent decades of political leadership.  But the question itself is anchored in a priori disqualification of conspiracy narratives, akin to Why do people believe in ghosts?  I therefore prefer beginning with the question, Why not?  As I have been arguing, this question does not entail affirming the veracity of any of the narratives; rather, it interrogates the regimes of truth and reason that compose political life and examines the conditions under which alternative narratives are disqualified. (159).

I find this concerning.  That is, I’m not sure I understand why, in order to understand the “regimes of truth and reason” (by which phrase I take Bratich to be broadly referring to the ideas a broader cultures find persuasive) one needs to reverse (“why not?”) the traditional presumptions that discredit conspiratorial worldviews, when in doing so one risks opening the door to their seductive and often dangerously deluded power (I have in mind the ugliest, such as the view that claims a worldwide Jewish conspiracy).  Is there necessarily a danger in asking the question this way:  Why are so many individuals deceived into accepting clearly fallacious patterns of reasoning?  Wouldn’t posing the question in that admittedly traditional manner allow us plenty of latitude to gain purchase on conspiracy theories and their persuasive cultural influence?

[Tangent:  in reading the Richard Rorty eulogies recently, a similar point was made about the philosophical (as opposed to the political) dangers of self-sealing logics.  I think Alasdair MacIntyre makes this point rather shrewdly:

More importantly still, [Rorty’s] sometimes dazzling ability to refute so many and various criticisms of his position – that is, to refute them by his standards – arouses a suspicion that he had succeeded in formulating those positions and standards so that his central theses had become irrefutable.  But this is the worst fate that can befall any theory or theorist – philosophical, scientific, moral, or whatever.  For we only understand what we are asserting if we understand the denials entailed or implied by our own assertions and what it would be for those denials to be true.  We need to know what it is that would show our theoretical claims to be false.  Rorty, however, seems to have formulated his mature positions so that they are immune to any such discovery of error, and his account of the convictions that we express through our final vocabularies gives further grounds for this suspicion.  I asked him about this on the last occasion on which we discussed philosophy in public – at Aarhus, with Bernard Williams, in 1992 – and he replied that he did indeed take our deepest convictions not to be open to rational correction, but he did not see this as any kind of objection.  What he said was too brief and therefore inconclusive.  And it one of my many regrets that I cannot question him further.

(This passage appears in MacIntyre, “Richard Rorty, 1931-2007,” Common Knowledge 14.2 [2008]: 192).

Back to the prospectus defense.

And so I asked some version of my big question in the prospectus defense, playing devil’s advocate.  I wondered if the methodological choice to treat conspiracy rhetoric as a “shadow” or “mirror image” discourse doesn’t risk legitimizing flawed patterns of reasoning?  The student pushed back:  although open to certain conspiracy claims circulating in the broader culture, defending the Pentagon killed Kennedy and the World Trade Center victims was not at all her purpose.  She argued that postmodern times have, whether we like it or not, radically upended such argumentative presumptions – following Lyotard’s talk of skepticism regarding all metanarratives, her point, I think, was that whether conspiracy claims are True or Not, vast swaths of the contemporary culture take them as true, and to figure out how that is working, we have to take them more seriously, and this in turn requires a more aggressive methodological approach.

That was a good response, and actually is consistent with what I think Bratich would say too.  But I pushed back some more anyway (isn’t that the job of a prospectus committee?), by which I guess I mainly came across as repeating my point.  And so we went round and round for a while more, until another of my colleagues (from Florida State University) with a long and distinguished research record of deciphering conspiracy scenes (like the Soviet shootdown of the Korean airliner during the Reagan years), after hearing me pontificate about how conspiracy claims were always lies and should be treated that way, simply paused and said:  Except when they’re true.


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