A conversation with Mark Dery
Recently, Mark Dery wrote a fascinating and disturbing profile of Mark Crispin Miller, a NYU media studies scholar who in recent years has embraced a host of outlandish conspiracy theories. I spoke with Dery about his article and the conspiracy theory more broadly. Here is part of that conversation.
Would you risk a rough diagnosis of the sociological situation here? What gives rise to this?
The thing about Miller that might be generalizable is covered in a book I just read, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories (2015). He’s doing a sort of Dick Hebdigian subcultural scholarship on conspiracy theorists.
The old blow to the conspiracy theory is that this is a religion for a secular age. This presumption haunts the canonical work on conspiracy theory, which is that of Hofstadter. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter suggests that the conspiracy theory presents a sort of paranoid cosmology for a secularized landscape. It makes a complicated world simple.
Brotherton suggests that in fact we now have decent sociological data on conspiracy theorists, which we did not have in Hofstadter’s day. Hofstadter surmised that the people who adopted conspiracy theories were not terribly intelligent; they are uncomfortable with nuances; they thirst for a simplistic explanation.
It turns out the opposite is true. Many very intelligent people succumb to conspiracy theories. One aspect of the conspiratorial state of mind is actually a need for complexity, a desire to read between the lines, to be hermeneutical, to be Talmudic.
In The consequences of modernity, sociologist Anthony Giddens points out that all of us in the modern world take enormous amounts of information about faith – we have no technical knowledge of the expert systems that govern our lives. Even though we ourselves are technicians in one or the other of these systems, like an airline pilot say, our lighting fields are quite limited. But we have rough heuristics to determine what is plausible and what is not. For someone like Miller, these heuristics fail – he loses all ability to weigh relevant probabilities. The most absurd theories will therefore seem attractive to him. To what extent is the question one of psychopathology?
My inclination would be to say that this is an ideological tropism, that the weird flowers of conspiracy theorists have a tropism towards this sensitivity – they lean towards the dark sun of conspiracy theory, not for the sake of psychopathology or individual neurosis. . I think it’s a curious hybrid: an ideological pathology.