These days, as Bruno Latour implies, 'conspiracy theory' has gone mainstream. I've recently spoken to several students who have become interested in supposedly 'subliminal' occult imagery in television advertisements or music videos.
To give you some idea of what I'm talking about, the peculiar Baphomet-like pose above is a frame - barely perceptible on casual viewing - from Rihanna's 'Umbrella' video. Those interested in discussing these weird images in Rihanna's oeuvre can enjoy a myriad of breathlessly inventive websites linking the pop diva to witchcraft, devil worship or the Illuminati. The creators of these occult conspiracy websites (e.g. Vigilant Citizen) often present themselves as concerned 'netizens' providing a vital public service by raising awareness about the celebrity demons in our midst. Many, too, seem to share conservative Christian values and their analyses are often grossly misogynistic where female celebrities are concerned; Rihanna, for example, is an 'Illuminati Whore of Death', according to one rather unforgiving website. Indeed, these elite-hating 'truthers' typically assume that the celebrity stars of these videos are 'pulling the strings' and are responsible for the 'subliminal' images in their videos; but weirdly, these inquisitive souls almost never discuss how this process might actually work, how contemporary music videos are produced or circulated, or who gains from the incorporation of occult iconography. To my mind, these are the more interesting questions to ask about occult imagery: what is the significance of these images for contemporary media audiences? Who is responsible for producing them - and why (even if the answer is that they serve simply to generate some profitable ersatz controversy)?
In attempting to answer such questions, it's necessary to get beyond the widespread academic mockery of the belief in 'subliminal' messages. Charles Acland's book Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence argues that we ought to take seriously the widespread popular belief in the existence and power of subliminal media messages. Acland proposes that while there is precious little evidence that subliminal messages, in the strict sense of the term, have actually been much used in film or media production, it is nonetheless interesting to consider why the subliminal thesis holds popular appeal. (Acland also notes that this thesis 'curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking', a paradox that puts me in mind of Mike Wayne's contention, in Marxism and Media Studies, that contemporary capitalist subjectivity is typically 'split', manifesting both credulity and cynicism about the world at one and the same time).
Psychoanalysis perhaps offers some answers here. Psychotic delusion is characterized not so much by incoherence as by a kind of crazy, 'excessive' coherence and certainty: here we might think of David Icke, who often makes some solid points about real conspiracies - more on that below - but who also asserts the truth of highly speculative and downright irrational ideas with fascistic conviction. Lacan reads the paranoid position as one of total certainty in which the subject experiences an unbearable proximity to a malevolent other that exercises a total grip over the subject's inner life but which nevertheless remains opaque and enigmatic. This explains the frustrating refusal in many conspiracy websites to name the producers, directors, technicians or other creative personnel involved in producing the symbols and images with which they are concerned; they are fixated solely on the text. Writing about conspiracy theories and paranoia in her 2009 book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, Jodie Dean writes:
"Lacan refers to a 'captivating image'. The psychotic fastens on this image, positioning himself in relation to it. Insofar as this relation remains at the level of the imaginary, it is not a symbolic relation capable of anchoring meaning or offering a clear degree of separation between the subject and the other. On the contrary, precisely because the relationship is on the imaginary plane, it is characterized by fear, rivalry and aggression"
But what, in political terms, does the fascination with Satanist and Illuminati-related symbolism betoken? Acland's book suggests that public interest in subliminal messages presupposes a basic critical orientation towards media communications that is at least potentially progressive. This is consistent with Jodi Dean's work on contemporary conspiracy theories (Aliens in America), which argues that conspiracism and political consciousness are intimately related. From this point of view, we can speculate that the interest in occult messages and symbols is a placeholder for class consciousness. Most poor and working-class people are well aware of their own powerlessness; but for those without a materialist, class analysis of capitalism, this powerlessness can be explained as an effect of manipulation by the aliens, lizard people or Jews who are supposedly pulling our strings. Perhaps, in all their naivety, such irrational explanations are an expression of a repressed desire for world-historical meaning at a time when, we are told, all of the ideological battles have been fought and there is no longer anything in which to believe beyond work, money and markets. If Alain Badiou is correct, contemporary capitalism is 'worldless', that is, it fails to provide us with any 'cognitive mapping' of our reality. Irrational conspiracy theories seem to offer a form of escape from this disorientation into meaning and significance - or what Jameson calls 'the poor person's cognitive mapping in the postmodern age'. However one theorizes this phenomenon, I'd be interested to know more - from people who are not actual lunatics and misogynists - about how and why certain artists and producers are flirting with occult imagery.
And finally, we should add that the tout court rejection of all so-called 'conspiracy theories' is just as wrong-headed as the wide-eyed belief in hollow moons, little green men or shape-shifting reptilian overlords. While some conspiracies are clearly irrational, we do nevertheless live in a world shaped by the plotting of the capitalist class, which is, after all, Machiavellian to the core. The list of known ruling class 'false flag' operations, for example - Gleiwitz, Northwoods, the Gulf of Tonkin, Gladio, to mention just a few high-profile cases - is extensive. And it is a matter of record that governments conduct secret experiments on their populations (the Tuskegee study), covertly sell arms (Irangate), or lie about the threat posed by their enemies (Iraq's WMDs). The self-satisfied politicians and journalists who proudly proclaim that they do not 'believe' in conspiracies are simply parading their historical ignorance; what do they imagine the secret services do all day? We should not let our justifiable scepticism about outlandish and irrational conspiracy theories blind us to the reality of ruling class deception.