Increasingly, as Bruno Latour notes, conspiracy theories seem to be open to all comers. 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 ouevre 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 Illuminati-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, the more interesting questions are: what is the significance of these images for contemporary media audiences? Who is responsible for producing them - and why (even if the answer is simply that they have been inserted to generate some profitable ersatz controversy)?
In attempting to answer such questions, it's necessary to get beyond the usual 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 strictest sense of the term) have been much used in film or media production, it is nonetheless interesting to consider why the subliminal thesis holds popular appeal - even if it 'curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking'. The latter paradox 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 'cool' cynicism about the world at one and the same time: we want to be - and seen to be - 'in the know', even if that involves believing in the most irrational nonsense.
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 and which nevertheless remains opaque and enigmatic - hence the apparently ludicrous refusal in these conspiracy websites to actually name the producers, directors, technicians or other creative personnel involved in producing these hateful images. Instead the conspiracy theorist focuses solely on the image. I am reminded here of a passage about conspiracy theories and paranoia in Jodi Dean's book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies:
"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 - and Jodi Dean's work on conspiracy theories (Aliens in America) argues that conspiracism and rational political critique 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 offer any shared 'cognitive map' of our reality; conspiracy theories seem to offer a form of escape into meaning and significance. 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.