The Conspiracy of Subjectivity: Agency in the Age of Helplessness

“But if there is no cosmic Plan? What a mockery, to live in exile when no one sent you there. Exile from a place, moreover, that does not exist.”

- Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

It was August 2008 when I started my first professorship. The world was starting to look a little brighter after eight years under the post-9/11 haze of the Bush-Cheney war machine. Obama’s election was just over the horizon. Hope and change were coming. People had found various ways to ignore our involvement in foreign wars. Perhaps Fukuyama’s End of History could come to pass after all, just 20 years later and with a smile on its face.

My orientation session for new faculty was filled with optimism about new technology. The director of the University’s library system gave us a presentation on what people used to call Web 2.0 — the new iteration of the internet that was built on user-generated content, social media, interaction and participation. We were being introduced to a world where people on the internet were no longer divided between active creators and passive viewers, we were now all collaborating to create the content that we all consumed. Web 2.0 was going to finally make good on the promise made by techno utopians in previous decades: the internet was the place for democracy, in the properly Greek sense of the word.

About a month later the Great Recession hit full blast and everything turned to shit. Pensions and 401Ks were wiped out. Homes and jobs were lost. Obama bailed out the banks. The wars continued. Drones bombed weddings. Hope, change, and perhaps even our sense of control were being eroded at a rapid rate. People have responded to this chaos in a variety of ways, few of them healthy, but almost all of them rooted in a deep human desire for order. An orderly world is a comprehensible world — and people can find their bearings in a world that makes sense.

My old library director promised me that people would find order, meaning, and thereby a sense of subjectivity in Web 2.0. She wasn’t wrong. The demos that was supposed to gain subjectivity on account of having a voice on the web has found meaning, order and agency. But instead of the promised world of shared understanding across ages, genders and cultures, reality has been shredded into a million little pieces, tiny fiefdoms of meaning. Insofar as experiencing oneself as a subject is in large part dependent on confronting a world that makes sense, I’m asking: what does making sense of the world look like under the circumstances we live in today?

§1

In Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum, a group of friends who work at a publishing house that specializes in occult texts decide, for fun, to come up with an uber-conspiracy theory which connects elements of every other conspiracy theory they’ve encountered. Calling it “The Plan,” their theory encompasses everything from the Illuminati to the Knights Templar to the Cathars to Agartha to St. Germain to Rosicrucians to King Solomon — anything you can imagine from classic esoteric conspiracy theories. The long and short of the novel is that many of the authors from whom the protagonists were lifting their conspiracies find out about The Plan and think it’s real. Mayhem ensues.

In 1988, Eco may have unwittingly written the most prescient, cautionary tale for how meaning would be made 30 years in the future: extremely messy, solipsistic conspiracy theories that ultimately become mistaken for reality.

Americans have always been looking for The Plan. Conspiratorial thinking and the grifting of rubes are both deeply woven into the fabric of of American culture. But we have entered into a new age of conspiracy, largely born of what Web 2.0 has enabled. QAnon is unquestionably the best example. Though in light of the recent “no new indictments” output of the Mueller Report — which was supposed to “save us” from Donald Trump — it’s harder and harder not to see the variation of Russiagate as peddled by Louise Mensch, Palmer Reports, and Seth Abramson on Twitter as more or less #TheResistance equivalent.

Explaining QAnon in full would take an entire book. And even then, passionate Anons — a self-applied name for QAnon believers derived from the fact that posters on the message boards 4Chan and 8Chan are always anonymous — would insist I was leaving something out. Or missing the point. Or that I was part of the deep state. This is because QAnon has come to function as a completely totalizing way of making sense of the world in a world where there is no “world” anymore.

Like all conspiracy theories, QAnon answers a very a specific need to its believers. When Trump got elected, but did not immediately follow through on a number of promises his most passionate followers believed he had made, they needed a story to reconcile the disjunction between their expectations and their reality. The pedophilia rings at the center of the Pizzagate conspiracy weren’t rounded up. The Podesta family was unpunished. Obama was parasailing with Richard Branson. The Clintons weren’t locked up.

QAnon performs important psychological work for its believers, telling them they aren’t crazy and they weren’t misled. All of this stuff you wanted to happen is happening, but it’s happening in secret. Trump and his Generals have it all in hand. Will Sommer offers the tidiest summary of the basics of the conspiracy, the core components that pretty much every Anon believes, in a Daily Beast article from June 2018:

“QAnon started last November [2017], with a series of cryptic messages posted on the anonymous 4Chan forum. The clues, which QAnon believers claim depict a world where Trump is constantly winning, special counsel Robert Mueller is actually investigating Clinton, and a number of top Democrats are on the verge of being sent from Guantanamo Bay, come from the anonymous “Q” — a reference to the high-ranking Q-level security clearance.” Anons refer to the impending day of reckoning when all of the indictments come down and the bad guys are served justice, as “The Storm.”

If you’re new to QAnon, you’re probably already confused. Unfortunately, this is as straightforward as it gets. Relax. You have to trust “The Plan” — and QAnon does absolutely use this exact language from Eco’s novel. The malleability and madness of QAnon is why it’s such a perfect exhibition of what making sense of the world in the 21st century looks like when pushed to its extreme.

QAnon totalizes in a completely non-linear manner. To quote from Age of Earthquakes, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Shumon Basar’s 2015 foray into new digital culture, “We now know that brain neurons which fire together also wire themselves together biologically. If you’ve been online for more than a few years, congratulations: your 20th century linear mind has been rewired into a 21st century lattice. Go with it!” The Anons have gone with it.

QAnon is lattice shaped. Though it all springs from 4Chan and 8Chan — and Reddit, before it was banned for violating their policy against “inciting violence, harassment, and the dissemination of personal information” in September 2018 — it’s rhizomatic. QAnon doesn’t distinguish between past, present, and future. Depending on which Anon you ask, JFK Jr. is alive and shows up at Trump rallies under the alias Vincent Fusca for reasons that vary depending on who you ask, though the main one is that he faked his death to aid Trump in this decades long plan to expose the secret pedophile cabal that runs everything. Some Anons think this is patently absurd. Some Anons think that Q is a time-traveling shapeshifter who only takes human form to dupe NSA agents into giving it secrets to share on 4Chan and 8Chan. Other Anons will actively distance themselves from such claims. Fans of Praying Medic — a former paramedic and now religious “healer” whose real name is Dave Hayes — believe that the “Great Awakening” that Q is bringing to the fore is inexplicably woven into Evangelical Christian eschatology. But many Anons accuse Praying Medic, Jerome Corsi, and others of being “pay-triots”, people who are exploiting the QAnon movement simply to make money.

If you have managed to avoid the existence of QAnon, it must seem completely insane and potentially dangerous. After all, one trait almost all Anons share is a desire to see their enemies frog-marched to Guantanamo, or worse. This instinct for violence has already bled over into real life in a number of instances, most famously when Matthew Wright parked his truck on top of the Hoover Dam demanding the release of the “real” OIG reports on June 15, 2018. Wright is now awaiting trial for criminal charges including “committing terrorist acts.”

It’s hard to imagine that QAnon can play the Millerites’ game of pushing the apocalypse back indefinitely with people just continue to patiently wait. As time goes on, this demand for the world experienced in digital spaces to take shape in material reality is likely to spill over into more real world violence. There will be more folks like Edgar Welch, who fired an AR-15 in the Washington DC pizza parlor Comic Ping Pong in December 2016 to try to free kids trapped by the child trafficking rings that were the nexus of the Pizzagate conspiracy. Eventually, getting to take part in constructing an elaborate narrative on various message boards isn’t going to provide enough of a sense of agency and vindication.

But none of this explains how we got here. How did we end up in a situation where the most popular conspiracy theory on the Right is so internally fragmented that even the fiercest advocates will come for each other’s’ throats over whether or not JFK Jr is a shapeshifting time traveler? And how does this have anything to do with people regain a sense of agency?

§2

I believe the true shape of modern subjectivity can be found at the heart of all of this madness.

I’m understanding subjectivity here in a pretty straightforward manner: the experience of being an agent in the world. There are three operative concepts that need to be clarified in order for my potentially absurd hypothesis to be taken seriously.

Experience. Cognitive neuroscientists are now able to predict choices that an individual will make 11 seconds prior to conscious declaration of that choice by putting that person in an fMRI machine and monitoring blood flow in the brain. Yet, this doesn’t change the fact that when whatever physiochemical process that constitutes “making a conscious choice” occurs, I feel as if I am making a conscious choice. What we care about it is whether or not we experience ourselves as being able to make uncoerced choices that have an effect on the world. Whether or not people actually have the ability to decide their own actions is largely irrelevant to the lived experience of being human.

Agent. An agent is a person who experiences themselves as being in control of their own decision making. The experience of being an agent is the experience of being in control.

The question then becomes, what are we in control of and how are we in control of it? Being in control of ourselves is step one, but it is only a necessary condition to agency and likely not sufficient. A both necessary and sufficient experience of being in control requires that we also feel as though we can exert our will on the world in some manner or another. For our purposes, knowledge is often experienced as a kind of control. And discovery? Discovery is perhaps the most powerful feeling of control of all.

In the world of QAnon, knowledge and discovery separate full agents, Anons, from NPCs. An abbreviation of Non-Player Characters, NPC is a term used in gamer culture to describe computer-controlled characters in video games. It has recently taken on a second meaning, synonymous with “sheeple”, by Anons and others on the Far Right to describe people who accept the world as it is presented without question. The sense of knowledge and discovery of the underlying truth of the world is a central component to the allure and success of QAnon.

World. It’s become a well-worn trope that we no longer have a shared reality with others around us, that we all live in echo chambers. This is unequivocally true. For many people, the digital silos we inhabit are the world. For such people, physical reality is colored, shaped and informed by our digital existence. Insofar as those digital existences are fragmented by algorithmically driven content that constantly reinforces our outlook on the world, finding order either in the digital or physical world becomes a daunting, if not insurmountable, task.

Experiencing the world largely through algorithms that use digital inputs to serve people more things like the things that they already like is a recipe for disaster, at least so long as they’re still required to interact with people who don’t share their digital silo.The algorithms that create our silos for us are the same algorithms that make the world feel even more out of control than ever. The people who don’t share your world are no longer just people with different opinions. The others are now truly Other. They are inexplicable. They may as well be monsters. That makes them require an explanation more than ever.

§3

In light of these definitions, how does QAnon offer people subjectivity, the experience of being an agent in the world?

QAnon enables Anons to have two different types of experiences that are central to the experience of being an agent. First and foremost, it lets you play along and take an active role. Slavoj Zizek once referred to the experience of subjectivity in contemporary capitalism as akin to pushing the door close button on an elevator: something that was going to happen anyways happens, but you feel like you made it happen. QAnon offers something more than that. Because Q “drops” — the posts that Q makes on the Chans — are presented as somewhere between a set of mandates and a riddle, they always need to be deciphered. That process of deciphering is referred to as “baking” in the QAnon community.

Bakers are the most hardcore of Q followers, but they’re also the ones maximizing the potential of QAnon to gain a sense of subjectivity. They are taking the fragments of meaning and spinning them into a narrative. They are finding order in the chaos. They become the discoverers of truth. By doing so, they gain a sense of control, and it also gives them a way to situate themselves relative to the rest of humanity. While everyone else is trapped as an NPC, slavishly and sheepishly following the narrative spun by the MSM, the Q baker is not only awake, they are actively engaged in the process of uncovering the truth. They are free. And even those Anons who aren’t engaged in the baking process get to reap the benefits. They can be woken from their slumber and walk into the truth. You just need to trust The Plan.

The second manner in which Q offers an experience of agency is intimately connected to the first. The affective experience of control that comes from piecing together “The Plan” also helps explain “the world.”

We all experience the fragmentation of reality if we spend too much time on the internet, or even if simply interact with people who live in different media silos than us. The true Otherness of people who exist outside of our “world” cannot be overstated, at least if you have an honest conversation with yourself about the experience of interacting with someone who you feel should share your frame of reference — due to age, location, language, cultural framework, etc. — but inexplicably does not.

I experience a very particular kind of frustration trying to have a conversation with, for example, an anti-vaxxer or a climate change denier. It doesn’t matter what I say to them, I know it isn’t going to penetrate, but it’s as if I can’t quit trying. I can’t give up on the belief that there’s some rhetorical tactic that I haven’t quite found yet that will bring them to the light because I believe we still share some baseline extramental reality. But it nevers happens, and I’m left permanently confronting these inexplicable Others, their very existence nagging at me like a hangnail.

QAnon doesn’t suffer this frustration. The belief that The Plan is real implies that we live in a Manichean world where good and evil are doing battle. These cosmic forces are brought down to Earth, and the Anons are fighting on the side of the light. Those people who don’t see the truth you’re presenting to them? They’re either active shills for the deep state or they are simply sheep floating through life, too stupid to every be woken up. Much like 5% Nation (Nation of Gods and Earths), Anons have a way to make sense of the different kinds of people you encounter. For 5%ers, 10% of humans are nefarious, doing the work of Yakub, 85% are sheep, and 5% are awake. This same schema can loosely be applied to QAnon. The benefit to believers in both is the same: neither eliminate the experience of otherness. Rather, they explain it. And, most importantly, they explain it in a way in which you become the hero of a narrative that could still have a happy ending.

§4 — Conclusion

QAnon is an extreme case of how people can and likely will continue to go about establishing a sense of agency in the modern fragmented world — and it involves aggressive retreat into fantasy, using those fantasies to find a place in the cosmic order of things. On a surface level, this just seems to describe a cult. I don’t think that’s wrong. After all, a cult is just a religion with less followers, just like a dialect is a language without a Navy.

My not-so-pleasant conclusion is that in our peculiar era of hopelessness, more and more “cults” are going to continue to appear. If the description of subjectivity I’ve given above is correct, there are few other, better ways in the modern digital landscape to find a sense of self and agency than by buying into narratives that provide a sense of self and agency while simultaneously ordering the ever-more disordered world.

The surging popularity of Stoicism as a form of self help, for example, can only do half of this work: it can help me find a sense of agency by showing me what I can and cannot control. But unless you’re buying into an entire elaborate Stoic ontology — and most people buying Mark Mason’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck or Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic aren’t reading Plato’s Sophist or Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism — this psychological salve does nothing to give you a sense of how you as an individual human fit into the cosmos. It merely gives you a fleeting sense of control, not a sense of place. As the world becomes more and more fragmented by digital silos and algorithmically-generated solipsism, Stoic tactics are bound to be less and less successful at providing people the meaning they’re seeking for.

A more mainstream variation on this theme is the return of astrology as something that people are actually taking seriously. No longer concerned simply with sun signs and generic newspaper columns, people are using apps like Co-Star — which has now been downloaded from the Apple App Store over 3 million times — to get their entire birth chart. These charts — based on the location and time of your birth, down to the minute — provide both a totalizing explanation of your personality along with sufficiently specific predictions and advice for you to feel seen. Even though the predictions may be vague and easily generalized, they still offer you a sense that things that are happening in your life are somehow destined to be, and thereby somehow meaningful.

Much like Stoicism, I suspect that the meaning generated by astrology is fundamentally insufficient, though not for identical reasons. Whereas Stoicism provides you with a bit of agency without a sense of place in the cosmic order, astrology provides you with a vague sense of place in that cosmic order without much of anything resembling agency. Even in 2019, Adorno’s description of astrology as an ideology of dependence which seeks to “somehow justify painful conditions which seem more tolerable if an affirmative attitude is taken towards them” seems to hold up. You can bring the stars down to earth, but that doesn’t give you any control over those stars; it can merely give you a sense that your life has meaning due to mysterious forces and a cosmic order that you cannot control or even truly understand.

Regardless, just distinguishing what you’re in control of from what you’re not isn’t going to be enough. Modern pop stoicism is insufficient. We need a sense of order. But just having a vague and mysterious sense of order of the type given by astrology is insufficient as well. We need at least a semblance of control. We need a narrative to fit ourselves into. We need order. We need to know where we stand in that order. We need to feel like we can meaningfully act in that order. If Mark Fisher is correct in Exiting the Vampire Castle that, “many of what we call “conspiracies” are the ruling class showing class solidarity,” we will continue to need conspiracy so long as we lack a substantive critique of inequality born of neoliberal capitalism.

I fear that QAnon is just the first Plan of many to come.

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