In this live-recorded episode of What Is X?, Justin meets up with the writer Sam Kriss at a (sometimes noisy) pub in London to chat about conspiracy theories. What makes a conspiracy theory conspiratorial? What is the relationship between conspiracy theories and philosophical skepticism? Do we have a responsibility to correct misinformation, or should we try to embrace the right to be wrong? Over the course of this ninety-minute conversation, Justin and Sam amble through some conspiracy-theory greatest hits: the JFK assassination, 9/11 truthers’ interest in chemtrails, Jeffrey Epstein, COVID lab-leaks, "New Chronology," and the belief that all mountains were once trees—and even talk about some of their favorites. They wonder together about the relationship between the narratives spun by conspiracy theorists and those of novelists, poets and dreamers—might conspiracy theory be a kind of literature? Could the impulse behind conspiracy theories—like those of the "flat earthers" or those who believe the real sun has been replaced with an LED simulacrum—be understood not as madness or pure irrationality, but as something akin to a basic human desire for cosmological knowledge?
Justin E.H. Smith 00:14
Hello, and welcome to What Is X? I'm your host, Justin E.H. Smith, this is a podcast for The Point magazine. As regular listeners will know, on each episode, we have a guest who helps us determine in a broadly Socratic way, what a given X is, what the nature of it is, what the necessary and sufficient conditions are. It’s usually a difficult concept to pin down, something that seems to evade easy definition. So today, I am going to be discussing the question: what are—that's a plural, I know; that some variation on the title we allow—what are conspiracy theories? and my guest today is the one-of-a-kind Sam Kriss, a writer in multiple venues and a one-time attendee at a flat-earth conference, I'm told. All right, so let's maybe get started. One way is to kind of do a few warm-up exercises. Let's get started with a few kind of case studies. Would that be a good idea?
Sam Kriss 01:33
Justin E.H. Smith 01:34
I read recently that George Herbert Walker, Bush was in Dallas, Texas on that fateful day in 1963—was it? And that he claimed in deposition that he could not remember where he was.
Sam Kriss 01:53
Justin E.H. Smith 01:53
And as far as I know, this is true. This is a historical fact that non-conspiracy theorists believe. Is this weird? Should we think about this more than we do?
Sam Kriss 02:06
I mean, I think there are a lot of people who should think about it more than they do, and a few people who should maybe think about it very slightly less. I mean, if we're talking about George H. W. Bush, you know, there's definitely a documented relation to the CIA. I mean, you know, he was not only director of the CIA for a while, but there are various documents to show that he was part of this—when he was, when he became head of the CIA, the line was that he was kind of untainted by some of his previous behavior, and some of the flagrantly illegal things that have done in the past. And he was a kind of fresh individual. And it turns out that obviously, this was not at all true. He'd been involved in the CIA for a while, the oil company he ran is, I think, widely acknowledged by many people to have been some form of CIA cutout. But I mean, the thing about the George H. W. Bush example is that, you know, this is a conspiracy theory, which, you know, points towards something which is absolutely true in the world, which is that there are powerful people and they do conspire. You know, like, when when people talk about conspiracy theory, there's often the kind of presumption that a conspiracy theory is something untrue.
Justin E.H. Smith 03:34
Sam Kriss 03:34
But I don't think there's anyone who believes that there are no conspiracies, right. I mean, you know, if you believe that, you'd have to believe that, you know, dozens of Roman senators just happened to stab Julius Caesar at the exact same time—they were all just seized by an urge to kill the man. Yeah, like, there are conspiracies and people do conspire. But conspiracy theory as a term as it's used, kind of has the sense of something that is fanciful or something that isn’t true.
Justin E.H. Smith 04:05
Right. By the way, everyone, I forgot to mention that Sam and I are sitting in a pub in London, and ordinarily I record at a distance in a soundproof studio of sorts. And this time, we don't have that luxury. But we also have a different sort of luxury that will get to look at each other face-to-face in person as we're speaking. So the sound quality is worse for you. But the conversation quality is better for us and also probably, therefore for you as well. So, as I always insist the purpose of this podcast is not tied up with its high production value. It's tied up with the interestingness of the guests. That's what we're getting today. So let me come up with another example: Rene Descartes is someone who famously spent much of his life in fear of persecution by the Catholic Church. Towards the end of his life, he went to take up a position as court philosopher to Queen Christina of Sweden. And he died a few months after arriving in Stockholm, supposedly, of pneumonia, though there are some people who say that he was a Jesuit spy...
Sam Kriss 04:08
I was not aware of this.
Justin E.H. Smith 05:38
Yes, and that he was murdered for this. And you might know that afterwards, Queen Christina converted to Catholicism, and had a very complicated history. Very interesting woman. But the Jesuit or the Jesuitical complot is one of my favorite kind of Rorschach tests of conspiracy theories. Because it kind of goes through the centuries, it's even older than conspiracy theories about Freemasons, the Illuminati, and there are people who think that the Jesuits are just, you know, kind of wonderful, flexible, open, liberal people who are interested in the world around them. And there are people who think the Jesuits are extremely powerful, and calling the shots in the world in ways that the dupes don't understand. And I think this is maybe more than, say, conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination that would implicate the Bush family and the CIA. This is interesting because, you know, it is true that the CIA is powerful, in a way, right? They can do things that some people will not like. I'm not convinced for, say, Jesuits, or, indeed, Freemasons, that, that this is the case. So there is maybe one of the elements of conspiracy theory, properly or narrowly speaking, is that it attributes far more power to a group of people than they actually have? Do you think that's right?
Sam Kriss 07:37
Well, I mean, the thing about the the Jesuit conspiracy theory and others of that type is tha unlike, say, the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, you know, both of which are incidents where where it is, I think—a reasonable person could be certain that it didn't go down exactly as the official story tells. Like, you know, for instance, part of the 9/11, quote-unquote official narrative is that the identity of the hijackers was determined by an intact passport that was found in the rubble of the Twin Towers. Now, you don't even need to believe that the U.S. government itself was culpable in the 9/11 attacks to make the fairly obvious conclusion that this is a lie. And that, you know, potentially, they found out who committed the attacks through other means that they didn't want to reveal and then planted a piece of evidence, which would, in a way, be a sort of conspiracy, right. The thing about the Jesuits or the Freemason conspiracy theories, which I think makes it much more interesting is that these are theories about what kind of a world it is we live in? And what is the motive power behind history in general? And things like the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 can form part of that. But these theories are far more kind of complex and rich. And I think far more interesting. I mean, you could draw a parallel, for instance, with witch beliefs in certain especially African societies where powerful people are assumed to be part of a society of witches that meets in secret locations and carries out secret deeds, very often related to the consumption of human flesh, which again, seems to be a recurring theme in conspiracy theory. But ultimately, the beliefs about witches are beliefs about not just that certain people are doing certain things, but that the entire world works in a certain way. I mean, Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia, talks about Patagonian witch belief and talks about it and actually like very beautiful terms, in which he says that, you know, this particular society of witches, maybe older than humanity itself, might be part of the kind of motive forces of nature and reality, or that even that humanity itself was formed as part of a battle against the witches. And these theories, I think, are interesting, not only because they're very grand in scope, and you know, we can go into some more of the ones that kind of meet this criteria like flat-earth things, a very obvious example, but, you know, like some of my favorite conspiracy theories are those rather than being very immediately political or kind of cosmic, you know, like hologram moons, one of my favorites, or LED sun...
Justin E.H. Smith 10:47
[Laughs] I didn't know about that.
Sam Kriss 10:48
Oh, it's I think something intently poignant about LED sun, actually, but what I think about a lot of these theories is that even if the actual determinant content is false, I think what these theories fundamentally are is a way of understanding the world and a way of speaking about the world that is, in itself a kind of language. And there is, I think, a sense in which every grand conspiracy theory is true, in the same way that poetry is true, like it's a form of language that I think has more in relation to poetry than it does to, you know, a merely propositional falsehood like "today is Monday."
Justin E.H. Smith 11:32
Yeah, right. Right. Right. Yeah, we'll get back to poetic language and to witches soon enough, there's another element that I wanted to address. So you know, my day job is as a professional philosopher. And we are trained up to consider radical skepticism as a legitimate possibility. The possibility that the world came into being ex nihilo, five minutes ago, and solipsism, and really absolutely every possibility. Now, one of my heroes, who works in the history of philosophy, is Richard Popkin, who wrote on the history of early modern skepticism from Savonarola to Boyle. And he, at some point in the late 1960s, took a couple of years out of his day job to write what he thought was going to be the definitive treatment of the Kennedy assassination. And he came to the conclusion in a book that was published, I think, in 1968, that, that there could not have been a lone gunman right. And I always find the Popkin case absolutely fascinating, because he was immersed in a tradition of taking seriously the possibility that we know nothing, quad nihil sequitur, and jumping from that into a real-world case study that was extremely politically charged. So one thing that makes me wonder is, what is the connection, exactly, between philosophical skepticism and conspiracies? Right? And are we inviting students in Introduction to Philosophy to start doubting the 9/11 story—
Sam Kriss 13:43
Well, I hope so!
Justin E.H. Smith 13:45
—when we tell them that nothing is known?
Sam Kriss 13:48
Yes. Well, I mean, like, one of the things is often struck me about certainly not all, but definitely some conspiracy theories, is that it really does involve a kind of very radical skepticism. I think I've referred to it in the past as a kind of an agnosis. In that, like, you know, for instance, flat-earthers have extraordinary range of different things they believe about what the fundamental nature of the cosmos is, but what kind of actually unites many of them is a really admirable ability to distinguish what is known from what is believed. You know, like, many of them, if you listen to them talk among each other. They will talk about how much it is that they don't know. They do not know the final shape of the universe. They don't know how many songs they're right. They don't know how big our flat earth is or if there are others. And, you know, they're very willing—they're very capable of maintaining all of these different ideas in a kind of suspension without falling down easily on any one of them. I mean, you know, like, there's a kind of—I mean, again, I think there are there are like small doubts from great doubts, right? You can you can doubt, you can doubt who it was really shot JFK, or you can doubt whether our entire reality is an illusion. But, you know, conspiracy theory very often tilts at the latter kind of, you know, the Cartesian thought experiment. You know, David Icke, probably the most prominent—
Justin E.H. Smith 15:32
Sam Kriss 15:33
I mean, this is what everyone knows about him is that he believes that the royal family and certain other prominent people are reptiles in human suits, but what he fundamentally means is that the entire universe is a kind of frequency. It's something akin to music, a vibration, which is definitely not a concept that is foreign to the history of philosophy, and that the reptiles are, on the most fundamental level of reality, they are a discordance within that vibration that expresses itself in our kind of sublunary three-dimensional world, as a scaly monster with reptile eyes, that is not what it is. And in fact, like most of David Ickes's thought is taken up by the distinction between, I guess what a philosopher called "essence" and "appearance." Like one of his beliefs—one of his most prominent beliefs lately, I think, slightly pre-everything becoming about COVID, which we can also talk about, is what he calls a "moon matrix." His belief is that the moon is an artificial satellite, which has been placed in orbit around the earth, which is actually a transmitter for a satanic discordant matrix, originating on the planet Saturn, which many people will take to be—well, not many people statistically, but some of the more interesting people take to be the actual physical manifestation of the Prince of Lies within our physical universe.
Justin E.H. Smith 16:10
Saturn, huh. I didn't know that.
Sam Kriss 16:52
Saturn, yeah, yeah. Again, there's a there's a long heritage there, identifying Saturn with evil.
Justin E.H. Smith 17:12
Oh, well, sure.
Sam Kriss 17:16
But the purpose of this signal is to keep us locked in the kind of three- or four-dimensional sensory reality. And so it kind of strikes me that what this conspiracy theory essentially is is a kind of extravagant form of Kantianism, where there is a, you know, that there is a fundamental noumenal reality that we cannot access because we're bounded by our finitude and our particular relation to—well, I mean, the dimensions, you know, as Kant argues, much of this stuff is built into our nature as people. Where the conspiracy theorists differ, obviously, is that they think that they can get outside of it. Which would mean I guess, they belong to that kind of German idealist tradition, which tries to kind of, you know, loopy on Kantianism, and establish a kind of direct relation to reality. I mean, what conspiracy theorists often do in trying to establish this direct relation to reality is to kind of decode the signs of the world, so that you know, the true nature of things is kind of hinted at through patterns on a piece of currency, or very often words, word play. You know, like, there is a person who believes very strongly that you can tell that we are living in hell because when we greet each other, we say "hello." There's a lot of—yeah, there's a kind of somewhat mystical relation to the signifier going on. But, yeah, I mean, I think—I think at a certain level, it is difficult to extricate conspiracy theory from philosophy. I think it's, I guess you can call it a kind of a folk philosophy.
Justin E.H. Smith 19:09
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, one of my favorite books in this general area is Margaret Wertheim, who wrote about “outsider physics,” and attended outsider physics conferences, where people propose things like: the nature of the universe is not built up from subatomic particles, but from something resembling smoke rings that look a lot like you know what you can blow when you're smoking—when you're using the bong in your trailer park outside of Portland, Oregon, which I think is the particular case study she was most interested in—this guy who's a trailer-park manager and is kind of at the top of the heap at outsider physics conference. And she is very sensitive kind of anthropologically to the kind of the need for a folk physics, right? And how this emerges from deep conviction that we, trailer-park managers and surfers and whoever else, are just as well positioned to apprehend the nature of reality, as a trained physicist is because what kind of universe would it be where we would be cut off from the true nature of reality? So this emerges kind of spontaneously as a result of the institutionalization of expert knowledge. And similarly for other kinds of let's say, as you put it, not just folk physics but folk philosophy... Do you think that's a fair characterization of how these these ideas emerge?
Sam Kriss 21:00
Yeah, I mean, I think the most interesting case here really is flat earth, on many levels. I mean, the, the thing about flat earth is that, you know, our experiential relation to the universe is that the earth is flat. I mean, I remember being told as a child, when on the beach, you know, looking out at the sea, oh, you can see the curvature of the horizon. As a matter of fact, you cannot. It is actually impossible to ever see the curvature of the horizon. And, like, people have known that the earth is round for a very, very long time, you know, Plato describes it. But the the roundness of the earth has always been very much abstracted from human experience. You know, it's one of the kind of the brute facts that is kind of—it's a piece of instrumental reason, as it were. It's a brute fact that doesn't relate to the human sense of being in the world. And so I think it's, you know, interesting in that regard, that flat earth, you know—which, you know, like, very often, when you talk about flat earth to people, they'll kind of go, “Oh, are there people who still believe that?” It's never still. Flat earth is a really very recent phenomenon. It basically came out of the mid- to late nineteenth century. And there's fundamentally one person who's the origin, who is Samuel Rowbotham, who was an itinerant speaker and weirdo and utopian socialist, as it happened. And it's interesting to me that this kind of idea came out at precisely the point with the, you know, massive explosion of the Industrial Revolution and instrumental rationality, which people were being enslaved, as never before, to kind of brute facts about the universe. You know, like the kind of steam engine or clockwork mechanism of the world. And flat earth kind of seems to me a way to kind of claw back a certain kind of sovereignty over reality for the subject, to be able to go: “My experience of the world is such and this is important.” You know, at that point, no one had ever seen the sphere of the earth, the earth everyone directly experienced through their senses was flat. I mean, you know, there are some other correspondences there where, you know, like much of the enslavement of human beings by machines depended on the roundness of the earth in the sense that, you know, it was all for rapidly expanding global trades, you know? You know, like, Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, they talk about the achievements of the bourgeoisie. It's always in terms of them—they're kind of grasping the earth, holding the orbit, circumnavigating the entire thing, opening up every corner of the earth to capitalist exploitation. And this is, you know, this is something which is not entirely possible in the flat earth. Like the round earth is a kind of, you know, it is a disenchanted earth. It's a scene of a certain kind of, it's a scene of a kind of full objecthood. It is not something you can fully have a relation with. What's very interesting about flat earthers is the way they describe their flat earth. It's very cozy, it is our home. It was designed for us. A flat earth does not emerge through natural processes. You know, as one of the people in the flat earth conference said there are no atheists on the flat earth, although he did follow that up by saying actually if there are any, come and find me afterwards, I would love to talk them about how you think this works. But you know, a flat earth is a nurturing home for human beings and a round earth is a ball of exploitable materials. I kind of forget how we got onto this...
Justin E.H. Smith 25:21
Well, the question of expert authority. I mean, I thought about this in somewhat different terms, and I wrote a bit about this in my 2019 book Irrationality. There's a short section on—
Sam Kriss 25:32
I think that's how we actually first got in contact.
Justin E.H. Smith 25:34
Yeah. …On flat earth where I discuss some reflections in Heidegger of all people about kind of the phenomenology of earthly existence, which involves an up and a down—the up is the sky and the down is the earth, right? And that is the starting point for phenomenology of earthly dwelling, to sound like Heidegger. And I've kind of understood this kind of as a taking back as well, right? You want to take back from, let's say, literally a global perspective, the way living on earth feels, primordially. And I hadn't thought about in economic terms, but it sounds like there's kind of a convergence between what you're saying and what I earlier said. But I mean, back to kind of expert authority, I think about this very often, you know, I can remind myself however many times I want, you know, how many stars there are in the galaxy, how many galaxies in the galaxy cluster, how many galaxy clusters in a super cluster, and so on. And I'm aware of the large numbers involved. And yet, there remains a kind of inclination, if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and say, How many stars are there? I would probably say, “Uh, I don't know? 300? 400??" That's just so natural to me to think in terms of the visible night sky when I'm...
Sam Kriss 27:19
A small and enclosed world.
Justin E.H. Smith 27:21
Yeah. That I often feel, indeed, that one needs to offer a plaidoyer for that system of counting. And that kind of accounting of what the universe is, even if it's dead wrong. And maybe one way of thinking about the flat earthers is that they they don't want to say it's dead wrong. They want to they want to kind of extend a kind of literalism to what I allow to remain a mere kind of feeling or sentiment that I can later correct at another level. Does that sound right?
Sam Kriss 28:08
Yeah, no, I mean, I think flat earthers broadly want to live in a world in which their human life has meaning, you know, which is their main—well, I mean, part of the more kind of base conspiratorial elements of the theory is that the globe earth lie is propounded so that people will believe that their lives are meaningless. And no, I mean, I think it is very important to believe that our lives have meaning. I mean, I think it's also for a certain kind of humility, important to, you know, think about the fact that, for instance, the black-hole era of the universe will last for trillions upon trillions of years, far, far longer than any age in which there were stars and light and warmth and possibility of life. And then it is all fundamentally meaningless.
Justin E.H. Smith 28:57
But these are, these are things that are hard to think—like, literally hard to think things.
Sam Kriss 29:02
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think what you said about them taking it literally is interesting, because, you know, I tend to think of conspiracy theories as a kind of metaphor, in the sense that it has been literalized in a way, some kind of sentiment about the world is presented in literal and literary returns
Justin E.H. Smith 29:25
Well, this brings us back to the poetry I think, David Icke understands what he's saying as at some level an allegory?
Sam Kriss 29:34
I, well, I mean, he some of the things he says are within his system allegorical. Like the reptiles are kind of—on the one hand, there are fundamental truth that is hidden behind the forces of the world. On the other hand, even the reptiles are a metaphor for a more fundamental drive. But like, in a sense, I kind of don't really worry about whether David Icke personally knows that he is, you know, merely expressing something a lot more kind of flitting and metaphorical about the world or whether he truly believes it. Because I mean, I guess my approach to a lot of this stuff is a kind of literary approach, where what I deal with is the text. And the text is often very, very beautiful, or, you know, very inventive or creative or wonderful, many different ways. I mean, you know, LED sun, for instance—
Justin E.H. Smith 30:25
Yeah, tell me about this.
Sam Kriss 30:26
LED sun is very minor, they don't have conferences, but the idea is that our sun burnt itself out some time ago, and no longer exists. And that to kind of stop us all from panicking, the powers that be have installed a giant, artificial light bulb in the sky. And you can tell that this is not actually our true sun, because the quality of the light that shines from it is subtly different. Our sun was kind of warm and yellow, and the sunsets more colorful, and it was kindly a more nurturing sun. And the sunlight object that shines above us right now is a kind of cold, white LED. And these people share these kind of very touching reminiscences of their childhood under the yellow sun. “I miss the old sun.”
Justin E.H. Smith 31:25
When did the—when did the switch take place?
Sam Kriss 31:27
I think people have differing opinions. I think basically, the switch took place when you lost your innocence and left childhood behind.
Justin E.H. Smith 31:34
Interesting, right, yeah.
Sam Kriss 31:38
But you know, it seems to communicate something. You know, like Kafka in one of his aphorisms, you know, this is an entirely different place, which is lit by another sun.
Justin E.H. Smith 31:49
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Sam Kriss 31:52
And it communicates a sense of, you know, we are living our lives under a different light things are disclosed to us differently than they ought to be.
Justin E.H. Smith 32:01
This is so interesting. Recently, I've been thinking about something a lot that is different, but related. So I feel like when I was a little child, I could frequently see the Milky Way.
Sam Kriss 32:15
No, I have the same.
Justin E.H. Smith 32:17
Yeah. And I feel like I have distinct memories of seeing a much more vivid night sky. And when I tell people about this, they say, “Well, yeah, but that's because there's so much more like pollution today.” And yet, over the past years, I have made a concerted effort to look at the night sky when I'm flying over the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night. And I'm sorry, but there's no more light pollution over the Atlantic Ocean today than there was in 1980. There are there are no cities in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Right? And yet, I still don't see the Milky Way. So I have been having this concern, where the hell did the Milky Way go? Right? I'm not seeing it anymore. And I know I used to, and I don't know quite how to explain this. I'm not ready to—
Sam Kriss 33:07
I think the—I mean, not to reduce it to metaphor. I mean, maybe to do that, you know, there is a sense that, you know, as you get older, the grandeur of the universe thins, right? You know, very young children, the things that they are fascinated by what are objectively the most interesting things about the world. Number one, that it's setting an infinite and expanding universe full of the stars and galaxies. And number two, that it was once inhabited by giant lizards.
Justin E.H. Smith 33:35
Sam Kriss 33:37
Outer space and dinosaurs are the two things that every child loves—the best things we have, and then you just kind of put them aside. And you kind of go on with your kind of small life in this world. And I think a lot of these cosmic conspiracy theories, even if they deny the reality of those infinite stars and galaxies, they're a way of making that a central concern of life. You know, like, the thing that you should constantly be thinking about is—or like creationism. Were there dinosaurs? Is there outer space? These things that are granted and important and should be thought about in the form of a denial.
Justin E.H. Smith 34:16
Well, that's I mean, yeah, I, as someone with a very kind of in enduring interest in natural history, paleontology and related fields, as nonetheless, ultimately an amateur, I'm frequently confronted by the fact that when I'm at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, or Paleontology in Paris, I'm surrounded by six-year-olds, and it's hard to persevere in as an adult, because all the forces in society push you to, as the Bible says, put away childish things. And one thing that's striking, as we're talking and thinking about the conspiracy theories, is how much conspiracy theory actually kind of could be seen as an effort to reserve childish things in a world that ultimately, you know, the only other way to maintain an interest in these into adulthood is to become a working scientist. Right? And there's really very little room to indulge these deep cosmological interests, for example, as an adult, right?
Sam Kriss 35:29
Yes. Oh, I mean, well, when I was when I was at the flat earth conference in 2017, you know, I was hanging around by the entrance, smoking cigarettes, and I see these, you know, these two big muscular guys both of them wearing sports jerseys, hanging around the same exits, and—you know, like, the kind of person that you would normally expect to have a somewhat, you know, something of a lack of concern for for grand issues, you know, like, just on the basis of a kind of instantaneous class prejudice. But they were discussing the large-scale structure of the universe, they were engaged in a very kind of high-minded, very kind of rationalistic, from first principles argument, about whether there is—about I think, whether the sun floats below the sphere of the firmament, or if it is attached to the firmament, or if it is somewhere above it. Yeah, like I, you know, I think all people have the ability to think and to imagine the world into an incredible variety of different shapes. And I think that, yeah, precisely, that there is a lot out there that tries to squash and diminish that in people. You know, the kind of what Heidegger would call idle talk, you know, the mild chatter of daily concerns. But, you know, I think we need some elements of that. You know, there's a reason that every society has some kind of cosmic origin myth apart from ours. Sure. And I think it's extraordinary that people will simply develop one, if left unattended, and that ends up being called conspiracy theory. Right, right. It's interesting to think about creationism. And I don't know, if you've visited the Creation Science Museum… I intend to.
Justin E.H. Smith 37:33
It's quite wonderful. You know, there's a whole counter-science on display. In this, you know, what you might call a simulacrum of a museum, right?, which involves phenomena like flash fossilization that explains, you know, how dinosaur fossils could have come into being in the past six thousand years, and how you could have the coexistence of dinosaurs and caveman and so on. And ordinarily, we don't call this a conspiracy theory, right? Because it is—even if it's deemed a pseudoscience, and that's something different from a conspiracy theory, in ways that are maybe hard to disambiguate.
Sam Kriss 38:21
Well, I mean, I think the difference with creationism is that—I mean, this actually ties into some of what you talked about in your book, Irrationality. Creationism was the accepted theory for a very long time until the nineteenth century, at which point it began to be challenged and was ultimately overthrown by some form of abiogenesis, evolution, etc. Although, you know, even within that there are people who believe in certain forms of creationism, like the idea that life on this planet was seeded by comets, or spacefaring aliens. And I think what that means is that among creationists, especially, I think many of them, certainly not all, quite sincerely believe that the people who don't agree with them have misinterpreted the data. And that, you know, they've been misled by certain often natural phenomena like flash fossilization to gain an erroneous account of historical developments. Whereas I think within the mainline of flat earth, is broadly accepted that—I mean, possibly because the flat earth is, in a way, it comes after the round earth. There has to be a liar, someone who's deceiving you, which is why I think flat earth gets classed with conspiracy theory more than creationism, although I really should point out that the kind of paranoid style—obviously it's present in flat earth. I mean, it's also present in creationism. You know, many people say that evolution is some kind of scientific conspiracy or satanic trick or something. But, you know, like I one of the flat earthers I spoke to told me that he was just waiting for scientists at Stanford or NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab to really start getting involved with flat earth because he, you know, as he said, “I am trying to do this research, but I bag groceries for a living. I can't do it all myself, we need the scientists to get involved.” And actually one of the leaders of the Flat Earth Society at the end of the twentieth century, he believed that the truth of the flat earth was being covered up by the U.S. government, but for basically benign reasons—that people couldn't yet handle the fact that we lived on a flat earth, and that they were waiting for a kind of, an opportune moment to kind of pull back the curtain and reveal what was really there..
Justin E.H. Smith 41:02
Interesting. Parenthetically, unless you want to pursue this further, I mean, one of the troubling things about flat-earth theory for me, as opposed to say creationism is that you don't only have to argue that, say NASA photographs from the moon are fake, and so you know, date the conspiracy back to say, the late 1960s. But you would also have to argue, wouldn't you that Galileo was in on it, or Strabo was in on it?
Sam Kriss 41:38
Well, I mean, they have a—they have an interesting concept of Strabo, actually.
Justin E.H. Smith 41:47
…Ancient Greek geographer
Sam Kriss 41:49
…Who estimated the size of the earth to a really quite incredible level of detail based on the shadows cast by objects in Greece and Egypt, I believe. And there are flat earthers, who have looked at the original calculations, and worked out a way to make them conform with a flat earth, which is—I don't, I can't remember the exact figures, but I think the sun is about twelve miles wide, and about thirty thousand miles away, I think? So, no, I mean, I think—I actually don't know what the flat earth consensus on Galileo is. I think they'd be quite willing to admit that there are people in the past who have made mistakes who have arrived at a false shape of the earth. I mean, the problem is that many of these people also believe that there is a kind of malign satanic influence that permeates our world, which is, again, something quite common to conspiracy theory, and also something that, you know, in the same way as the LED sun, I think, actually might hint at a certain deep emotional truth about the way we relate to existence. You know, that there is something numinous about about that, which is not us. About our kind of separation from the kind of, you know, the oceanic, mystical, aural eroticism, however you want to define it, that have a sense of continuity with all of existence, which is something that, you know, mystics in pretty much every society, or in pretty much any heightened state, have tried to access.
Justin E.H. Smith 43:31
Right, right. Right. Right. Right. So there's a poetic truth in there and you're able to apprehend this in a literary vein.
Sam Kriss 43:41
It's possible that I'm being somewhat condescending to the conspiracy theorists who, like, themselves really do believe this.
Justin E.H. Smith 43:48
Yeah. Well, okay. But here's, here's something I wanted to get to, you know, one one genre of literature, if we want to look at this as a form of literary text, is satire. And, you know, when I was a teenager, I was into the Church of the SubGenius, which nicely described what they were doing as a joke, but a very serious joke. Right? And, little by little I would learn and kind of about the genealogy of this, which goes back to Discordianism, you know…
Sam Kriss 44:27
Which I encountered as a teenager on the internet.
Justin E.H. Smith 44:32
I don't know, maybe the SubGenius phenomenon was more American. I'm not sure. It was big in California in the 1980s, kind of as what I now see as the the dregs of, like, seventies Freak art, which was very distinctively Bay area…
Sam Kriss 44:52
But also the beginning of the kind of Bay Area tech scene, right?
Justin E.H. Smith 44:57
Yeah, yeah, that's another dimension of this we might get to talk about, but if you look at Discordianism, which has also been, I guess, reinvestigated a bit recently by Adam Curtis. You know, there is a sense in a lot of these quasi-conspiracy-theory-like scenes of just playing a joke. To épater le bourgeois. And sometimes, I mean, you see in the current landscape, maybe, very fine degrees of difference between say flatearthism and, say, the birds are fake thing, and so on. And I mean, the birds are fake thing I kind of hate. Yeah, it seems kind of—I'm put off it as well. I think the guy—
Sam Kriss 45:45
I mean, there was a New York Times article about it, in which the people behind it, which is openly saying to the Times, "Oh, it's a joke, we did it as a joke." And I kind of want to go, like, have some commitment to your bit. Absolute integrity, if you're gonna create this thing. What? You don't want to use the New York Times as a platform for your ruse? You just want to explain it and be a person? I mean, there's something very pathetic about it.
Justin E.H. Smith 46:20
Yeah. Yeah. It was kind of lame.
Sam Kriss 46:23
You know, also the kind of the conspiratorial attitude to the bourgeoisie. It's kind of, I mean, look, one of the great benefits of Marxism is that it allows you to think about how classes act without having to, you know, jump to the conclusion that these millions of people are secretly planting birds to watch us. That, you know, an entire class sector has like a conscious secret purpose. I mean, obviously, not entirely how it works. But I mean, yes, obviously, there's always a sense in which conspiracy theory shades into a kind of satire or an absurdism. I mean, like, some of my favorite images that pop up on the internet are these iceberg memes, which, you know, we kind of have an image of an iceberg with obviously 10 percent of it above the water and going deeper and deeper and deeper, and there'll be words plastered down the length of the iceberg. And at the top, you'll have you know, the kind of very facile, very obvious conspiracy theories like: "the CIA killed JFK," "9/11 was an inside job." And then as you get down, you'll get to stuff like: "CIA bases on the moon," you know, "the 12th century never happened," which is one of my favorites, for chronology. And then at the very bottom, "you secretly have six fingers," "there's eighteen suns," "there is no sun," "there is no earth." And then, very often, the truly deepest conspiracy theory will be "everything in the newspaper is true." But, like, very often with these, there will be a kind of admixture of things that are obviously satirical, and then things that you look into just a little and there is something there, something weird has happened. And I think for a lot of people who are into conspiracy theories, especially now—I mean, like flat earth was kind of briefly a meme on the internet—there is that sense of playfulness in being able to conceive of an idea and hold it and even convince yourself from certain elements of it, without fully committing to it. Which I think is, I mean, yeah, that is conspiracy theory as a literary form. And again, yeah, you know, it was fundamentally about, like, doing what literature does, which is reinterpreting the stuff in the world. Thinking of new ways to conceive of and understand the reality that we find ourselves in, whether that's in the kind of, sort of more mathematical way of, you know, looking at Strabo's formulae again, and kind of going, "Oh, wait, but if the sun is only yea small?," or whether it's in the kind of much more kind of mythopeic mode.
Justin E.H. Smith 49:17
Yeah, yeah. I suppose in a way we've had four hundred years or thereabouts of attempting to come up with ways to hold on to the fundamental truth of scripture, while also recognizing the alternative chronologies that have imposed themselves as a result of sedimentology and paleontology and other dawning bodies of knowledge from the early modern period or the late Renaissance on, and people have become, you know, very good at finding balance between the fundamental truth of the Book of Genesis on the one hand and scientific discovery on the other hand. And so, you know, in some at least sophisticated corners of, of religious tradition, and in traditions of hermeneutics of scripture, you know, people fully understand what it means to say, this is true, but also to, you know, not totally shut out, say, scientific chronology. Right? And conspiracy theorists don't seem to have the sophistication of a Schleiermacher or of a proper hermeneuticist, but what they're trying to do is, perhaps, move it two levels in their conception of what truth is.
Sam Kriss 51:08
Well, I mean, what what kind of muddies things a bit. I mean, yeah, truth is the kind of the defining terms of conspiracy theory. You know, 9/11 truth, for instance. And I think what kind of muddies the waters here is that, you know, on the one hand, you know, there are conspiracy theories that are true. I mean, you know, if you take the kind of most overt definition of conspiracy theory, well, you know, it's a theory that posits a conspiracy, then, like, for instance, either Saddam Hussein was secretly producing weapons of mass destruction and conspiring to do so, or the Bush administration was conspiring to mislead the public about that. Right. Like, that is a true conspiracy theory. And, you know, I think it's kind of widely acknowledged at this point that the Bush administration did lie to provide the impetus for a war in Iraq, and obviously, will never faced any consequences for that. But there are others, which are more contested. Like, for instance, you know, whether Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide. I mean, I'm very, very firmly of the opinion that on the bounds of evidence, no, he did not, he was murdered. And, you know, I'm joined in that opinion by, you know, lawmakers in the United States, you know, it's far from a particularly out there idea. But at the same time, there is a very strong official story that says, "No, this is not what happened. He did kill himself." So, you know, like, we're on this kind of level of trying to work out what are the direct true things about the world which are contested. And because conspiracy theory as a category will include that, and then also the kind of broader questions about the fundamental shape of the universe. And, you know, I find that like, for instance, I'm very, very capable of, you know, appreciating something that's beautiful and interesting and kind of poignant about flat earthers or creationists or all the people who think that the sun is fake, or the moon is hollow, etc, while also not fully committing to them, I find it much harder to do that with conspiracy theories like, for instance, the Holocaust was fake, which, you know, like, I find kind of viscerally offensive. Or, you know, even more kind of banal ones like the Donald Trump was secretly Russian intelligence asset doing the Kremlin's bidding in the United States government. I mean, you know, I guess what distinguishes these are, you know, these are the smaller type of conspiracy theory that make direct claims about individual facts about the world rather than the nature of the world. And I don't agree with them. I mean, this could very well be, like, a weakness on my part that, you know, I'm not willing to consider them in the same light that I would the ones that either I agree with, or I like the shape of. But you know, I think there's a, you know, like, if conspiracy theory is a kind of form of literature, there is such a thing as a bad book. And, you know, I think like, yeah, like the Holocaust never happened is a bad book.
Justin E.H. Smith 51:53
Right, right, so one of these two conspiracy theories is true.
Sam Kriss 52:00
I mean, it's fascinating, though, that in some, in some sense, it's easier to entertain as true without fully committing, those conspiracy theories that ultimately make much bolder claims, right. If the Holocaust didn't happen, that is, and people claim it did, that is on the cosmic level, less significant than, say, if there's no sun, right? And yet, the stakes seem much higher in the case of the Holocaust. Yes. Because it's linked to some fairly unpleasant people who are—you know, the paranoia is give them the chance and they'll do it again.
Justin E.H. Smith 55:32
And in a sense, you know, I've been writing recently on the so called simulation argument, which doesn't get classified as a conspiracy theory, though perhaps should.
Sam Kriss 55:43
It shares almost all of the major characteristics. Yeah.
Justin E.H. Smith 55:48
Right. Yeah. And, you know, ultimately, what some of its at least partial defenders, like David Chalmers want to say is that it changes nothing, right? A virtual couch is a couch just as much as a couch made out of atoms. And in that respect, you know, you could say that the higher the cosmological stakes are of a conspiracy theory, the more it comes to nothing in the end.
Sam Kriss 56:19
I mean, that's very interesting. Well, I mean, I did write about this years ago, there are certain Silicon Valley types who believe in the simulation hypothesis, and apparently are looking for ways to break us out the simulation. Which I, you know—which has obviously been a dream of people for a very long time. Right? It's a gnostic impulse.
Justin E.H. Smith 56:42
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it's a form of gnosticism.
Sam Kriss 56:45
Older than that, right? You know, like you have it in, like, very old forms of like, Vedic Hinduism, for instance. But I mean, what I wonder is, if they are right, and they do this, experientially, what would that be? To be broken out of the simulation? I think what that fundamentally translates into, would be blowing up the universe. Which I oppose.
Justin E.H. Smith 57:11
Right. I mean, in Chalmers's is new book Reality Plus—I'm coming out with a critical essay on it soon enough—but one thing that strikes me is that he tries really hard to establish his bien pasant bona fides. And to say that, you know, in spite of the fact that I'm entertaining this as a serious idea, I want to reassure you that I'm not trying to muddy the epistemological waters about the world we live in. And politics is true and high stakes. And I am, you know, I'm not interested in disseminating disinformation, and so on and so on. And so it's as if he's starting to feel the potential spillover into the realm of conspiracism of such talk in a way that maybe some Silicon Valley types are not.
Sam Kriss 58:13
Yes, no, they often have very idiosyncratic politics themselves. I mean, the politics of it all is interesting, though, in the sense that, like the flat earth conference, I keep on bringing up—that was in 2017. And my sense is that if they were to hold a similar flat earth conference this year, there will be much, much less about the overall shape of the universe, and whether the sun is below the firmament or attached to the firmament or above the firmament, and much, much more about politics. About COVID, almost certainly about the 2020 U.S. election, about QAnon, about the kind of thing that I find less interesting. Not that there aren't sometimes points of interest there, but, you know, smaller in scope. And that seems to have happened kind of across the board within conspiracy theory over the last couple of years, is that people are very, very worried about immediate political concerns and trying to tie that to politics. The problem is, of course, a lot of conspiracy theories are political. I mean, you know, like, whether JFK was killed by a lone gunman or the, you know, the U.S. intelligence establishment. That matters an extraordinary deal to you know, what kind of society it is that we live in. But, you know, I feel like, at the same time, there there is a certain poetry that we lose when that becomes our main concern. I think, you know, there's something fundamentally banal about it.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:00:00
Fascinating. Even conspiracy theory is becoming less interesting.
Sam Kriss 1:00:04
Yeah, absolutely, yeah. They talk a lot less about about the world.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:00:10
Yeah, yeah. One of my favorites that it's just I'm just remembering now it's the view that mountains are petrified trees.
Sam Kriss 1:00:17
Yes, yes. Yes. I wrote about this.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:00:19
Oh, you did?
Sam Kriss 1:00:20
I did. Yeah. I think it was a piece in the Atlantic, which ended up being shared by Joe Rogan, I believe, actually no, it was kind of right up his alley, really.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:00:33
Sam Kriss 1:00:34
No, this incredibly powerful moving idea.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:00:38
Yeah. That trees used to be a lot bigger.
Sam Kriss 1:00:40
That trees used to be enormous. And that, like, the real core of the idea is that, you know, there is no such thing as mere matter, as just rock. It is all petrified wood, which means that our entire world used to be alive. We used to be alive in a living world, and we killed it. You know, they they believe that certain geological features—I don't know if it's "they," or a single person that, you know, the theory spread like wildfire, briefly—certain geological formations are actually the tracks left by enormous machinery that relentlessly felled all of these magical trees. I mean, they also think that it happened in the fairly recent past, which is strange, but...
Justin E.H. Smith 1:01:27
I mean, a lot of this sounds to me like recrudescence, or a sort of survival of what used to be thought of as degenerationism, right? What you see and say, Giambattista Vico, right? That the earth used to be inhabited by giants. And in general, over the course of the entire eighteenth century, you look at someone like Beaufont, very insistent that there is a sort of morphological change in living species over time, but it's always for the worse—everything is getting punier and weaker...
Sam Kriss 1:02:07
Which I kind of believe, to be honest. [laughs]
Justin E.H. Smith 1:02:10
And then the nineteenth century, and evolution, changes all of that. But, you know, the idea of living among the puny remnants of something that used to be much grander, this seems to be a relative constant.
Sam Kriss 1:02:28
Oh, yeah. No, I mean, you know, occasionally, I have the thought that, you know, there's something shoddy and cheap and tacky in the modern world. And, you know, that there was something much richer in the fourteenth century, then you read the poetry of the fourteenth century, and it's going, "Our age is so terrible. People were better before." Heisinger writes wonderfully about this stuff. And well, I mean, like, one approach to that is to go, "No, people in every age and believe that the age that preceded them was grander. And they were all right."
Justin E.H. Smith 1:03:03
And they're all right, yeah.
Sam Kriss 1:03:04
I mean, you know, I don't know if I'd be willing to endorse that as an entirely universal principle, but I think it's a useful corrective to the people like Steven Pinker, who every year kind of go, "This was the best year for humanity there's ever been." No, no, no, it was not. Even on the, I guess this is political, but, you know, like, even on the relatively recent timescale, you know, in the postwar years, we had a couple of decades in which every trend in human history, concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite, was reversed. And we had about thirty years of, you know, more equitable distribution, and in which ordinary people had slightly more of a, say, over their own lives, and then around the 1970s it just clam-shut again. There is a sense in which the world is less good now than it was then. But, you know, I guess it's difficult because we also have this sense, you know, on the scale of our own lifetimes, of a separation from the world. Of, you know, of a golden era that has been lost, that kind of—you know, in Freudian terms, that kind of oral remnant of, you know, like, the entire world was just milk flowing into your mouth. But, you know, I mean, you know, there was a time when people conceived of, you know, the great chain of being and a living world, and felt themselves to be part of a living world that was active and responsive and existing in relation to them as well. And then for a very long time, you know, the no-forest and flat-earth people are kind of correct: we killed it, we transformed the earth into the inert object of an instrumental rationality. And, you know, at this very moment we're living with some of the consequences. Yeah. Oh, that's so interesting. I mean, you know, you have the very familiar kind of historiography of the mechanization of nature in the seventeenth century, which is also the barbarian disenchantment of the world. And then this is turned into kind of feminist historiography, people like Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature, also writing about the scientific revolution—now, that's not conspiracy theory, but it is a different way of articulating the basic idea that we killed nature, right? Well, I mean, an old notion as well. I mean, you know, in the classical period, you know, that line "Pan the Great is dead," resounding from the islands, you know? I think, I mean, I think part of the problem is, you know, if we're to talk about human essence, then this human essence is precisely that we are not merely part of nature. Like, human nature is culture. So we're always kind of untethered from the world as it actually is. You know, you couldn't speak of a rabbit or a swan having alienation.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:06:22
Or at least we can't know what that would be like.
Sam Kriss 1:06:25
It will be interesting. Maybe I'm wrong. But so, you know, I think we're maybe perennially left with a sense of the world is not as it ought to be. And that we do not fit into the world as we ought to. And that's part of what it is to be ourselves and, I think, the valuable parts, otherwise, we wouldn't invent new things. But you know, I think maybe on its very base-most level, conspiracy theory is essentially the recognition that the world is not as it ought to be. And that kind of goes for, you know, even the ones that I find fundamentally tedious, like Russiagate. It is still an expression of that kind of general sense that we have been cut off from something.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:07:11
Let's spend a few minutes on COVID. Get closer to the news cycle, even though, you know, we're under no obligation to do that on this podcast. So, this seems an interesting case, because it's, you know, perfectly plausible that its origins are not in a wet market, right. There's no—in fact, the idea that there's a pangolin or bats at the origins of a global-pandemic-cum-political-crisis seems itself rather far fetched.
Sam Kriss 1:07:56
I mean, Ilike the idea of kind of revenge of the natural world.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:08:01
Yeah, yeah, but I mean, something—I guess this has been discredited since then. But, you know, the idea that there should be something as odd and rare as a pangolin, something that is at the center of various traditional religious cults around the world, among them the Vili people of the Congo, for instance.
Sam Kriss 1:08:23
I mean, one of my favorites.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:08:25
You know, the Mary Douglas, or...
Sam Kriss 1:08:27
Absolutely. Well, the Pangolin was Christ, yeah.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:08:29
Yeah. So the idea that that was the truth, and we had to accept that, in a lot of ways seemed more implausible than a lab leak, or a bioweapon or something like that.
Sam Kriss 1:08:44
Yeah. I mean, I mean, the thing about—I mean, I guess, you know, if we're talking about conspiracy theories, we should also have to talk about kind of counter-conspiracism, and the urge to kind of shut down conspiracy theories, debunk them, whatever. And I guess the whole edifice of, you know, received opinion and official knowledge, which, you know, conspiracy theory often challenges. Well, I mean, I think the cosmic conspiracy theories challenge that on a very fundamental level, but some of the others challenge it on a very granular level, and often, you know, right turns out to have been on their side. I do not know where COVID came from, I couldn't possibly claim any knowledge there, but, you know, it is interesting that the view that COVID had an anthropogenic origin, whether deliberate or accidental, was at the beginning of the pandemic, the kind of thing that would get you booted off a social-media platform, would get you exiled from polite society. And now, you know, you have Western governments kind of suggesting it, you have—I think it was in New York magazine that ran a very long piece arguing… And I think that was what kind of shifted the balance was a kind of prestigious, mainstream publication lending its weight, which suddenly turned, without any difference in the actual propositional content of the theory, what had been a wacky fringe belief into something that was kind of circulating in the realm of ideas. I mean, the problem is, you know, when we talk about truth, there is no truth in the sense of how philosophy—well, how epistemologists talk about truth, which is, you know, purely propositional, and usually to do with people called A and B. And truth as, I guess, a kind of like Nietzschean mode, in which—like, we spend our entire lives lying to each other and ourselves. And what fundamentally constitutes truth is who agrees on it. And you know, how prestigious this particular idea happens to be, without really much regard for whether or not it's true. So, you know, like, when I say, for instance, that I don't think that COVID was a deliberate plan by the elites, to, god, I mean, to do whatever it is the elites are trying to do. You know, it's difficult to tell whether I'm saying that in the sense that I have totted up all of the evidence and, on balance, I think that is not a statement that corresponds to a set of affairs in reality, or what I'm saying is, this is too far beyond the pale for me to count on it. Yeah. I mean, I have sometimes especially watching very closely the case of Giorgio Agamben, you know, found myself retreating into cautious agnosticism about causes and reasons, which is something very different from just coming out firmly with a position where you say, you know, you know that what they're telling us is not the truth, right. I mean, this is why my favorite conspiracy theories tend to be less about "I know the secret truth about x," and more about "I know that the widely accepted truth x is actually not true."
Justin E.H. Smith 1:12:32
Right, yeah, yeah. What's your absolute favorite conspiracy theory?
Sam Kriss 1:12:37
Oh, God. I mean, I think it may have to be the holographic sun. The LED sun, although I actually have a really particular fondness for the New Chronology, which claims among other things that Jesus Christ was crucified in the hills overlooking Constantinople around, I think, 1100 CE, which is—and it's a really complete account of the entirety of history. And this one is also political. It's a kind of Russian nationalist fabrication, in which the argument is that the Egyptian pharaohs, the kings of Israel, and the Roman and Byzantine emperors were all the same people. And that stories about them have kind of dispersed and being given different names. And that people have this idea that these things happen sequentially, when it was a single set of events that we have misinterpreted—or, actually, in some versions the Jesuits have caused us to misinterpret, and actually the entirety of world history happened in Russia.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:13:55
Right, right. Right. That sounds that sounds familiar. Yeah. What is the— well, you don't have to answer this because we have reputations to worry about. But what is the the conspiracy theory you are most inclined to actually commit yourself to?
Sam Kriss 1:14:14
Well, yeah, so it was dangerous. In a way, I think it's almost quite safe now to say this but, yeah, Jeffrey Epstein did not kill himself..
Justin E.H. Smith 1:14:22
Okay. Yeah, that's a pretty safe one.
Sam Kriss 1:14:24
Yeah. I mean, like, there was a box full of videotapes of DVDs in his house that were seized. And every tape on it was labeled with the name of a famous and influential person and the name of an underage girl. And all of this was going to be brought out at his trial, and we have never heard anything about those tapes since.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:14:51
Right, right. Yeah. And it was remarkable how Maxwell was sentenced without implicating anyone else.
Sam Kriss 1:14:59
Yes. I mean, prosecutors had a job to do, which was to prosecute her specifically, they weren't trying to bring down whatever shadowy thing it is lurks at the heart of the world and runs according to laws we don't understand. But I kind of think that in a way, Epstein kind of is too safe at the moment. Because I well, I mean, one of the things that I've seen is, well, what what exactly are we going to do about it? You know, there's kind of no plan of action there, really. But I mean, you know, other than that, you know, I find it difficult to find conspiracy theories. I will say, 100%, I believe in this particular version, even if, as with JFK, for instance. You know, I, I do not know what happened. I do know that the story, as its told, Lee—I mean, you say as its told, there are many people telling many different stories—but the kind of mainstream consensus, at the very least leave something out. You know, which could just be on the level of that Lee Harvey Oswald was an FBI informant. Or it could be that he, you know, was a dupe? Or it could be that there was no Lee Harvey Oswald. You know, I can't make any claims to truth, but I can make claims of doubt.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:16:34
Right, right. Right. When, I mean, we're supposed to be converging on an answer to a question "What are conspiracy theories?" And for the moment, something strikes me that I'm not sure I see the kind of connecting thread between the conspiracy theories that call into question particular narratives about political events, on the one hand, and the rethinking cosmology…
Sam Kriss 1:17:05
I mean, the thing is, people who believe one will believe the other very often.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:17:08
Yeah, but why is that? Because I mean, I'm perfectly prepared to say, I don't know how Jeffrey Epstein died, but I'm inclined to doubt the official narrative too. But that just feels so different to me from the LED sun. I don't know necessarily why we're talking about these two things together.
Sam Kriss 1:17:30
I think they are, to an extent, smaller and larger forms in the same thing, which is the reinterpretation of the world. It's like kind of taking the stuff of the experience in history and politics and the news, and rearranging it in such a way that it creates different meanings. So, you know, you take the available information in the reports on the JFK assassination. And you make something new out of it, a different story. Similarly, you take, you know, ancient Greek calculations about shadows falling on a flat plane at different times during the day. And you come up with a different interpretation of how big the earth is, how big the sun is. I mean, what that means is, I think this definition will also include a lot of things that are not ordinarily considered to be conspiracy theory, right? Like, I mean, like, literature as a whole, in a sense, yeah, is the act of rearranging parts of the world, taking elements and putting them together in different ways and making new meanings out of them.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:18:12
But it's supposed to tell you what it's doing. It's supposed to reassure you.
Sam Kriss 1:18:48
Although not always.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:18:49
Sam Kriss 1:18:51
An example you can look at is Don DeLillo's Libra, for instance, which is a piece of literature about the JFK assassination that is, you know, absolutely literary work, but also posits a certain account of what happened in Dallas that day, which I think Don DeLillo, although obviously he would—you know, you have to maintain a separation, but I think this is what Don DeLillo really believes as well. And it's creating a version of it. I mean, well, I mean, you could talk—I mean, obviously, that kind of theory in literature has a lot of that kind of thing. I mean, you could talk about Thomas Pynchon, for instance, who's kind of the author of conspiracy theory. Who, but, you know, at the same time, you know, maintains a kind of distance to this kind of paranoid affect running through all of his work.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:19:50
Right, right. Right, right. I mean, in a way I think of Gershom Sholem. Who said that, you know—or who, I don't know if he said it or said it of him, but he's sublimates his inclination to mysticism through scholarship, right? You keep a safe distance to what you would like to do by claiming to be a scholar of the thing you would like to do, rather than a contributor, and maybe it's the same with these that, let's say, paranoid-style American novelists of the mid- to late twentieth century who keep a safe distance from conspiracy theory by sublimating it into literature. Maybe.
Sam Kriss 1:20:36
Yeah. Well, I mean, I like in a way, I think that's kind of what I, you know, I think about and I write about conspiracy, because, like, maybe because I don't have the courage to fully commit myself to it.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:20:46
Yeah, I don't know. It seems like the more—yeah. It's hard to say, too smart to commit yourself, you're...
Sam Kriss 1:20:56
There are a lot of very, very smart people who believe conspiracy theories.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:20:59
Yeah, but you're either missing something that would make that possible. Or you, you have some thing that keeps you safe from it. Of course, yeah.
Sam Kriss 1:21:09
Well, I mean, I think, I think part of it is, you know, I directly endorse very few conspiracy theories. I think maybe for the same reason that I was, for instance, hesitant to directly endorse the idea that the COVID pandemic came out of a wet market. I mean, you know, I may be winding up, but you know, this is something that definitely needs mentioning is that, you know, very often the things which are delivered to us as being not conspiracy theories, in the kind of naive definition in which a conspiracy theory is a theory that posits a conspiracy have exactly the form of conspiracy. You know, like, the official narrative of things very rapidly changes. And, you know, like, if you have the opinion that, you know, the official organs of what is true and what is not are reliable, you will have to change your mind occasionally, and say that the things that you previously believed were, in fact, some kind of deranged conspiracy, which is why I mean, like, one of the things not only because I really like conspiracies, but one of the things I'm very worried about is the degree to which it's become impermissible to express conspiracy theories. You know, like, I think one of the reasons, flat earth is not the force it used to be, is the primary way in which it spread was on YouTube. And YouTube altered the algorithm to try and prevent people from accessing flat-earth materials. And I think one of the effects of this has been that people have been pushed more towards more kind of banal political, quote-unquote, extremist conspiracy theories, like QAnon, rather than thinking about the shape of the earth. But I think, you know, more fundamentally, I think is very, very unhealthy to take the position that "No, the things we know, are absolute fact." And all of these kind of shifting and multifoliate reinterpretations of the world are not allowed. I think at the very least, there has to be something like a right to be wrong. And, you know, like, the way terms like misinformation are bandied about now—where, you know, like, you know, I think they're, like many, many bien pensant liberals who want to make it a crime to spread misinformation. And in many countries spreading COVID misinformation has been criminalized. And, you know, obviously, that's extending to other areas where, like, in Russia at the moment, for instance, you know, spreading "misinformation" about the activities of the Armed Forces of Russia and what they're doing in Ukraine. Yeah. carries a prison sentence. Yes. And very often that misinformation is merely, you know, information that does not accord with the state's approved information. But, you know, I think even if you're really, really confident in the things that you believe, and you think that these are important facts, I think, you know, it is really crucial that people have an enshrined right to get it all absolutely wrong in creative ways. Which means that, you know, I'm, despite being horrified by it, I am really strongly against the criminalization of Holocaust denial. People must have a—people must have a right to be bad people.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:24:37
Right. Right. And also, I think because we're talking about the literary dimensions of these expressions that some people might not even know are literary when they themselves are expressing them, one worries that there's this whole dimension of the curtailment of freedom of speech that’s seldom discussed, that it can curtail imagination, or that it might—that the state might not always or, you know, social media mobs or whatever, might not always be able to recognize the genre in which some false thing is being spread..
Sam Kriss 1:25:21
Very often, yeah. Yes. Well, I mean, you know, the one thing I believe in most of all, I think is, you know, the flourishing of human potential in all its strange and multifoliate forms, often forms that I might personally not like or agree with, but, you know, I tried to be always on the side of a richer, deeper and weirer world. Rather than, you know, necessarily one, which is always firmly in accordance with the truth, whatever that happens to be for whoever gets to decide what the truth is. And, you know, things that are called conspiracy theories, I think are a very important part of that.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:26:18
Hear, hear, I think, yeah, we're definitely in agreement on this final point. Listen, we've been talking longer than we usually do. And that's a good sign. Once again, if you joined us in medias res, I've been talking to the London-based writer Sam Kriss. And we are in a pub at Hampstead Heath, which explains a lot of the ambient noise, for which we apologize and we hope it wasn't unlistenable. And I think we agree on on things more or less. Once again, my name is Justin E. H. Smith, and you have been listening to my podcast, What Is X? I've been talking to Sam about conspiracies what they are. Thanks for joining me, Sam.
Sam Kriss 1:27:13
Thank you very much for having me.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:27:15
Had a great time.
Sam Kriss 1:27:16
Justin E.H. Smith 1:27:17