Saturday, October 10, 2009

David Aaronovitch

Went to another session in the local literature festival last night, this one featuring Francis Wheen and David Aaronovitch, discussing their new books, on the paranoia of the nineteen-seventies and conspiracy theories, respectively. Both were excellent.

Aaronovitch made the point that conspiracy theories are possibly the inevitable result of the human mind's need for narrative. He gave the example of Princess Diana, around whom some hysterical conspiracy theories have been woven, mostly suggesting that it was Prince Philip who had her bumped off. Hers was a classic fairy tale: beautiful young girl romanced by a (sort of) handsome prince; they marry and live beautifully, have beautiful children and everyone adores them. In a traditional story arc we have swept up to the zenith. Then bad things happen, and the story arc begins to fall back down again: there are rumours of unhappiness in the marriage; Andrew Morton writes his book; the rumours are confirmed; they separate; there is the Panorama interview. It is all compelling stuff, wonderful drama and then

SPLAT

she dies.

End of narrative arc. End of story. It isn't good enough. We want more, we want better, we want a proper story, with a proper ending. So we start inventing it, and conspiracy theories are born.

It's an interesting notion. I'm not sure it works for all conspiracy theories, though. The moon landings, for example: that seems a perfectly reasonable narrative arc, without the need for artificial stimulation, and yet conspiracy theories abound.

2 comments:

Mark said...

Fascinating and timely for me. I'm living and working on an organic farm in Germany for a couple months. The people I work for are very nice and gentle but essentially believe that all of human history consists of consecutive conspiracies. You name it, a select group of shady people manipulated behind the scenes to make it happen. The farmers keep telling me how 'logical' and 'sensible' their theories are. They rely not on evidence but plausibility predicated on some giant assumptions about the way the world works.

So I have been thinking very often about the roots of conspiracy theorism, and my thoughts run very similar. The 'narrative' explanation makes sense to me. We live in a chaotic world. People want to make sense of it, even if that sense is sinister. From a human perspective, history sppears incredibly arbitrary and is incredibly opaque. If there is a divine tapestry--and, mind you, I firmly believe there is--it isn't submitting to human understanding.

Much of the stamina of conspiracy theories comes from stretching the truth that the winners get to mold the historical record to gigantic proportions. Not mold but create ex nihilo. And so reality is anywhere but in the fabrications of the official record, if you will. And so the less evidence, the better. You absolutely cannot disprove a conspiracy theory, because the better you fare the more you prove how powerful the conspirators are. This is why conspiracy theorism has no place in historical work, which requires evidence... though conspiracy theories, of course, are part of hitsory.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Mark, yes I think a lot of people believer in conspiracy theories because that way there must be 'someone' in overall control, manipulating events. It's probably a lot easier to think that, even if they are a malign force, than to believe that nobody is in control and we're all on our own.