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The Eco of Conspiracy Theories

Aswin Prasanth

Conspiracy theories have existed right from the dawn of man. They range from the religious to the political to the pseudo-scientific: geocentric theories of the Catholic Church, the Illuminati, the Anti-Semitic philosophies, the JFK Assassination, the Bermuda Triangle, the 9/11 Attacks, Area 51 and Aliens or the Holocaust Revisionism. Conspiracy theories have grown abundant in number and still continues to grow. They have always fascinated popular culture for their paranoid and circular reasoning. With the unprecedented Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, conspiracy theories have yet again gained public attention and mass reception. It has been labeled a “plandemic” or planned pandemic (using a bioweapon) intent on wiping out excess population and crippling flourishing economies. In this context, it would be interesting to look at the popular culture artifact known as “conspiracy theory” from the perspective of the late Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco.

Being an ardent admirer and researcher of conspiracy theories, Eco used his knowledge in medieval history, philosophy, semiotics, theology, and literary theory to produce fiction and nonfiction relating to the topic. He used the idea of conspiracies and conspiracy theories as subtexts in novels like Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), Baudolino (2001), The Prague Cemetery (2011) and Numero Zero (2015). Are conspiracy theories true and probable? Should we pay attention to them? Eco regards conspiracy theories as hoax narratives that show literary merit, aesthetic quality, and craftsmanship. But they can be dangerous if taken seriously by the public. The idea of a universal conspiracy is a perfect example of a successful hoax narrative. It has enormous popularity among the masses though it is void of verifiable facts. The conspiracy theories concerning the coronavirus pandemic can be considered hoax narratives which have a fictional world of their own.

Prior to Eco, it was the philosopher Karl Popper who pioneered the social theory of conspiracies. According to him, conspiracies are actually social constructs. Popper, in his work The Open Society and Its Enemies (1962), states that some conspiracies do exist, but “conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy.” Conspiracy theories take shape for a multitude of reasons, among them political, philosophical, psychological, and sociological. Mostly they evolve as a result of the lack of explanation or answers regarding controversial subjects that have captured widespread public attention. Their originators range from hoax writers to institutions to governments.

Eco’s fantasy novel Baudolino presents a forger of fiction as the titular protagonist. He is an unreliable narrator, a compulsive liar, and an appropriator of history. Baudolino is an achetype for forgery and twisted creativity. He can also be viewed as a medieval embodiment of a successful conspiracy theorist. In the novel, Eco elucidates his theory of conspiracy by connecting it with narrativization (storytelling) and the art of lying/forgery. As a construct of imagination, a narrative cannot be tested for its truth claims. A narrative is bluntly a craft of lying, though the objective of lying may not be vicious. The renowned aesthetician Ananda Coomaraswamy argues that every piece of art must be evaluated at two levels: aesthetic and ethical. The Romantic critic and writer Thomas De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827) also echoes the spirit of Coomaraswamy’s argument. A narrative may be aesthetically appealing but ethically flawed. This is true in the case of many conspiracy theories.  

In Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, three editors at a vanity publishing house invent their own conspiracy theory called “The Plan” for fun but soon start believing in it like paranoid individuals. They construct stories out of the manuscripts submitted by authors and shape them into a conspiracy. Likewise, the notion of the coronavirus pandemic as a “plan” to reduce world population through mass annihilation has become popular among many paranoid conspiracists (people prone to believing in conspiracy theories). As the place of origin of the virus, China was attributed with the plan to upset the military and economic domination of the First World nations of the West. China’s choice as the creator of the virus would be naturally accepted by many as it has become the fastest growing economy in the post-millennium decades. Paranoid individuals and desperate citizens are vulnerable to such conspiracy theories as they provide a labyrinthine scope for imagination and complex ideas by fulfilling the hysteric desires of the paranoid, the delusional, and the obsessed.

The conspiracy theory of coronavirus as a bioweapon has some parallels in the alternate history of British colonialism. Great Britain developed Australia as a penal colony. When the population of the aboriginal tribes exceeded the population of the Whites, many tribes were said to have been terminated by using the germs of infectious diseases like smallpox, measles and so on. The use of virus as a bioweapon is also a recurrent theme in science fiction. In his story “Consider Her Ways,” the sci-fi writer John Wyndham presents a world of women where all the men have been wiped out by a virus. Considering the catastrophic proportions of the coronavirus across the globe, it is not surprising that such conspiracy theories have emerged. Along with the real pandemic, there is also a pandemic of xenophobia that has burst forth.    

In The Prague Cemetery, Eco narrates the story of a man named Simonini who is responsible for the forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated anti-Semitic text describing a Jewish conspiracy to conquer the world. The Protocols is an actual document of anonymous authorship which turns out to be a constructed text plagiarized from different sources. Eco attributes its authorship to the narrator Simonini. Nazi Germany under Hitler appropriated The Protocols to legitimate the annihilation of the Jews. The numerous conspiracy theories claiming China’s involvement with the pandemic has reinforced racism towards the Chinese (and people of Asian extraction in general). They are motivated by xenophobia. Just as the post-9/11 situation stoked impulses of pervasive Islamophobia and legitimized a “war on terror,” the pandemic has created unmitigated xenophobic attitude towards China and its people. Though the Chinese government should be held culpable for the pandemic and its catastrophic results, the Chinese people should not be subjected to racist stereotyping and hatred. In the West, Chinese people have consistently been subjected to racism via racist jokes and racist shaming. They have been represented as violent and voluptuous in popular western discourses like Hollywood films or thriller/mystery fiction. They frequently occupy the peripheries of these narratives as stock characters to be mocked or to be eliminated by white heroes. Internet trolls and memes have started an exclusivist targeting of the Chinese since the outbreak of the virus. This is an extension of naturalizing their racist identity constructed by the West. 

Eco’s novel Numero Zero follows the life of a hack journalist working for a newspaper called Domani (Tomorrow) that will never be published. The novel discusses a conspiracy theory that Mussolini was not captured and executed; it was his double who was killed. The novel is a satire of newspapers, media, and journalism in general. In the novel, Eco extensively discusses the construction of narrative news as a product of forgery or the craft of lying. Similarly, various newspapers from the First World nations have targeted China as a result of the pandemic. Their stories have received a certain degree of credibility due to China’s initial reaction to the spread of the virus. China’s attempt at suppression of information is being used and manipulated by western media to reinforce xenophobic trends by presenting the Chinese as the victimizer and the West as the victim. In David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, the greedy publisher Timothy Cavendish appropriates critical responses of his publications and creates an artificial reception to them with a view to enhancing profits. Mitchell calls him a “culture vulture” who makes undue gains out of others’ cultural products. Western society is notorious for culture-vulture media houses which during times of crises are especially manipulative and exploitive.   

Eco, in his essay “A Theory of Conspiracies” (2014), states that “every conspiracy theory steers the public psyche toward imaginary perils, thereby distracting it from genuine threats.” Many First World nations of the West have succumbed to the unprecedented outbreak of the virus and have had massive deaths. Leaders like Trump, Johnson, Putin and Bolsonaro have trivialized the pandemic as a typical flu. They failed in their preparedness to fight and contain the virus. Their health care systems are mostly privatized and hence unaffordable to the general public, especially the aged.  Lockdowns have led to the fall of their economies and made many citizens hysteric. In these circumstances, the leaders require a scapegoat to take the blame for their failures. For example, Trump blamed WHO and China for the tragedy caused by the pandemic. This could be seen as part of a propaganda initiative to distract people from the ineptitude and apathy of paranoid and egoistic world leaders.

These days, most of the conspiracy theories take shape via social media. Eco dislikes social media because it is infamous for its peripheral opinions. His comment on the users of social media is remarkable: “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.”  The emotionalized public opinions of misinformed followers have created a mirage of popularity for conspiracy theories on the Internet, where cyber bullying has blossomed as a result. It is a form of mob lynching in the virtual reality of cyber space by online identities or virtual communities. Apart from this, many netizens are also susceptible to fake news propagated through WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media. Western civilization has fallen and has reached its decadence with its exploitative capitalist governing framework. As a result, all it can do is produce hoax narratives to keep its glory alive by blaming others.

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Aswin Prasanth is a research scholar in English at Amrita School of Arts and Sciences, India. He is the Academic Essay Editor of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. His articles, columns, reviews and interviews have appeared in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (Routledge Taylor and Francis), The Poet, The Cue, Rain Taxi, Mathrubhumi, The New Indian Express, and others. Film Studies, Television Studies, Cultural Studies, Postmodern Literature, Graphic Novels, Comic Books and Absurd Theatre are his areas of interest.

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