Conspiracy and the apocalyptic

My current reading has largely been in search of some explanatory theories that can drive my overall understanding of the apocalyptic.

Three theoretical constructs that may prove useful come from studies of conspiracy theory.

Improvisational Millenialism. Michael Barkun (2003) points out that many contemporary millennial or apocalyptic movements do not fit the standard typology of religious or secular. Today’s movements instead may draw from Revelation, Nostradamus, New Age and right wing politics.

The appeal of these collages lies in their claim to provide holistic and comprehensive pictures of the world. The variety of their elements implies that the belief system can explain a comparably wide range of phenomena, from spiritual to the scientific and the political. The combinations also suggest that apparent contradictions can be resolved, and that an underlying unity transcends outward differences. (2003:19)

Barkun also points out that such a belief system can only flourish if two preconditions are met: the availability of a wide range of potential material and sufficiently weakened authority structures.

Stigmatized Knowledge Claims. Barkun’s other contribution is the notion that an essential source for such improvisational belief systems is a what he calls “stigmatised knowledge claims” (2003:26). This category includes rejected (ancient wisdoms), superseded (astrology) rejected (ufos) and most importantly suppressed knowledge. The key to understanding this is that often stigmatisation is taken as “evidence” for truth. This relates to what Barkun calls the “cultic milieu:” “a world of persons, organisations, social interactions and channels of communications that makes the cultic milieu a genuine subculture rather than a mere intellectual or religious phenomenon.” (2003:25). Often stigmatised knowledge comes with its own pseudo-scientific explanatory and supposedly empirical framework.

Agency panic. Timothy Melley in his investigation of conspiracy and paranoia comes up with the term “agency panic” to explain “a broad cultural phenomenon, a pervasive set of anxieties about the way technologies, social organisations and communication systems may have reduced human autonomy and uniqueness.”

The culture of paranoia and conspiracy may be understood as a result of liberal individualism’s continuing popularity despite its inability to account from social regulation. Agency panic dramatizes precisely this paradox. It begins in a discovery of social controls that cannot be reconciled with the liberal view of individuals as wholly autonomous and rational entities. For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama or panic. (2004:14)

Melley goes onto point out that this works itself out in a conflict between a sociological and a psychological orientation.

What is striking about such accounts is the way their vision of the social order, and specifically of a dense communicative network, generates a rhetoric of lost individuality and autonomy. It is as if the perspective required by sociological description so diminishes individuals that they seem incapable of social influence. The result is often anxiety or dread. (2000:31)

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