On Conspiracy and Scandal

‘The Unbridled Enthusiasm of Conspiracy Theory’ – Suzie Gibson

Audio: Listen to or download (right click and "save link as")  the audio of Suzie's presentation.

In a 1995 episode of the US television sitcom Seinfeld, Kramer does a backhand favour for his friend Elaine Benes, when he reads a manuscript she was supposed to review herself prior to an interview for a copy editor position. Kramer later provides Elaine with an eccentric summation of the manuscript asserting that is about a protagonist named 'Billy Mumphrey' whose fatal flaw was his 'unbridled enthusiasm'. Absurdly, Kramer's characterisation of the story later pays off—albeit briefly—for Elaine when, out of desperation, she repeats it in the job interview and the publisher concurs. In this paper, I argue that Kramer's humorous vision of a 'simple country boy' whose unbridled enthusiasm gets him 'mixed up in [a] high takes game of international intrigue' echoes the world of conspiracy theorising, where protagonists are similarly caught up in an unbridled enthusiasm for a fully explicable world that is in truth as chaotic as a typical Seinfeld episode. Much that has been written about conspiracy theorising and theorists foreground questions of logic and mental health. This paper suggests that literature provides a different avenue for considering this phenomenon, one where storytelling is essential to the development of counter-narratives around major events. There is often something strikingly alluring about certain conspiracy theories, especially when getting it wrong leads to imaginative, exciting and highly enthusiastic counter-narratives.

‘This Time It’s Impersonal: Trying to Explain the World’ – Chris Fleming

Audio: Listen to or download (right click and "save link as")  the audio of Chris' presentation.

Conspiracy theories are, at base, particular kinds of attempts to explain the world. In the case of such theories, the preferred model of explanation is that the most significant - and certainly the nastiest - social and cultural events in the world are caused by groups of individuals. Behind every bad event, it is thought, lies bad people. There is nothing a priori irrational about a recourse to such explanations. We know conspiracies exist. In fact, anyone who has organised a surprise party for someone has been complicit in a conspiracy of sorts. However, the humanities and social sciences have increasingly had little time for accounting for our world in terms of individuals doing things. They prefer talk of “structures” and “discourses” and “classes,” amongst other impersonal categories. This paper will explain the significance of conspiracy theory as a kind of “folk sociology.” It will attempt to explore the ethics of conspiracy theorising, the search for “culprits,” and what implications these have for thinking more broadly about how we try to explain the world.

‘The Malice of a Good Thing: Contemporary Scandal and the Creation of Controversy' – Alex Ling

Audio: Listen to or download (right click and "save link as")  the audio of Alex's presentation.

We live in scandalous times. Every day some new controversy demands our attention, our emotional investment, and ultimately our judgment. While the transgressive nature of these scandals leads many to understand them in revelatory terms – as offering a tantalising glimpse of what really goes on – others contend these routine transgressions simply present the strategic face of contemporary capitalism. Today, however, we are increasingly witnessing another form of scandal. Less concerned with the direct accumulation of capital (and still less with ‘exposing the real’) than with shoring up the base mechanisms of power, this fundamentally conservative development involves the fabrication of controversy not simply in the place of, but moreover in the form of the real. In this case, the scandal paradoxically replicates the disruptive effects of real creation (without, for all that, actually presenting anything new) in order to produce its opposite, namely, stasis: the static calm of pure continuity.
This hijacking of the very idea of creation and annexing of the real is finally the real scandal of our times, by which the ‘radically new’ is replaced with the ‘simulacrum of novelty’, and the controversial ‘creative act’ is supplanted by the static act of creating controversy.

Suzie Gibson is Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University. Dr Gibson's research analyses the intersection between literature and philosophy. She has published in internationally distinguished journals and volumes that examine the rich and complex relationship between literary and philosophical texts. She has taught in the tertiary sector for over twenty years, coordinating and developing curriculum for subjects in English, Cultural Studies, Film, Television, Writing and Critical Theory. At CSU she coordinates the subject Professional Writing where students learn how to apply good writing principles in professional contexts, as well as in important literary genres including the formal essay.

Chris Fleming is currently Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts and Member of the Writing and Society Research Centre. He has taught and conducted research at numerous universities in Australia and overseas, including the University of New South Wales, Sydney University, the University of Technology, and has been Visiting Fellow in French and Francophone Studies at UCLA and in the School of Romance Languages at Stanford University. He has written widely on issues of culture, philosophy, and religion, has worked as a French translator, and is the author or editor of five books, including René Girard: Violence and Mimesis (London and New York: Polity, 2004) and Modern Conspiracy: The Importance of Being Paranoid (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) (co-authored with Emma A. Jane). His translation of the first volume of René Girard's correspondence was released by Bloomsbury in 2016.

Alex Ling is Senior Research Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at Western Sydney University. He is the author of Scandalous Times: Contemporary Creativity and the Rise of State-Sanctioned Controversy (Bloomsbury, forthcoming), Badiou Reframed: Introducing Key Thinkers for the Arts (Bloomsbury, 2016) and Badiou and Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 2011), and co-editor and translator (with A.J. Bartlett) of Mathematics of the Transcendental (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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