Transparent Fictions, or the Conspiracies of a Liberal Imagination
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
Ours, it appears, is an Age of Obsessions.
It is an age in which people almost everywhere seem preoccupied, simultaneously, with transparency and conspiracy. With the lightness and darkness of being. So much is this so that, in 2001, a year that has long signified the cinematic surreal, an outbreak of livestock disease in the United Kingdom is attributed by ordinarily rational people to everything from the secret machinations of the prime minister1 to the covert operations of animal rights activists, from the illicit import of cheap meats by the Ministry of Defense to Iraqi biological warfare.2 No wonder the country is alleged to be “on the verge of a nervous breakdown…[which] has no root in real facts and figures, only in a diseased imagination.”3 At the same time, in the United States, after a presidential election that gave the nation much to be really suspicious about, the media tell their mass publics one thing above all else: “Trust no one.”4 Conspiracy, in short, has come to fill the explanatory void, the epistemic black hole, that is increasingly said to have been left be- hind by the unsettling of moral communities, by the so-called “crisis of representation,” by the erosion of received modernist connections between means and ends, subjects and objects, ways and means. All this in a global world that is at once larger and smaller, more and less knowable, more and less inscrutable than ever before.
If conspiracy is the autonomic explanatory trope of our age, its conceptual grounding lies in its obverse, in transparency. It is, therefore, with the latter that we begin.
The current preoccupation with transparency reveals a distinct shift in our understanding of the term. At least according to Zizek (1997:131). When used in relation to modern technolo- gy, he argues, it presumed the possibility of actually uncovering “how the machine works”; but, in its postmodern sense, the word implies the exact opposite. This, Zizek explains, is epitomiz- ed in the signifying economy of computer screens, whose cartoon icons may simulate everyday reality with beguiling concreteness; yet they conceal the real workings of the machine behind the glass facade, contriving the kind of legibility that renders the technology itself opaque. Is this so? Perhaps, perhaps not. For many of us, the dials on our dashboards and telephones be- speak a mechanical reality only slightly less impenetrable, suggesting that there has been a shift of degree, not kind. But Zizek reminds us of two things. The first is that our obsession with transparency is not unprecedented; the second, that changing patterns of illumination cast new shadows and, with them, new domains of darkness beyond their arcs of light. In fact, the more literally we believe in the axiom that to “see is to know,” the more haunted we are by what hovers beyond the edges of the visible. The sublime is obscure, according to Burke (Mitchell 1986:126), eluding ordinary sight. It is the precisely the relation between the manifest and the inscrutable – or the front and backstage, to invoke Goffman’s (1959) more mundane, dramaturgical image – that undergirds the enduring fascination evinced by human beings almost every- where with the properties of power. As David Graeber (1996:8) observes, invoking Hobbes on idolatry, the invisible is by nature unspecific and, hence, of infinite possibility. Efficacy and influence, alike in rhetoric and realpolitik, lie largely in controlling the capacity to reveal and conceal, to make “reality” appear or disappear.
The essays in Transparency and Conspiracy provide rich, varied evidence of an impul- se, palpable across the face of the planet, to reveal the hidden workings of power. And to unco- ver its tangled complicities. This impulse is part of a more general zeitgeist; Tony Karon refers to it as “epic paranoia,”5 describing it as a readiness to connect apparently random, dispersed features of ever more impersonal worlds into tight configurations of collusion and menace, be they local sagas of harassment and corruption or worldwide, even extra-terrestrial, cabals of fanatical terror. For most Americans, the cataclysm of September 11 served to confirm – spec- tacularly, implosively – the global reach of evil empires, of secret networks of crazed killers, of suicide cells that would foment Armageddon by infiltrating the innocent forms of everyday life in the “civilized world.” But well before that day, well before that moment of revelation and radical rupture, it had already been noted how educated Europeans have come regularly to be consu- med by frightening reports of ever new hazards lurking unseen in the social fabric. Many of them, ironically, are thought to emanate from across the Atlantic;6 although Africa, of course, has long been the ur-source of epic, epidemic fears, its perennial place beyond the arc of light making it a fertile feeding ground for Eurobsessions with inscrutable dangers of one kind or an- other. Along with this, as its condition of possibility, goes a passion for “see-through visibility” that stretches from proliferating rites of national and institutional accountability to the aesthetics of public buildings and domestic design.7
As we have already intimated, none of this is altogether new, even though the anxieties of the moment may suggest otherwise. While that does not detract from the importance of the studies collected here – quite the converse – it underlines the essential truism that change is always also, in crucial respects, continuity: that cultural creativity involves not merely incessant improvisation on existing themes, but also the re-presentation of reality in terms that are “al- most the same but not quite” (Bhabha, as cited by Humphreys). Thus it might be argued that, while moral panics about the workings of conspiracy have waxed luxuriantly after the Cold War, so did McCarthyism after World War 2. And fascism after the war before that. Each was an ur- gent hyper-rationalization of mundane modes of explanation common in the contexts from which it sprung. What is more, these outbreaks bear some resemblance, as populist theories of cause, to the millennialism and witch cleansing that occured in many non-Western societies af- ter colonial conquest. Paranoia and political theory, Hellinger notes, are often not easy to sepa- rate in practice; both exist, in large part, in the eye of the beholder. These divers manifes- tations of moral panic might be viewed, in other words, as just so many chapters in a long-runn- ing narrative, as so many variants on an old modernist theme, as a story “[which] remains the same, yet is constantly changing” (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 1999).
At the same time, the proportions of change to continuity, of rupture to repetition, are neither over-determined nor immutable; they are always labile, always liable to alter. There is, we believe, an immanent historical logic to the current chapter of the story, to the one writing itself just now, that does point to an epochal shift, to significant historical discontinuities amidst the continuities. We do seem to be caught up, at the turn of the millennium, in a swelling tide – an overabundance, Humphreys calls it – of claims to discern the destructive hand of evil agents, from devil-worshipers, witches, and global jihadistas, through purveyors of death in the name of spiritual truth, to pedlars of human body parts, genetically modified foods, and other nefarious commodities. Their malign machinations are envisaged as cumulatively universal in scale, even though they are made manifest in very particular sites; like the Satanists who target sleepy towns in the South African heartland, or international kidney snatchers with a penchant for New Orleans airport, or faceless felons who pollute the US postal services with biopoisons. It is true that the quests to divine their identities – with their attendant rituals of unmasking, con- fession, and apology – have precedents in earlier times; times when the pursuit of transparency likewise kindled the popular imagination, prompting a passionate pursuit of hidden truths and moral crusades; times also, as it turns out, of epochal shift. Thus, for example, the great trans- formation that ushered in the so-called “modern” world was also a period of feverish effort to find covert connections, to discern the invisible hand that gave design and purpose to a univer- se made opaque, through great economic and technical change, to contemporary theories of cause and effect; indeed, of history-in-the-making. As we have said elsewhere, we may be, at present, in the formative stages of a social revolution every bit as radical as that of 1789-1848. Several critical features of the current moment reprise, as prefixations, that earlier time; (neo)li- beralism and (neo)Protestantism, for instance. Then, as now, ontological categories and expla- nations were in flux, sparking debate about the definition of personhood and civil order, about the nature of economy and society, about the proper constitution of the state. It was a debate that struggled to frame new vocabularies and to reconcile an enhanced sense of human agency with a concomitant understanding of the “objective” forces of history.
It is exactly this kind of reprise — the Elightenment replayed “with a vengeance” – that Harding and Stewart see in the “paranoid” fixations of millennial America; these fixations show a “haunting trace” of sensibilities excluded by the idioms, the very obsessional explicitness, of our therapeutically-minded culture. And it is to the Enlightenment that we must look for the ori- gins of the modernist language of transparency and conspiracy; also for the signs and concepts that comprise the mis-en-scene of liberal empiricism. For it was the progressive dissolution of the Great Chain of Being, of theodicy and ecclesiastical authority, that cast humankind adrift in a material universe whose mundane truths had to be learned anew by patient, self-willed sub- jects, equipped only with sense and reason. The blind sage in Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) cedes his place, as the keeper of truth, to a prosaic English empiricist, who, with the aid of vision-enhancing spectacles, produces knowledge by collecting and connecting “clues” lying on the face of the world. In this universe, “seeing is believing.” Mortal beings, says Foucault (1975), increasingly made themselves both the objects and the measure of knowledge, their lives and deaths to be read less as a sign of cosmic metaphysical forces than as the sum of mundane biophysical processes, knowable primarily through the modest art of observation. Thus it is that the autopsy could become paradigmatic of the forensic gaze; thus it is that the corpse, its vitality, motion, and social connectedness all erased, could provide a “black border” within which the interior logic of life itself might be brought to light. Yet the very exclusions that permitted this illusion of transparency and order — that set the body apart from sociomoral en- tanglement to proclaim that truth inheres only in concrete evidence contained within the discre- te, anatomical individual — ensured that the definition of life captured by biomedicine was ende- mically limited, bereft of myth and mystery. Less tangible properties of being fell outside of its purview. This remains true of radical empiricism, sui generis : it continues to privilege sight over all other forms of perception, to restrict communication about the real to apparently transparent modes of representation, and to dismiss out of hand anything unsusceptible to positivist accounting, from the force of metaphor or moral values to the power of Vodoo or paranoid fantasy. Of course, the dialectical play of visibility and concealment, of darkness and truth, is not just a Dialectic of Enlightenment, so to speak. As we implied earlier, it is probably as old as poli- tics itself. The emergence of the Greek “public,” for instance, has been described as a process of “unveiling” in which powers, formerly secreted in the hands of aristocrats, were revealed for all to see (Vernant 1983, cited by Graeber 1996:11). The quest for transparency, in sum, has a long genealogy. But its techno-empiricist connotations were born of optical imagery associated with a specific period in the history of modernity (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:185f), of its ma- terialities and moral discourses. The likes of Mumford (1934:124) have gone so far as to argue that the development of large-scale glass production was crucial to the evolution of a modern objectivist worldview. This claim suggests rather too stark a technological determinism for our own tastes. But it does seem clear that the phenomenological impact of glass – the everyday experience of its materiality – did much to shape the analytic sensibilities of the Age. Specta- cles, telescopes, microscopes became physical extensions of the human eye; as Mumford (1934:131) notes, they helped render the mysteries of nature “transparent.” And they fixed the idiom of all forms of knowing, not least of the workings of society. Mitchell (1986:166), for one, has remarked on the central place of optical metaphor, of images of “rational transparence,” in the writings of post-Enlightenment political theorists of all stripes, from Burke to Marx. This fo- cus on transparency also produced its own obverse: a concern with refraction, distortion, con- cealment, collusion. And a symbolic lexicon to go with it: note, in this respect, not only the ca- mera obscura – itself a famously telling icon of the dangers attendant on taking visible truths at face value – but also the hidden hand and, most of all, the fetish.
To be sure, it is precisely its revelatory language, its argot of optics, that discloses the dark underside of Enlightenment, its traffic with discourses of unreason, race, and empire. Illumination — a condition of consciousness recognizable only to those freed from benighted savagery – was a key trope of humane imperialism, giving moral force to a host of “civilizing” crusades at once spiritual and secular. Not only did the idea authorize a blanket assault on the “primitive” lifeways of sundry others. It also shaped the everyday practices of European colonization at their most substantial. Missionaries to the heathen in southern Africa, for instance, took great pains to persuade their would-be converts to build large windows into their houses. Why? To illumine the dusky interiors of their lives and beings, leaving superstition and mystery no place to hide; to make the home a place of edification, self-construction, surveillance; to achieve a salvific lightness of being (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997a:278).
The inverse of transparency in the imperial imagination, McCarthy Brown shows, was the concept of the fetish. This was the standardized nightmare of savage unreason, of depraved idolatry: fetishism evoked a childlike propensity to bestow life on “inanimate things,” insisting, with a kind of primitive paranoia, on the sort of essential, fateful connectedness between people, objects, and spiritual forces that had become anathema to a Cartesian consciousness. The primeval status of superstition and witchcraft in evolutionary histories of the modern West, like the pejorative attitude toward Voodoo and other practices likewise deemed “magical” in contemporary America, is persuasive evidence of the enduring usefulness of the fetish as a ra- cinated foil to Eurocentric images of clear-eyed reason. This lends ironic power to Marx’s refle- xive notion of commodity fetishism, that unsettling reminder of our own civilized idolatry, not to mention the alchemy that hides in the light of our own “rational” market economy.
If the genealogy of transparency-as-trope cuts a revealing swathe across the history of the modern empirical imagination – being finely tuned, as we have seen, to the changing regis- ters of ordinary experience – its latest unfolding points squarely to the future. Thus the mechanical optics of the Industrial Age have been upgraded in, and interdigitated into, the digital era: Windows now come from Microsoft, whose corporate leaders speak as new-age missionaries for the liberating power of knowledge. The e–revolution – or, more properly, evolution – holds out the promise of a radically democratized McWorld; although some believe that promise to be pure elusion, an infantile e-scape from the more concretely pressing political realities of our times. Maybe. More salient for present purposes, the digital age brings with it the dread of ever more extensive, nefarious, tangled webs of cyber-intrigue as hackers, militias, fundamentalists, pornographers, syndicated criminals, and schemers of all stripes gain unregulated access to means of mass communication. As the division of labor everywhere becomes increasingly glo- bal, local communities across the planet are enmeshed in economies of expanding scale and abstraction, ensuring the ever more mundane experience of realities – like long-distance mig- ration, IDs and credit cards, virtual communities, digital money, electronic frontiers — that eschew any simple division between the legible and the opaque. If ever there was evidence of the dangers of too literal an application of these dichotomies, either as a mode of analysis or as a political call to arms, it is now: now, when the numbing complexity of material, social, and cultural flows across the earth presents us with a plethora of realities that are, at best, translucent. Realities, that is, that are neither transparent nor opaque, neither in plain sight nor hidden from view. We struggle, as Schrauwers says, to see “through a glass darkly,” much like social think- ers did in the ferment of the first Age of Revolution. Now as then, we must be suspicious of the imperious claims of naive empiricism, especially in the name of technical necessity – be it biological, economic, or environmental. We in the human sciences need to fight for multiplicity and polyphony in the ways in which we may come to know the world; also for a broadband sense of what might count as evidence. And we must advocate for the significance of the unseen, for regarding as critical those forces in the world that do not present themselves in technically measurable proportions, from the social effects of abstract capital to the material implications of anomie. Above all, we need to recognize that it is the very complexity of our times, the under- mining within them of the architecture of social certainties, that prompts the quest for simplifying truths, for reassuring melodramas of good and evil, for magic that would translate complicated structural influences into the language of personal desire, animosity, forgiveness. All of which is as true of new social and economic theory as it is of new social movements
With this in mind it is instructive to reflect, as several of the contributors to Transparency and Conspiracy have done, on contexts in which liberal empiricism has come into contact with rather different local understandings of power and agency, whether among minority communities in Europe and America or in postcolonial Africa, Korea and elsewhere. Take the African case. Here, as Sanders and West both make plain, the “harbingers of a brave new transparent world” are often unaware of the intricacies of vernacular conceptions of power – and, hence, of the mystifying effects of their own languages and practice, whether they be the introduction of ID’s or democratic voting procedures. It is not that local discourses lack their own ideas of visi- bility and concealment. Much has been written about secrecy and revelation on the continent, past and present; also about ontologies of witchcraft, sorcery, exorcisms, and purges, forms of cultural practice that provide paradigmatic instances of conspiracy theories in action. Yet the ambivalent reception of ballot boxes in rural Mozambique indicates that “transparency” means different things in different places: where communities are used to a public show of hands, for example, the “privacy” of the ballot box evokes suspicions of concealment, especially in places where memories of colonial surveillance still linger. Likewise, party politics often connote a form of cabalistic collusion, a lack of the kind of accountability expected from hereditary rulers or single-party systems (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997b; Karlström 1999). But, even more than this, where understandings of the operation of power are vested in the ongoing interplay of the manifest and the invisible – of humans and spirits, words and deeds, persons and context – discourses about the capacity to act in and upon the world assume a distinctive shape.
In fact, as West notes, in much of Africa, politics is taken to be a perpetual “game of hide and seek.” Here leaders are always sorcerers of a kind. For sorcery, whether turned to good effect or ill, requires a kind of vision more profound than that usually implied by European empiricism; insight like that of Sanders’ Ihanzu “seer,” who is attuned to the invisible “real reali- ties” thought to animate the tangible, everyday world. Like Freud’s paranoic (see Humphreys), the seer sees something that escapes normal people. Only, in his case, the knowledge is made socially salient and useful. Such visionaries – and the objects that help them bring things to light, from oracles and “traditional X-rays” to severed heads and identity tokens – are hardly the hostages of an arcane “tradition.” They conjure with a wide range of distinctly contemporary forces, forces that manifest themselves in the conflicts and triumphs of lives at once local and translocal, forces that might as well be discerned in the cannibalistic practices of new neoliberal elites as in the mysterious flow of consumer goods or in the capricious capers of the IMF (see Bastian, Kendall, and Sanders). In so doing, they articulate processes of varying scale and perceptibility, translating the reified abstractions of economy and society into a dramaturgy of such ordinary human motives as desire, ambition, anger, and jealousy. Even remorse. Unlike a Car- tesian landscape, on which human beings are set apart from matter and nature, and act os- tensibly as isolates in empty space-time, the experiential terrain of witchcraft and spirit possession is a frenzied field of intersecting influences among persons, environments, spirits, and things. Even cities, as Bastian (1993:141) has demonstrated, can assume dangerous, over-heated personalities; these being the product of intense commerce and improper accumulation. In these contexts, the modernist injunction to “only connect” is redundant; albeit by grammatical accident, the split infinitive underscores the point. Knowledge requires the constant monitoring of, and action upon, already existing connections as they pass in and out of focus and visibility.
Virtual Paranoia: the return of the repressed?
What, to return to our opening questions, might any of this tell us about the burgeoning twenty-first century obsession with transparency and conspiracy? Or about its expression in fantasies, common across the planet nowadays, of righteous, revelatory crusades against invisible evil-doers? The obsession itself would seem closely related to another widely noted phenomenon of our times: the rise of a host of new charismatic religious movements that are at once intensely local and yet also span vast distances through human migration, the web, and satellite dishes. These movements, Harding and Stewart point out, provide richly creative languages for rationalizing the ever more attenuated relationship between self and world. Especially in their more markedly millennial forms, they posit moral certainty and closure in an increasingly limitless, open universe, charting clear causal pathways through a jungle of information, of wildly circulating signifiers, of immaculate deceptions; all this at a moment when the authority of grand narratives of society and history are giving way to the dispassionate, dispersed reign of the market.
In like vein, Hellinger argues, populist stories of conspiracy and revelation should be seen as serious, sometimes empowering moral allegories that seek certainty amidst indeterminacy, surety amidst insecurity. As such, they explore the links between invisible structural forces and human action, not least political action; in so doing, they often capture terrors that more cautious analysts fear to name. These moral allegories bear an uncomfortable resemblance to some species of orthodox social thought; especially social thought of a critical bent, which presumes, as a first principle, that, wherever ruling elites exist, they act in various ways to maintain their hegemony (Parenti 1994, in Hellinger). The Buryat Mongol fable that Stalin was the rein- carnation of a Blue Elephant mirrored the “paranoid” discourse generated by Stalinism, says Humphreys; though the former exceeded the latter, she notes, by insisting on the role of individual accountability in history. Humphreys uses “paranoia” less in its commonplace, pathological sense than to describe a genre of enclosed narrative that displaces attributes of the self onto others. Such narratives, she notes, permit people to voice otherwise suppressed, highly ambivalent senses of their own historical agency. This understanding of the term, we would add, contrasts with its more derisive use in the cut-and-thrust of everyday life where, like most accusations of unreason, it tends to tell us less about essential truths than about political or confessional contestations. Indeed, to label a person or persons “paranoid” is another, generic form of displacement, one that seeks to locate them beyond the limits of “normal” society; in the case of a group of believers, it is to relegate them to the marginal world of “primitive” superstition. As this suggests, allegations of pathology may, among other things, mark out fault lines of social, cultural, and ideological difference. Like the fault lines of race within many modern nation-states (“Blacks/Jews are paranoid”); or those that distinguish Western rationality from “Muslim funda- mentalism”; or those that sustained the reciprocal conspiracies that were spun, by Cubans and exiles alike, around the small body of Elián Gonzalez (cf. Ryer n.d.).
By connecting disparate dots from across our far-flung universe into often bizarre con- stellations, however, and by discerning design in a laissez-faire universe, conspiracy theorists may capture strange, startling truths. Thus the myth of the primordial Blue Elephant, whose triumphant return to the post-Socialist scene, recall, proclaimed a crucial flaw in Soviet theories of history: the inability to link structural determinism in any meaningful way to personal agency and morality. It is this will to connect, finally, that distinguishes the various vision quests of the post-Cold War world, be they the therapeutic millennium of an America Calvary, popular Nigerian efforts to expose those who profit from the flesh of compatriots, or the nervous efforts of Ko- rean shamans who struggle in the shadow of the IMF to implicate household gods in financial success and failure. What makes them seem “paranoid,” from a liberal humanist standpoint, is not merely that they tie macrosocial processes to the acts and intentions of particular human beings, impersonal forces to intensely personal effects; nor only that, as familiar oppositions fade and old borders erode, they imagine enemies and evil-doers to be ever more pervasive, taking up residence, like X-file aliens, in otherwise ordinary citizens and neighbors. It is that these vision quests, and the narratives of conspiracy in which they are grounded, presume the eclipse of middle-order social institutions, of conventional sites of production and power, of a collective sense of morality, sociality, and history.
As market forces take on increasing autonomy, and local productive relations become ever more subservient to the interests of global capital, the “deep horizontal fraternities” that once shaped ideals of nationhood, class, and community give way to a politics of identity, of technical necessity, and of the consumer rights of a “me generation” turned “we generation” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000:305); also, putatively, to the legal regulation of more-or-less eve- rything. History is reduced to “memory,” oppression to “victimhood”; the latter to be redressed less by empowering social reform than by the payment of financial reparations. The productive tensions, in modern life and thought, between subject and society, member and congregation, citizen and nation are reduced to a dialogue of customers and contracts, consumers and rights, clients and therapists. Stakeholders, all, in a vast impersonal order of exchange. Small wonder, then, that the millennium, in neoliberal guise, tends to be radically privatized; hence the planeta- ry popularity of prosperity gospels, national lotteries, pyramid schemes, and technicians of the arcane who “see” into the future. Small wonder, too, we should be witnessing the widespread pursuit of new forms of moral accountability and of new faiths capable, in Durkheim’s (1947:479) classic terms, of “completing” both the fragmentary knowledge of means and ends afforded by science and the growing abstraction of “man” in “society”; faiths, in other words, that offer insight into, and means of acting upon, the mysteries and malign undersides of a rapidly changing world. Neither should we be surprised that God and Satan – ultimate embodiments of invisible, infinite power and, also, of the ultimate Revelation and Conspiracy – should hold so central a sway over popular imaginations in this Age of Transparency, this age in which everyone is suspicious, and nobody really knows who the enemy is. Or what the hidden hand is actually doing, how it is doing it, and to whom.