The Politics of Conspiracy Theory and Control: Cybernetic Governmentality and the Scripted Political

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Virginia Tech


This study analyzes the politics of contemporary conspiracy theory discourses in the United States. Departing from the predominant methodological individualism that characterizes many contemporary analyses of conspiracy theory, which take the individual subject as the unit to be explained and governed, this study situates the production and proliferation of conspiracy theory discourses in the context of cybernetics and related transformations in politics that have tended to reduce democratic representativeness and increase forms of economic and political inequality. Cybernetics, which is often defined as the science of command and control, offers a series of concepts that facilitate an understanding of how freedom and control have become aligned in the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries in the United States. I utilize Michel Foucault's governmentality approach to formulate a cybernetic governmentality methodology, which analyzes the governance of subjectivity in and through cybernetic systems of communication. Cybernetics, which seeks to invite the individual subject to realize itself through 'choice' and by way of its imbrication into machinic systems, conceptualizes the subject as a consumer and processor of information. I put forth the notion of the scripted political to analyze a key tension within contemporary U.S. politics, as politics is becoming increasingly uncertain yet also often appears to be strongly controlled by political and economic elites. Conspiracy theory, as a speculative genre of thinking, aims to steer events towards certain political ends. Conspiratorial speculation has become a popular means to connect and reflect on a felt obsolescence or superfluity on the part of the individual subject. To substantiate these arguments, I specifically analyze the discourses of QAnon and Covid-19 conspiracy theories. These discourses express political fantasies that often privilege the idea of a liberal autonomous individual subject. The politics of contemporary conspiracy theory in the United States thus concerns the fact that these conspiratorial discourses seek to perform a form of liberal subjectivity. However, this performance of individual liberal subjectivity is always caught in cybernetic systems of communication, which seek to produce value, harvest data, and maximize the attention of their 'users', thus undermining the potential for any meaningful form of liberal subjectivity.



conspiracy theory, cybernetics, control, governmentality, scripted political, cybernetic systems of communication, Prometheus, Jean Baudrillard, Bernard Stiegler, Günther Anders, Langdon Winner, Michel Foucault, critical theory, ideology, simulation