Mapping Conspiracy

In the end of his essay ‘Cognitive Mapping’ from 1988, Fredric Jameson makes what seems to be a disparaging remark about the ubiquity of the theme of paranoia in contemporary cultural production.  ‘Conspiracy’, he writes, ‘one is tempted to say, is the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is a degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content.’  With this statement Jameson seems to be in tune with the majority of conspiracy theory theory, for lack of a better term.  The label ‘conspiracy theory’ is almost exclusively used in the pejorative. Belittled by Richard Hofstadter in 1964 in one of the groundbreaking essays in the field as a ‘political pathology’, conspiracy theory is often seen as at best a misguided and inadequate attempt to understand the functioning of power in an increasingly complex global society.[i] Awash in symbolic misery and bereft of any conceptual apparatus to understand the antagonisms, fluctuations, and developments in global politics and the economy, people turn to conspiracy theory as an immensely oversimplified narrativization of amorphous and/or anonymous global power dynamics. With reference to the notion of cognitive mapping, an inability to cogently map or understand the complexities of global capitalism is replaced by paranoid visions of nefarious elites and cabals bent on world domination.

Just a couple of years later, Jameson published The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the first chapter of which – ‘Totality as Conspiracy’ – Jameson reveals ‘the desire called cognitive mapping’ in the ‘conspiratorial texts’ of a series of films including Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, Parallax View, and Videodrome.  These films, he claims, can be understood as an attempt ‘to think a system so vast that it cannot be encompassed by the natural and historically developed categories of perception with which human beings normally orient themselves’ (2).  This is an inevitably impossible task, but in the intent to map ‘lies the beginning of wisdom’ (3).  To summarize a bit crudely what is a highly enjoyable, eighty page critical tour de force: the conspiracy narrative allows these films – partly by way of allegory – to critically depict and reflect upon global, postmodern capitalism and the place of the individual in this massively complex system.

In the twenty years since Jameson made this claim, conspiracy theory has become increasingly prevalent and conspiratorial narratives seem to have lost none of their appeal, becoming all the more visible in both the cinema and the fine arts, as both theme and content.  There are of course numerous examples from Hollywood, but we could also point to examples like Peter Greenaway’s recent film on Rembrant’s Night Watch – an example of ‘the conspiracy theory of art history’ – or in fine art the American artist Robert Boyd’s Conspiracy Theory (2008), a dual projection video installation set to Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Believe in You’ featuring a montage of images and audio samples about event conspiracies, systemic conspiracies, and super conspiracies, to use Michael Barkun’s terminology.  In the conspiracy theory theory jargon, event conspiracies seek to explain a single event (JFK assassination for example), systemic conspiracies explain a series of events by uncovering a single, evil organization behind them (Masons, Jews, Catholics, etc.), while super conspiracies are a combination of the two in which conspiratorial groups are linked to various series of events over a considerable time span (Illuminati, New World Order, and reptilian humanoid conspiracy theories).[ii]

Recent years have also seen the rise of field of parapolitics, defined by Robert Cribb as the study of ‘systemic clandestinity’ or ‘the study of criminal sovereignty, of criminals behaving as sovereigns and sovereigns behaving as criminals in a systematic way.’[iii] The term ‘parapolitics’ has only emerged in scholarly literature very recently, in the early nineties, and focuses not merely on the activities and crimes of clandestine and criminal groups like security services, cartels, terrorist organisations, secret societies, and cabals, but primarily on the systemic roles played by such actors.  If traditional political science looks at the ‘overt politics of the public state, so parapolitics as a field studies the relationships between the public state and the political processes and arrangements outside and beyond conventional politics.’[iv] This is sometimes referred to as the ‘deep state’ or the ‘dual state’.  As a discipline it has been tainted by its similarities to traditional conspiracy theory, but also by the widespread failure of researchers to investigate the systemic nature of these phenomena, often preferring to see them as the work of rogue elements or corrupted individuals.

What kind of consequences might an acknowledgement of parapolitical concerns have for a conception of an aesthetic of cognitive mapping, in which the conspiratorial network does not stand in for the logic of capital but is rather seen as a literal embodiment of this logic?  An appropriate film to look at in this regard is Tom Tykwer’s The International, released earlier this year.  The International is loosely based on the scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).  To refresh people’s memory: ‘Comprising a nadir of corporate malfeasance, BCCI has been called the banking swindle of the century, the largest single drug-money operation ever recorded, and the most pervasive money-laundering operation ever undertaken.’[v] It was involved in laundering money to the mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan, Noreiga, Saddam and elements of intelligence services throughout the world, including the US, UK, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.  In the film a New York District Attorney (Naomi Watts) and an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) investigate a bank – dubbed the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) – suspected of being involved in money laundering, illegal arms deals and other shady activities including the assassination of political enemies, competitors and whistleblowers.  The film is quite poor, Owen is charmless and Watts is awful, but what is interesting about it is its parapolitical concerns, its attempt to map the contours of and the interaction between the white and black economies, and its dramatisation of the obstacles and consequences of any investigation (criminal, journalist, or scholarly) into these worlds.

While in the majority of the films in this subgenre, the evil bank/corporation/cabal is depicted as an aberration; The International is unique in that the corruption is seen as being thoroughly systemic.  Corruption and criminality are posited as characteristics of contemporary capitalism and there is no sense that the whole might be immune to reproach or open to reform. In a key scene late in the film, one of the bank’s high ranking managers scoffs at Owen’s attempt to bring the bank to justice: ‘The system guarantees the IBBC’s safety because everyone is involved… Hezbollah, CIA, Columbian drug cartels, Russian organized crime, the governments of Iran, Germany, China, [Britain]. Every multinational corporation. Everyone. They all need banks like the IBBC so that they can operate in the black and grey latitudes. And this is why your investigative efforts have either been ignored, or undermined, and why you and I will be quietly disposed of before any case against the bank can reach a court of law. […] If you really want to stop the IBBC you won’t be able to do it within the boundaries of your system of justice.’  Owen is ultimately convinced by this, and an act of vigilantism against this particular banker/capitalist to fleetingly satisfy his need for justice/revenge is framed as the only possible solution, since reworking the world capitalist system is depicted as hopelessly impossible.[vi] When begging for his life in the film’s climax (or anti-climax), the head of the bank claims, ‘Executing me won’t change anything. There will be a hundred other bankers to take my place. All you’ll do is satisfy your blood lust and you know it.’[vii] The final credits prove him right as it shows a series of news stories about the bank’s continued successes.

As with most films in the genre, the film’s narrative serves as an allegory for the investigation of any individual into the complexities of global capitalism.[viii] Interesting in this regard is a scene early in The International when we first see Owen’s office.  At this point in the film the audience is yet to see any evidence of the bank’s improprieties and it remains a possibility that Owen is paranoid or a delusional conspiracy theorist.  To heighten the audiences doubt over the plausibility of his theory, we see Owen’s office with papers and folders strewn everywhere, and a disorganised case bulletin board.  The messiness of the board, the apparent absence of order or hierarchy, is meant to mirror Owen’s psychic state.  Where Owen sees an intricate web of connections and evidence of a murderous conspiracy, the viewer just sees a mess of documents, news clippings and police reports.  This image of a researcher sifting through piles of material, finding meaningful connections where others see coincidences is a persistent trope in conspiracy films (Parallax View, JFK, Conspiracy Theory).  And in some of the more problematic examples of conspiracy theory theory, this desperate attempt to ‘conjure order’ and place events in a narrative is also seen by some as a primary characteristic of conspiracy theory.  For example, Alasdair Spark argues that conspiracy theories ‘seek totality and impose order’.  Spark claims that Noam Chomsky’s technique of sifting through ‘a capacious box of the day’s intake of tripe –newspapers, weeklies, monthlies, learned journals, flimsy mimeo-ed mailers’ resembles conspiracy theory in its ‘exhaustive plotting of a mass of detail’ and its ‘deep mining of the world’s detail for bits of evidence.’ Hearing such claims one is left wondering how one could theorise or do research without one’s work resembling conspiracy theory.[ix]

Here Skip Willman’s argument rings true: those debunkers of conspiracy theory that claim that it erroneously posits a perfectly ordered universe full of causality and without coincidence posit there own ‘equally ideological vision of historical causality.’[x] Willman refers to the position held by many critics of conspiracy theory as the ‘contingency theory of history’.  While the conspiracy theory of history sees mysterious forces and cabals as dictating historical movement, according to contingency theory, history is driven by random chaos, chance, and accident.  Citing Zizek’s argument from The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), Willman argues that these two conceptions of social reality are both ideological visions that shroud society’s fundamental antagonisms.  Conspiracy theory projects an ordered society that is prevented from being harmonious by the conspirators behind the scenes rather than any fundamental (class, gender, racial) antagonism. ‘The essence of conspiracy beliefs lies in attempts to delineate and explain evil,’ whose ‘locus lies outside the true community’.[xi] Contingency theory, meanwhile, ‘maintains the existing capitalist system by attributing any deviations from the social equilibrium to chance and accident rather than immanent social antagonisms or contradictions.’[xii] Wars, financial crises, school shootings, and crime are all seen as exceptions (for which individuals take sole responsibility) to an otherwise harmonious society.  Contingency theory, thus, ‘as a form of historical causality represents a renunciation of any attempt to grasp the operations of the social totality.’[xiii] For contingency theory, any form of cognitive mapping is impossible and conspiracy theory misunderstands the world as much as Marxism.

The second example I’d like to discuss is the work of the American artist Mark Lombardi. Lombardi is triply relevant here in terms of his attempt to, building on Alberto’s talk, ‘follow the money’, his visualization of the relations between finance and criminality, and because of the fact that he considered his piece on the BCCI scandal to be his greatest work – BCCI-ICIC & FAB, 1972-91(Fourth Version) (1996-2000).  Lombardi was an archivist and librarian during the day and a struggling abstract painter with a penchant for political and economic scandals by night. Inspired in part by the information design of Nigel Holmes and Edward Tufte, as well as panorama painting, in the mid-nineties he began working on what he what would call Narrative Structures, pencil drawings that depict ‘the tangled web of power and influence behind governments.’  They show the relations between different private actors, banks, corporations, and government agencies.  The straightforward titles of his works gives an idea of their content and character: George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens (Fifth Version) (1999), which I can pass around, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Reagan, Bush, Thatcher and the Arming of Iraq, 1979-90 (Fourth Version) (1998), and Inner Sanctum: The Pope and his Bankers Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi ca. 1959-82 (Fifth Version (1988).

Lombardi’s work appears to be a clear example of the aesthetic of cognitive mapping.  As the painter Greg Stone claims, reflecting on Lombardi’s drawings, ‘We didn’t know what we were looking at when we read about it (the political and economic scandals, etc.)– it had to be articulated visually’[xiv] An enormous amount of research went into Lombardi’s drawings and an oft-cited anecdote to demonstrate their rigor is that a month after 9/11 an FBI agent visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York requesting to examine Lombardi’s drawing of the BCCI scandal, assumingly to get some leads in the tracking the financiers of terror (One wonders the chain of events that led her there.  Like a note in an obscure banker’s dossier: ‘See Lombardi painting’).  That said, the drawings’ pedagogic capabilities – thought narrowly in terms of their ability to educate the viewer about a given scandal – are extremely limited.  As Robert Hobbs notes, ‘Instead of simply solving crimes, Lombardi’s work often intensifies their mystery.’  His rhizomic drawings avoid any kind of hierarchy and instead depict networks of sometimes only loose association, never presenting a simple solution.  His drawings are painstakingly neat, and the immediate visual effect is of ordered complexity, but they are cognitively messy.  As George Pendle writes in Frieze, ‘his brilliantly detailed drawings actually make things harder to understand, not easier. Looking at the endless miasma of names, institutions and locations, his charts are more about obfuscation than revelation… Lombardi’s drawings are like a pointillist work, best viewed from afar. From a distance you can see that a system has been revealed, but the closer you get to it the more invisible it becomes.’[xv] If studied thoroughly, they could at best help guide an investigation, sending the researcher back to the archives to discover the actual relations between different actors.

With only a few seconds, or at most minutes, in front of the painting, without the ability to Google, it is difficult to imagine what the average visitor to a museum or gallery might ‘learn’ from Lombardi’s work. Even if they did have a decent amount of knowledge about the BCCI scandal or the networks in which Roberto Calvi or George W Bush operated in, it would take a considerably amount of time to make any sense from something like this drawing, to give it a coherent narrative.  Obviously, this is something that Lombardi must have been aware of when conceiving of his practice.  His drawings are intentionally opaque: for example, he doesn’t provide the viewer with a legend that explains the difference between a solid line, a dotted line, and the squiggles that intervene in some of the lines of connection. Lombardi clearly had a passion for the researching the material, but it is evident that he felt as though the results of this research could not straightforwardly be presented like in a diagram by Tufte or Holmes.  As such, as much as Lombardi’s work is about the actual conspiracies revealed by his drawings, it is also about the very gap – the perhaps unbridgeable gap – between the viewer and the activities of the ‘overworld’ Lombardi’s drawings depict.[xvi]

To conclude by returning to Jameson, there is a quote from his cognitive mapping essay that seems particularly appropriate here: ‘successful spatial representation today need not be some uplifting socialist-realist drama of revolutionary triumph but may be equally inscribed in a narrative of defeat, which sometimes, even more effectively, causes the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit.’[xvii] In both The International and Lombardi’s drawings, as well as in a show like The Wire to take another example, it is a double sense of failure – the failure of reform and the failure to transgress certain established epistemological limits – that emerges as a unifying theme.  What’s more – and this is also a point raised by Jameson in relation particularly to Parallax View – in both cases heroic, rogue individuals are set up against truly collective conspiracies, framing the impotence of the individual to affect real structural change or reform without making any attempt to posit a possible alternative, reformist – let alone revolutionary – subject.


Presented at Historical Materialism at SOAS in London. 29/11/09

[i] Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (NY: Knopf, 1966), p. 6.

[ii] Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, p. 3-7.

[iii] Robert Cribb, ‘Introduction: Parapolitics, Shadow Governance and Criminal Sovereignty’, Government of the Shadows, ed. Eric Wilson (Pluto Press, 2009), p. 2, 8.  The term parapolitics (literally beyond or beside politics) is referred to in different scenes as well.  See Ranciere, Disagreement, (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), Raghavan Iyer, Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (Oxford UP, 1979).

[iv] Eric Wilson, ‘Deconstructing the Shadows’, Government of the Shadows, p. 30.

[v] Hobbs, Narrative Structures, p. 95.

[vi] The only way Owen is able to get results is by not only by jettisoning questions of jurisdiction and protocol but by actually torturing on the bankers.  Also, one of the good guys – an Italian arms manufacturer whose head was assassinated by the bank – also resorts to mafia style hits.

[vii] Owen isn’t even allowed vengeance, as an Italian hit man beats him to it.  The final line of the film implying Owen’s bloodlust and sense of justice made him the pawn of another ruthless firm.

[viii] Like the Bourne films and nearly every incarnation of the contemporary conspiracy thriller, The International is resolutely, well, international.  Luxemburg, Lyon, New York, Istanbul.  ‘geographical motifs deployed as a mere signal of the “intent to totalize”’ (14).

[ix] Alasdair Spark, ‘Conjuring Order: The New World Order and Conspiracy Theories of Globalization’, The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences (UK: Blackwells, 2001), p. 52, 53.

[x] Skip Willman, ‘Spinning Paranoia: The Ideologies of Conspiracy and Contingency in Postmodern Culture’, Conspiracy Nation, ed. Peter Knight, pp. 21-39, p. 21.

[xi] Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy (University of California Press, 2006), p. 3. In this sense conspiracy theory is similar to populism as defined by Zizek.  Rather than seeing a central antagonism as the principle political force, it sees a source of evil either invading the true community or growing within the community as a blight that must be eliminated.

[xii] Willman, p. 28.

[xiii] Willman, p. 33.

[xiv] Greg Stone in Global Networks (118)

[xv] http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_numbers_game  Something very similar could be said about Paolo Sorrentino’s film Il Divo, about the life and times of Giulio Andreotti.  Also think about http://littlesis.org/.

[xvi] I use the term ‘overworld’ here in specific reference to the work of Peter Dale Scott, who is credited with coming up with the term parapolitics in his The War Conspiracy from 1972.  He defines the overworld as ‘That realm of wealthy or privileged society that, although not formally authorized or institutionized, is the scene of successful influence of government by private power.  It includes both (1) those whose influence is through their wealth, administered personally or more typically through tax-free foundations and their sponsored projects, and (2) the first group’s representatives.’  Importantly, he stresses that ‘The overworld is not a class but a category.’  Peter Dale Scott, The Road to 9/11.

[xvii] Pp. 352-3.

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3 Responses to Mapping Conspiracy

  1. Pingback: Neoliberalism as Horror: Wolfen and the Political Unconscious of Real Estate | Cartographies of the Absolute

  2. Pingback: Another set of links that I could write about later… « Not Left To Chance

  3. Enrique says:

    very interesting arguments on Lompardi, probably applies to network theory generally (actor-network, not sure about rhizomatics)

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