Why do conspiracy theories thrive? Why has postmodern theory subtly permeated our thought in such a way that we no longer recognise it because it has become part of the fabric of our culture? Part of the answer may lie in Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes.
An article I read recently about how conspiracy theorists achieve influence on social media by presenting themselves as heroes, fighting a system stacked against them, intersected in my mind with something I read somewhere in the first few chapters of the book Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lyndsay, where the authors describe postmodernism as sounding rather like a conspiracy theory. The result of this was the thought that the appeal of both postmodernism and conspiracy theories may be to do with something archetypal, in the Jungian sense. Thus, the content of a conspiracy theory might be recognisably utter rubbish, but it nevertheless conveys a sense of truth to the adherent, not because of its content, but because it fits an instinctively felt pattern, which the person recognises as based in reality.
With regards postmodernism, theoretical or applied, there is something that feels like it rings true (only it is often distorted right out of proportion). The idea that powerful people attempt to preserve their power and dominate others, seems like something we have all encountered. We don’t find it hard to believe that it happens at least in some cases, and maybe even most cases. What better motif could one find than the underdog hero, who fights against the rich and powerful and defends the little ones? This is a theme reflected in stories from Robin Hood to The Bible. In other words, an archetype – something which we instinctively recognise and to which we instinctively relate. Add to this the idea that words can have influence – after all, isn’t the pen mightier than the sword? – and you have a weapon for description and motivation.
The thing is that, while postmodern theory, and the Social Justice Theory that has followed on from it (which Pluckrose and Lyndsay call “applied postmodernism”), may not be totally valid, it is also not totally invalid. In fact, ironically, the results of applied postmodernism demonstrate what the earlier, more theoretical, postmodernists were talking about: applied postmodernism is bringing about a situation in which language is controlled by activists in such a way that your average person has the feeling that he or she has “knowledges” (as they would say) that can’t be expressed because they are suppressed by the dominant (applied postmodern) paradigm.
Applied postmodernism contains within itself, perhaps unexpressed and perhaps unconscious, the aim of bringing about situations in which the formerly oppressed become the oppressors, and the former oppressors become the oppressed. Shouldn’t this mean that somewhere along the way, proponents of Social Justice switch horses and start championing the newly oppressed? However, this seems unlikely, because of a blind spot created by defining particular categories of people as oppressors (even when they are oppressed).
The biggest difficulty I have with the whole postmodern project is the focus on power, stemming from the writings of Foucault. The problem with a focus on power seems to me to be mainly that it provides a lens that excludes love (with a possible limited exception regarding compassion for the oppressed). Thus postmodernism, particularly in its applied form, is divisive rather than healing, because its tendency is to seek out people to hate, rather than seeking out ways of loving people. It encourages a world view that can easily lead to an attitude that promotes resistance and combat rather than seeking understanding, cooperation and the common good.
My main concern with Cynical Theories is that the implied solution seems to be along the lines of “ditch postmodernism and return to modernism – liberalism is great”. If so, I disagree. One of the reasons postmodernism arose is that there were problems with modernism. Another recent book, Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Daneen, underlines some of those issues (without ever mentioning modernism or postmodernism, as far as I recall). I believe that one of the problems with postmodernism is that, in some respects, it is actually a continuation of modernism and has some of the same problems. There is a place in Cynical Theories where the authors refer to Descartes responding to the scepticism of his time and coming up with “I think, therefore I am”. They draw a parallel between Descartes’ idea that thought is the only concrete reality and what they describe as the applied postmodernist position that the experience of being oppressed is the only concrete reality. I see this parallel as illustrative of the continuity I just mentioned. That is to say, I believe postmodernism is the product of a process that started in the 1500s and gave birth to the “enlightenment”, the industrial revolution, liberalism, modernism and postmodernism.
Carl Jung summed up part of what this was about in his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul (unfortunately a no longer permissible title): “When the spiritual catastrophe of the Reformation put an end to the Gothic Age with its impetuous yearning for the heights, its geographical confinement, and its restricted view of the world, the vertical outlook of the European mind was forthwith intersected by the horizontal outlook of modern times. Consciousness ceased to grow upward, and grew instead in breadth of view, as well as in knowledge of the terrestrial globe. This was the period of the great voyages, and of the widening of man’s ideas of the world by empirical discoveries. Belief in the substantiality of the spirit yielded more and more to the obtrusive conviction that material things alone have substance, till at last, after nearly four hundred years, the leading European thinkers and investigators came to regard the mind as wholly dependent on matter and material causation.”
This rejection of the spiritual led to the growth of science, and close on its heels, to the growth of scientism – science as a religion. One of the drivers of the birth of postmodernism, I believe, was a reaction against scientism, born perhaps in part of an unconscious yearning for what had been lost. Unfortunately, however, that yearning seems to have been lost and the impulse to dismantle what went before (which began in the 1500s or a little earlier with the dismantling of the previous spirit-centred worldview) has continued. The problem here is that the end result of dismantling everything is that you are left with nothing!
If the above sounds a bit like I’m saying “let’s just throw out the last 4 or 500 years and go back to the Dark Ages (an interesting term, by the way, when viewed through a postmodern language lens, and I note that scholars now reject the term), I’m not. What I think is that all ages have had their insights and their problems, and what we need to aim for is a new synthesis of their positive points, preferably minus the problems. Whether humankind is capable of that is another matter.