I’m not saying the FBI killed Malcolm X, or RFK killed Marilyn Monroe. I’m not saying Ted Kaczynski was brainwashed by mind control experiments at Harvard. I’m not even saying John Hinckley, Jr. was an agent for George H.W. Bush, despite several major news outlets reporting that the Hinckley and Bush families knew each other personally, that the Hinckley family was a major contributor to Bush’s campaign, and that Bush’s son Neil, when asked if he’d ever met the man who tried to assassinate Reagan, responded with the suspiciously noncommittal, “I don’t recognize any pictures of him. I just wish I could see a better picture of him.” What I am saying is this: if you like poetry, I propose to you that you survey the landscape of conspiracy theories, pick one, and declare yourself all in.
I don’t actually know if I believe any conspiracy theories, but I do read a lot about them, and sometimes the appeal is overwhelming. Conspiracies theories are like trashy TV, salacious and dark and unfocused. They’re also like religion, comforting in how they graft order and logic onto seemingly random events, attributing tragedy to something tangible, telling you where to direct your pleading and rage. (Plus, they can be a hit at parties, if the conversation happens to head in that direction. Reciting, on demand, the entire backstory of a given conspiracy theory is one of the few ways to be a know-it-all without seeming egotistical or smug, because to admit you’re well-versed in the Vince Foster suicide controversy is to align yourself with those often regarded as gullible hysterics, the ones born with wool already half up to their eyes.)
Over the past few months, I’ve been periodically asking my writer friends which, if any, conspiracy theories they subscribe to. Most have said they don’t believe in any. (The conspiracy theorist in me thinks they’re lying.) But my highly unscientific findings are as follows: poets are the most likely to sympathize with narratives of cover-up and subversion.
To learn more, I’ve taken a brief detour into the writing of political theorist Jodi Dean, who has written a few different critical accounts of conspiracy theory narratives and their place in politics. In her book Publicity’s Secret, Dean looks at the intrusion of the internet into the democratic process, with a critical eye toward how online information networks are often premised on the idea that increased transparency automatically equals a more egalitarian political process. Conspiracy theory networks, in particular, validate the idea that democracy is at its strongest when all evidence and knowledge is freely available to the public.
In the course of her analysis, all of which is compelling and most of which is outside the scope of this post, Dean breaks down conspiracy theories into their component parts. One of these component parts is simply absence. “[M]ost conspiracy theories,” she writes, “fail to provide a complete or intelligible mapping or narrative of anything. Conspiracy theories—like most theories—are always disrupted by gaps and uncertainties.” So, too, with poetry, which often rejects sequential storytelling to make a new account in the shadows, with much of the emotional punch coming from the poet’s own disruptions, deletions, and ambiguities.
Dean also writes that a convincing conspiracy theory “rereads available information to demonstrate that it’s right before our eyes.” This is also what poets do: identify irrefutable convergences between seemingly disparate elements of the world. To traffic in metaphor, you have to be able to argue for a connection that isn’t immediately apparent to the casual observer. Sometimes, alone, I resent my incessant need to scrutinize every odd event, draw out the hidden meanings. Other times, in the company of poet friends, it can feel nationalistic, like an adherence to a larger Order of the world. We all share the secret of how small, silent things are bound together. Jodi Dean again, on the message advanced by conspiracy theory narratives: “Citizens are free, so long as nothing is hidden from them.”
Isn’t this, in many ways, what we tell ourselves about why we write? That there is some actual force of freedom derived from uncovering the dormant truths of nature, mapping convergences in our lexical lives and the imagery around us? The unexamined life and such? Are you convinced? If you think you might be, I’d like to assure you: much like the bullet formally known as Warren Commission Exhibit 399, you’re probably not the only one.