Panel 2: Art, Ideology, and Culture: Conspiracies of Desire and Influence

October 23, 2021 11:00 am - 12:30 pm

Moderator: Dr. Betsy Moss

Summary:  This panel features a wide-ranging examination of conspiracies in literature and how focused teaching of critical thinking in the classroom can help create citizens more capable of engaging with them. Conspiracies of desire are examined through an analysis of Philip K. Dick’s Time out of Joint. A close reading of the thought-terminating cliché of “Do the Research” has become the standard reply to any Qanon doubters in their dismissal of climate change, BLM protests, and COVID vaccines. If we want our students to be “thinking critically” we must recognize that their thinking has to expand to take in other viewpoints, to embrace discomfort, and to work towards a more just world. 

Zita Babarczi, MA

Bio: Zita Babarczi is a second year PhD student at the University of Stirling, studying representations of gender in conspiracy literature from the late 1950s to the present day. She attained her English Studies BA (Hons) at the University of Stirling and a Modernities Mlitt at the University of Glasgow. Her research is funded by the Carnegie Trust.

Abstract: Conspiracies of Desire: The Vindicated Conspiracy Theorist in Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959)

In a pivotal moment of Dick’s 1959 Time Out of Joint, the novel’s protagonist Ragle Gumm – middle aged, unmarried, dubiously employed – is listening to the radio chatter of aircraft pilots above his suburban hometown, when he overhears one of the pilots tell the other that right now, he is flying over the house of the famous Ragle Gumm himself. At that moment, Gumm’s secret paranoid suspicions are completely and instantly justified: his suburban town is, indeed, a façade populated with actors, unwittingly playing their part for his benefit alone.

Thus, through its narrative superstructure of a secret government plot, Dick’s novel creates a seductive vision in which the conspiratorial subject’s real or perceived failings are not his own, and his lack of success is likewise out of his reach due to the tampering of an outside agency. Babarczi proposes the term ‘conspiracies of desire’ for plots of this kind, because they offer a vision that is preferable to accepted truths and dispassionate narratives which commonly undergird the hermeneutics of modern life. Conspiracies of desire do have the capacity to be liberatory: attributing his suburban ennui to a government plot allows Gumm to redirect anxieties of underperforming societal expectations of a masculine ideal. Additionally, the conspiracy also justifies his desire not to attain those goals and to deviate from strict gender roles.

Conspiracies of desire have even greater potency for harm by nurturing an egocentric male subject and by normalizing an epistemological position of unapologetic, boundless suspicion, of which Ragle Gumm is an emblematic example. Via its unallayed justification of its protagonist’s paranoia, Time provides an early blueprint for the vindicated conspiracy theorist, normalizes giving in to his desires, and normalizes occupying his epistemological position, with an effect that reverberates today.

Matthew Harris, MA

Bio: Matthew Harris is an English Professor at Humber College, and his work there focuses on developing English pedagogy and curriculum that investigates how equity, technology and critical thinking impact each other in our new digital reality. He is one of the fiction editors of the Humber Literary Review, and he is a part of Humber College’s 2SLGBTQ+ ERG. He is also a fiction writer, and his stories have been featured in Grain, the Malahat Review, the Dalhousie Review, the New Quarterly and Plenitude Magazine. He is currently working on a novel.

Abstract: “Do the Research”: Conspiracy Theories and the Teaching of Critical Thinking

The Qanon movement has introduced or popularized many conspiracy theory novelties: gamification, memes, conspiracy “influencers” – but one of its most profound features is the way that it has positioned itself as form of critical thinking. The thought-terminating cliché of “Do the Research” has become the standard reply to any Qanon doubters, and Qanons believe they are engaging in real research to uncover the dark underbelly of “normie” politics. This is because the traditional understanding of critical thinking is the ability to question and become skeptical of received narratives.  This worked well in a monoculture where information was scarce, and it was primarily presented by authority figures. Now, when there are so many sources of non-official information – many of it much more available than official sources – it is often impossible to critically question all of it.

Once embedded in a stream of misinformation, the critical thinking habits young people have developed can be used to dismiss the official sources and established science. As well, technology companies have shaped our information streams so that they reinforce our existing biases and beliefs. The end result is people who use critical thinking habits to dismiss climate change, BLM protests, and COVID vaccines, and to embrace reactionary politics.

In order to prepare students for this new world of information and misinformation, we cannot rely on old ways of thinking about critical thinking. We need to recognize that when we teach “ideologically neutral” forms of thinking, we are actually encouraging the entrenchment of traditional ideas and biases. If we want our students to be actually “thinking critically” we have to recognize that their thinking has to expand to take in other viewpoints, to embrace discomfort, and to work towards a more just world.