Everything’s Connected: Conspiracy, Critique, and Articulation

Curator's Note

It was almost exactly 20 years ago that Bruno Latour sounded the alarm about critique’s failure. Latour, famously, was worried that the tools of social critique— skepticism of the motives of those in power, appeals to structural causes, discursive effects, knowledge/power, imperialism, capitalism, and so on—might be indistinguishable from conspiracy theory.[1] If, in Latour’s colorful metaphor, the weapons of critique have been smuggled to the other side, then critique, such as it is practiced within the academic humanities and social sciences, might no longer be adequate to address conspiracy theories, since those theories mobilize the very same set of tools that would be used to critique them.[2]

The extent to which the rhetoric of conspiracy theory coincides with the rhetoric of critical theory could be measured by the recent Conspiracist Manifesto, which eagerly (and anonymously) adopts the mantle of conspiracy theory to conduct a left-anarchist critique of the political circumstances and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.[3] The book was published by Semiotext(e) and carries the imprimatur of Foucault, Deleuze (with and without Guattari), and Battaile translator Robert Hurley. It could also be measured by the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, which more or less explicitly aimed to destroy the neoliberal state in the name of a populist revolt against corporate kleptocracy. A CNN/SSRS poll from September of this year reports that 38% of poll respondents believe that Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.[4] Indeed, perhaps the most culturally and commercially successful form of popular cinematic entertainment on Earth since Latour’s essay was published, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, essentially presents a grandiose conspiracy narrative about how seemingly independent security crises are not only interconnected but organized by a shadowy figure seeking ultimate biopolitical power. Looking around, it seems that far from having run out of steam, critique is running full steam ahead, as popular and relevant as it has ever been. Conspiracy theories, as a vernacular form of social critique, are everywhere, across our political and cultural spectra. So much so that it feels banal even to make the assertion. Nico Baumbach is right to acknowledge that skepticism, rather than gullibility, is the default approach to media today.[5] (Incidentally, this is why ‘media literacy’ programs designed to combat misinformation by cultivating a healthy skepticism about the media are doomed ultimately to fail, if not to make things even worse.)

Our inundation by conspiracist rhetoric—and of equal importance the fact that, to borrow from Foucault, we now say we are so inundated—indicates a shift in the function and significance of culture in general and moving image media in particular. In short, the narrative form of conspiracy as a cultural master narrative may no longer mark an unconscious expression of political desire, pace Fredric Jameson’s political unconscious, but now constitutes the manifest expression, right there on the surface, of economic exigency. As Jameson himself noted in his 1997 essay “Culture and Finance Capital,” the complex theory of ideology developed and refined over the 20th Century “constituted the better mousetrap” for explaining the insidiously subtle operations of ideology. But by 1997, Jameson explains, “the motivations behind ideology no longer seem to need an elaborate machinery of decoding and hermeneutic reinterpretation; and the guiding thread of all contemporary politics seems much easier to grasp, namely, that the rich want their taxes lowered.”[6] Of course, concern with the surface rather than the depths is a hallmark of postmodernity, as Jameson himself explained, but what interests me here is how cultural objects have explicitly embraced this concern for the surface as a hermeneutic problem and have done so within the increasingly contentious political climate that overlaps chronologically with the apparent waning of critique as a vital force within the academic humanities. The emergence of the corkboard conspiracy wall as a vernacular figure of conspiracy, starting in the early 1990s and exploding around the time of Latour’s essay, is one of the clearest cultural and formal expressions of this phenomenon. With its self-reflexive expression of the aesthetic and epistemological tension between the fragmentary and totalizing qualities of the surface, the trope of the conspiracy wall indexes the extent to which the problematic of depth, which is typically associated with both conspiracy and critical theory, also dialectically entails a problematic of the surface.

How do we critically engage with the surface and the superficial while avoiding the pitfalls of the depth-oriented ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that have characterized both the ‘better mousetrap’ of the last century’s specialized ideology critique and the vernacular Foucauldianism of today’s popular culture, neither of which seems adequate to the kind of ‘vulgar’ political context we now inhabit, in which the game is right out in the open? I’ve been thinking lately about what seems to me like a missed encounter between Jameson, Stuart Hall, and Gilles Deleuze, three thinkers who are rarely considered together, in part due to the reification of their respective projects within the humanities. In the face of theoretical difficulties, both subtle and obvious, I nevertheless wonder if a critical theory of articulation, situated at the intersection of these thinkers (or perhaps it is better to think of them as Sartrean “third parties” with respect to each other, each bearing witness to the other two and thereby articulating them together), might help orient us to rethink the relationship between surface and depth by helping us in turn to rethink the question of representation as such.

In 1983, Stuart Hall delivered a set of lectures at the same teaching institute (at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and during the same calendar month that produced the “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture” conference at which Jameson presented his paper on “Cognitive Mapping.” In these lectures, recently published as the indispensable volume Cultural Studies 1983, Hall’s attention to the base/superstructure problem and the need to develop a more supple theory of determination, which he would develop under the sign of “articulation,” seems to anticipate, even if only by a week, Jameson’s theory of cognitive mapping as an aesthetic representation of the real conditions of existence within a sublime and unthinkable global capitalism. Here is Hall’s definition of articulation: “the form of a connection or link that can make a unity of two different elements under certain conditions. It is a linkage which is not necessary, determined, absolute, and essential for all times; it is not necessarily given in all cases as a law or a fact of life. It requires particular conditions of existence to appear at all, and so one has to ask, under what circumstances can a connection be forged or made.”[7] A few days later, in the “Cognitive Mapping” essay, Jameson explains that “one of our basic tasks as critics of literature is to track down and make conceptually available the ultimate realities and experiences designated” by the unrepresentable, fundamental realities of capitalism.[8] To my ear, these sound like commensurate and complementary critical projects, despite the ossification of “Theory” and “Cultural Studies” into different, and sometimes even oppositional, scholarly camps over the last forty years.

1983 was also the year in which Deleuze’s Cinema I was originally published in France, which furnished radically anti-representational ways of thinking about how cinema (and media more broadly) might work. Given Deleuze’s antithetical stance toward representation (and ideology, no less), it seems perverse to suggest that Deleuze might share common cause with Hall and Jameson, whose projects are so thoroughly invested with bringing potentially liberatory representations into being within and against a set of prevailing ideological circumstances. But when asked directly in a 1986 interview with Lawrence Grossberg and others about the relationship between Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the concept of articulation and his own, Hall uncharacteristically seems to dodge the question and, in doing so, provides an intriguing answer. He reiterates his earlier definition of articulation as a contingent linkage that draws our attention to the conditions under which such a linkage is possible: “Thus, a theory of articulation is both a way of understanding how ideological elements come, under certain conditions, to cohere together within a discourse, a way of asking how they do or do not become articulated, at specific conjunctures, to certain political subjects.”[9] Hall goes on, using religion as an example, to identify articulations as “lines of tendential force” akin to “magnetic lines of tendency” that constitute ideological territories.[10]  “So it is the articulation, the non-necessary link, between a social force which is making itself, and the ideology or conceptions of the world which makes intelligible the process they are going through, which begins to bring onto the historical stage a new social position and political position, a new set of social and political subjects.”[11] Rather than addressing the question directly, Hall avoids naming Deleuze and Guattari, while outlining a theory of articulation that substantially agrees with them when asked to delineate his own project.

Indeed, Hall’s theory of articulation bears a striking resemblance to what Deleuze was, in the very same year, theorizing in his book on Foucault as the diagram. In that book, Deleuze explains that the diagram “is a display of the relations between forces which constitute power.”[12] The diagram as a kind of cartographic display or map of the relations between forces which constitute power sounds rather like a cognitive mapping of articulations of contingent forces that give rise to stable forms such as subjectivity and ideology. Importantly, Deleuze goes on to clarify that his concept of the diagram has “nothing to do...with an ideological superstructure, or even with an economic infrastructure” and is distinct from the concept of structure.[13] If we take Deleuze’s points here as a clarification that the diagram is a way of accounting for the functioning of power, rather than simply the substantial, already-formed effects of power, then we can see a deeper resemblance despite this superficial difficulty. Deleuze is concerned here, as in the Cinema books and elsewhere, with problematizing representation, with interrogating its ground and its status as common sense. Representation is not that which explains the world to us, but rather that which lies in need of explanation. And here, we see Jameson and Hall pointing towards the same question: what are the conditions under which representation—representation not as figurative but as figuration, or as expression—is possible?

If conspiracy theory is different from critical theory, it may not be because conspiracy theory goes too far, but rather that it doesn’t go far enough. Its tendency is to retreat back into representation (what Deleuze calls the figurative, as opposed to the figural itself[14]), as a convenient but inaccurate and politically conservative explanatory move, just when it reaches the cusp of asking this most important question. Perhaps one future for the critique of the moving image is to sublate the hermeneutics of suspicion, preserving but moving beyond representational unmasking to a critical process of articulating the grounds of representation itself. This is not to say that we should embrace “surface reading” or a post-critical position over and against symptomatic reading, but rather to say that the assumption that they are polemically opposed might just not be very helpful in the end. A sort of “unified field theory” of articulation that can account for representation across the levels of historico-political becoming, ideological subjectivation, and formal expression cuts the Gordian knot and reorganizes the social field, which is what our conspiratorial texts today, in a surprising articulation of the superficial and the symptomatic, desire.


[1] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004), 228-9.

[2] Ibid., 230.

[3] Anonymous, Conspiracist Manifesto, trans. Robert Hurley (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e)), 2023.

[4] “CNN Poll,” CNN, accessed December 3, 2023, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23940784-cnn-poll, p. 69.

[5] Nico Baumbach, “Film Theory as Ideology Critique (After Trump),” in The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory, ed. Kyle Stevens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 157.

[6] Fredric Jameson, “Culture and Finance Capital,” Critical Inquiry vol 24, no. 1 (Autumn 1997), 247.

[7] Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies 1983, ed. Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 121.

[8] Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 350.

[9] Lawrence Grossberg, ed., “On Postmodernism and Articulation: an Interview with Stuart Hall by Larry Grossberg and Others,” in Stuart Hall, Essential Essays vol. 1: Foundations of Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley, 235.

[10] Ibid., 236.

[11] Ibid., 238.

[12] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Seán Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 36.

[13] Ibid., 35, 36-7.

[14] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 79.

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