Joep Leerssen

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Conspiracy theories, like so many other things, hit European cultural consciousness around the time of Romanticism. In a continent that knew, as yet, no “freedom of association”, the rise of sociability often meant that clubs and associations met behind closed doors: privately, discreetly, secretly. This in turn exposed then to suspicion as to their intentions. There was, around 1800, a persistent theory that the French Revolution had been plotted by a masonic secret society called the Illuminati. And indeed a number of private associations (the Polish Filarets, the Greek Filiki Eteria, the Italian Carbonari, the Irish Fenians) aimed to overthrow tyrannical governments, if necessary by violent means.

By now that has become an in- formal definition of that catch-all phrase “terrorism”; planning violent disruptions of society with the aid of clandestine associations. And so, I fear, conspiracy theories are no longer the symptom of paranoid loners (like that Pizzagate maniac) but have become a generalised condition of 21st-century life in the North Atlantic Co-Prosperity Zone. Witch hunts are now institutionally normalised in things like the Department of Homeland Security.

But to get back to history. Conspiracy theories initially focused on recognisable groups of misfits, like Jews and Jesuits (both of whom were accused of plotting and spreading the cholera epidemic of 1830-31). In literature, plotlines began to invoke the dark intuition that the course of history was being manipulated by small, select groups (like, ooh, the Freemasons) behind the scenes. Balzac’s Histoire des Treize (1833-39) is an early example. This strengthened in the twentieth century as, following Freud, a so-called “hermeneutics of suspicion” began to spread in Western culture. Appearances, it is now generally assumed, are Not To Be Trusted. They are merely there to mask something deeper, more hidden and therefore more True. That is the baseline assumption of any psychoanalytic therapy, any detective thriller, any modern interpretation of art and literature. Is the poet Burns really comparing his love to a red, red, rose? Or Is That Just What He Wants You To Think?!

Paranoia became an existential worldview in the postmodern novels of writers like Thomas Pynchon and Neal Stephenson. And of course, God help us, Dan Brown. And the many, many crap programmes on something that has the gall to call itself the “History Channel”,

which explains that the pyramids were built by aliens from the Planet Zog and that Hitler was possessed by Assyrian vampires. New Age too is using the Hermeneutics of Suspicion. Anything an academic or authority tells you, or what is broadcast in the “mainstream media”, is not to be trusted. It is just What They Want You To Think. Do not vaccinate your baby! Do not believe Politically Correct Cultural Marxists!

So here is the paradox: conspiracy theories are everywhere, they are an ambient fact of postmodern life, they have replaced traditional religion in people’s minds as an unquestionable belief system. Is there… (drum- roll) perhaps… a Conspiracy to poison people’s minds with conspiracy theories?!… All this feeds into the phobic, ubiquitous demand for Transparency. Let nothing be secret, let nothing be kept from public scrutiny. That demand is driven by a heightened need for security driven by a generalised hermeneutics of suspicion. And so here is my dilemma. I am opposed to the wearing of burqas. But if this craze for security cameras and facial recognition software goes much further, I am beginning to see the point in them.

Privacy is developing into a one- man conspiracy.             


First published February 2020. Volume 15, Issue 2.