Counterknowledge

At the end of a friendly exchange on the subject of conspiracy theory or ‘counterknowledge’ between Richard Landes and ShrinkWrapped which was started by Landes’ review of Counterknowledge by Damien Thompson there is the following commentary by Landes on the final paragraph of Shrinkwrapped’s post: (I’ve labeled who said what for clarity. Both quotes are from here.)

[ShrinkWrapped's closing words:] Just beneath the surface of even the most stable and reasoned mind exists a cauldron of irrationality. The Unconscious can never be fully tamed and is forever attempting to find access to the Conscious mind to enable and effect its desires. Conspiracy Theories, false prophets and messiahs, and easily identifiable scapegoats are the result; they are here to stay and will plague us and increase until we re-establish the safe haven that can only come from Knowledge.

[Landes' reaction:] I’m a bit confused by this finale. Can you explain what the “safe haven that can only come from Knowledge” is? Is this (regressive) pre-post-modernism: knowledge=truth=objectivity=reality? Why is knowledge “safe”? It may “set us free,” or empower us, or enlighten us, but nothing about it suggests either stability or safety. On the contrary, part of what is so frightening about reality and why people run to the cocoons of conspiracy theory and other forms of counter-knowledge is precisely to flee the ego-wounding world of registering what’s going on around us.

As someone long familiar with my own unconscious and that of others through psychology I agree with Landes that conspiracy theory or counterknowledge is a kind of cocoon – a defense mechanism. In my experience it helps to become aware that the unconscious follows patterns over and over. With awareness they become less something that needs to be contained and more like something that ‘comes around again on the guitar’. As in….’Oh, Bush knew about 9/11 in advance?’ ‘You mean, just like Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor in advance?’ A conspiracy theorist friend here in Australia is quite convinced that one ‘fact’ – as he calls them – proves the other. There is too much focus on the outer similarity of the events and too little on the inner need for a comforting explanation.

In journalism these repeating patterns are called memes. In drama themes. Jung called them archetypes of the collective unconscious. At a practical level these patterns are part of all of us – hence they are collective – and form the architecture of drama from Greek theater to soap opera. We know what is coming next in a soap opera because it fits patterns we already know too well. I would argue that in terms of the media environment the intrusion of unconscious patterns into public discourse is in part the result of the Internet following an era dominated by television. Because TV is a form of drama – even and particularly the news – it has blurred the border between inner reality and outer fact. Subsequently, the Internet has empowered anyone to publish anything and so increased the amount of material both good and bad available to us. But the Internet can be used to debunk the myths perpetrated by TV – precisely as Richard Landes has done in his examination of the al Durrah affair. It can promote constructive civil discourse as well as destructive counterknowldge.

The psychologist Robert Johnson tells the story of a little boy explaining to him that some things are true on the inside and shouldn’t be mixed up with things on the outside. Mixing things up that are true on the inside with those that are true on the outside is a fundamental human mistake that we make all the time. The form we call drama is an excellent way to explore what is true inside – that inner ocean with its tides of emotion and archetypal pattern that resides in all of us. But using TV to report the news is to use a medium more appropriate to explore inner truths than outer ones. We have had three generations of the news being shaped by the requirements of drama. Of being fooled into believing emotionally, if not intellectually, that we have witnessed events like the Twin Towers coming down. Or that the footage of the jihadi with the AK came to CNN or Fox from some intrepid stringer rather than an al Qaeda media emir. We are so accustomed to being manipulated by cinematic technique we hardly notice that our worldview has been being constructed for us by the film editors of the TV news establishment since the fifties. So it is no surprise counterknowledge spreads abundantly on the Internet and that many educated people apparently are more ready to believe anything. At the same time discussion such as that carried on by ShrinkWrapped and Richard Landes are not locked away in seminar room, but available to a much larger and diverse audience. The Interenet spreads much nonsense and worse things like beheading videos, but it also spreads awareness.


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