Today is a different kind of blog.
Recently, I discovered that a paper I’d written and given at a presentation for the Center of Millennial Studies at Boston College in 1999 for their 4th annual conference had been uploaded to an academic data base that apparently, I’d enrolled in some years ago.
This paper was my first foray into the “hallowed” realms of academe, and I’d been encouraged to do this by the Director of my Master’s Thesis, Sandra Zimdar-Swartz, who, at the time, was the leading international expert on Marian apparitions.
The content of the paper, entitled The Plate In My Head Is A Government Plot: Visions of the Eschaton in UFO Conspiracy Theory, was based on extra interview information that I’d obtained for that thesis. I was just finishing my PhD coursework and had not yet gotten my dissertation topic completely approved.
I remember that my presentation didn’t go very well, at least in my mind. I was very nervous and hadn’t figured out that one is supposed to summarize one’s paper at such things, not read it verbatim (unless, of course you were an academic star). I hadn’t quite finished the paper anyway and I was extremely nervous.
Nonetheless, the Center asked me for a copy of the paper for their journal, and apparently, I ended up writing the whole thing out and sending it in. I have no memory of completing it, and had forgotten that I’d sent them a copy. So, it was a real surprise when the keepers of the database contacted me to say that the paper had been downloaded, and presumably read, about 500 times.
In academic terms, that’s almost a best seller.
So, I asked for a copy for myself. I’m just a free subscriber on the site, so am limited in how many articles I can download in a month—and each time they ask you to tell them, or the author, why you are interested in their material.
I said, “I wrote this and don’t have a copy for myself,” because years ago it was caught up in a hard drive that bit the dirt and ate everything.
So, I reread it. And damn, it was pretty good, albeit a bit filled with academic jargon for my present taste, but the ideas are cogent, occasionally psychologically astute, and still really relevant for the crazy times we live in now. The writing is definitely me—although I’d also take an editor’s hand to it now and would certainly express some things differently than I did back then.
So, this is in 1999, before the internet was much beyond AOL, before all the social media platforms, before COVID, before the great Recession and 9/11. Back in 1999 we were hearing rumors of Nile Virus (although it wouldn’t really hit the U.S. until 2001/2) and Y2K (remember that?) Oh how the world has changed. Oh and the X-Files was still on TV.
And how it has remained the same. In rereading it, I was particularly struck by what seems now like a most prescient analysis of Conspiracy Theory. It still seems pretty much right on.
So, I decided that I would read the article, more or less, in a vlog, annotating with commentary as I go. Unfortunately, I can’t just upload or post the whole article here. Even though I wrote it, the copyright for it belongs to the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston College. So, I talk about it some below, with some pertinent extended excerpts, and you can hear me read it in audio if you like. I’ll provide information about how you can get a copy for yourself if you want it.
I start out the paper retelling a joke that crabby conservative Harold Bloom related being told by one of his Yale colleagues (getting all Ivy League on the audience) Bentley Layton, who was one of the leading translators of the Gnostic scriptures. When Bloom complained to Layton that his sour face was as a result of his feet hurting, Layton replied that perhaps this condition was due to the Archon of Shoes. Only other academics might get this.
This is my entry into explaining the manner in which ancient gnosticisms resemble modern conspiracy theories and how they both employ similar eschatologies, even though the two have very different “end games” (one is spiritual, the other political) in mind.
Here’s some of the text (I’ve provided some editing to make it easier to read):
“Layton’s text, however, reveals the other side of the “gnostic” equation—a question that
the ancients faced, that we face in our own way, in our own worlds. For the “gnostic,” to turn
inward, toward the self, was often to turn away from the world—not necessarily in an ascetic
sense, but in the sense that the outer world could give no trusted indication of who/what the self might “actually” be. Here enters the archon, that instrument of the Demiurge, the crafting/crafty god who created the physical world and gives humans desire so that we are trapped in the wily labyrinths of physical limitation.
What many modern commentators on “gnosticism” and its reported re-emergence in current American life forget to mention is that the personal experiential aspect of the “gnostic” spiritual ascent was predicated on precisely the notion that there is something about the physical world that fools us, and indeed that there are powers “out there/in here” who intend to deceive and conceal the deception.
In ancient “gnostic” texts, these powers were called “archons” and they were virtually “cabals” organized by and loyal to the keeper of the secret and the deception, the Demiurge. In a sense, “gnostics” affirm what Descartes, in his meditation, most fears: there is a provisional “god” of the world, and it is a spiteful, deceptive, control-hungry deity. In other words, the sense that some individuals have, that they are exiled from their “true” natures and that something is keeping them from that knowledge, is, for the “gnostically” inclined, an intuition that is based on something ‘real’—yes, Martha, there is a conspiracy of sorts. And so, the gnostic must seek epistemological certainty, and ultimately ontological comfort in other places, i.e. the personal realities which are revealed by meditation, spiritual practices and reflection.”
For those who don’t know or remember, Descartes tries to render a proof of the existence of God, which is necessary for his cogito ergo sum “I think therefore I am” declaration to work. He admits that if God is a deceitful asshole, then this would all go out the window. Well, in Gnostic formulation, the god of this world, the Demiurge, is precisely that asshole, and we still exist anyway, because he’s a sadistic bastard.
“Let’s be more specific. Layton outlines what he considers to be the central tenets and
practices associated with groups who called themselves “gnostic” in the ancient world. First,
they adhered to a distinctive myth of origins, that in its many versions, was dualistic, involving an original Parent Deity, and the morally ambivalent “creator god” who, with his minions, kept humans trapped in their physical bodies through the mechanism of desire.
Secondly, there was a strong group identity which emerged in specialized, often exclusive assemblies. Frequently, Christian gnostics separated themselves in congregations apart from “non-Gnostic” Christians, which was part of what motivated the Roman Church to declare them heretical.
Thirdly, this separation betrayed an overt hostility to non-gnostics who were often, in the ancient world, identified as being children of Cain—Abel’s murderous brother. Separatism also signaled a lackof trust in established authorities, political or religious, whose attempts to persecute or limit gnostic speculation and influence were often regarded as proof that such institutions were agents of the archons on earth.
Fourthly, gnostics often employed a special jargon, in-house signifiers
that fueled endless correspondences and metaphysical speculations with “the act of interpretation being itself the proof of the larger project of locating the final order of determination.” This process of interpretation was regarded as an ever-ongoing effort to draw the past into the present—as correspondences linked and drew the speculator back to the beginning, the cessation of being in the Parent of the Entirety.
In addition, there was often an emphasis on personal election, spiritual transformation and even transmutation, usually signified in the ancient gnostic assemblies through the act of ritual baptism.
Finally, gnostic interpreters often drew upon populist sympathies, appealing to those sentiments and individuals who felt themselves to be exiled from or victims of the Roman body politic. This was true, even though the actual reins of power in most gnostic communities appeared to remain within an elite of intellectuals."
And for those of you who are thinking, “Oh this sounds like the Cathars of medieval Europe,” well, the Cathars were connected to this kind of thinking. They were one of the last holdouts of Manichaeism in the West.
Manichaeism was a form of Gnosticism that had organized around the teachings of the prophet Mani, who had emerged out of the Persian/Parthian Empire in the mid 3rd century (martyred 276 CE). Mani founded the only, to our knowledge, fully syncretic ecclesiastical gnostic religious organization which spread widely through the late antique world.
Many scholars now believe that Manichaeism played an integral role in challenging the emergent Roman church to get its act together during that same period because they had developed a complete canon of scripture, an elaborate theology and church structure within the lifetime of Mani and were competing successfully for Christian converts among the elite.
Most Romans couldn’t really tell one kind of Christian from another and Manichaeans thought of themselves as Christians—Mani was considered to be the “Paraclete” that had been prophesied in some New Testament texts—these weren’t canonized yet, btw.
In fact, no less a luminary than Augustine was intrigued enough by their teachings and devotion to study for almost a decade under a Manichaean teacher before finally converting to the Roman Church—bringing their teachings about sexuality into Christian theology—something which has haunted the Church ever after.
Even then, after repudiating Mani, all Augustine could really critique his Manichaean teacher for was a penchant for devotion over philosophy.
“Modern secular conspiracy theories appear to have several discrete origins. Most
historians of the “conspiracy theory” have linked its primary origins to the political intrigues
attending the French Revolution, with more recent developments in this century focusing on the Cold War, the rapid ascension of technologies which give governing institutions powers of surveillance unknown in any other recorded age, the sense of estrangement from the means of capital experienced by many in the United States, and a number of actual, though not global, conspiracies on the part of American politicians (i.e. Nixon).
This is true even though features or the supposed players in many such theories (such as the persistence of anti-Jewish/Semitic elements) are much older. Although it might be easy for us to dismiss the grosser and seemingly irrational nature of some of the more obvious and well-known conspiracy theories (e.g. the take-over of the U.S by NATO troops), Mark Fenster, in his extraordinary cultural examination, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (1999), argues that the tendency towards a “conspiratorial reading” of history can also be found in academics as diverse as Marx(forces of history), Foucault(hegemony), and Althusser(ideologies).
Indeed, Fenster contends that “conspiratorial” readings of history seem to be more the norm in American/European society than most who consider themselves “rational” would care to admit. Moreover, reading conspiracy theory merely as a kind of paranoia disguises the fact that it may reveal actual concerns of the periphery in relation to the center (e.g. conspiracy theory often expresses real concerns about individual representation in government, economic/political inequities, and corruption).
Rather Fenster insists that one needs to comprehend not only the political utility of conspiracy, but also the importance of the totalizing effect of conspiracy thinking as it links the individual to historical processes, providing identity, purpose and meaning in a world where the promises of endless capital are increasingly remote for more and more individuals.
Fenster describes conspiracy theory as desire, production and narrative and provides a
schematic that is startlingly similar to the features detailing gnosticism found above, albeit these are described and understood in primarily materialist terms. As he outlines it, conspiracy theorists desire to create a “totalizing mythology” that interprets the present in terms of the past, engages in deliberate use of linking binaries (fashioning dualisms), and specialized signifiers, which both multiply meanings and join disparate elements into unified, albeit often unstable, fields. These specialized jargons are often the measure of inclusivity: “Like Gnostics, conspiracy theorists interpret for individual and small-group enlightenment—finding significance in the mundane and wonderment in the apparently explicable.”
Moreover, conspiracy theories often contain narratives of individual election, enlightenment or transition— i.e. when the existence of a conspiracy becomes known, thus motivating individuals to action. There is obvious hostility to institutions, groups, cabals, or individuals who are deemed to be instruments of the “cover-up:” Finally, most conspiracy theorists draw on symbolisms and language that Fenster refers to as a “popular eschatology,” i.e. the moment when the “truth shall be known.”
What does this have to do with the archon of shoes—or with UFO conspiracy theories for
that matter? Well—let’s unpack the assumptions in the joke that Layton told, assumptions that must be present in order for the joke to be funny. We can start with “shoes” themselves—the conception that shoe-ness has been so constructed by “external forces” (such as NIKE) that the pain inflicted on feet is an inevitable result, particularly since feet are so constructed (or created or evolved) to require, at least in some instances, the wearing of the very artifacts that might hurt them.
This illustrates the receding line of correspondences which render disparate elements into a
meaningful whole, constituting what Charles Sanders Pierce ironically called “the abduction” as “the process of interpreting unexplained events by figuring out a law that can explain them.” It is this insidious turn, this irony, that the conditions of the physical body itself might require the invention of tools which can further discomfort, or at least not insure comfort, that can lead the gnostically-minded ascetic down the road of denying bodily pleasures because of the potential for addiction and entrapment, or the conspiracy theorist to contemplate the dark motives of multinationals.
The feet can hurt, despite the fact that they are made for standing and walking—
and the hurt is very personal. But most importantly, for the sake of the joke, and the gnostic,
and perhaps the conspiracy theorist, the hurting of the feet is also a meaningful thing. It points to the possibility of there being a state of being where there is no pain, where, for the ancients, there are no feet to hurt, because the body has been transcended, the truth of the spiritual body as permanent, and the physical body as temporary is assured.
In Layton’s point, the painful feet can also be a reminder of the future potential, in simple physical terms, of the ability to “put ones feet up,” to relax, to let go of the obligations of walking, teaching, writing and talking, which are the activities of those considered fortunate enough to have procured a tenured position. The pain points to the reality of an archon, an oppressive power, whose hold over the soul, once named, can be transcended and overcome with that knowledge. The knowledge of the archon exposes the conspiracy of oppression, the illusion that painful feet and all they might represent, are an eternal fact of existence. Or, as Fenster puts it:
“In a similar way, conspiracy theory masks the impossible ideals of representative,
participatory democracy within a capitalist economy. Displacing the fears of this
impossibility onto fears of conspiracy condensing these fears into notions of murderous, licentious presidents and secretive cabals (or simply mercenary corporate executives) the conspiracy theorist enjoys his/her symptom, indulging in its practice, reveling in its excess, never fully reaching the fulfillment of desire lest s/he be confronted with the realization that the notion of a willful, secretive conspiracy by an elite cabal is not quite right."
As I say in the paper (and the recording), there isn’t a perfect correspondence between gnostic thinking and modern conspiracy theory narratives. Gnosticism relies on an absolute dualism between flesh and spirit and relies on the assumption that the latter is the True Reality to which we must return.
In fact, for ancient Gnostics, the eschaton, the end of days, was something they could look forward to with assurance, because it meant that history, time, separation from God, and pain, would end.
Like the Jains, they just sought to have some of this ecstasy early, in moments of spiritual ascent that would presage their liberation from the bondage of the Demiurge and his wily Archons. I discuss more about the structure of this thought beginning at about 51.00 in the recording if you need a graphic and more specifics.
Modern conspiracy theories can’t rely on that (although some conspiracy believers maintain various beliefs about Heaven and Hell and map their friends and foes accordingly), so the occulted powers of the Archons are reread as the hidden machinations of shady political and corporate orders.
But if you go through the listed characteristics of how gnostics thought, at least according to what has survived of their teachings, and compare to various chat groups found say in 4Chan or on Reddit, the similarities are pretty remarkable.
For modern conspiracy theorists, the eschaton is more modest: a political overhaul or revolution (ala Marx or Mussolini, or in the case of the Islamicists, the return to a mythical Shari’a that never was). For UFO conspiracy theorists, disclosure remains the ephemeral goal.
What makes certain forms of Gnosticism and certainly conspiracy theory “millenarian” is that both rely on the scoping out of “signs” in the world which may indicate traces of the Demiurge, the actions of the Archons, the Tri-lateral Committee, intelligence operatives, or the scope of the conspiracy (who are players, who are not, etc). Millenarians believe that it is possible, given past “signs” to declare involved parties, or predict the advent of the eschaton.
Crucial to both gnostic and conspiracy ways of thinking is the moment of revelation wherein one suddenly “sees” that the world as they have always understood it is not real, it is not what is actually going on. This can be both crushing and liberating, and is almost always expressed as a kind of transformative event.
There are three additional things I discuss in the paper before going on to my principal story, the individual who provided the inspiration for this study, which may be of some interest to those of you who would like to go further.
One is my observation, following Fenster, that various kinds of conspiracy theory thinking can be found in writings on the left and the right (I’m thinking Marx, Foucault, Althusser and any fascist you can mention), so none of us should really be surprised.
Another is my insistence, again following Fenster, that conspiracy thinking is not simply paranoia, but is a process of identity whereby individuals who experience themselves as marginalized in one way or another from political, economic, social or personal processes/engagement attempt to reconnect themselves to a whole.
So, while it might end up going into strange places, conspiracy theory, like earlier gnostic spirituality is a strategy borne of desperation, perceived isolation and anguish.
The final point is my observation, that, at least in 1999 (and this will surprise some of you because it is not like this at all now), there was a bit of a divide between many of those who claimed UFO abduction and those who sought what is now called disclosure.
Before X-Files, Whitley Strieber and Budd Hopkins effectively unified and mainstreamed the ETH with the abduction narrative/scenario, there were many in the ETH community that had serious reservations about the abduction community, particularly if members of that community claimed any kind of spiritual knowledge or answer to the question of “why” that wasn’t rooted in trauma or pain.
I remember this divide quite vividly and it created really weird bedfellows. The two contending abduction stories were those of the Hills and Betty Andreasson, both “rated” by Thomas Bullard in his ginormous dissertation as of “highest” reliability, but both so very different.
For people like Hopkins and later David Jacobs, the spiritual content of Andreasson’s abduction were proof of a form of brainwashing on the part of the aliens and were part of the conspiracy itself.
However, Andreasson, and later Strieber, after he broke from Hopkins, came to see the spiritual content as integral and containing the key to the Visitor experience. It’s not that there weren’t conspiracies, and that abductions weren’t also “real” in the sense that there was something physical about them, but all that became less important to the process of learning what the abduction meant.
Lots of ETH believers at the time, doubted that people like Andreasson were having “real” physical experiences at all, even though they may have granted that the government might know something about what was going on with the Hills (if you read Hopkins’ Missing Time, you’ll see how the Hill case was his “Ah Ha” moment). So they focused their attention on therapy for the victims and government disclosure.
This is important because my principal informant for this paper, Chuck, was, in some ways a typical ETH conspiracy theorist of the 1990’s who believed that most abductees were crazy people, even though he followed a contactee around because she gave him valuable counsel.
It’s sometimes difficult for us to remember now how varied the different UFO communities were at one time because (social) media has changed the contours. But rereading this paper reminded me of some important historical perspectives that no longer pertain, and this was useful for me to think about again.
More about the context of my interview with my informant Chuck can be found in the vlog beginning around 49.00 if one only wants to listen to the account about Chuck himself.
A bit more text about Chuck:
“Chuck considered himself a “nuts and bolts” man, a serious believer in the literal
existence of aliens and in government cover-up of ET contacts. He regarded abductees as either deluded victims, duped by government forces, or conniving charlatans. By his own account he was a materialist, not very religious.
At the same time he maintained that the aliens were not evil, but were being painted as either evil or salvific by government forces who were afraid that alien influence would encourage humans to think on their own. What was most important to him was his belief that the knowledge of human/alien interaction and the exposure of government intervention in what he considered a natural process of communication and evolution could generate a material, literal change in society.
This was a belief that had been forged by his exposure to specific UFO texts which he regarded with almost the sanctity of scripture (although he would never have admitted that), interaction with other like-minded individuals at UFO conferences, and his own personal interpretation of a tragic experience that had befallen him several years previous. For Chuck insisted that he had physical proof of a government conspiracy to keep him from contacting aliens, and that proof was in his head.”
Long story short: Chuck was a farmer from rural Arkansas whose modest life plans had been cut short by a terrible accident caused by a drunk driver. Chuck almost died, first by the accident itself, and then later due to incredible medical complications when a metal plate had to be put in his head. While in recovery, a friend brought him a pile of UFO books to read to help him pass the time.
These books gave him a whole new lease on life, even as scandals erupted in the hospital surrounding the doctor who had performed the surgery that had placed the plate in his head. These scandals delayed and complicated both his later treatment/rehab and the whole process of settling his bills.
As a result of all these things coinciding he came to conclude that, just as the government was/is clearly hiding information about UFOs, according to the books he was reading, so, what happened to him was part of the same large conspiracy. It sounds crazy summarizing it, but you have to hear how he tells the story in order to get a sense of how what was happening to him appeared to correlate and correspond to the UFO conspiracies he was reading about. It’s the correspondences that are the thing.
Chuck’s ideas about the eschaton, at least what he wanted, were as modest as his original goals in life, but so prescient and poignant, that I have to quote them in their entirety here:
“Finally, I came to ask him about outcome—what will it be like when the truth comes out,
when the government forces are exposed? Chuck—do you have an eschatology? He had
thought some about this, for he believed that the conspiracy had to be exposed. He said he was doing what little he could do by talking to people like me (so I guess I’m his messenger) and sharing with others at conferences.
He thought that once “the People” (again a common generic construction that most of us use without really knowing what we’re talking about) knew the extent to which they had been deceived, the government (Demiurge) would be overthrown naturally. He couldn’t tell me where “the People” would get the physical/political power to do this, presumably the aliens that are in contact with some of us will assist with practical information.
As I listened I was struck with the simplicity of his “end days” vision. Often UFO conspiracy theorists have conflicting views about what the world will look like after government lies are exposed. Will the story of cover-up simply end like the X-Files series must end at some point, or will there be new disclosures, or is there a paradise awaiting our construction of it? Conspiracy eschatology appears to be largely gradual (even though it's ever imminent) and comes about through human effort.
Chuck believed that the ETs would have a hand in our deliverance, albeit behind the scenes. His vision, in some ways was as affecting, American and simple as his dreams before his accident had been, a moderate utopia: “I don’t expect perfection,” said Chuck, “just a world where poor people can pay their bills, and we can decide what wars to fight in, and if people get hurt, we can take care of them. I want to know the truth, I don’t want to be lied to. I don’t have to be rich, I just don’t want to starve.” A simple view to be sure, one that might seem to be far removed from the present realities of nation-states and corporate ventures but still, so much a part of each of us.
Interestingly, despite the fact that he isn’t a typical UFO conspiracy theorist (his choice of texts is a case in point), I also don’t think he’s terribly unusual. Bloom’s “parable of theshoes” demonstrates the ability of gnostic thinking to develop a narrative of cosmic significance out of the most mundane of occurrences: painful feet. From painful feet, we move to shoes, to the corporation which makes the shoes, and concurrently from the fact of pain, to the physical nature of a world in which pain exists, and from there to the promise of painlessness.
Chuck, supported by his texts, an environment in which the persistent poverty of mountain farmers remains a fact of life, an accident with resulting disabilities, and a scandal at the hospital involving both his principal doctor and a good friend, moved from his pain to the source of pain, the plate, to the doctor, to the government of Arkansas, finally to the Federal Government. The UFO texts provided him with the evidence that governments lie, doctors can be deceitful, and even friends lie if the secret they are concealing is considered explosive enough.
The plate and its painful aftermath was the proof of deception, since, as Chuck reasoned, a deceitful doctor would know how to so apply such a device as to cause maximum damage. Since there was no logical reason for the infection to have been so severe (according to Chuck, the infection defied even the doctors’ expectations) there must have been another way it could have been, and a reason for why his trauma had been so debilitating. The ‘why’ was the ‘cover-up,’ the information hidden that was only mockingly presented to him in the texts that his ‘insider’ friend had provided.
For Layton’s gnostic, the eschaton can be initialized in the individual by ascending in the spirit, transcending the limitations of painful feet, or by more simply not wearing shoes if that is determined to be the problem. Chuck’s eschaton is not realized in quite the same manner. For Chuck, knowing elements of the ‘truth’ or that there is a ‘truth out there’ (to paraphrase the X-Files slogan) does not enable him to transcend his situation all at once.
He travels the UFO conference circuit, following the revelations of a woman who acts as his intermediary to off-worldly realms. He is not content, although he claims that he is not unhappy, now that he “knows where the truth lies.” He is another traveler, journeying through the societies of storytelling, secrecy, power and still-unrealized ideals that all of us have constructed together.
The last time I saw Chuck he was standing in line, waiting to get into a meeting that concerned itself with the Roswell, NM UFO crash site. He nodded at me and disappeared into the crowd of onlookers and believers. About Chuck, I knew many things. About the others surrounding him, I had barely an inkling.”
The whole paper with my commentary can be heard here
A free copy of the paper can be downloaded here academia.edu, or if one doesn’t want to sign up for this service (they do have other UFO related scholarly papers available in their database), contact me at email@example.com, and I’ll see what I can do to get you a copy.