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True knowledge, in this perspective, is always indirect knowledge; it is composed of reported statements that are incorporated into the metanarrative of a subject that guarantees their legitimacy.
—Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984)
There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.
—U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)
Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) of her congressional leadership roles over her coziness with far-right conspiracy theories and racist and violent statements involving various fellow members of Congress, teenage shooting survivors, and other popular targets of the Pizzagate and QAnon theories.Despite Republicans’ rhetorical denouncements of Greene’s behavior, including a statement from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) assuring the public that Greene’s conspiracy talk did “not represent the values or beliefs” of his party, the majority of Republican lawmakers said, with their votes, that they believed Greene and her vile words deserved a place in the seat of U.S. power. For many, this hardly comes as a surprise, in part, because, despite McCarthy’s claim, the party’s values and beliefs are beginning to look a lot like Greene’s.
In a recent poll by NPR/Ipsos, 71% of Republicans said they believed that a “deep state” apparatus was working to undermine Donald Trump during his presidency, and, more troubling, only 14% of those same Republicans answered “false” when pollsters asked whether they believed a group of “Satan-worshipping elites” were running a “child sex ring” and “trying to control our politics and media.” Both questions refer to the QAnon theories espoused by Greene, the collection of baseless internet conspiracies that center on the idea that the world is run by a Satanic cabal that is destined to be stopped by former President Donald Trump, as revealed by an online figure named “Q.” The conspiracies involved in the larger QAnon movement stretch well-beyond the bounds of the central theory, touching on various other popular urban myths from throughout the 20th century and inventing new ones, like the proposition that political and cultural elites kidnap children and eat them to extract their “adrenochrome,” a life-extending chemical.
So, with large swaths of people in the U.S. admitting to some level of belief in the QAnon theories (or at least, not denying them outright), journalists, writers, and other cultural point-persons across the country have been trying to make sense of the rise of this conspiracy ideology as a mainstream occurrence, citing the decline of religious affiliation, the nation’s long history of racism and bigotry, the reactionary nature of private-run social media sites that dominate the cultural landscape, and the unique place of a figure like Trump in the cultural zeitgeist. Of course, these and a number of other factors do play into the historical moment, but more broadly, the right-wing conspiracy madness across the U.S. offers millions of people something lost in the decades prior to QAnon and Pizzagate: a rebirth of the metanarrative.
French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard famously explored the loss of the metanarrative in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, the book often credited with bringing the concept of postmodernism into philosophical thought. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard describes “the breaking up of the grand narratives,” such as those of Marxism and the Enlightenment amid the “computerization of society.” He cites German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his analysis of the increased specialization of 20th century thought, describing the ways that “the totality of life . . . [is] splintered into independent specialties” that are no longer able to legitimate themselves on account of their compartmentalized state. In short, The Postmodern Condition outlines an era in which specialization and focus on the individual experience have done away with the larger framing project of times past, when religious and political thought governed in grand narratives, the metanarratives.
Indeed, the end of the Cold War in the 20th century led to elevated claims concerning the importance of the individual experience and the uselessness of the too-broad brush in the West. Material conditions and individualist rhetoric in the U.S. had increased for the white bourgeoisie, and the relative wealth of western European nations led many to trade their militant class solidarity for mixed markets, allowing privileged individuals to maximize their perceived individual freedom through “purchasing power” at every turn. As contradictions in capital, such as growing inequality associated with the “boom” in the late 1990s, later presented market failures—most notably the 2009 recession—and disillusionment for masses of Americans, though, these individual experiences alone would no longer suffice without a larger narrative, as if one’s individual victories only fell at the hands of the collective other. The singular person had found themself alone in a collection of narrow experiences, the individual identity tending to override the old and seemingly-stale narratives of material and social conditions in the burgeoning digital age.
This narrowness, Lyotard claims, presents a number of limitations. He compares it to Jean Perrin’s example of real density in relation to the quantity of air contained within a sphere. In this example, the variation of density increases as the sphere’s volume decreases. At the molecular scale, the quantity of the air within the sphere greatly varies based on whether or not the tiny sphere is located within an air molecule. If the tiny sphere happens to fall in the void between two molecules, Lyotard claims, it will not contain any air at all, though a slight movement will suddenly place the sphere in the air molecule, and then it will only contain air. These differences, though vast in a technical sense, say practically nothing about the molecule, instead only revealing the placement of the tiny sphere, similar to the Rumi’s elephant in the dark and the men who describe it.
It is from these points, the individual experiences set between the molecules of air, that the late-postmodern gives way to the rebirth of the metanarrative. Whereas the Enlightenment and other grand narratives of the past defined the individual experiences as part of the wider historical project; today, the conspiracy loyalist’s narrow points create the new metanarrative, a reversal of the earlier process. To return to Lyotard’s example of the sphere, Greene and company are finding that there are instances in which the sphere falls between the molecules of air, where previous social conventions would have (often to oppressive ends) declared that the sphere’s placement in the void was false. For example, while they denounce the passes and privileges afforded to political and economic elites, they also express a fondness for certain political figures, such as Donald Trump. The resulting metanarrative thus includes contradictory elements and suggests two simultaneous realities: that elites assume privileges and that Donald Trump must be working to stop atrocities at the hands of those elites. This latter assertion is based only on the adherents’ fondness of Trump as a character in the larger socio-political zeitgeist, a space between the molecules. Such contradictions, of course, would previously have been dismissed as aberrations based on the common acceptance of a larger sphere (the metanarrative). However, with the recent shift in public discourse toward individual experiences, the space between the molecules finds validity among the conspiracy adherents, even when the claims otherwise appear to contradict accepted facts from previously-trusted sources, such as members of the press and the scientific community. The new grand narratives then are charged with piecing together these individual points in which the sphere lands between the molecules, somehow finding connections between a fondness for Trump, the apparent misdoings of the powerful, and the sway of an active imagination informed by bloggers and other figures who seem to speak to their own experiences of mistrust, regardless of their wildly inconsistent conclusions. As such, it is hardly a stretch when adherents boldly proclaim that the molecules simply do not exist, so to speak, as when Greene says that Trump was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to take out the “global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.” The chosen plot points of Greene’s narrative indeed show no molecules.
Where there was once a large, reductive, and powerful sphere working toward its own political aims at the expense of oppressed and working peoples, one now finds a network of tiny spheres without bounds, whether scientific or otherwise, insisting on its completeness with sloppy hand-shading and message-board reassurance. The resulting cluster of narratives intend to connect the dots of the otherwise unconnected (or at least differently connected) experiences, a desperate attempt to make sense of material and cultural shifts without an imposed narrative from the state, civic structure, or consistent ideology. In other words, a group exercise in missing the forest for the trees and instead determining that the trees are a coded message from “Q” about the state of pedophilia among cultural elites.
This, of course, is taking place as the majority of Americans express a lack of trust in the old guard, the traditional purveyors of the metanarrative, at least domestically. By 2016, only 32% of polled Americans expressed a “great deal/fair amount” of trust in the mass media, the tone-setting information that has often reinforced the metanarratives propped up by the state or religious structures. And now there are bona fide QAnon believers in Congress.
Conspiracy thinking is hardly new, and the metanarratives of the past have often displaced fact in favor of the larger storyline. The difference in the emerging conspiracy culture in the U.S. is the public willingness to create the narrative from the splintered experience, which, as a result, has allowed the QAnon following to avoid any dogmatic adherence to the collection of conspiracies. Followers often choose which of the individual narratives to follow within the larger collection, a build-your-own history.
The metanarratives then drift from their bases in the individual experiences through believers’ attempts to make sense of the open spaces where they believe that points should connect and through the network exposure of other conspiracies available from similar searchers online, culminating in a large network of conspiratorial groupthink that has made its way off the web and into somewhat-popular political movements, like the broader Trump phenomenon and the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol, both of which have grown up adjacent to conspiracy metanarratives.
Of course, the material and historical factors (especially those rooted in bigotry and colonialism) behind the rise of QAnon are legion, and each of these factors should be mined for a greater understanding of the current limits to human progress and the defeat of reactionary forces in the political and social realms, but a broad dialectical application of the metanarrative reveals the shortcomings of both the old ways of thinking and the reactionary new phenomena outside their specific socio-historical starting points. The historical understanding here relies on German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s fundamental dialectical model of a history made up of theses, antitheses, and syntheses. In the case of the metanarrative, the original thesis lies in the prevalence of the grand narrative that governs broad social movements, and the antithesis represents the abandonment of the metanarrative as expressed by Lyotard. Now, for the conspiracy believer, the metanarrative returns as a synthesis, a flimsy collection of ideas that is neither governed by history nor set firmly in individual experiences. This version of the “personal metanarrative” has taken the worst from both approaches and left its followers to wander.
However, the dialectical application does not always lead to QAnon or other baseless conspiratorial ends. The rebirth of the metanarrative has, for many, given way to a broader understanding of historical movements and the possibilities of progress. When one is able to impose the metanarrative not as a network of individual, hand-picked spheres (to borrow again from Lyotard), but instead as a collection of experiences that shed light on greater trends, the attention to the individual experiences yields a richer understanding of cultural and political forces. For example, the reimagining of the metanarrative has given birth to a larger acceptance of previously passed-over histories of oppressed peoples who were ignored or manipulated in the name of the grand narratives of the past, and it has also allowed many to invoke the merit of individual experiences as a means of rejecting authoritarianism or the corporatist status quo, reinvigorating leftist dialectical thinking and movements for social and economic progress in the U.S.
The vast gap in outcomes during the rebirth of the metanarrative, then, suggests that a certain grounding is in order to best serve both the individual experiences and larger trends. There is admittedly difficulty in the evaluation of a present experience, and an understanding of the broader trends can help make sense of the experience. If one can see that Lyotard’s molecular spheres are most often not filled with air, then it is somewhat easier to understand when a given empty sphere has fallen between two air particles. The difference here is whether the new metanarrative is flimsy and self-imposed, as with the conspiracy theorist drawing lines between separate, unrelated experiences, or if it grows from the larger correlations and movements made evident by those experiences.
Altogether, the trends themselves will not suggest a return to the grand narratives of the past. One should not overlook the previous decades’ insistence on the value of splintered experiences within the broader culture narrative, and indeed society would be best served by a dialectical inclusion of this new outlook in light of the successes and failures of broad narratives, by the rejection of oppression in the names of grand schemes.
For now, though, the dichotomy remains, and millions of U.S. citizens hold tight to their own personal metanarratives, the creations of worlds in which human progress is determined by the defeat of Satanic pedophiles and messages from the mysterious “Q.” As material conditions worsen under late capitalism, it is likely that many will reach even further to make sense of their experiences. The world will watch as the conspiracy adherents seek adrenochrome supplements for The Postmodern Condition.
G.D. Brown has worked as a literary editor and as an award-winning newswriter. His literary work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Oyster River Pages, Jokes Review, Westview, PopMatters, Oracle Fine Arts Review, The Tulsa Voice, and elsewhere. He is a Goddard College MFA graduate and production editor at MAYDAY. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.