The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Anime, Conspiracies, and IR Theory

October 11, 2005

Last night my wife and I watched Epsiode 9 of Serial Experiment: Lain. Over the course of the episode viewers are given a synopsis of UFOlogist claims about Roswell and Majestik 12, Vannevar Bush and his concept of the memex, John Lilly’s psychedelic experiments and his ‘contact’ with ECCO, the Schumann resonance, theories about human beings as synapses in a vast neural network of collective consciousness, Ted Nelson’s invention of hypertext, and so on.

My wife soon opened her laptop and went to the wikipedia in a quest for information about the facts, fictions, and theories flying by on the screen. If you’ve seen Lain, you know that her actions created a very meta moment.

Oddly, there was no entry for “John Lilly” and “ECCO” (the wikipedia does not mention some of the more bizarre research Lilly undertook… or is purported to have undertaken). So a google search brought us to Illuminati: Conspiracy Archive, a veritable treasure trove of (straight? ironic? I have no idea) information about various conspiracy theories. Reading about Lilly not only helped explain Altered States, but gave me new understanding of the “layers of meaning” (I use the term loosely) in ECCO the Dolphin: Defender of the Future – a game I never finished, but may someday… around about the time I do or don’t get tenure.

Which brings me, in a somewhat roundabout way, to international-relations theory. When we were in graduate school, Patrick and I used to discuss writing a piece on conspiracies in international relations. From a social constructivists perspective, the fact that beliefs about conspiracies have influenced state behavior is extremely interesting, whether we’re talking about the supposed grand scheming of Jewish bankers, various monarchist or republican conspiracies that didn’t exist as such, fears about Jesuit conspiracies against Protestant communities (and there were such conspiracies, e.g., “Operation Sweden” [1576-1580], but they numbered far fewer than anti-Jesuit conspiracy mongers believed), or the activities of the Freemasons.

In such cases, we have beliefs about non-existant actors (or actors who do not exist as posited by the conspiracy theory) influencing political behavior. In some respects, one could say that because people acted as if the conspiracy existed, they constituted the conspiracy as an actor in world politics. After all, the state does not “exist” either – except insofar as people act on its behalf (a point Patrick and I have made in print: see here and here.).

(Umberto Eco reflects on this paradox rather well, I think, in Foucault’s Pendulum.)

Put differently, discussion of the role of fictive conspiracies in international politics highlights the same sort of issues raised in debates about how social scientists should handle a wide variety of phenomena, such as witchcraft. It strikes me as particularly interesting, if we want to talk about the socially constructed nature of international politics, to look at the influence of actors that are unambiguously socially constructed but may have demonstrable effects on political processes.

An ill-conceived post-tenure project? Something for another IR scholar to take up? You be the judge.

Filed as: and

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.