Fox Mulder's office poster.
The exponential momentum of the technological revolution is radically transforming social values and behaviour in ways we can’t understand. An avalanche of data is now generating chaos through its speed, sheer quantity and wild variations of quality. So much for the idealistic Web anarchists who hoped that natural order would emerge on the Net spontaneously. This was the sort of breathless prediction made by Wired in the early 1990s! The darkest corners of the internet are now as barbaric as anything on a clichéed medieval battlefield. But what’s even more scary are the sites that propose to offer ‘answers’ in the chaos.
There are vast areas of the Web dominated by conspiracy theorists who make Fox Mulder look like an amateur. There are sites devoted to the secret plans of Jesuits, Illuminati, Free Masons, and similar candidates, with a favourite focus being the evil messages funnelled through the entertainment industry. One such site, The Industy Exposed, recently summarized the four chord structure of popular music of the past 50 years. This idea already provided a viral hit on Youtube for comedian Rob Paravonian in his “Pachelbel Rant.”
“Pachelbel Rant.” Rob Paravonian.
The four chord scheme in pop music was similarly spoofed by the Australian comedy band, the Axis of Awesome.
“That’s all it takes to become a star.” Axis of Awesome.
But where comedians stop at simply observing this well-known truth about pop music, The Industy Exposed takes that truth one step further and sees a dark plan to get the public ‘hooked’ through familiar chord combinations to drill repeated messages into the minds of citizens. This drives commerce, and in their opinion, even more malevolent possible agendas. The question is why all-encompassing conspiracy theories of the Millennium are so seductive and compelling. Even on sites which engage in relatively serious analyses of high and popular contemporary culture, there is an increasingly blurry line between the content that is analyzed, the credibility of the analysis itself, and the conclusions drawn. The symbols used in a piece of artwork – which often do address taboo subjects – are taken to be the component parts of buried messages meant to convey hidden truths about ‘what is really going on in the world,’ or about the personal lives of artists who use those symbols.
The Grady Twins. The Shining.
Take the great director, Stanley Kubrick. His film The Shining, based on Stephen King’s novel, is possibly the most frightening horror film ever made. The twins in The Shining were inspired by Diane Arbus’s famous photo, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 and reflected her interest in split identities, the Self and the Other. Kubrick’s treatment of duality in this film chimes with the use of that theme in modern literature and film for the past two hundred years. We need only think Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as a good example of the use of dual consciousness in literature. (Split identities are commonly used in another corner of popular culture, pulp fiction. One of the most troubling problems with DC legacy heroes is their fractured identities: Robin I, Robin II, Robin III, etc. Dual and triadic characterization is also discussed in my Continuity for DC’s supervillainess, Terra on this blog.)
In his essay, “Imperfect Symmetries,” Jason François analyzes The Shining, frame by frame. This essay uncovers the vast number of symbolic details that Kubrick meticulously planted in his film for audiences to see, or more likely subliminally absorb. François touches on the veiled references to cannibalism, incest and child abuse in the movie. There are references to colonialism and racism, such as the racist golliwog doll lying on the floor of the hotel where the character played by Scatman Crothers, Hallorann, is later murdered by Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson. There are also some interesting comments about time and the idea that ghosts represent people trapped in time, or aspects of their identities trapped in temporal pockets. François comments: “The carpet consists of alternating arrows. As one goes forward, one also goes backwards. The characters are trapped in this back and forth stream of repeated history.”
When you remove spiritual interpretations from the Self-Other, Person-Ghost concept of duality, doubles and ghosts become different aspects of the same person trapped in different eras and mirrored into the present. François also explains that a double can signify a haunting of a person by his or her ghost. But in this movie, both person and ghost encounter mirror images of themselves. As eerie and creepy as this idea is, it’s also ironically insightful, creative and Promethean: art, literature and music are spectres of reality. As a result, Kubrick ends up with a triad – a triplicate. There is a past human being who once existed, his ghost who appears after he is gone, and the triplicate version – a mirror image of both. This is not about reincarnation, but about time as it fractures a consciousness and identity already destabilized by insanity. François quotes the writer Padraig Henry, who analyzes this ‘problem of the third’ as follows:
François confirms Jack Nicholson’s character to be the triplicate version of earlier caretakers: “Jack is then taken to the bathroom by Delbert Grady. It is important to note that Charles and Delbert are two separate people. Charles killed his wife and family in 1970. Delbert, however, exists in the 1920s. Charles is the mirror image of Delbert, and Jack is a mirror image of Charles. The bathroom sequence is thus a sort of three way conversation, Charles existing in the mirror behind the butler. Kubrick signifies the merging of all three by breaking the 180 degree camera rule at key times.”“Charles Grady was the name of one of the previous caretakers at The Overlook, whereas Delbert Grady is the GHOST or spectre of Charles Grady. Kubrick is distinguishing between the ontological status of a (past) human being and a spectre: if Charles and Delbert were 'the same person', then there would be NO DIFFERENCE between a human being and a ghost (or, for instance, no difference between listening to a live concert and a recording of that concert; attending a play and watching a filmed recording of that play; reading a historical account and witnessing the later recorded event; between a painting and what it supposedly depicts, etc).”
Thus, Nicholson’s character challenges the butler, saying "you killed your wife and daughters." The 1920s butler truthfully answers, “I have no recollection of that, Sir.” But Nicholson’s character is looking in the mirror. He sees the butler’s reflected image when he says this (is Torrance actually talking only to himself, and seeing only reflections of himself?), and he can see the butler’s reflection is the bloodied murderer who decapitated his family in 1970.
The film toys with the relatively recent triadic breakdown of the Cartesian division between mind and matter. Of course, Christians have been wrestling with the concept of the ‘third,’ or Trinity, for two thousand years. Hegelians and Marxists claim to have had a grip on the utopian synthesis of a third level of politicization since the nineteenth century. The idea is also present in Buddhism: the ‘third eye’ is the chakra of higher consciousness. But the implications of memory or existence refracted or diluted to a third generational level in a cataclysmic, radically non-utopian sense have only started to be explored in the past forty years. In August, 2005, Cambridge University held a conference called “Configurations of the Third, 1800 to the present: third agents and the missing links of modernity.” The colloquium examined the concept of the ‘third’ as follows:
In other words, in The Shining Kubrick dealt with characters trapped in pockets of tripled time because of their terrible transgressions. Apart from a joint engagement with larger philosophical problems of how we see the world while dealing with unspeakable acts, the symbols used are so powerful that it seems to many that they must convey an even larger message. François’ assessment of the massive cinematic architecture of the director’s frightening interlocking symbolism (just imagine what it took for the film maker to put all these bits together), descends to critical speculation on Kubrick’s use of occult Tarot devil imagery in the closing photograph of Jack Nicholson, who is placed back in time. This could mean, as the 1920s Grady claimed, that Torrance had ‘always been the caretaker’ at The Overlook Hotel; that suggests Torrance has always been the real identity and personality, while the others are just facets of his madness – or of his previous lives. Kubrick hinted that this image signified ‘resurrection.’ It could just be another refraction of reality across time in a tormented character’s mind.“Configurations of the Third is an international interdisciplinary conference which investigates the importance and relevance of triadic imaginative and theoretical concepts of human life and environments. PARASITES, MIASMATA AND MISSING LINKS; dialectics, the unconscious and chiliasm; Hermes figures, rivals and tricksters - all these catchphrases refer to third agents or tripartite agencies. The ‘figure of the third’often takes the form of a privileged entity or space which overcomes binary oppositions and effects transformation. Post-Cartesian intellectual and scientific enquiry has witnessed an explosion in attempts to move beyond the dichotomy of mind vs. matter and develop and criticise triadic structures of thought. This has unleashed modes of thinking which relate the figure of the third to fundamental questions of subjectivity and self-consciousness. With this conference we want to create an opportunity to engage in an interdisciplinary debate on continuities and discontinuities between tripartite configurations during the last 200 years. Linking the imaginative and theoretical implications of these structures to post-Enlightenment culture’s unease with both ambivalence and binary oppositions has been a central preoccupation of cultural theory (e.g. the Frankfurt School, J. Habermas, N. Elias, Z. Bauman). The conference will pursue this further and ask whether the modern human condition can be adequately captured as an unfinished project of invoking third agents to reconfigure ambivalence and binarity.”
Inevitably, when the deeper psychological and philosophical issues get too complicated to understand, Freemasons, Illuminati, and the like rear their heads. Conspiracy theories of this type surround Kubrick’s death following his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which was based on the Austrian novella, Traumnovelle (1926), by Arthur Schnitzler.
How do you comprehend the world when everything that embodies stability is obliterated?
Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic film version of War and Peace (1967).
The issue is not the fragments of truth in conspiracy theories, or even the enduring popularity (and for some, continued legitimacy) of marginalized beliefs and traditions that allow these theories to flourish. What’s more significant is the growing need to have conspiracy theories, to imagine unseen controllers, agents and actors who make the chaotic world make sense.
To my mind, there’s no better literary depiction of the yearning for a false sense of certainty during massive social instability than Pierre Bezukhov’s growing interest in Numerology, as described in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869). Pierre, the novel’s main protagonist, joins the Masons and quickly begins breaking names down into numerical codes, while war comes ever closer to his country. As Napoleon’s armies attack St. Petersburg, then move on to Moscow, all semblance of order in Russian society breaks down. Pierre does not flee like other members of the nobility. Dazed, he stays where he is, wandering the streets, obsessed with Numerology; he meanders right onto a battlefield, slowly coming to terms with the cataclysmic transformation of his world. To read War and Peace, go here.
Addendum: For my later post continuing this subject, go here.