In the consideration of conspiracy theories, their adherents and their proliferation, the first thing to consider is how a conspiracy is formed within the mind of the theorist.
Set aside the fact that conspiracies do develop from time to time, and are exposed or fall away, either leading to prosecutions or evaporating into nothing. This is not about illicit drug rings, organized crime, political or corporate espionage; at least not in as much as these are real events. This is about conspiracy theory; non-falsifiable, often politically motivated socially contagious beliefs that someone or something intentionally alters the very nature of reality for their benefit and at the expense of the populous.
To reify, in the most simple terms possible, is to make something real. Another way to say it; reification is the alteration of an abstract concept into something concrete within the mind or the culture.
There are several ways in which reification is defined. In Gestalt Psychology, reification is the apparent addition of visual dimensional data, such as with that of an optical illusion. In Marxism, the term Verdinglichung meant to consider an abstraction as if it were real and/or physically existent and able to act upon the physical world; this definition gives rise to the connected term, objectification (and for my purposes, personification). There is also the consideration of the ‘fallacy of reification’, whereby an abstraction is treated as a real thing.
Through social psychological processes, reification of certain concepts and ideals are accepted into a given society or social network while other concepts may lay in abstraction or disregarded altogether.
Reification of ‘The Conspiracy’.
The average person alive today knows only of Pre-Vietnam War Era from books, documentaries, stories told to them by their elders, or various other archival materials. The reification of such social concepts as race, gender roles and norms, the concepts of Justice and Liberty and overall trustworthiness of the American system were, in America at least, generally accepted social facts. There were some dissenters, of course, but the majority of people tended to agree upon the system as reified.
During the Vietnam War Era, Americans began to shed the dogmatic agreement (at least outwardly) with the previously standardized view of the world. Instead of one standardized social narrative in America, there were several accepted within smaller groups and vying for larger acceptance within the whole. This shift from a dominant social narrative to various competing narratives was at the heart of how many conspiracists began to see their specific social identity as being deliberately subjugated.
At the same time that the various counterculture movements proclaimed ‘the man’ their enemy, an antiestablishment stance and a reification of said establishment, those who supported the status quo were reifying the counterculture movements; Hippies, Black Panthers, Feminists, Leftists, etc. In effect what two sides of American culture did was declare a new reified enemy, instead of the enemy without; often a deliberate and open adversary (such as the Axis Powers during WWII, or either side of America’s Civil War), to be a conspiratorial ‘enemy within’. This development is now aptly referred to as the Culture Wars (itself, a reification).
Reified Conspirative Object(s).
Events such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, came alongside the realizations of MK Ultra experiments, the COINTEL-PRO program, and covert operations in Laos and Cambodia; all making the 1960s a time rife for conspirative thought and antiestablishment sentiment. Perhaps, for some, the interpolation of the two was inevitable.
In between the 1960s and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001; The Vietnam War ended, AIDS began infecting Americans by the tens of thousands, Crack Cocaine made for a cheap and highly lethal street drug, and a former head of the CIA became America’s Vice President and, then, President (himself, George H.W. Bush, declaring another former director of the CIA, Dan Quayle, to be his VP). All these events seemed suspicious, and interconnected, to an increasingly distrusting populous, many of whom still suspect the CIA or FBI of assassinating one or all three of the statesmen mentioned above. When the news of the Iran Contra Affair broke, it seemed to reinforce growing suspicions from those who not only distrusted their government. Increasingly, conspiracy theories placed the blame for all new social ills on the ‘powers that be’; an antiestablishment moniker used to announce a distrust in the government and an uncertainty for who or what may be in control of it.
By the time of the siege of the Branch-Davidian Compound in Waco Texas, leading to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 members of his church, anti-government sentiment had been seething. A growing anti-government subculture, existing since the Vietnam War Era saw the news of the Waco Siege and a similar event, the 1992 standoff and siege in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, as emblematic of the nefarious usurpation of individual freedoms by the ‘powers that be’.
The Waco Siege and Ruby Ridge Standoff became reified events.
These events demanded answer according to Timothy McVeigh, the man who admitted his responsibility for the Oklahoma City Bombing and listed the Waco Siege among the factors leading to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The Oklahoma City Bombing, as well, became a reified event; one signifying immense tragedy and a loss of innocence.
To be sure, The Vietnam War, the JFK assassination and Martin Luther King’s assassination are all reified events within our nation’s history. These events are also continually re-reified, claiming new meaning(s) as time goes on. JFK’s assassination is not only the first and only Presidential assassination to be reported in real-time on national television, but it was at one time the single-most speculated event; culling forth various conspiracy theories in which various suspects were suggested, all reified groups themselves (The Mafia, Communists, the FBI, etc.).
Until 9/11, the JFK assassination marked the main reified conspirative event. It stood as a totem of distrust in the establishment, an event that served as a short-hand for a belief in a system so corrupt that not even its so-called leader is safe. Conspiracy theorists imbued JFK with virtue, and his death was treated as so vile an act as to warrant demonization. Thus, motives were devised that fit the conspiracists’ worldviews; JFK was to announce the existence of extraterrestrial life, or a Jewish Banking conspiracy, or expose the ‘Shadow Government’ in control of it all.
Conspiracy Theory (lets note here, that this is a reified phrase) was not so odd a thing in the wake of the JFK assassination. In 1975, 81% of Americans believed JFK was killed as part of a conspiracy, some decades later (2011) the number is still 61%. With this, every crank with a conspiracy theory had (and, perhaps, has) the JFK assassination as an apparent anchor from which they could (can) lay claim to some suggestion of legitimacy.
9/11 and the New Reified ‘Conspiracy’
The September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center are unquestionably the most reified event in American History since the year 2000. Certain places and phrases; September Eleventh, World Trade Center, “Let’s Roll”, Shanksville, PA; have become synonymous with Patriotism (itself often reified).
Another set of phrases, and ideas, became the rallying cries of a subset of society in the wake of those same attacks. “9/11 was an inside job” and “What happened to building 7?” were rallying cries of the 9/11 Truth, or Truther, movement. Though posed in the form of a question, the hunt for ‘9/11 Truth’ was always coupled with the presumption that there was something hidden that must be revealed. Though many Americans now treat the date as a symbol of perserverence, even dignity, 9/11, as reified by conspiracy theorists, is a symbol signifying a Total Conspiracy; one that goes beyond even that of the assassination of JFK.
By Total Conspiracy I mean that everything, all events and every aspect of human existence, is engulfed in this conception of conspiracy. Such a conspiracy necessarily takes total control of anything and everything; approaching, and even including, a supernatural quality. Total Conspiracy theories would include those of the Illuminati (a secret order that is said to control all human civilization and intends to depopulate the Human race) which regularly include reference to a non-human leadership (often either Lucifer or a shapeshifting alien race called the Anunnaki). In discussing 9/11 conspiracy theories with so-called ‘Truthers’, it should be noted that the ‘truth’ reified in this context may include a presumed reference to such a Total Conspiracy.
Whether it be called reification, objectification, fetishization, totemism, or transubstantiation; we humans have a long-standing record of making a thing out of a concept or imbuing a thing (a day, a time, an idea, etc.) with special meaning.
It is not only true that conspiracy theorists reify that which they then revere or detest, but it is true of all humans. We are reifying animals (among other things). It is only through consideration and discussion of this tendency that we may find the folly in believing the ‘thing’ we made to be real, concrete, and not the abstract concept of the mind.
To be certain, almost everything in our social life has some amount of reification included in common experience. It is when the reified version of things is taken too seriously that disorientation tends to take hold.
There is no simple solution for this problem.
I, for one, consider what abstractions I have reified in the past … and laugh.
See Also: This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy by James Aho.
Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat by Georg Lukacs.
A more accessible video lecture on Lukacs by Andrew Feenberg.