Posts Tagged ‘conspiracy theory’

It’s a day ending in ‘y’ in 2016, so of course another cultural figurehead has died: Umberto Eco is already no longer alive. My immediate thought was that the Templars must have had something to do with it, because – as readers of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum know well – the Templars have something to do with everything. In this work, Eco not only invented Dan Brown and The X-Files, he offered simultaneously a diagnosis of their pathology, an understanding of the social and psychological forces that persuade people to believe in the existence of an all-powerful conspiracy – where the absence of evidence is simply evidence of the power and influence of the conspirators – as a form of ressentiment, explaining their own failures and frustrations, and as a source of meaning, because the alternative image of a chaotic, contingent world where no one has any control is much too frightening. If you believe in connections, you can always find them; and, while conventional historiography should innoculate itself against such fantasies through its critical approach, it’s fair to say that this is more a matter of degree than an absolute distinction. Historians need to read Eco – yes, I know the first 250 pages are heavy going – to see the shadow side of our practices. The truth is out there…

Oh, and I think the most appropriate thing to watch in tribute is not the film of The Name of the Rose, but the Community episode ‘Conspiracy Theory and Interior Design’, perfectly capturing Eco’s playfulness and ability to see creative potential in unexpected juxtapositions.

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For nearly two thousand years, both professional historians and the general public have not only believed in the existence of someone who never actually lived, but sometimes been inspired by their example and the ideas that have become associated with them. The historical evidence to prove that Boudicca actually lived is threadbare to the point of non-existence – a few references in a couple of Roman sources whose objectivity is at best highly questionable – but, persuaded by the inherited tradition that she must have been a real person, later archaeologists have desperately seized upon every scrap of material and interpreted it through these preconceptions – so, every trace of destruction in a building of roughly the right date is attributed to Boudicca, every skeleton is identified as one of her victims, and so forth. In fact, careful and critical reading of the sources reveals that not only was she a myth but she was a deliberately created myth, the invention of the Roman ideologues Suetonius and Tacitus, designed to provide a pretext for a full-scale military intervention in Britain, the destruction of indigenous social structures, the slaughter of key individuals who might have formed an alternative to Roman hegemony in the country, and the expropriation of land and other resources. The idea of a gang of rebellious savages led by a woman driven by emotional trauma was in Roman eyes about as monstrous a thing as could be imagined, and justified every action taken by the state; Boudicca was the WMD of Roman Britain.


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