I don’t often blog about my private life. I don’t live an exciting life of subterfuge and backstabbing (despite what some people might assume) and my life is largely innocent and definitely not filled with welcome depravity1, so the following story, whilst personal, is really just about my thesis and conspiracy theories.
An illustrative example, if you will.
Last Friday I went to see “The Rocky Horror Show” with some of my close friends. Afterwards we adjourned to Starks to discuss the performance and the consensus was that good but not brilliant.
Eventually, as more and more alcohol entered out systems, the conversation become more wide ranging. We had been joined by a lovely couple from what used to be North Shore City and upon being told what I do (“…stare at a computer screen and think about conspiracy theories all day long.”) they put the screws on me ((By which I mean they plied me with drink) and demanded I answer questions.
Drunken conversations about conspiracy theories do not differ all that much from sober discussions on the topic. In my (admittedly large and growing) experience you either end up defending the notion that people really do believe in wacky conspiracy theories or you have to convince people that the explanation they are proposing for some event is actually a conspiracy theory.
Fun fact: The higher the alcohol content of the speaker, the more likely it will be that they will find connections between increasingly unrelated phenomenon. I have seen otherwise sensible people appeal to an all-embracing thesis that links the American government, monitor lizards and the Nazca Lines with the lack of Asahi on tap in whatever bar the conversation is happening in.
These things happen.
What normally doesn’t happen when I’m talking the talk is me being hit on.
I was in the midst of trying to explain how the Celts might have paddled their goatskin coracles over from Australia when a guy in his mid-twenties stumbled up to our table. “Stumbled” really is quite accurate; his approach was watched carefully because he seemed to be possessed of two legs, neither of which were cooperating with one another, let alone wanting to orders from appendages further up his body.
Jonathan, for that is his name, wanted to steal some cigarattes off of one of my companions. After a bit of an argy-bargy it turned out that “some cigarettes” really just meant “one cigarette,” and that it had to be a rollie. Given the incredibly insensate state of this cigarette half-incher, my companion, rather magnanimously, offered to roll it for him. So overcome was he that he promptly hugged her.
Then he hugged me.
“You’re lovely,” he whispered into my ear.
Compliments are always welcome, although I do vacillate between that horrible English-like inability to accept them and a rather Zaphod Beeblebrox “I sure do, baby” attitude. I honestly can’t remember which of those two responses I went with, because, at that very moment, one of my drinking companions demanded I explain the what the term “Outside Job Hypothesis” means.
“Jonathan, what are you doing? I named him, you know. I was four.”
As opening lines go, this managed to be both an admonition and utterly arrogant. The speaker was brother Matthew (not me, another Matthew) and he proceeded to dominate his brother and play up himself. For example, within minutes he told us he was a lecturer at St. Andrews, the financial support for Jonathan, a former teacher of Prince Harry and someone who was cynically bored of his short stay in Auckland yet dreading returning to Scotland.
He even claimed to dislike Edinburgh, which, frankly, I did not believe for an instant.
“I have to look after him, you know,” Matthew said.
“Is he still at uni?” I asked, figuring that might be the best explanation of his brother’s financial state.
Matthew stared at me with a look of incredulity on his face. “Universities are useless,” he finally barked. “All degrees are useless.”
“I won’t argue too much about that,” I said, grin on my face. I’m just about finished with my PhD.”
“It won’t get you a job. It’ll be in a useless subject. Almost all of them are.”
“It’s in Philosophy, so maybe you’re right,” I replied, still smiling.
There is a particular strategy some people use to hit on prospective mates. They play themselves up whilst trying to undermine the other person’s self-esteem. This sketch from “That Mitchell and Webb Look” illustrates the form perfectly. It is, as far as I can tell, a technique largely guaranteed to fail in its execution; why someone would go “Oh, you’re so right; take me!” after being made out to be less than sub-human makes no sense to me. Then again, I think the whole hitting on people dialectic is confusing and sub-optimal, mostly because I very rarely recognise when someone is trying it on me.
I am, however, fairly sure that Matthew was hitting on me, and failing quite miserably.
“So, what’s you topic?” he finally asked, having exhausted his list of praiseworthy aspects of himself.
“The Epistemology of conspiracy theories,” I said. I didn’t italicise the words as I spoke them; I’ve not worked how.
“And that is?” he said, smirking.
“Oh god, another PhD student deigning to tell me what `epistemology’ is, as if I don’t already know.”
“You did ask,” I said.
“I have a PhD student who is smarter than me. I find it very depressing. Don’t you, knowing people are smarter than you.”
Matthew was obviously trying to get me into a moment of drunken existential crisis, all the better for the “Would you like a little date?” routine that was to come. Still, he failed to recognise that not only was I also a cynic, like himself, but that I am of the perverse variety. I am a cheerful cynic; you can tell me the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that there is no escape and I will say “Quite right, and about time,” smiling all the way. Depressive cynics, when faced with cheerful cynics, will then try to be more cynical, hoping that whoever they are talking to will finally succumb to the tragic and horrible affair that is the rendered veil. Cheerful cynics will just egg depressive cynics on.
Back to conspiracy theories.
Matthew, a lecturer at St. Andrews whose specialist subject is Queer Geography, couldn’t understand why someone might study conspiracy theories. Now, as I think I have shown, he was being obnoxious and quite possibly trying to hit on me in the most disastrous of ways, but still, he reminded me why I have such a low opinion of the Academy at the moment. My peers don’t seem to think there is anything interesting to say on my subject.
Now, maybe they are right; perhaps the material I have spent the last four years on is just the received wisdom dressed up in new clothes. Still, you would think that someone about my age (which Matthew is) whose area of expertise is almost as marginalised as my own, might extend some sympathy and interest towards an academic investigation of these things called conspiracy theories.
Then again, he was acting like an arse.
“Matthew, Jonathan is sitting out in the bus stop; I think it’s time to go,” a bearded man I assumed was Jonathan and Matthew’s father said.
“Well,” Matthew started, “it was an interesting conversation.”
“I’d say it’s been a pleasure talking with you, but you know that would be a lie,” I said, shaking his hand.
I can understand the reluctance of my older peers to think there is nothing interesting to say about conspiracy theories. They grew thinking they were hokum. My generation, though? Surely some interest in the finer details of our political lives is a necessary factor in just coping with the world.
But no. I know a lot of people my age or younger who think that it’s vitally important we sort out whether “or” is inclusive or exclusive in meaning, or that we need to know which version of temporality, the A or B-Series, is correct but don’t really think there is anything interesting to say about, for example, theories that posit the Celts got here first.
It’s a good thing I’m a cheerful cynic, eh?
- This may be a lie.↩