Antropologicheskij forum, 2015, no. 27



Alexander A. Panchenko

Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkinskiy Dom), Russian Academy of Science
4 Makarova Emb., St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg State University
7–9 Universitetskaya Emb., St Petersburg, Russia
European University at St Petersburg
3 Gagarinskaya Str., St Petersburg, Russia

Abstract: Conspiracy theory is a powerful explanatory model or way of thinking that influences many cultural forms and social processes throughout the contemporary world. Recent academic research of conspiracy theories provides a set of interpretations ranging from medicalisation (‘social / political paranoids’) to the concept of ‘popular knowledge’ as a specifically postmodern phenomenon. It is obvious, however, that the social, political and cultural power of conspiratorial narratives should not be underestimated. In modern and postmodern societies, conspiracy theories often motivate political action and social praxis, accompany the transformation of institutional and informational networks, and provoke moral panic and identity changes. Mutual relations between conspiracy theories and religious imagination require further discussions and investigations by social scientists. These investigations could probably start with how evil is recognised and localised by various cultures and in different social or economic contexts. However, it seems that certain social phenomena and ideological tendencies that we usually label as ‘religious’ demonstrate, so to speak, the specific ‘valency’ of conspiratorial explanatory models. Christian eschatology gives a lot of obvious examples in this context, especially in relation to present day apocalyptic thinking.

This article deals with a particular group of conspiratorial / eschatological themes of popular imagination that has a certain impact on religious cultures in present day Russia, Ukraine, and some other post-Soviet states, namely the stories about ‘the Beast computer of Brussels’. The legend about this apocalyptic computer emerged among ‘the New Christian Right’ in the USA in the mid 1970s. This paper focuses on its cultural, political and historical contexts as well its migration from the US to Eastern Europe. The legend appeared to serve as a sort of ‘narrative foundation’, or even a trigger, for the moral panic that influenced theological and ideological discussions in many post-Soviet religious communities. The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate had to consider the ‘problem’ of individual taxpayer and social security numbers as well as passports with electronic chips at the highest levels of its hierarchy.

The study of this particular legend facilitates the discussion of certain theoretical aspects of present day ‘conspiratorial eschatology’. First, we are dealing with a narrative that does not in fact essentially differ from what is known as contemporary legend. Its international transmission as well as de- or recontextualisation provides one more example of what is known in present day folkloristics and anthropology as ‘memetic’ or ‘viral’ spread of ‘cultural replicators’. Second, the legend seems to be a part of a more broad conspiratorial (meta)narrative that appeared to be equally valid for quite different religious ideologies and cultures. It seems that studies of present day conspiratorial cultures and narratives could take into account the concept of emotional communities formulated recently by the American historian Barbara Rosenwein. This constructionist idea that, in turn, proceeds from the theory of ‘textual communities’ by another American historian, Brian Stock, implies that we should pay more attention to emotions that are ‘expected’ by a particular community and thus are especially valued by its members. I would not argue that the ‘conspiratorial communities’ that we are dealing with in the present day world should be recognised as purely emotional. By and large, conspiracy theories try to make problematic not only socially shared values, but the status of conventional or official knowledge as well. I think, however, that conspiracy theories and practices of ‘conspiratorial hermeneutics’ are inspired by particular combinations of emotional, moral and epistemological expectations. These shared expectations provide ‘conspiratorial communities’ with particular narratives and practices and, on the other hand, they enable combining traditional religious ideas with newly invented conspiratorial ones.

Keywords: conspiracy theories, present day eschatology, evangelical Christianity, surveillance society, computers, the Beast of Revelation, emotional communities.

To cite: Panchenko A., 'Kompyuter po imeni Zver: eskhatologiya i konspirologiya v sovremennykh religioznykh kulturakh' [“The Beast Computer of Brussels”: Apocalyptic Imagination and Conspiracy Theories in Present Day Religious Culture], Antropologicheskij forum, 2015, no. 27, pp. 122–141.