sightings and secrets for Agent Mulder

Because spring break demands nerdy diversions, I’ve been watching some early episodes of The X-Files online. The pilot’s a fine episode, but it’s the second, “Deep Throat”, in which the shows famous “myth-arc” begins to unfold. But it’s also the first to showcase the series’ subversive epistemological sensibility. Consider Mulder’s search for the Air Force base where, he beleives, new spacecraft are being developed from reconstituted UFO technology.  The base does not appear on any government maps. Rather, Mulder finds it by engaging in a conversation with a diner waitress who also happens to be an amateur UFOligist. Stoned teenagers provide another important source of information, as does an old UFO photo taken during the 1950s.

On the one hand, this establishes the “conspiracy” element of the series: the government conceals the truth through its control of information. But there’s something to it that goes beyond concealing. The horrifying dramatization of the government’s power is the ability of the agents to erase specific memories. In order to maintain their epistemic hegemony, the government must force forgetfulness. The epistemic hero, Mulder, cannot challenge the conspirators by recourse to the information at hand, rather, his investigation takes on a therapeutic dimension of recovery. He taps into marginalized channels of conversation – rumors, cults, seemingly deranged hobbyists, uneducated yokels – to find a counter-discourse  of subjugated knowledge which becomes validated as it connects, overlaps, and intersects with what is observable and provides a compelling explanation for the events which the government tries to repress. Underlying the everyday, a network of myths and implausible accounts that add up to – what?

In this way, The X-Files follows in the tradition of detective stories like Zadig and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in that the protagonist accomplishes “feats of analysis”.  That the investigation takes place in a netherworld of disreputables which undermines apparent reality also resembles it to Oedipa’s quest in The Crying of Lot 49.  And like each of these works, The X-Files also accrued relevance from the currency of its themes. In Zadig, Voltaire addressed metpahysical and religious issues of great controversy, while Poe’s detective story came when urban crime was a new kind of social horror. Pynchon, for his part, wrote when many felt that the counter-culture was undermining the unity of American society. The genius of The X-Files was its reconstitution of the detective story’s classic epistemological quest through the postmodern and psychoanalytic lenses, but this was also the key to its social resonance. The show  traded in pre-millenial information-age anxiety: with the internet emerging as a technological force, new information and media of all degrees of validity was ubiquitous, as it is even more so now, and this also creates ruptures and inconsistencies for social epistemology.

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~ by staticandme on March 25, 2009.

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