The X-Files and the Decline of the State
Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization By Paul A. Cantor Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
Review by Ryan McMaken
This is the second version of this book review. When I set out to review Paul Cantor’s amusing and important new book on television in the age of globalization, I thought I could somehow distill a discussion of all my favorite parts of the book into one readable review, but I now see that this is impossible. This stems in part from the fact that the book is a discussion of popular television shows that most people are familiar with, and in some cases, obsessed with.
Cantor’s book is an examination of four television shows: Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons and The X-Files and how each of these shows reflect a view toward globalization and the role of the nation-state in the world that the shows were created in. While reading the book, I kept getting the same feeling that one might get at 3 AM in a college dorm while discussing the finer points of The A-Team, or some other television program that all had seen and could remember, and thus could all discuss as a group without anyone being left out.
At such times most everything discussed is of common interest. Conversely, when writing a review of a book full of esoteric information of limited interest to non-academics, it is fairly easy to pull out and discuss the sections that most educated people might find interesting. With Gilligan Unbound, however, this has proven extremely difficult, and it has become clear that I must limit the majority of my comments to a single chapter (The X-Files chapter). The potential for general interest in all portions of this book is simply too great.
Cantor himself notes the almost universal appeal of the subject matter when he notes in the introduction that many of his students are able to discuss these programs in great detail with no supplementary study, and fully expect others to be well versed in the programs as well. He states that to what extent modern students share a common cultural base, television appears to provide it. Cantor wisely avoids the debate as to whether or not television is the scourge of mankind, but one thing that we can all agree on is that television is important in the lives of most Americans, and that it acts to both reflect and to reinforce many beliefs about American society and the world in general.
This book examines four television programs in the context of globalization, but the analysis of the four do not stand independent of each other. The book moves the argument consistently toward the longest and most in-depth examination: the chapter on The X-Files. It is in The X-Files where television finds its most complete repudiation of the nation-state as a legitimate institution, and on screen, accompanies a trend that, in real life, many believe has been building for decades.
Dr. Cantor is quick to make it clear that his book is not to be a book that examines the phenomenon of the nation-state (aka "the state,") in depth, but the reader should take with him at least a rudimentary understanding of the foundations of the nation-state and how the ideology of the nation-state has helped make and unmake the 20th century. Most people, when they think of government, think of the nation-state, but this is a habit peculiar to modern man. Prior to the 17th century (specifically the treaty of Westphalia in 1648), people associated government with loosely knit empires, client states, feudal systems, city-states, and confederations. None of them had ever achieved the kind of total control over its citizens and borders that nation-states began to patch together in the 17th century, and brought to its fabulously destructive zenith in the 20th.
Historian of the state, Martin Van Creveld, calls the formation of the state the "triumph of the monarchs" because it allowed the Europeans kings (who have been replaced by the even more voracious bureaucratic democracies) to centralize and solidify their political, economic, cultural, and even religious control over the populations of their realms and bypass the princes of the decentralized feudal system. Through the state, standards of language, culture, religion, and economic activity could be dictated from a dominant political center. There were exceptions of course, but the general trend has virtually always been toward more centralization, not less, and such centralization has never before been known to Western man.
The final stage of the growth of the nation-state was the Cold War (which peaked in the 1960’s) as two nations with more destructive and centralizing power than had ever before been seen on earth battled for global supremacy. It all collapsed in the 1990’s as the Soviet Union imploded and the United States took to fighting relatively powerless third-world warlords.
Cantor examines television from both of these periods and shows that the television of the 1960’s is the television of a nation sure of its own cultural and political supremacy, imagining itself reforming the world in its own enlightened image, and with the American nation-state as most central and the most relevant institution to the lives of all. The television of the 1990’s however, is television that shows the nation-state as irrelevant at best, and actively sinister at worst. For the post-nation-state world, it is the family, the tribe, the religion, and the individual that matter most. The nation-state and all its ideological baggage is simply a violent after-thought; an aggressive master that will accept allegiance to no other. That is, until it is replaced by an even more unshakable master: the global super-state.
In order to understand the magnitude of the change from Cold War television to 1990’s television, Cantor spends the first part of his book examining the saving power of the state as illustrated in Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek. Cantor provides us with a passage that epitomizes well the general attitude of both shows:
In an episode called "The Apple" we come upon a planet where the inhabitants seem to be living in the Garden of Eden. But the price they pay for their innocent and idyllic happiness is that they serve a god called Vaal with blind obedience. Kirk and McCoy refuse to tolerate this situation. Only Spock defends it: "This may not be an ideal society, but it is a viable one." To that McCoy responds in ringing liberal democratic rhetoric: "These people aren’t living, they’re existing. They don’t create, they don’t produce, they don’t even think. They should have the opportunity to choose — we owe it to them to interfere."…Kirk is quite satisfied with himself once he has destroyed the god of the planet and starts explaining to the bewildered people how their lives will change. "That’s what we call freedom — you’ll like it a lot."
The role of Kirk’s crew and his bosses at the United Federation of Planets is clear: save the backward barbarians from themselves. The process is more or less identical in Gilligan’s Island. The only difference is that the unlearned savages visit the castaways instead of the other way around, and each time the fearless crew comes into contact with outsiders, they teach the un-democratic filth a lesson whether they be a primitive "jungle-boy," a Russian cosmonaut, or a vicious Latin American dictator.
Likewise, Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise seem to never be able to leave a planet without first lecturing the natives about their lack of democracy, and how if they don’t change their ways, Kirk will exterminate them. So much for diplomacy. All peoples, it seems, have a right to govern themselves unless, of course, they govern themselves in a way that Kirk doesn’t happen to like. In such an environment, politics is virtually always the defining variable in every relationship. Democracy is the currency of righteousness, and woe to those who forget this.
Consequently, in neither Gilligan’s Island or Star Trek do we find any relevance given to the family. The Simpsons, on the other hand, has gradually come to be known as one of the most pro-family long-running programs in decades. In The Simpsons, families matter. Cantor spends a significant amount of time discussing the role of family in The Simpsons and the devotion that Homer Simpson has for his family. The Simpson family has been described as dysfunctional by many observers but the members never abandon their attachment to the unit. Indeed, the family is portrayed as an indispensable unit which is preferable to the alternative, even when it functions badly (as it often does).
When Homer and Marge are deemed "unfit" parents by hysterical child welfare advocates, the children are quickly sent to an even more bizarre family, the Flanders’, where people eat unflavored frozen yogurt and the children are subjected to compulsory baptism. Meanwhile, the parents are forced to endure state-sponsored "parenting" classes where they are taught how to do dishes and dispose of garbage.
While certainly not romanticized, religion is given a fair hearing in The Simpsons as well. In spite of the ridicule heaped upon the puritanical Flanders family, the show treats religion as a relevant and important aspect of people’s lives. While Star Trek treats religion as the superstition of fools, The Simpson accepts it as a part of the community and while Reverend Lovejoy is hypocritical at times, he is portrayed as a decent human being and not as a power-hungry monster which would have just been business as usual in portrayals of religious figures in Star Trek.
Cantor lines up example after example of the importance of religion and family in the lives of the characters on The Simpson, but Cantor also draws attention to the fact that all this family and religious activity takes place in a world where the state as an institution is virtually absent. The relevant government to the people of Springfield is the government of Mayor Quimby, the corrupt but accessible local politician who seems mostly interested in escaping angry mobs that tend to form when something goes wrong in his little town.
The national government is almost totally irrelevant and when government agents do show up, it is usually to ruin someone’s life or to cause some other form of upheaval. Cantor is quick to make it clear that The Simpsons is not a libertarian show in spite of all the abuse heaped on government agents. The central capitalist in town, Mr. Burns is portrayed as a real monster, and the general rhetoric of the show, Cantor believes, is mildly social-democratic. The emphasis on the quality of small town life, though, and the importance of religion and family are definitely present, and if we compare such values with the abstract and ideological universalism espoused by Captain Kirk at the point of a phaser, we see that something is noticeably different.
Martin Van Creveld writes of the creation of the state as an attempt to set up a god on earth. This new god would destroy all the old gods: religion, family, ethnicity, tribe, and any other middling institution that might make men less dependent on the institution that would provide everything for everyone. The overriding ideological force behind Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island illustrate just how well the state had trained people to think in terms of the state as the engine behind civilization and human fulfillment. Cantor sets up The Simpsons as a reaction against this. Religion, family, and ethnicity, it turns out, are important, and are important in the lives of individual human beings. Even decent and intelligent ones. The State seems to do little more than interfere with these things.
While The Simpsons deals with these subjects in a humorous way, The X-Files takes these themes and develops them in a dark, and fallen world ravaged by the conspiracies and betrayals of the state. The state of humanity in the The X-Files is so bleak, in fact, that Cantor even ventures a hypothesis that The X-Files is perhaps the darkest show to ever be aired on national television, and he may be right. There is no refuge for the main characters, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. They make attempts to connect with their families, their religions, and their communities, but there is nothing left to retreat to. The nation-state and its progeny, the technocratic "world community," has destroyed everything in its path, and the agents have nothing but their futile battles against the power of the state and the international conspirators behind it.
Cantor illustrates that the view of the state is actually rather complex in The X-Files. The state is only part of the real source of evil in The X-Files: modern global and technological society, "rationally" planned. The X-Files is primarily the story of man’s struggle against the ultimate unification and enslavement of the globe within a single modern technological and bureaucratic system, which, in the case of the X-Files, is to be administered by the invading aliens with their conspiring human accomplices. The state is certainly complicit in this transformation, but the state, like all other institutions will lose out in the end:
In The X-Files, the nation seems incapable of resisting internationalism, since it already incorporates too much of the principle of rationality to halt its further spread across national boundaries. After all, the nation itself came into being by obliterating local boundaries, customs, and traditions, partially in the name of economic rationality. Having triumphed over local communities, the nation-state becomes merely local itself when confronted with the drive toward world community.
So while the state is viewed as guilty in creating the system that threatens it, the state has also become already too irrelevant to provide any solution to the threats of the new system. Just as the state had demanded the end of allegiance to community, religion, and family, so too will the new order demand even more.
This emotional and cultural wasteland left in the wake of the nation-state is what gives us the central themes of The X-Files: aliens and alienation. It is well known that the X-Files features aliens from outer space, but there are other kinds of aliens as well. Cantor asserts that "The X-Files rests on a fundamental pun on the word alien, which can refer to extraterrestrial beings or immigrants, especially as used in the term u2018illegal aliens.’" The show frequently depicts conflicts involving immigrants. The immigrant must choose between his traditional way of life and the life of the modern global society. The alien is thus alienated from himself, and should he choose to resist, he will eventually meet with despair and death. Cantor reminds us that while the states and their global masters work to destroy all communal distinctions, there are still pockets of resistance. Those who resist usually come from traditional societies that existed before the rise of the state: "The most likely candidate to stand up to the evil forces in The X-Files is an Indian shaman or a voodoo priest."
The idea of the shaman is very important in The X-Files. There is no place for a shaman in the modern state. He is a religious figure that is also connected to family and community. The shaman is also important because he is wise and possesses truth that the state cannot understand or destroy, and while The X-Files features the alienation of man from his community, it also features his alienation from truth itself. The show’s catchphrase "The Truth is Out There" illustrates that truth is no longer within reach but "out there" somewhere hidden by the state and its agents. It is around this ability of the state to manipulate truth itself that Cantor makes some of his most interesting observations. Cantor looks at how a major part of the way that the state controls people is by controlling information, hence the connection between the words "statistics" and "state." The written word has become the central tool of the state apparatus. It is the foundation of bureaucracy, of centralization, of standardization, and ultimately, of global control. The counter to all of this, of course, is the "oral culture" of the Indian shaman. While the written word can be used to rewrite history, to send truth down the memory hole, and to ultimately reinvent human history, and thus human culture, unwritten "memory" can never be changed. In a pivotal episode, the shaman Albert Hosteen says:
My people have come to trust memory over history. Memory, like fire, is radiant and immutable, while history serves only those who seek to control it, those who would douse the flame of memory in order to put out the dangerous fire of truth. Beware these men, for they are dangerous themselves — and unwise. Their false history is written in the blood of those who might remember and those who seek the truth.
Cantor proceeds to discuss correlations between the rise of "print culture" and the rise of the state. Many of these are based on the assertion that print culture is ultimately the domain of the state. The physicality of it all lends itself to centralized manipulation, control, and dissemination. Oral culture, and incidentally, cyberculture, are not easily centralized and controlled. They are easily changed and challenges to the "official" line can crop up and be reproduced and distributed instantaneously at any time. In the X-Files, "high technology" and its independence from the central organs of the state may ironically undue the very institutions that created it.
In Gilligan Unbound, Cantor has chosen an interesting vehicle to carry the message of the decline of the state. The American state, seen as the salvation of the world in the 1960’s, degenerates by the 1990’s into the destroyer of communities, and alienator of men, and the author of its own destruction. In The Simpsons and The X-Files, the state is seen as incompetent, irrelevant, dangerous, and even helpless before its own creations, but it is never benign.
The journey that Cantor takes us through is a rather grim one. It is a journey from a world where the United States was at its height of power and sent out its agents to civilize the rest of the globe. The world was once America’s slave, but we now find ourselves in a world where our culture has fallen in on itself, helpless before the slave that has overcome the master. At one time, "globalization" meant "Americanization," and for the Cold War generation, the state was the epitome of civilization. Now, though, the state has not the power to solve the very problems it has created, and in the end, it may disappear entirely, but not before it has destroyed everything that might have provided refuge from the global monolith.
Perhaps if we were to look long enough at the aliens in The X-Files, they would begin to look like the crew of the Starship Enterprise. The only problem is that this time, the humans are on the wrong end of Kirk’s phaser. We may soon be finding ourselves in the same position as the hapless natives in "The Apple", for the messengers of the global state have arrived and they won’t leave until they have destroyed our gods, our families, and our history. When it’s all over though, they’ll say something like "That’s what we call freedom — you’ll like it a lot."