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Film & Television

Life in Marvellous Times – Thoughts on the X-Files and Twin Peaks

“In these strange times” is becoming one of those endlessly repeated platitudes that are becomes such a staple of journalese, something that we type out in lieu of anything else, that fills a hole rather than saying anything and belies the morbidity of a media largely resigned to simply delivering tautological reiterations of the current state of affairs ad infinitum. Place this term alongside “truth to power” and countless others in the crypt, seal it off and force yourself to look elsewhere, perhaps even challenge your audience. A challenge for the ages.

I’ve assigned myself the task of writing something after simply stewing in my own juices for a little too long. The problem with quarantine so far is that is has exacerbated the proliferating anxieties of constant communication that were already ever present outside it. Ubiquitous connection isn’t necessarily the blessing we might assume as soon as it becomes necessary to stay physically separate from one another; indeed, it’s in this scenario that the sheer effect of networked technology on my consciousness has twitched at the back of my mind, insect-like. Psychic pressures, the ever-present feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, creeping unease that I’ve just become too familiar with this screen, these buttons, this mindless action that I couldn’t even recall without its attendant task, the world closes in through its possibilities rather than restrictions. While the various plans I’ve had regarding projects have still stayed with me, the fragmented, frayed ends of my brain have struggled to articulate them for varying stretches of time.

To mitigate this, my newfound love of the X-Files has been an immense help, a love that has grown increasingly after I resolved to systematically watch through every episode [Currently making my way through season 3]. The fondness I have for a lot of these stand-alone stories and, yes, the alien conspiracy story arcs, by this point knows no bounds and I can’t see myself tiring of it. There has been some rough points, a standout worst episode so far is perhaps 3 at the centre of season 2, an attempt at pulling off this somewhat questionable sexy contemporary vampire shtick that was somewhat popular at some point in the 90s. The result is 45 minutes that feel horribly disconnected from the show around it, a Mulder who seems to have become an entirely different and much more baffling character for one episode only, something that only succeeds in coming off like a tacky exploitation film in tone. That this mediocre interlude stood out as much as it did is largely testament to the success of the show around it, and that it’s sandwiched in between a particularly moving three episode arc centred on Scully’s abduction [perhaps another reason 3 fails is due to her conspicuous absence from proceedings].

Watching the x-files today it comes across as something of a catalogue of concerns, fears, and notably technological developments. Early on, in the first season, a story involving a killer computer presents what seems for all the world like a kind of fictional Apple/Microsoft, and later on we increasingly begin to note the presence of the early internet, season 3’s 2shy even explicitly addressing the then novel fears around online dating. Many of these early 90s tech focused narratives are interesting to see today partly because of how quaint they sometimes seem, addressing these developments as supplementary experiments rather than immanent features of social life, the internet gradually appearing and developing with the show as it tried to keep abreast of the contemporary moment it occupied. Even more interesting than this is the way these technologies intersect with the central paranormal and supernatural elements of the show. Very early on in the first season, the notion that new technologies are “alien” is presented literally through Mulder’s theory that the government is trialling new military craft using UFO technology. Later on, however, this is complicated, where computing and the genesis of the internet become introduced both as tools for investigation, and portals through which unsavoury new threats may slither into our lives.

The paranormal in the x-files is always something explicitly there but never fully there, it lingers at the centre of Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism, her faith and his atheism. Whereas at the show’s beginning this dualism seems a simple one, and the issue of faith not yet a glimmer in Chris Carter’s eye, it unravels in fits and starts not only during the alien conspiracy arcs, but throughout the succession of stand-alone episodes, perhaps more so. By the time we reach season 3, we’ve already seen them switch roles, perhaps evidence that both may not be as assured in their beliefs as they first appear, indeed that they both hold contradictory views. This hasn’t yet reached some kind of ultimate apotheosis, but it strengthens the conceit of the show immeasurably, and lends this dual characterisation the justification it deserves. The question arises, at least in my mind, what separates the paranormal from the normal, the supernatural from the natural? In a basic sense, the supernatural is nature that we haven’t explained yet. It makes me think of the point Mark Fisher makes in The Weird and the Eerie, where he says “In many ways, a natural phenomenon such as a black hole is more weird than a vampire”. If not in weirdness but in abjection this finds itself reflected in the 2nd season episode Irresistible, in which the central horror is revealed and/or accepted to be no alien or monster, but a man, a death fetishist digging up corpses who progresses to murder. Scully’s sheer horror in confronting this is one of the notable times her scepticism and scientific demeanour fails her, and one of the first times of a few until this point where the show has endeavoured to tackle the immediate emotional weight of the circumstances Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating. In this instance, as in others, even when the monsters and aliens are real, flesh and blood beings, when in the midst of uncovering US government conspiracies, that it’s not the extraterrestrial or paranormal events themselves but the powerlessness and suffering of their victims that disturb or unsettle.

Duane Barry is an astounding episode of television when it comes to this, in both its simplicity and its potency. Even shorn of the other episodes in this story arc, the hostage situation here serves to lead us into an exploration of trauma and the re-visitation of childhood horror build on in future episodes, and as both Mulder and Scully grapple with the weight of family action and responsibility, the past weighing on the conscience of the present. The past becomes an alien, a horrible parasite as much as a source of comfort, and the disorienting, dehumanising process of abduction is mirrored in the unveiling of truth as falsehood, of their own subjectivity as a lie. The show is at its best when shifting around the co-ordinates of what natural or real implies, whether it’s in the form of the episode humbug, something of a love letter to outsiders and freaks and a genuinely funny outing, or the constant questioning of beliefs and knowledge. “The truth is out there” we are assured at the beginning of nearly every episode, and yet the meaning of this remains consistently obscured, whether we are talking about the truth of conspiracy, the truth that lies behind the closed doors of power, or the truth of what is scientifically verifiable, a naturalistic truth.

Part of this ambiguity in the x-files, partly facilitated and necessary to the set-up of the show, reminds me, though it is a very different piece of work, of the ambiguity of Twin Peaks, which in its case ended up leading to its own demise. The previously mentioned X-Files episode 3 feels so off precisely because, with Scully briefly out of the picture both Mulder as a character and the writing of the show seem to be spinning off their axis, unsure of where to go. In the case of Twin Peaks, this was a far more extensive sensation, coming to bear after the unveiling of the killer around halfway through the second season [the episode itself a masterstroke of uncoupled horror that shouldn’t be overlooked]. The central conceit of the show done away with, many of the plot-lines thereafter feel like Peaks desperately trying to find new land, rediscover itself somehow, resulting in some of the only moments where the show feels hackneyed and weightless in tone. There are some hits here and there but many of the new characters read more like straightforward and played out caricatures than anything prior. The irony here is that it’s leading up to the shows final moments, and its infamous cliffhanger, that it becomes wholly compelling again. While the show had failed again and again trying to right itself, introduce such quaint oddities ascoherent narratives”, it was with its final lurch into untrammelled, fractured and abstract structure that it went somewhere again.

The X-Files is, in some ways, a more standard show, but also the kind of show that doesn’t particularly get made anymore. It’s structure, wherein the standalone “monster-of-the-week” style episodes provide the glue for the periodic story arcs to hold together rather than the other way around, is something unthinkable for prestige TV with all its seamless singular narratives running the course of a season. There is a sense, and this is where similarities with Peaks and its soap opera structure emerge, in which both shows at their best emphasise, rather than trying to smooth away, the cracks and mould lines in the medium. This provides the pretext for their moments of failure, but also their enduring success, in which this hour to hour shift and lack of faith to the coherent narrative structure demanded of them prove something that could only be done via television. Perhaps its better, rather than to attempt a kind of melding of mediums into a smooth entity, to accentuate the broken, weird qualities of television as a medium. If the perhaps indulgent but largely unapologetically brilliant return of Twin Peaks a few years ago demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s nothing particularly wrong with being a television show.

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DISRUPT

Don’t hate the media; become the media 

Jello Biafra, The Dead Kennedys

Noise. It’s just noise, shouting, it’s ugly, it’s not music. These sentiments have grown so long in the tooth through constant repetition that they have in some respects been reduced to an exaggerated cliche, something that an older family member might exclaim stumbling upon you listening to some modern, avant-garde, transgressive, even trashy or popular music. These cultural objects are often ridiculed or sidelined, thought of as distasteful, strange, pretentious, simply outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable at the collective dinner table. This transgression of aesthetic form is, to a certain extent, inevitable. Once a standard is set, it will be flaunted, and once a culture is established, given the room a counterculture will thrive. This is a distinct push and pull that established itself probably most prominently in the twentieth century, from the rebellion of rock and roll, the breaking down of musical form in jazz, the wacked out drug haze of the 60s, the telegraphed chaos of punk, the wild inventiveness of the post-punk 80s leading all the way to the establishment of hip-hop, in many ways a natural bedfellow to the punk and post-punk underground. But what if this narrative/counter-narrative we have come to be familiar with no longer holds true? What happens when the counterculture becomes culture and the rebellion splinters?

This is why, perhaps, some have noted the lack of a notable current of counterculture in the 21st century. It is not, as I will be only too happy to point out, that punk is dead, that there is nobody out there treading the furrow of resistance or stepping off the beaten path, but something far more embedded within the aesthetics of information and our relationship with the past and future. The wild abandon with which we once tried to strike out into the unknown has, at some stage, dwindled and stammered to a halt, and culture now appears somewhat horizontal. Rather than a bold gathering of souls excavating for unrefined nuggets of untested sound and vision, we have arrived at some kind of impasse, a cavern of riches at our feet, but no clear path forward. We are left to do what we can in this space, but there is a pervading sense that the immediacy felt during that initial push through the rock face is no longer with us.

The term Hauntology was coined originally by everyone’s favourite post-structuralist Derrida in his work Spectres of Marx, referring to a disjunct, a haunting of something that seems to be by what was and will be, in the same way a word in a sentence cannot be understood fully without referring to the words, grammatical structures and punctuation immediately preceding and following it. Mark Fisher developed this idea to concern our obsession with nostalgia and the idea of a “slow cancellation of the future” under neoliberal, postmodern society, which leads to a certain “suspended” vision of future worlds. In this view, society is being “haunted” by past versions of its future, a future it failed to deliver but to which we still cling. It is a sense that instead of envisioning new futures, we become engaged in a cyclical repetition of our past; while technologies progress to unprecedented levels, they are simply leveraged to reproduce the past in new and more advanced ways.  

How does this relate then, to the lack of immediacy in contemporary counterculture? Simply put, that excitement and sense of new-ness that defined a lot of the most daring counter-cultural moments has dissipated with our drive for the future. Admittedly I am too young to have experienced this era myself, but listening back to the sounds, getting a sense of the atmosphere that hung around the uniquely alien experiments of post-punk bands and collectives, it feels as if, almost in an ironic response to the sex pistols lyric, there absolutely could be a future, one that we built. The futures of cataclysmic and deconstructed soundscapes generated during this period however cascaded from the nexus of punk just as the aesthetics of counter-culture more obviously began a decent into trite commodification. The image many conjure when one mentions punk is one that has become comically ironic in its subservience and appropriation by the capitalist hierarchy it supposedly raged against. It is perfectly encapsulated by a story I remember the marvellous St Vincent telling during a concert on her encounter with Mark Stewart, the lead singer of post-punk avant agitators the Pop Group. He hands her a hair brush modelled on Sid Vicious, and says “This is what’s become of punk”.

The Sid Vicious hairbrush is in many respects a perfect analogy for the appropriation and commodification of counter-culture aesthetics. The kind of revolt one might find in an art gallery is often a revolt in appearance only; one might see in it the words “fuck the Tories” or purposeful scribbling on top of beauty magazines, or some such gesture, but ultimately this is counter-culture designed to feed back into the culture it counters, a cavalcade of imagery that is vaguely reminiscent of punk and rebellions of the past but stops there, refusing to forgo the appeal of the mainstream and aiming itself squarely at the feet of suited businessmen looking to pick up on the “next big thing”. Similarly one might point to the punk aesthetics now found in many brands and fashion accessories for sale on the high street. This is punk de-fanged, rendered harmless by the shifting unknowable of capitalist ideology and put to use in the machinated cyber-cacophony of modern consumer ontology.

Is all lost then? Is counter-culture, as they say, dead? Have they found the body? If so, when will they conduct the postmortem, find the cause of death? Was it suicide or murder? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and assume something is dead merely because we can’t make out its outline in the darkness. Counter-culture, as I hinted earlier, is still very much alive, it must simply take on other forms in lieu of its splintering and subsummation, and the loss of hope in further worlds beyond capitalism under the neoliberalist program. It seems to us that culture has somewhat flattened out in this moment, suspended in animation and haunted by constantly repeated echoes of its past. “Is there anything new on this earth?” we are tempted to ask in a world of revivalism and re-appropriated images of lost worlds. 

In light of this question, I think it’s prudent to remind ourselves that the Sex Pistols, one of the most revered groups of Punk, forming almost a shibboleth of the movement in their adoration, were manufactured. They may have struck upon a counter-cultural current, but a large part of their aesthetic and their actions were no more “sincere” than the generated backstage banter of a boy band. They were in some respects (some might take some serious issue with this, but I’ll just take the heat) the Monkees of the punk generation. The commodification of counter-culture, its use to generate capital rather than rebel against its apparatus, is no new phenomenon, and in many ways has simply become easier with our removal from the immediacy of its origins. Our focus on 1977 has cast an immense shadow on the almost more exciting sounds of proto and post-punk, as well as some of the work being done by recognised but far less influential figures on both sides of the Atlantic.

What to do now, in this suspended time, this horizontal plane? In this age of seemingly unlimited digitisation, technology, information, connectivity, we almost are trapped in a cybernetic extension of reality and placated by our own access to these riches. Our connection to these streams seems somehow to introduce a distance between us and any real sense of urgency, as if we begin to think of time as limitless. Of course what we see before us is never limitless, but given the illusion, it’s hard to think there’s any kind of immediate need to fight back, to push forward into the unknown, to confront the void. We sit back and happily consume as if the vast stretches of eternity lay before us, thinking always “I’ll do that tomorrow” “We’ll do that tomorrow”. Information technology becomes, in a way the perfect acceleration of neoliberalism, atomising us to almost unprecedented levels, placing each of us within our own suspended reality, an augmented cyberspace acting as an extension of ourselves. We feel connected yet each of us sit staring at our own screen in our own room somewhere. We are more connected than ever in theory, but more alienated from each other in practice, a contradiction that serves the politico-economic interests of our time. 

The difficulty comes from trying to reach past this and achieve a sense of immediate connection with this fractured, splintered mess that is the modern world and salvage the exploded shards of our past ideals to disrupt the flow of information anew. If there’s something good that can be said about the recent waves of political unrest, it has, if all goes well, provided something of a reality check for many of us who were under some impression that the world would simply carry on as it was, problems would be ironed out, that capitalism might actually deliver on this future it had been promising us since the tail end of the 80s. This illusion was, for many of us, shattered, as soon as the neoreactionaries made themselves known, as soon as the distorted, surreal ascendancy of a blundering puppet to one of the most powerful seats on earth. That it took these things to happen for us to realise political action and criticism of the capitalist orthodoxy were necessary speaks to how strongly the atmosphere of capitalist realism embedded itself in our lives, how much we took solace in illusions and mirages that continuous progress was a given, that the future would arrive, one day.

An urgency of some kind can now be felt again, to some degree, though if it can be maintained is another matter. It is doubtless the case that for a meaningful disruption of the core to happen, we would have to take our actions beyond the confines of social media melancholy, but aesthetically it’s my belief a real pushback could occur in the coming decades. While many still hold that despite all the negatives, this must be the best we have, and much of the left of this persuasion are mired in outdated concepts of revolution, I think creatively we have all the tools at our disposal to counter the ideological apparatuses that exploit, divide, trap and isolate us. Those of us who create, who experiment effectively have the ability to disrupt the radio signal, to counter the stifling inanity of this suspended corporate version of society with noise. As potential critics of this consumerist ontology, we can be the ones to counter it, to point out its absurdities. Noise is more than the sum of its parts. It is more than a simple rejection of taste, it is a tool of resistance. An aesthetics of capitalist banality, of unending repetition and cyclical generation of norms, must encounter an aesthetics of disruption.