Jose Chung’s From Outer Space hardly sounds like the title of an exploration of narrative relativism, particularly when I tell you that it’s an episode of that gloriously cheesy geek-fest institution that is the X-Files. It opens with a young couple driving cutely through the night, discussing their nervously pumping adolescent feelings, when suddenly they are halted by a blinding light in front of their car. From the mist emerge some classic grey-suited bug-eyed humanoid slimy guys, who blink mechanically through the windows as our drama-school couple slump onto one another’s over-exposed shoulders.
What a horrendous cliché, you say, forming your cynical viewer’s lips into the next generation of cliché: the intelligent consumer, the critic, the knowing commentator who knows what’s coming. But the thing is that the writers know, too. Of course they do. The aliens saunter back to their ship and out from the fog spits a jerky animated red guy with a spiny head who gurns and gyrates horribly, and one grey globe-head turns to the other and in the clearest of college-boy accents, says “What the hell is that?”.
What the hell that is doesn’t become clear. The episode unfolds with a multiplicity of stories, alternative accounts and flashbacks told to and by a seriously caricatured writer character who cheerfully informs Scully, an admirer of his work, that he is doing it for fat pay-check promised by his publishers. As the reflexive layers build one wonders whether this might be a reference to the X-files scriptwriters themselves as the context in which they work is gloriously acknowledged in the stories told by nut after nut, and dare I say it, by Mulder himself.
I enjoyed the convolutions of the episode far too much to insufficiently recount all of the twists in cack-handed one-sentence summaries, but it’s all in there. Every classic trope is presented and then dissected, the 50s horror, the fantasist, hypnotism and question-marks over the mental resilience of the abductees, inserted memories and government plots; best of all, just as all the threads begin to be pulled together into the usual annoyingly neat yet intriguingly unproven solution, we are thwarted yet again.
The scriptwriters are aware of the ridiculousness of these vague insinuations of evil plots and smoking men, muttered safely distant from the responsibility of evidence. They know the liberties they take, feeding the vague sense of persecution felt by the governed populous with hints and raised eyebrows that don’t even need to be fully articulated to be proclaimed the persecuted TRUTH, the truth that is out there and that they don’t want us to know. But these guys know, they know that such stories feed into a certain need in the psyche, a need borne of needing to believe that the official line propounded so confidently can’t be all there is, that there is something yet to discover.
I believe wholeheartedly that there are hidden mysteries and unknown things in our incomplete and messy world, and that this constitutes far more ground than that yet modelled by human maps and descriptions. So do many scientists, investigators and deep thinkers, burrowing away into the weirdness of the world within or without institutions, searching for new knowledge as far as someone’s money will allow them to go. The more that we know, the more that we know we do not know, known unknowns and unknown knowns rising like thick grey soup around our ankles. I also believe that a lot of exciting conspiracy stories are championed and shouted from the rooftops for the simple reason that they oppose a perceived common knowledge, they are the opposite of an illusion of established certainty that is depressingly and misleadingly proposed in schools and stupid newspapers.
Of course we object to that. Of course the fantasist weaves his story and is silenced by a man in black, played in his mind by a wrestler in a Fedora. Of course Mulder mutters his way to a government informant, revealing dark plots in a dark bar before being spirited away by his superiors, leaving us to understand that this is in fact all about some terrible scary government conspiracy… but then we cut to yet another account and Mulder’s in a bar by himself eating pie and scaring the proprietor, and perhaps he’s been a fantasist all along. Or so somebody else says.
It’s all about the relativity of truth. Each account is coloured by its teller, and for once we don’t get an answer, even implied; instead a big arrow pointed at the creation of the series itself, even bigger than the continual references to famous ‘sex addict’ David Duchovny’s character’s porn habit (this time we briefly see him naked in bed, breathing heavily, watching a video of bigfoot. Classic). We get every character’s wildly diverging account and the writers show their hands as well, undermining the very narrative authority that keeps them in their real-world jobs.
Relativism as a philosophical standpoint has been hotly debated. Chomsky famously considers its moral incarnation not only unhelpful but basically impossible to coherently argue. In Fashionable Nonsense, their famous debunking of postmodernist intellectuals’ abuses of scientific and mathematical concepts, Sokal and Bricmont put forward a potent argument that debates over the notion of absolute truth lead us to voluntarily rob ourselves of the weapons that could be used to make a difference in very real situations, and that that leads to a lamentable disabling of the political left. To question is a good thing, but to continually question the questioning can create a mirror-tunnel of up-ended self-reflection; then again, there’s a part of me that wonders if it’s possible to put limits on self-reflection without promoting blinkeredness.
When it comes to the narratives of popular culture, however, I believe that this undermining is absolutely essential. For so many years we have worshipped the rectangular screen and shows like the X-Files have fulfilled our many unexpressed needs, glossily pressing the right buttons without our ever having to figure out why or what they are. If the X-Files decides to turn its gaze to the culture that created it then perhaps we can peer into its reflecting eye and see something of ourselves, and a little of what lies behind us.