"Deny All Knowledge": Reading the X-Files

Edited by David Lavery, Angela Hague, Marla Cartwright

A few weeks ago I was browsing in my favourite science fiction/fantasy bookshop and came across this paperback. The back cover said that it "interprets the X-Files from a variety of perspectives, and situates the series in a wide cultural, political and psychological context."

Hmm I thought. My knowledge of modern criticism/analysis is limited to "Postmodernism for Beginners" and this looked rather serious. But I read the introduction in the shop, found it understandable, had a gift voucher to burn, so bought the book. Here's a quick review for anyone else looking for something different in the way of X-File merchandise.

Chapter 1: Introduction has enough footnotes to satisfy the most rabid ATXF fetishist. It gives a history of the UFO/abduction movement and significant books, from 1947 to the present day; and then analyses "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" for references to previous UFO lore and the X-Files show itself.

Chapter 2: Rewriting Popularity is about the changes in the broadcast TV industry and the X-Files place in it. It looks at Star Trek as the first cult TV show and the types of viewers that different shows attract. It continues with developments in the '80s and argues that The X-Files is more successful than Twin Peaks because it is both episodic (one-off episodes that a first time viewer will understand) and serial (the long running conspiracy threads that attract devoted/avid fans).

Chapter 3: DDEB, GATB, MPPB And Ratboy looks at fans rather than the show itself, especially those using CMC (computer mediated communications) - hey, that's us! It examines how discussions develop, gender differences in topics and style of communication, the different venus (mailing lists, Usenet, moderated forums) and how X-Philes compare with other fans. (The percentage of women posting to the alt.tv.x-files group is 25%, higher than for Star Trek or Babylon 5.)

Chapter 4: Are You or Have You Ever Been? begins with the career of Mort Sahl (if your reaction is to ask "who?" you are not alone). It then looks at American conspiracy films and movements, linking Watergate with the X-Files. If I were an American or knew a lot about post-war American history it might have been interesting.

Chapter 5: I Want To Believe...In The FBI looks at how the FBI has been portrayed (and portrayed itself) from the 30s to today. There have been quite a number of changes, culminating in the new style FBI agents Dale Cooper and Mulder from Twin Peaks and The X-Files. (Twin Peaks gets a lot of references throughout this book). This is also the chapter where jargon starts to creep in: "The X Files foregrounds Mulder and Scully's hypernormality..." but here kept to a minimum and explained.

Chapter 6: Last Week We Had An Omen looks at the X Files as if it were folklore or myth. There's a nice description of the folk tale according to Hollywood and an analysis of the different categories of X-Files episodes. This is used to compare the three episodes "Ice", "Darkness Falls", and "Firewalker", showing how the writers emphasise different aspects of essentially identical plots. It then looks at the roles of Mulder and Scully and the functions of the various groups/conspiracies/aliens in mythic terms. Cool!

Chapter 7: What Do You Think? gets serious in the 2nd paragraph: "Ironically, their frequent sex role reversals result in Scully's investigative gaze being disempowered." This is the first of two chapters about gender in The X-Files. Scully is compared with Agent Starling from Silence of the Lambs, and Mulder & Scully with Holmes & Watson. Then it switches to Mulder as an atypical male role, the relationships Mulder and Scully have with others in the X-Files setting, and the differences in what each gets to see in episodes. (And how this has changed over the seasons.) Hard going in places, but worth it.

Chapter 8: Special Agent Or Monstrosity? (Philosopher: Haraway. Difficulty: 7.5.) is another examination of Scullys role in the X- Files. Unfortunately I ran out of oxygen at "Indeed, Scully's fascination with and eventual bodily assimilation of the monstrous lead her to challenge and to subvert the masculinized scientific and legal discourses that constitute her power within the FBI." I don't want to dismiss this chapter as ivory tower stuff: I could get the general drift as I read and it seemed interesting, but this is really for specialists.

Chapter 9: How To Talk The Unknown Into Existence was short and readable again. It's about how an "agents" and "practices" model of language can be used to analyse things, using X-Files dialogue as examples. Unfortunately that's all it is, a set of examples, unless there was some subtle point I missed. It was like reading just an early chapter from a textbook and never finding out why it was there.

Chapter 10: The Rebirth Of The Clinic (Philosopher: Foucault. Difficulty: 9.8) is the high point - or low, for the general reader - of academic style. Second paragraph: "When the body in question is not alien or invaded by aliens, it is "alienated" by the camera and by the narrative. It is made strange in the Brechtian sense, elided, or displaced within the mise-en-scene..." Um, yeah. Next!

And finally the longest Chapter 11: You Only Expose Your Father (Philosopher: Lacan. Difficulty: 7.0) is also heavy on the jargon in places but with refreshingly lucid passages in between. It examines symbolism in the X-Files, analysing events, dialogues, relationships, and even camera work. It ranges from interesting, as when examining Mulders decidedly voyeuristic behaviour towards Kristen in "3", to the frustratingly oblique - sometimes within a single paragraph.

At the end is an episode/title/writer list and a solid bibliography for the serious researcher, or even the not so serious: magazines like "Omni" and "Cinefantastique" are listed as well as more scholarly tomes.

I'm satisfied with an anthology of short stories if it has more hits than misses. On this scale, I rate Deny All Knowledge as reasonable value: out of eleven chapters there were six interesting, one interesting in bits, two dull, and two incomprehensible. It's certainly quite different from the regular "making of" books that get written about TV shows, although someone with more background in postmodernism than I (which wouldn't be difficult) would probably appreciate it more. You could create a truly fiendish Trivia Test: Does the Lacanian narrative address Mulders ambiguous position relative to authority throught the Imaginary, the Symbolic, or the Real? My recommendation for most people though is to wait for it to appear in your local university library and borrow/browse it there.

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