Secrets Of the X-Files

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The X-Files has also inspired the sort of obsessive fan culture associated with Star Trek, from conventions to trading cards.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #28, October 1996


The more and the harder men work, the more they build up that which dominates their work as an alien force, the commodity; so also, the more and the harder the white-collar man works, the more he builds up the enterprise outside himself, which is, as we have seen, duly made a fetish and thus indirectly justified. The enterprise is not the institutional shadow of great men, as perhaps it seemed under the old captain of industry; nor is it the instrument through which men realize themselves in work, as in small-scale production. The enterprise is an impersonal and alien Name, and the more that is placed in it, the less is placed in man.
— C. Wright Mills, White Collar

Secrets Aren't Always Hidden

As the Fox Network's The X-Files begins its fourth season, it has truly hit the big-time. Though the season premiere was broadcast in the show's traditional Friday-night slot, a graveyard for many good series, it was one of the nation's ten most-watched programs. Considering that few shows not on the United States' Big Three networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) ever crack the top 30, this is a startling achievement. The X-Files is also a hit outside the United States, with an extremely loyal following in Canada, Great Britain, and even Japan. The show's success has prompted American television studios to turn out many 'copy-cat' series. And unlike all but a few popular series, The X-Files has also inspired the sort of obsessive fan culture associated with Star Trek, from conventions to trading cards.

As undeniably popular as The X-Files has become, it has received far more media attention than series with comparable ratings. Its creators' relatively unconventional approach to television is a major reason. Like such shows as Moonlighting, Twin Peaks, and Northern Exposure before it, The X-Files draws attention for being different. This helps explain why lots of people who never watch the show know what it's about: two FBI detectives who investigate paranormal phenomena while making their way through a maze of governmental conspiracy.

The X-Files is also about work. In one sense, this is obvious: any show about people whose job it is to investigate mysteries must be. But there is also a way in which the obviousness of a fact can blind us to its significance. We frequently overlook something that's staring us right in the face, and not necessarily by accident. As Marxist theorist Louis Althusser writes in the essay from which Bad Subjects gets its name, "it is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are 'obviousnesses') obviousnesses as obviousnesses." To put this in simpler terms, when we underestimate something's importance because it seems too obvious to worry about, it may be because somebody wants us to underestimate it. Considered in this light, it is telling that media coverage of The X-Files has barely mentioned the way in which the show portrays work. This is why we should make work our lens in looking for the real secrets of The X-Files. But before we do, I need to provide some background.

File It Away in A Slim Folder

The narrative structure of a typical episode of The X-Files is based on the hour-long detective drama, particularly as it is inflected by the 'partnership' sub-genre made famous in shows like Starsky and Hutch and Cagney and Lacey. But The X-Files also exhibits some significant deviations from this format. Unlike the majority of shows about 'partners in detection,' The X-Files pairs a man — FBI Agent Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) — with a woman — FBI Agent Dana Scully (played by Gillian Anderson). But although the show has presented its two protagonists with many opportunities to pursue a sexual liaison, their relationship has remained platonic. Nonetheless, it is a relationship with the complexity of a love relationship. To put this in reductive but revealing terms, sexuality is displaced 'upward' without the bond that couples Scully and Mulder weakening. Their substitute for sex is conversation. This is where the push-and-pull we associate with more intimate 'partnerships' manifests itself.

The show makes a great deal out of the different attitudes with which Scully and Mulder approach their research into paranormal phenomena. Scully normally assumes the role of the 'man of science' — an incongruity that resonates through the partnership. She is always seeking to find a scientific explanation for the paranormal. On the other hand, Mulder is a 'believer.' Or at least he wants to be: there's a poster on the wall above his desk at the FBI that declares "I want to believe." There are numerous ways in which the show complicates this opposition between skeptic and believer. Scully is a Christian, Mulder an apparent agnostic or atheist. Nonetheless, the opposition itself continues to generate most of the show's conversations. These conversations conform to a basic pattern: Mulder leaps to an improbable conclusion; Scully counters that there must be a scientific explanation; and in the end, neither one of them is proved entirely right or wrong.

Not only does The X-Files feature somewhat unconventional 'partners in detection,' it is also about unconventional detective work. Conventional mysteries plod methodically towards narrative closure. But even the most self-contained episodes of The X-Files preserve a disconcerting degree of open-endedness. Multiple causes are proposed for almost every event. And, as even less-than-loyal viewers know, the standard one-hour episode of The X-Files is situated within an overarching narrative in which the paranormal phenomena catalogued in the FBI's X-Files are imbricated in a dense grid of governmental and para-governmental conspiracy. This conspiracy is foregrounded in the show's multi-part episodes, which not only bridge television seasons in typical cliffhanger fashion, but also occur mid-season. And there is always the possibility that even those episodes of The X-Files that confine themselves to the exploration of a discrete phenomenon may provide clues to this conspiracy.

There's No Place Like Home

Perhaps the best way to approach the show's portrayal of work is to focus on its portrayal of what is not work. Work is traditionally identified with a place: an office, a factory, or a number of different locations linked together by a route. This is why we use the word "workplace" as a substitute for the word "work." The place we think of as most clearly contrasting with the workplace is the home. When we think of what isn't work, what we can call "not-work", we think of the home. Although we have to do tasks at home, we don't normally think of them as being equivalent to the tasks we do at work. In the popular imagination, home is where we imagine ourselves to have stopped working, where we relax, where we unburden ourselves from the cares of the workday. Home is our refuge from work.

The X-Files does everything it can to refute this idea of the home. The home offers no protection. Although there are countless scenes from the show that make this point, a key episode from early in The X-Files' second season did so in particularly dramatic fashion. The first hour of this multi-part episode opens with a flashback in which a man, Duane Berry, is apparently abducted by aliens. At the start of the scene, we zoom in on the outside of his house, then cut to an inspection of its interior. Berry is asleep, the television still blaring near his bed. Then the room lights up. What seemed a solid bedroom wall becomes as transparent as the thinnest of Japanese paper screens. We are once again outside the house, looking in on the man past silhouettes of strange-looking humanoid figures. This time, there is no cut necessary: we can see inside his house without moving from an exterior shot to an interior shot. The scene has collapsed the distinction between inside and outside, between the home and the dangers from which it provides refuge.

After this flashback, the majority of the hour concerns a hostage situation in the present time of the story. Berry, who was apparently abducted, has become an abductor. Mulder is called in to talk to him. He claims to have been abducted by aliens on several occasions and fears that they are coming for him once again and hopes to give them a hostage as a substitute for himself. After tense negotiations, the hostage situation is resolved when snipers wound Berry. As the first hour draws to a close, we see him in his hospital room. It is calm. But all at once, the warning signs that an abduction is imminent are repeated. He flees the hospital in fear. We then cut to shot of what turns out to be Mulder's apartment. The camera shows the inside of a front door lit up by a flash of lightning, then pans down in darkness until his answering machine is revealed by another flash. We then cut to a shot of Scully in her home. She is calling Mulder to relay an important discovery about Berry.

As the scene unfolds, we cut back and forth between Scully's lit, occupied apartment and Mulder's dark, empty one, synechdochally figured in the image of his answering machine. While Scully is leaving her message, Berry suddenly appears at her window. The hour ends with another shot of Mulder's answering machine. We hear the sound of breaking glass and Scully's cries for help. The second hour opens with another sort of flashback. Mulder has heard her frantic message, but arrives at her home to find a police line. She is gone. As Mulder walks up to her broken front window and then into her apartment, he has brief visions of her abduction, a flashback in which he sees something he wasn't there to witness.

There are many similarities between the two abductions in this episode. Berry does to Scully what he believes has been done to him. Her abduction resonates with his own. Both are forcibly taken from their own homes. Both learn how easily their privacy can be violated. This is a message about the vulnerability of personal space, a message The X-Files drills into its audience over and over and over. But there's something more subtle going on here. The details in Scully's abduction tell us just as much about work as they do about the home. Mulder is not home because he is still at work. And, though she is home, Scully is still working — hers is a professional phone call. The man who appears outside her window is the man she is talking about. In a way, Berry's arrival is like some divinely ordained punishment for bringing her work home with her. To the extent that she fails to protect her home from the pressures of the professional, she is partially complicit in her own abduction.

We are familiar with the concept of a 'home away from home,' but here we encounter a home that is almost always shown to be 'work away from work.' The same goes for almost every place in The X-Files. As the scene we just looked at suggests, the phone plays a central role in this blurring of the distinction between work and home. When Scully and Mulder aren't calling each other at home — usually to leave a message — they are calling each other on their cellular phones. In fact, the shot-reverse shot sequence in which they converse over their cellular phones is probably the most common in the show, and clearly forms part of the permanent lattice-work in and through which particular narratives are woven. Although there are a number of conclusion we could draw about this, the most important one is obvious: Scully and Mulder's devotion to work is like the devotion of an addict. Like many of the show's most devoted fans, they are 'workaholics.'

As many commentators on the changing American workplace have noted, the problem of setting boundaries is an acute one for white-collar professionals whose work schedules are less and less like the standard nine-to-five day of years past. There was a time when most people's workday was regimented like the workday of the blue-collar middle-class. But with the decline in the traditional manufacturing jobs, the principles for which unions fought, like the eight-hour workday, are no longer so influential. And whether they realize it or not, white-collar professionals are facing the consequences. It has become increasingly common for them to bring their work home with them.

Some people have given this development a positive spin. In their bookCreating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler argue that the ongoing transformation of the workplace actually "re-empowers the family and the home" because, as "an estimated thirty million Americans now do some part of their work at home, often using computers, faxes and other Third Wave technologies," they have the opportunity to spend a great deal more time away from work than their predecessors a generation or two before. The question is whether doing work at home deprives the home of its status as a refuge from the burdens of work. As far as The X-Files is concerned, the answer would have to be no.

Of course, there's a difference between being asked to bring work home and bringing it home without being asked. This difference marks the divide between the overworked and the workaholic. Scully and Mulder so clearly fall into this latter category that their supervisor must repeatedly tell them to stop working. This is particularly true of Mulder, who takes an order to stop working as a sign that there's more work to be done. He is convinced that powers both within his organization and outside of it have a vested interest in limiting his productivity. As a consequence, he invests his work with a purpose that frequently puts him at cross-purposes with the people he's working for. His work becomes something different from the work of the standard FBI operative. And by helping him to sustain and sometimes strengthen his relation to work, Scully behaves like a classic co-dependent. This where the importance of their close, but non-sexual relationship manifests itself. Initially, she can't maintain a boundary between work and home because he can't. He is obsessed with his work. She feels the need to support his obsession. But she rapidly becomes as involved with their investigations as he is. For workaholics like Scully and Mulder, the home functions like any other workplace. Because they fail to preserve any of the positive qualities we associate with home, they are functionally homeless. There really is no place like home, because every place looks like work.

Taking It Personally

Why do Scully and Mulder let their work take over their lives? The work's importance has something to do with it. Doctors, police, and other people who do work that is a matter of life and death frequently have a similar problem. No doubt, this is why the majority of successful shows that focus on the workplace have been hospital and crime dramas. Exposing conspiracies with potentially dire consequences for the planet would certainly qualify as work of a similar life-and-death magnitude. But this doesn't provide all of the pieces to the puzzle. It is isn't enough that the work matters objectively. It has to matter to the person doing it. Like the doctors on ER, the police on NYPD Blue, or the lawyers on Murder One, Scully and Mulder don't really cross the line separating hard workers from workaholics until they become personally involved. They have to make the work their own.

In the pilot to the series, Mulder reveals to Scully that his interest in paranormal phenomena originates in a childhood trauma that occurred when he was twelve years old: the abduction of his eight-year-old sister from the bedroom they shared. He tells Scully that he is convinced aliens were responsible. When he began work at the FBI, it was as an expert on serial killers. It was not until he became interested in the FBI's files on unexplained phenomena that he became personally involved in his work. Working on the X-Files is not merely a professional assignment, but a personal quest to retroactively make sense of his sister's disappearance.

As we have already noted, Scully did not have this personal motivation to work on the X-Files when the series began. In the show's pilot we learn that she has been assigned to be his partner because powerful people connected with the FBI want to see the X-Files exposed as a lie. But by the end of the pilot, Scully is already developing respect for Mulder's work, even if she finds it hard to give his conclusions much credence. Still, she retains a distance to her work that he lacks. She is dispassionate where he exhibits passion and disinterested where he acts on the basis of self-interest. But the show is not content to leave this contrast unquestioned. Instead, it has put Scully through a series of experiences that could lead to her being 'converted' to the believer's side. Taken as a whole, these experiences comprise a story with the allegorical resonance of religious narratives like Pilgrim's Progress, the difference being that it is not Scully's faith in God that is tested, but her faith in science.

Prominent among these experiences is her abduction. After Berry abducts Scully, he takes her to the mountain where he expects the aliens to come, thinking that they will be willing to take her instead of him. In the second hour, Mulder tracks the two of them down, but arrives to find only Berry. Scully has vanished in a burst of light like the one that accompanied the man's initial abduction. Mulder assumes that she is dead. In the third hour, she reappears mysteriously in a hospital. No one knows how she got there. She is near death. By the end of the third hour, however, she has regained sufficient strength to talk with Mulder. The show's next regular episode showed her back at work, working exactly as she had before her abduction. But unlike your average soap-opera, The X-Files is not a show that permits its protagonists to forget their history. Although Scully appeared to be 'back to normal' after the abduction, subsequent multi-part episodes have made it clear that the case is far from closed on her abduction experience.

During the hostage situation in the first hour of the abduction episode, Berry details the surgical tortures inflicted on him during his abductions. Mulder believes him, because his story of implants mirrors that of most other people who think they have been abducted. Scully is skeptical, particularly after learning that the man is himself an ex-FBI agent. After Berry has been wounded by snipers and taken to the hopsital, his surgeon finds pieces of metal right where he said the implants would be. Mulder believes that this is proof of abduction. Scully counters that they could be shrapnel Berry picked up during the Vietnam War. But she takes one of the pieces for testing. Oddly, she tests it first, not at the lab but the supermarket, running it over the laser price-checker. The LED display on the cash register goes wild. It looks a little like the image on the cover of Police's album Ghost in the Machine. This is the important information she is leaving on Mulder's answering machine when she is abducted.

In the multi-part episode linking the end of The X-Files second season with the beginning of its third, Scully learns that she has a similar device implanted in her. After she has it removed, tests confirm that it's a highly sophisticated integrated circuit. Despite its complexity, it is so small that it seems to outstrip any known electrical engineering. She also learns that her own name appears along with that of the man who abducted her in top-secret government computer files encrypted in an archaic form of the Navajo language. In the episode's third and final hour, she and Mulder follow a tip to an abandoned mine that has been converted into a secret complex for storing files. They find a file on Scully which appears to have been recently updated and a file on Mulder's sister that was originally intended for him.

Later in the third season, their investigation of someone selling an alien autopsy brings Scully into contact with a network of women who had metal implants just like Scully's extracted from their bodies and who claim to have been abducted. All of these developments in Scully's story have given her a personal interest in the work she does on The X-Files to match Mulder's. And, although she still holds out for a properly scientific approach to their research, the objectivity scientists strive for is something more and more difficult for her to maintain. She may not want to make the work her own, but her experiences make her do so.

Alienated Labor

The X-Files has always associated violations of privacy with the paranormal. The question is where to fit the professional into the picture. The boundary between work and home is blurred when people become personally involved in their work. And, as the episodes I've described make clear, both Scully and Mulder have extremely good reasons for becoming personally involved in the X-Files. Their refusal to stop working when they are told to do so leads them to realize how fully their own lives are imbricated in their object of study. If they weren't workaholics, they would never have discovered such good reasons for being workaholics. I realize that this is a paradoxical formulation. But I believe that it provides some clues about how we should go about theorizing The X-Files.

As the work of turn-of-the-century sociologist Max Weber long ago made clear, people who work in bureaucracies have a different relation to their work than the industrial workers on whom Marx focused. Their work does not result in the same sort of product. But they do produce something: files. And this has remained the case from the time when files were written by hand, through the time when they were typewritten, up until the present day in which the majority of files are computer files. Unlike the products produced by blue-collar workers, however, files are rarely commodities in the traditional sense. Although files may be valuable, they are not usually exchanged on the market in the way something like an automobile is.

I think this is the key to understanding the peculiar status of the X-Files. Because capitalism cuts us off from the products of our labor, we desire the products on which our labor was expended. We imagine that we can 'buy back' that part of ourselves we have lost in laboring for wages. Of course, we can't really buy it back. But when we feel we can, we are engaged in what Marx called 'commodity fetishism.' We are psychically investing commodities with a power that really derives from ourselves. This 'investment' produces what we might call, in homage to the work of leftist cultural critic Walter Benjamin, the 'aura of the commodity.'

Files aren't usually commodities. But to the extent that they represent the congealed labor of the people who get paid to produce them, they are invested with an aura not unlike the one people invest in commodities. And like the aura of the commodity, the aura invested in all files that are produced for pay is something of a 'mystery.' Because the X-Files contain information about mysteries analogous to this one, however, they tell the truth of their own production in ways that other files do not. And the truth that is "out there", to quote the show's motto, is that white-collar professionals working under capitalism are alienated from their labor and its product much as industrial workers are. They may get paid better than those industrial workers, but they still find themselves caught up in a process that separates them from their labor and, by extension, from a part of themselves. Or, to give this formulation a different spin, they find themselves caught up in a process that separates them from what they feel to be a part of themselves, however much that feeling may itself be a product of misrecognition.

It must be noted, however, that The X-Files has been less than attentive to the ways in which the prevailing economic system might have an impact on the personal or the paranormal. Money simply doesn't come up. The absence of capitalism from a narrative that points towards practically all other forms of conspiratorial agency implies an ideological blindspot. The scene in which Scully 'tests' the piece of metal extracted from the man's abdomen by seeing if it registers something like a price at the supermarket checkstand is probably the moment at which The X-Files comes closest to implying that capitalism is complicit in the overall conspiracy. But as she retells what happened in that scene to Mulder's answering machine, she retroactively shifts the focus away from the idea of 'pricing' to the more neutral idea of bureaucratic numbering. The man wasn't numbered in order to give him a price, but in order to give him a file.

Interestingly, it seems that the show's creators have been thinking hard about its portrayal of both work and home. The two-part episode bridging the third and fourth seasons began by focusing on a savior-like figure who just happened to be one of several identical men working at branches of the Social Security Administration. The second hour took viewers to an experimental farm in the wilds of Canada where cloned children work like "drones". The X-Files has always devoted a lot of attention to clones, but juxtaposing them with drones puts a different spin on their meaning. Drones are workers whose individuality is irrelevant. They are like clones, but only in their capacity as workers. It is their work that makes them identical.

By taking their work personally, Scully and Mulder avoid acting like the 'drones' in large organizations like the FBI or IBM who blindly follow the orders of their superiors. But they do so at the price of being workaholics. This was alluded to in the second epsiode of the show's new season. In addition to making the concept of 'home' even more problematic, it also made explicit reference to its protagonists' potentially unhealthy relation to work. In a rare moment of blissful nostalgia, Mulder recalls his upbringing in a place where home seemed safe. He notes that you "never had to lock your doors. No modems. No faxes. No cell phones." Scully offers a dead-pan reply: "Mulder, if you had to do without a cell phone for two minutes, you'd lapse into catatonic schizophrenia." What's so interesting about this self-reflexive comment is that most people who work for wages under capitalism could be said to operate in a state of "catatonic schizophrenia" in that they are split off from a part of themselves, but walk around unconscious of their own alienation. Mulder's cell phone may make it easier for him to be a workaholic, but it may also help him avoid the forms of mental illness that plague the average worker.

Although it is encouraging that The X-Files is becoming more self-reflexive about its protagonists' workaholism, the problems it points out aren't going to go away. I think it exemplifies the situation of today's working professionals, who are no longer reaping the benefits of a workplace standardized on the basis of the eight-hour workday. But at the same time, as Scully and Mulder make the work they do into work of their own, they are able to realize something about themselves that less obsessive workers would not. This is where the show's tropes come in handy. Both Scully and Mulder have experiences in which they lose time. This loss is almost always linked to abduction in one form or another. But what is this loss of time if not a metaphor for the loss experienced by everyone who spends the better part of most days working for wages? The preoccupation with aliens is apt, for The X-Files is ultimately a show about alienation. Scully and Mulder's real discovery is all the different ways in which they have been alienated from themselves.

Charlie Bertsch is a Ph.D. Student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. He is currently at work on a dissertation entitled Subverting the System: Models of Resistance in Post-WWII American Culture. You can reach him by e-mail at the following internet address: cbertsch@comcast.com.

Copyright © 1996 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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