"Self as panoptician..."
Self as panoptician: The X-Files, spectatorship, and discipline
John M. Groves
School of Journalism and Communication
University of Oregon
1848 Madison St.
Eugene, OR 97402
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Self as panoptician: The X-Files, spectatorship, and discipline
Cultural studies research on television has often taken the form of textual or
reception analysis that examines the televisual production as if it were a
written text. This paper looks at the serial plot of the X-Files, but places
that plot within the non-diegetic context of the viewing experience. The
cinematic 'look' of the show creates a coherent 'spectator' position, calling
for application of psychoanalytic film theory. This effect works with the
conspiracy-oriented plot to create a viewer/text interaction which inverts
subjective relations to discipline. If in the workplace subjects occupy tightly
circumscribed positions in panoptic networks, the X-Files offers textual
positions which allow viewers to transgress symbolic constructions of
Solemn protagonists, bald aliens, Siberian torture camps, black
extraterrestrial goo that seeps into your eyes, corpses bearing the marks of
violent, paranormally inflicted death--all of this woven into an elaborate tale
of conspiracy centered at the highest levels of the US government. Yes, I watch
the X-Files. No, I am not proud. But I have come to be grateful that I have
spent all those Sunday nights glued to the set, saying to myself, "this is
absurd," even while I become agitated if I miss a word of dialogue. There is
something going on here which I need to look into, I thought. This paper is the
Where do we position ourselves among the UFO's, the acts of violence, the
state conspiracy, the disease epidemics, the "others" of the X-Files? How do
subject positions in the show draw us into the text, bringing us face to face
with the slime-covered liver-eating mutant that kills five people every 30 years
as a necessary part of his life-cycle?
At $2.5 million per episode, the X-Files is one of the most expensive
productions on television. The budget reflects itself in the technical quality
of the show, with cinema-like special effects and dynamic camerawork that
actively draws the viewer into the text. One of the show's directors states,
"The show is about emotional reality rather than dramatic reality. That's why,
if this show hadn't been done well, we would have been laughed off the air a
long time ago" (Sterngold, 1998, p. B7). Point-of-view and shot-reverse-shot
camera work are staples of production.
The cinematic 'look' of the X-Files, I argue, creates a centralized
spectator position much like the classic cinematic spectator position. And the
specific qualities of the experience have numerous parallels to Foucault's
metaphor of panopticism: not just as a metaphor for the metapsychology of
'spectatorship', but also as a metaphor for the conspiratorial basis of the
X-Files serial plot. In Foucault's panoptic scenario, we find technology and
behavioral norms integrated in highly-coordinated surveillance systems
throughout society (prisons, the military, state security, schools, the
workplace). Such systems instigate in subjects a self-policing operation. If you
stray out of line, your deviance will become known, leading to punishment--so
you act within prescribed boundaries. Schools or the workplace give many people
with their most intimate exposure to panoptic networks: work habits, rules,
technology, architecture, and even aspects of personal and occupational
Spectatorship in the X-files shifts the relationship of the subject to the
panopticism of daily life. The X-files works metapsychologically by placing the
viewer either at the center of, outside, or moving across the boundaries of a
shifting, symbolic 'panopticon' that is constructed during the viewing
experience. This is in contrast to daily life, where subjects are circumscribed
in specific positions within the 'gaze' of a panoptic structure. So 'self as
panoptician' refers to a viewing perspective either at the center, crossing
boundaries, or in a 'transcendental observer' position, looking at disciplinary
complexes from outside. The show invites the viewer to assume a spectator
position and join Scully and Mulder as the text unravels, it hails the viewer
into a symbolic world where he or she is suddenly the inspector rather than the
inspected. In the X-Files, conspiracy operates as the symbolic construction of
panopticism. This offers a therapeutic retreat from the panoptic situation of
daily life, where we are all caught in networks of various and overlapping power
systems--our workplace structure, the state, our high-tech surroundings. In this
way, the X-Files functions to reproduce the existing capitalist relations of
production by working out psychic tensions that might otherwise result in
workplace resistance and increased political involvement on the part of
subordinated subjects. I will examine this issue in relation to Althusser's
(1994/1970) classic essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses."
The parallels between panopticism and spectatorship have been noted before.
Armstrong (1989; cited in R. Stam, et al. ,1992, pp. 212-213) looked at
Frederick Wiseman's documentaries of various disciplinary institutions. The
cinematic apparatus' panoptic spectator facilitates the effectiveness of these
films by underpinning the storyline with a parallel metapsychological dynamic.
Conspiracy and the X-Files
Meghan Morris (1997) suggests that the X-Files' popularity rests on its
appeal to the widespread circulation of Right-leaning conspiracy theories. The
show plays off popular fears that there is one or more hidden 'evil Others' at
work altering the foundations of social reality. In the case of the X-Files,
varied combinations of aliens, hidden bureaucrats, and paranormal phenomena are
the conspirators. Morris discusses the X-files to launch a discussion of recent
attacks on cultural studies in Australia. Offering a comprehensive analysis of
the show is understandably not part of her paper.
Frederic Jameson (1988) holds conspiracy theory to be, "a degraded figure
of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the
latter's system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and
content" (p. 356). Such thinking holds no conception of the structural logic of
capitalism, he maintains, but displaces and rewrites capitalist subordination
into elaborate tales of conspiracy.
I share Morris' thoughts on the politics of the X-files. Conspiracy
theories tend to reinforce status quo politics by framing 'the unknown' as
inherently threatening, reinforcing tendencies to mark anything unfamiliar
negatively. The serial plot of the X-files, while never clearly defined,
portrays FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder working to expose and understand
a world of high-ranking state conspiracy that is intricately bound up with alien
landings and abductions. Shows that veer away from the serial plot invoke a huge
range of 'paranormal activity', from Satanic plastic surgeons to African
immigrants who drink juice from people's pineal glands in order to stave off the
onset of a rare disease.
Yet the show's popularity can not be adequately explained by an analysis of
the politics of its story lines. A semiotic analysis of the text as narrative,
without a consideration of metapsychological factors, would not explain the
appeal of the X-Files. I think the show's obsession with invisible networks of
oppression, the relation of the central characters Scully and Mulder to those
networks, and the unconscious activity invoked by this dynamic, is crucial to
its appeal. I argue that the show creates on more than one level a viewing
experience that brings into play numerous unconscious desires and aspects of
personal identity that relate to daily life in a disciplinary society. By
working out some of the tensions operating at this psychic/social intersection,
the X-Files works in its own way to reproduce relations of production of
Ideology and the reproduction of capitalism
Althusser's (1994/1970) essay considers the reproduction of both the means
of production--the industrial infrastructure--and the reproduction of capitalist
relations of production--worker-owner relations. He suggest ideology is the
foremost vehicle for the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. He
locates ideological production in a set of 'ideological state apparatuses', then
considers how ideology attaches itself to subjects.
Repressive state apparatuses (RSA's)--the military, police, security
agents, the legal and legislative system--are located within the state political
structure. Some of the ideological state apparatuses (ISA's) overlap with RSA's,
but others are dispersed throughout society, beyond the political system.
Althusser labels as ISA's religion, education, family life, the legal system,
political parties, unions, mass news media, entertainment media, and
recreational activities (p. 111). Each of these practices is located in material
sites throughout the social matrix. Ideology is produced by specific practices,
it is grounded in material relations. All these ISA's work to produce ideologies
which maintain race, class, and gender subordination.
His "central thesis" is "ideology interpellates individuals as subjects"
(p. 128). This aspect of his argument, many observers have noted, is heavily
influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis. For Althusser, subjectivity and ideology
are so closely related that he goes as far as to say, "The existence of ideology
and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the
same thing" (p. 131). The psychological mechanisms invoked by such
interpellation are 'universal', thus Althusser concludes that in one sense,
ideology, broadly speaking, is a universal, ahistorical phenomenon. The
implication is that our identities are constructed by ideology, that we
recognize ourselves as subjects in ideology. Such a grim scenario has left many
with the impression that Althusser offers no escape from the mechanisms of
reproduction of capitalist relations: "There are no subjects except by and for
their subjection" (p. 136).
Stuart Hall (1985) has worked to construct a theory of ideology that
overcomes what he refers to as a "creeping Marxist functionalism" in Althusser's
conception (p. 99). The ISA essay seems to provide little account of how
resistance can come about, what mechanisms of ideological circulation and
identity construction contain exploitable contradictions. This is where the
Gramsci's concept of hegemony has been called upon to provide a way of
theorizing points of weakness and contradiction in dominant ideology. Implicit
to this concept is the idea that ideologies are always historically contingent
and open to contestation. In Hall's work (1982, 1985) this notion connects quite
logically to the semiotics and cultural theory that he brings into the
scenario--Volosinov, Levi-Strauss, Barthes. Semiotics facilitates an
understanding of how it is that ideologies operate in discourse, opening up a
window on points of contradiction, strands of discourse, that can be exploited.
How does metapsychology in the X-Files articulate with these ideological
theories? First, because of the dominant role of psychological regression in
X-Files viewership, social reproduction here seems closer to the
Althusserian/Lacanian schematic than more 'meaning-oriented' cultural studies
approaches. The crucial consideration here, the starting point for an
understanding of this specific type of metapsychological reproduction of
economic relations, is the presence of frustration that revolves around the
subject's relations to conditions of production. What is foregrounded here is
desire, desire to somehow escape the disciplinary positioning of one's job. In
the X-Files, the viewer locates a site of cultural expression that allows this
desire to desublimate in an intersection of affective and identity-related
chains of experience and association which speaks specifically to those
frustrations. In this way, the show acts to defuse potential oppositional
practice in subjects by producing a psychic catharsis oriented around
subject/discipline relations. This differs markedly from more conscious
ideological types of social reproduction in that it works systematically to
negate oppositional impulses rather than to affirm dominant ideologies.
There are parallels here to Marcuse's notion of repressive desublimation
(1964). In One dimensional man, Marcuse maps out the multitude of techniques and
channels through which advanced capitalism obliterates any oppositional elements
of discourse, practice, and even desire. Repressive desublimation revolves
around the commodification of sexuality that has occurred in late capitalism.
For Marcuse, this is one more way for the system to reproduce relations of
subordination. The culture industries provide artifacts that allow for
expression of sexual desire, but expression that falls within delimited bounds
and does not invoke negative or oppositional forms of desublimation.
I certainly want to avoid aligning myself with the sweeping rejection of
popular culture, and corresponding valorization of high modern culture, that
Marcuse and other Frankfurt School adherents propose. But specifically in the
case of the X-Files, it does seem that a process similar to 'repressive
desublimation' is at work. One important difference here is my post-Lacanian
emphasis on relations between the unconscious, identity and culture, as opposed
to Marcuse's more classic Freudian emphasis on ahistorical sexual urges and
In Discipline and Punish (1977), Michel Foucault marks out the path of
criminology and disciplinary technology over the last 300 years, suggesting that
developments which first arose in these areas have since permeated broad sectors
of the social matrix. 'Discipline' is a particular organization of technology,
bureaucracy, architecture, habits, and identity that hierarchizes society,
institutes networks of surveillance, normalizes behavior, and categorizes and
regulates human activity. The resulting networks of rules, records, tools,
machines, thought patterns, and micro-practices facilitates the operation of
'disciplinary power'. Power operates smoothly through this integrated network of
paperwork, buildings, bodies, and identity (with the surrounding network),
drawing people into positions where they are simultaneously restricted and
enabled. Restricted by having to comply with disciplinary norms or suffer
punishment; enabled by assuming a place in a productive network that allows
one's labor to be linked smoothly with that of others, enjoying some of the
power of the vast network.
The Panopticon, a model of prison architecture designed by conservative
late 18th century political theoretician Jeremy Bentham, struck Foucault as a
powerful metaphor for the development and functioning of power in modern
society. As an architectural design, the Panopticon is structured like a wheel,
with a central point of surveillance surrounded by a circle of cells (Foucault,
1977, p. 200). Inmates' cells are perpetually lit from the central point, which
appears to them as a shadow--they can not tell when they are being observed, but
they know that any point in time someone may be watching. So they police their
own behavior. Consequently, the prison need not be maximum security. Discipline
places the operation of restriction and coercion to a large degree inside
people's heads. Foucault emphasizes that using the Panopticon as a metaphor
should not lead one to imagine a static, easily observed panopticism in society:
"...it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached
from any specific use" (p. 205). Panopticism is the metaphor for observation and
surveillance, the crucial step in the disciplinary complex which then proceeds
through categorization, analysis, regulation, and punishment. Panopticism is an
'effect' of discipline.
In Foucault's description of control techniques used in France at the end
of the 17th century for dealing with the appearance of the plague, we see common
words and phrases in a new light: "permanent registration," "penetration of
regulation," "hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing," "measuring,
supervising and correcting"(p. 196-99). Panopticism moves these techniques from
a context of application in an emergency situation to the context of "the
everyday life of men [and women]" (p. 205). Foucault goes on to connect
discipline with related political, economic and scientific developments (p.
Oscar Gandy (1993), emphasizing the data-collection and categorization
functions of panoptic apparatuses, coins the term "the panoptic sort" to refer
to "the all-seeing eye of the difference machine that guides the global
capitalist system" (p. 1). Gandy's book, subtitled, "a political economy of
personal information," charts the various state and corporate techniques for
collecting, distributing, analyzing, classifying, and utilizing such
information. Advanced computer technology and bureaucratic organization form the
infrastructure for such practices, practices which inform investment and
administrative decisions that work to the benefit of hegemonic sectors.
It is important to draw a distinction here between the two functions of
panopticism. The first, informed by Gandy, takes the form of subjects in the
central portions of apparatuses observing those on the periphery. This is the
panopticism of data collection and administration. The second effect, the one
that Foucault emphasized as so crucial to the functioning of disciplinary power,
is the subjective manifestation of self-policing. The subject brings practice
into the prescribed disciplinary framework for fear of the possibility of
deviance becoming known and registered through the channels of the panoptic
apparatus. Panopticism here carves its mark in occupational identity, forming
one of the dominant themes of workplace communicative interaction. For my
purposes, I want to theorize panopticism from the perspective of subjects caught
up in it, from the self-policing function of panopticism. From the position of
the subject we can see how discipline permeates daily life.
The social security number, the address, the credit record, the SAT score,
the grade, the degree, the job description, the management hierarchy, the tools
and techniques of the workplace, the police, courts, prisons, and the repressive
state apparatuses. Regardless of one's view of these realities, it is difficult
to argue with the fact that we are caught up in disciplinary networks. From the
position of all but the most privileged subjects in a disciplinary society,
daily life is a process of navigating through panoptic networks. In order to
understand how this all comes into play in the process of viewing the X-Files, I
want to first examine the relationships between identity, subjectivity, and
spectatorship. Spectatorship in the X-Files relates to the ways identity,
subjectivity and desire are bound up in daily disciplinary relations.
Identity and subjectivity
Paul Gilroy (1997, p. 314-18) finds that the term 'identity' has been used
in three general ways: identity as subjectivity, identity in terms of the
relation between self and Others, and identity as a basis for social solidarity.
In the first sense, identity is theorized at the level of the subject and
personal identity. Through the second and third usages, identity becomes a
negotiation between the subject and the broader social matrix. In line with
semiotic and poststructuralist theories of signification, identity acquires
meaning through differentiation of self from surrounding fields of signifiers.
The most basic level of identity is identification of one's body as self. Beyond
this point, identity constitution is achieved through distinction between self
and others, in a perpetual maintenance of a shifting symbolic boundary. The
process of designating what is outside the self is what defines the self. Stuart
Hall (1996) follows Derrida in labeling that which is defined as 'not the self'
as the 'constitutive outside.'
The broadest level of identity is cultural identity, what Gilroy describes
as the function of identity in social solidarity. Here we see the articulation
of identity to categories spread through the social matrix--race, class, gender,
ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, occupation. Morley and Robbins (1995)
take as a starting point the disruption of traditional sites of identity
formation that is symptomatic of late capitalism. Stable sites for defining
identity in relation to all the above categories are no longer as common as in
the past. Consequently, "Things are no longer defined and distinguished, in the
ways that they once were, by their boundaries, borders or frontiers" (1995, p.
75). If images from all over the world float into one's home through television
or the internet, then the meaning one ascribes to political geography is likely
to change. National borders become potentially less significant in identity
As Hall (1992) notes, this fragmentation of identities introduces a
"tension between tradition and translation" (p. 312). In some instances, new
hybrid identities are being consciously and actively constructed, but often, old
myths of a pure cultural tradition are being rekindled, fueling hatred and
exclusionary politics. This seems to have occurred in some of the former Soviet
states and satellites. In the United States, the Right speaks of lost
European-American tradition, and even broader sectors of society converge in the
formation of a new anti-immigrant sentiment.
So 'subjectivity' is identity operating at its most basic level of
signification--body as self. Questions of subjectivity involve psychoanalysis
and theories of the unconscious. The concept of 'spectatorship' in film studies
describes a viewing situation in which a viewer is drawn into a subject position
in the film text, a process which foregrounds liminal (unconscious/conscious
Film theorists have used psychoanalytic concepts to analyze film viewing as
a process akin to dreaming. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis suggests that this body of
theory can be used to discuss TV viewing, as long as differences between film
and TV are accounted for (1992, p. 203). She emphasizes that despite its common
association with analysis of individuals, psychoanalytic theory is indeed a
social theory (p. 204). Its application can inform questions about the relations
between subjects and positions of subordination that are built into language and
culture. Lacan's work on psychoanalysis has been a starting point for
psychoanalytic film theory.
Flitterman-Lewis reviews Freud's work (p. 204-207), emphasizing that the
unconscious is constituted by the repression of unfulfilled desires. The fantasy
world that pre-exists this subordination is one where biological drives and
pleasure are in union. Forever after, they are never fully united. Infantile
sexuality is gendered by the Oedipus complex, which initiates an ongoing complex
of psychosexual dynamics revolving around suppressed affection for the parent of
the opposite sex.
Lacan rewrote Freud utilizing the tools of structuralism, theorizing the
development of subjectivity as a discursive process. The departure from the
earliest state of consciousness, called the Imaginary phase, occurs when the
infant identifies itself in either its own reflection or in the figure of
another person, the mother. The infant conceives the mother as another person
and itself as a separate entity at the same time--self and other. The sense of
the wholeness of the imaginary phase is never achieved again, but in the
lifelong negotiation of identity we seek to somehow regain this wholeness of
distant memory. In this way, the unconscious is constructed, and subjects are
driven to social interaction in part in a futile attempt to reconcile the ironic
constitution of self-consciousness. We only see ourselves as subjects because we
have repressed part of ourselves. (Woodward, 1997, p. 44-45).
Flitterman-Lewis describes spectatorship:
...psychoanalytic film theory emphasizes the notion of production in its
description, considering the viewer as a kind of desiring producer of
cinematic fiction. According to this idea, then, when we watch a film it is as
if we were somehow dreaming it as well; our unconscious desires work in tandem
with those that generated the film-dream (p. 211).
Baudry applies the term 'cinematic apparatus' to the complex of factors
which interacts in film viewing--the various technologies, the film as a text,
and the viewer. The viewing process is both conscious/semiotic and
unconscious/affective, with the film text acquiring meaning and power as a
result of this viewing dialectic between desire and logic. "At the very center
of the cinematic apparatus, there is the spectator, for without this viewing
subject the entire mechanism would cease to function" (Flitterman-Lewis, p.
211-12). At the very center of a symbolic panopticon, perhaps? I will take this
point up again later.
Spectatorship relies on the actualization of three general processes.
First, subjective 'regression', in which unconscious desire vies with conscious
sententiousness for psychic hegemony. Second, 'primary identification', assuming
a position as a 'spectator' inside the film text, an appropriation of the text
as one's own dream. This is 'primary' because it "makes all secondary
identifications with characters and events on the screen possible" (p. 214).
Third, the presence of a coherent 'subject position' in the film. Film
production employs techniques that function to conceal a sense of authorship and
work to hail the viewer into the text, facilitating primary identification.
Flitterman-Lewis takes this theoretical framework and brings it to bear on TV
viewing to see how it might be useful, and to see how it needs to be changed to
accommodate for differences between the two mediums (p. 213-216).
If the dream-effect of film creates a sense of "there and then," TV creates
a sense of "here and now." In part, this is because the viewer links the
experience to the wider 'text' of viewing--TV as part of daily routine, the
familiarity of home, the placement of the TV set among a meaningful assemblage
of furniture and interior decorations. TV tends to emphasize realism and
'liveness' as textual modes because they are well-suited to the medium (p. 218).
In daytime soap operas, at least, primary identification and regression do
not occur in the same unified mode typical of cinema. In contrast to film's
tendency to draw the subject in to a central spectator position that is fluidly
maintained through the experience, soaps tend to offer a multiplicity of
shifting and fragmented 'looks'. The preferred subject position changes as the
text unravels (p. 219). Flitterman-Lewis holds, however, that this fragmentation
of points of entry into the TV text does not throw a monkeywrench into the
pleasure of a viewer's interpretive experience. This diversity's effectivity
remains an open question. Mimi White argues that this diversity does not disrupt
TV's textual fluidity. Her idea is based on Raymond Williams' concept of
flow--the tendency for TV to blend into a continuous text that incorporates a
diversity of programming. She suggests "that American commercial television
currently engages in practices that assert unity and address the
spectator-as-ideal-subject across temporal, spatial, and narrative diversity"
(1986, p. 62). She cites numerous examples of cross-referentiality between
different TV shows.
Flitterman-Lewis' theory of TV spectatorship is based mostly around an
analysis of soap operas, which she suggests are a representative TV form. Soaps
lack the point-of-view and reverse-shot techniques utilized in movies that help
create a unified subject position. So enjoyment of soaps like All My Children
revolves around a voyeuristic as opposed to participatory textual engagement.
The diversity of 'looks' offered can provide a feeling of omnipotence in this
regard. This is "a televisually specific 'subject effect' in which both primary
and secondary identifications are reorganized, multiplied, and intensified" (p.
225). She concludes:
Blurring the categories of fiction and nonfiction, embedding distraction in its
very core, fragmenting vision into a plurality of views, rupturing primary
identification and amplifying secondary identifications, instilling a desire
for continual consumption (not only of its programs but of the products that it
sells), and trading on the powerful sense of immediacy that it creates, the
television apparatus is in many ways more pervasive than its cinematic kin (p.
By choosing soap operas for her analysis and theory-building, I think
Flitterman-Lewis overstates the differences between film and TV. Soaps utilize
stationary cameras and are shot 'live', without much in the way of point-of-view
or shot-reverse shot sequences. The X-Files is shot more like film, with heavy
use of point-of-view and shot-reverse shot techniques, coming closer to film's
centralized spectator effect. In considering the X-Files, I will consider the
range of apparatus effects marked out here--Flitterman-Lewis' theorization of
subject position diversity on one hand, and film theory's model of centralized
spectatorship on the other. The X-Files tends to construct a more cinematic, as
opposed to soap-operatic, spectatorship.
Self as panoptician in the X-Files
"These people [the special effects producer and production designer] really
help to give it the cinematic look that I think it has, and that makes it
different than anything else on television," Chris Carter, creator of the
X-Files. (Fallen Angel/Eve, 1996).
What dynamic is at work in a relationship between panopticism in the
workplace and panopticianism in spectatorship? How do these manifestations of
panopticism come together in viewing the X-Files?
Foucault (1977) speaks of the development of discipline in relation to the
development of capitalism. If capitalism is about the construction of a system
for maximally efficient accumulation of capital, then discipline is a system for
maximally efficient accumulation of productive bodies (p. 221). Humanism as an
ideology blossomed only because disciplinary apparatuses grew simultaneously,
insuring that new liberties and rights would not foster practices that strayed
too far from dominant interest: "The 'Enlightenment', which discovered the
liberties, also invented the disciplines" (p. 222). Directly addressing the
relationship, he states, "The disciplines should be regarded as a sort of
counter-law. They have the precise role of introducing insuperable asymmetries
and excluding reciprocities" (p. 222). Discipline puts into play subtle,
infrequently discussed micro-practices which subvert the egalitarian rhetoric of
This relationship between discipline and humanism is analogous to what
Levi-Strauss (1967) has referred to as a dialectical relationship between myth
and ritual. His particular argument centered around Pawnee mythologies of the
origin of shamanistic power and their relation to the age-group initiation
ritual of closely related Hidatsa tribe (p. 234). For Levi-Strauss (1967), this
was part of his larger, much-criticized reductionist project of surveying
ethnographies, finding cross-cultural structural themes, and laying out a
tentative universal cultural logic which he suggested corresponded with the
dynamic of 'the human mind'. Without taking on Levi-Strauss' metaphysical
baggage, the concept of a myth/ritual (discourse/practice) dialectic becomes a
useful tool. It is important to note that this move does not suggest sweeping
statements about the 'human psyche', nor does it suggest that such a dialectic
is a neat, balanced package, indicative of egalitarian power dynamics and
pluralism. On the contrary, Foucault's discipline/humanism relation creates a
power-surplus on the side of hegemonic sectors. Upper classes, whites, and men
receive a disproportionate reward from this relation.
How does self-as-panoptician/daily discipline relate to the broader
historical dialectic between humanism and discipline? The discourse/practice
dialectic in this particular case is X-Files /workplace practices. The X-Files
is part of the larger mythology of conspiracy; workplace practices are part of
the larger context of discipline. So here we find conspiracy replacing humanism
as the wider mythology that relates to discipline. As noted above, Jameson sees
conspiracy as the popular explanation of the dynamics of late capitalism. But
whereas he suggests it is, "the poor person's cognitive mapping in the
postmodern age," the crude analysis of the deluded masses, I would suggest that
it is a discursive formation with intimate connections to the micro-practices of
people's daily lives, the micro-practices prescribed by their disciplinary
positioning. And if indeed conspiracy is replacing humanism as the discourse of
choice in late capitalism, then I would argue it points to qualitative changes
that have occurred in disciplinary apparatuses themselves. As the information
age increasingly entangles disciplinary networks with advanced technology,
subjects positioned in such complex networks are in turn seeking discourses that
speak to their new situations. I will take up this point again in the
Since spectatorship is conceived as a position at the center of the
cinematic apparatus, parallels to panopticism cry out to be examined. This can
be interpreted as the placement of the subject at the center of a symbolic
panopticon, inverting workday positioning. Of course, this non-diegetic aspect
of the text, which exists in many cinematic and televisual productions, works
synergistically in the X-Files to foreground the diegetic aspects of panopticism
and conspiracy. This is a phenomenon which can occur in movies of all types,
regardless of whether the plot speaks to issues of conspiracy or discipline. So
from the start, a 'televisual' apparatus, which is reconstructed with a great
deal of success during X-Files viewing, works in conjunction with the plot on a
different psychic level to reposition the viewer in relation to systems of
discipline. As the show itself unfolds, the viewer is already placed in a
psychic space which foregrounds 'disciplinary' tensions.
First, the serial plot of the X-Files. Dana Scully and Fox Mulder are two
young FBI agents who have been assigned to work together on a special category
of cases called the 'X-Files'. These are paranormal cases, ones that seem to
involve an element of 'the supernatural.' Mulder has a fondness for such cases,
and an apparent intuitive ability that invariably points toward their
resolution. Scully, trained as an M.D., is a positivistic skeptic who develops
scientific explanations for each case. Her ideas invariably are wrong. Both
characters are apparently heterosexual, but neither involves themselves in
romance more than on rare occasions. They have a close friendship, but neither
hints at sexual involvement with the other.
The serial plot both inverts and keeps intact several themes of what might
be called 'expected TV ideology'. The two attractive protagonists are largely
asexual. The man is 'intuitive', and the woman is 'logical'. But other aspects
of popular ideology are affirmed--the man is still always 'right'. And during
the show's introductory sequence, the words, 'The truth is out there' flash
across the screen. Yet the 'truth' in the X-Files always lies in Mulder's realm
of the supernatural, clearly marked off as a distinct metaphysical territory
from Scully's materialist world. Thus, the show presents a variant of a dualist
epistemological shematization, with clear demarcation and discontinuity between
two planes of existence. Truth is presented as an unproblematic but as yet
undiscovered entity--it is 'out there' but Mulder hasn't found it yet. This
could be called 'transcendental positivism'. Unlike Baconian variants of
positivism, where truth is planted for discovery in the empirical realm, truth
in the X-Files is located for our finding in the transcendental. Instead of
utilizing tools like microscopes to find it, we need to utilize intuition.
The serial plot places Scully and Mulder's work in the midst of a vast
conspiracy. A group of men most closely associated with the Pentagon seems to
control a subversive network that stretches across broad sectors of Federal
bureaucracy. A large part of their activity involves the suppression (or
elaborate construction) of evidence of alien landings and abductions. The aliens
themselves are the other conspirators, abducting people or muddling around on
earth in various forms for reasons undisclosed. One of the most powerful
conspirators, 'Smoking Man', forced Mulder's father to give Fox's sister to the
government/aliens when she was a girl. Smoking Man is thought to be Mulder's
real father--an interesting Oedipal twist.
The X-Files achieves its immense popularity, I argue, by producing an effect
that is much closer to that of the 'cinematic apparatus' than to the voyeuristic
'looks' of certain types of TV. But even where the viewing experience falls out
of centralized spectatorship and into a mode of shifting points of textual
entry, I suggest that 'self as panoptician' is still an apt metaphor for the
Primary identification and regression are enabled by the heavy use of
point-of-view and reverse-shot camera work. Shadowy set lighting, eerie
techno-music, and expensive special effects further enable regression. Secondary
identification operates through the protagonists Scully and Mulder, allowing the
spectator to join them as they navigate through networks of conspiratorial
association. Conspiracy is the symbolic reconstruction of panopticism. Aliens,
secret bureaucracies, and epidemics comprise the disciplinary apparatus. Scully
and Mulder's movement through these threatening worlds hails the viewer into a
position of exploration, a chance to see who might be behind the disciplinary
Consider panopticism in labor industries: the supervisory gaze, enabled by
architecture and spatial positioning of work practices, allowing the
registration of deviance to transmit quickly up the managerial hierarchy.
Panopticism in the white-collar world: networks of gossip and paperwork, the
subtle registration of professional behavior. Panopticism in the X-Files:
conspiracy behind the cheesy handshake of every bureaucrat, an alien lurking
under the skin of every clone of Mulder's sister.
Consider the worker, who has limited freedom to explore the extensiveness
of the disciplinary apparatus she/he is positioned within, the apparatus that
produces panopticism, the apparatus that circumscribes workplace practice, yet
the apparatus that at the same time enables the worker to feel some of the power
of the productive network. The worker enables the system that restricts him/her.
Scully and Mulder, on the other hand, have as their job description the
exploration of various manifestations of a conspiracy, a conspiracy that
signifies the effect of panopticism (somebody is in control here, I know they
could be watching me). But Scully and Mulder have broken free of the
self-policing function of panopticism. They are well aware that Smoking Man and
his buddies chart their activities. Yet they choose to delve into the depths of
the conspiracy itself. And they generally get away with it--they are exempt from
The protagonists' lack of involvement in sexual relationships plays a
prominent role in viewer regression. Here the expectation of sexuality between
Scully and Mulder increases unconscious libidinal activity, opening up the
spectator for primary and secondary identification. But this sexual expectation
is not rewarded, but displaced. Desire is transferred to the self-as-panoptician
effect. This desire works dialectically with conscious skepticism of the
supernatural aspects of the show. Conscious doubt is subsumed by the desire to
enjoy the spectator-as-panoptician-effect. The regression effect becomes more
powerful as logical doubt calls it forward to fill a void of disbelief.
There is a second aspect of subjective relation to panopticism that the
X-Files speaks to and inverts. From the perspective of a position in a
disciplinary network--let's call this by the more common word, job--one's
identity at a certain level is intimately bound up in job tasks. Of course, as a
job becomes habitual, one's mind becomes free to wander, to fantasize during the
workday, to occupy identities that are not directly prescribed by the job. So
tension develops between imagination/desire, and job routines and practices.
This is reversed in the X-Files. While watching the show, identification
with the protagonists tends to circumscribe a viewers immediate sense of
identity. By assuming a central spectator position, unconscious desire to move
across and challenge disciplinary boundaries is rewarded. The dream-effect of
regression opens even more psychological space for roaming through a world of
panoptic conspiracy. This is a reversal of the workday situation where the
habits and micropractices of work are relegated to the unconscious. On the job,
conscious thought can often launch into the construction of semiotic
associations that place the job itself in a bearable light.
Another subject-effect of the X-Files relates back to Lacan's work. In
Lacan's view, the obliteration of the wholeness of the imaginary phase results
in the subject/object distinction, formation of the ego, and the subjugation to
the unconscious of repressed desire for the mother's body. Identity, a statement
attached to 'I', is in this light a fruitless, lifelong suturing of signifiers
into an empty, linguistic subjectivity. This act is motivated by a deep desire
to somehow grasp hold of that infantile wholeness, when desire and pleasure were
in union. And Lacan's view of the meaning-producing process of discourse adds to
the irony of identity formation. His view on signifier relations is much like
Derrida's poststructuralist position. Signifiers only generate meaning through
an endless chain of difference, not through tidy, semiotically stable signs
comprised of signifier and signified. Meaning is stretched out along these
chains, with traces from past associations stretching into the present, and
present associations perpetually deferring meaning to the future in endless
metonymic deferments. This means that there is not even the possibility of a
moment when a whole sign can crystallize in the mind and provide a fleeting
illusion of psychic integrity. (Eagleton, 1983, p. 167-169).
Once again the X-Files inverts the 'normal' functioning of a psychic
tension and draws it into the realm of symbolic panopticism. Spectatorial
navigation through networks of gubernatorial and paranormal conspiracy is fueled
by a quest: "The truth is out there." Keep peeling away webs of conspiracy
(chains of signifiers), keep looking for your sister who has been cloned into
existential oblivion, keep sticking your nose into extraterrestrial mischief.
The unconscious desire to explore the panopticon invokes self-conscious logic,
logic which is saying, "part of that panopticon is me--I'm part of that
apparatus (at work)." This dreamy exploration then becomes not just a fleeing
from the grind, but a quest for identity, a quest for the part of the self that
one knows is implicated in one's own policing. We know that discipline makes us
self-police, but this acknowledgment is pushed into the unconscious. As a
spectator, we can allow that tension to surface in a dream world. In the mode of
spectator we can pursue the construction identity within a symbolic panopticon,
amidst all the other psychic dynamics intersecting in this experience.
Finally, X-Files viewership does not always take the form of cinematic
spectatorship. As Flitterman-Lewis has argued, a TV viewer occupies at times a
series of shifting, voyeuristic 'looks.' How does this change the way subjects
relate to panopticism in the X-Files? Does this voyeuristic, as opposed to
centralized, spectatorship prevent a 'self as panoptician' operation from
The shift from a centralized, continuous spectator position to shifting,
multi-perspectival positions is analogous to moving from inside the text to
outside the text. Flitterman-Lewis (1992) finds this second type of
spectatorship very effective in soap opera viewing, where it gives the viewer a
sense of being able to enjoy sexual tension between characters from a 'safe
distance', outside the story.
When the X-Files experience takes on fragmented spectatorship, the viewer
no longer is positioned alongside Scully and Mulder inside networks of
conspiracy. Voyeuristic spectatorship here pulls the viewer back to a more
'transcendental' position. Here, one is not 'locked' into a fixed subject
position alongside Scully and Mulder in the show, but one occupies a series of
positions that allows for the feeling of a more 'objective' inspection of the
conspiracy. These shifting positions put the spectator not at the center of the
panopticon, nor navigating across panoptic structures with the protagonists, but
outside the panoptic conspiracy.
So with this development, the X-Files brings into play the full range of
alternate positionings to the rigid disciplinary positioning of the workplace.
First, there is the non-diegetic effect of centralized spectatorship, where one
is at the center of the panopticon. Second, there is the diegetic effect of
spectatorship, where one transgresses panoptic boundaries with Scully and
Mulder. Lastly, there is the set of shifting positions outside the entire
panoptic structure, coming into play when spectatorship falls out of a
centralized textual position. All three of these metapsychological dynamics work
powerfully to invert workplace disciplinary relations, offering a therapeutic
televisual escape from panopticism. Such a phenomena could play a prominent role
in the reproduction of advanced capitalism, effectively working out frustration
accrued on the job, frustration that otherwise might take the form of
Late capitalism and the X-Files
I have painted a picture of a hyper-disciplinary society that drives people
to seek pleasure in a TV show about aliens and unending conspiracy. Unless one
is a robot, this scenario has disturbing implications.
While it is not my task here to attempt a full answer to that question, I
believe it is important to keep in mind issues foregrounded by a consideration
of discourse/practice (myth/ritual) dialectics. Of importance here is a broad
shift from a humanism/discipline relation to a conspiracy/hyperdiscipline
relation in late capitalism. 'Common sense' has long spoken of TV as an 'escape'
or a 'drug'. This paper suggests that the popularity of television is indeed
enhanced by its escapist effect in relation to other aspects of daily life. But
it suggests that in the case of the X-Files, this 'alternate reality' can take
the form of not a crude inebriant which dissolves away the daily grind, but a
sophisticated production which directly invokes, inverts, and therapeuticizes
that daily grind.
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