The Metamodern Mythology of The X-Files
Truth, Exo-Politics, and Conspirituality
The X-Files is important because it reflects (and reflects on) the popular culture of conspiracy theory, which largely describes a worldview the majority of Americans hold. The topic of conspiracy theory also parallels my pragmatic concept of “systemic-conspiracy” — one of my core research streams. Although The X-Files is about a traditional “conspiracy of men” that ominously calls themselves “The Syndicate”, an analysis of the mythology behind the show can inform our study of systemic-conspiracy, which requires no cabal with supreme agency. Moreover, as it is argued that The X-Files is a metamodern TV show, systemic-conspiracy is a metamodern mode of analysis.
This article is organized in three sections: “The First Metamodern Episode,” “Meta-Mythology,” and “Truth, Exo-Politics, Conspirituality”
The First Metamodern Episode
A YouTuber named ProfessorBaylock has gone to the trouble of making a great documentary on a single X-Files episode, in Jose Chung’s The Bridge to the Metamodern — a documentary (2015), to prove the show’s metamodern credentials. ProfessorBaylock notes that the X-Files had already been called “the ultimate postmodern television show,” but argues that the particular episode from 1996 was portentous, and a boon for metamodern cinema to come.
The intertextuality of postmodern TV is elevated in metamodern TV to a “critical central role.” The Jose Chung episode is particularly evident of this, from references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other sci-fi benchmarks, to mocking The X-Files itself on a number of levels. The intertextual references are abundant, including the ‘Men in Black’ (pre- MIB movie), Nabokov, Twin Peaks, and many more.
Most important is perhaps the episode’s interplay with real life subjects, such as MK Ultra, the military-industrial complex, or specific people. For example, the episode’s main character “Jose Chung” is based on Whitley Strieber (real author and abductee claimant) who in the episode invents a new literary genre he calls “non-fiction science-fiction.” In real life, Strieber’s book “Communion” in fact reached the NY Times Bestseller list, confirming the fictional character’s convictions and deceptions.
Rather than just upgraded postmodernism, the reasons for the show being metamodern are expressed across several measures. For the sake of ease, I’ve copied into a table ProfessorBaylock’s analytical framework for the differences between modern, postmodern, and metamodern TV.
There is an increasing “fractal complexity” of metamodern TV, such that ProfessorBaylock notes a whopping 27 instances of “kicks” or “glitches” that pull you out of it or echo with another moment in the episode, creating a sort of self-aware immersion. “It’s complexity is a harbinger of the future of television,” he says. Throughout the episode we are whirled around this complex story arc, and yet it all seems to make perfect sense. As the documentary informs, this metamodernity (specifically meta-recursion) was later picked up in shows like Community, 30 Rock, and the movie Tropic Thunder.
The writer-director of this and several other iconic episodes is Darin Morgan, who has followed up with his signature style in two episodes across seasons 10 & 11. It is worth noting that Morgan is a fan favourite, hence the focus of the metamodern analysis. Here’s one and two great reviews of Season 10’s “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” And another great review of Morgan’s season 11 “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”. ProfessorBaylock’s mode of analysis certainly applies to these episodes as well. I would like to make the broader case the show has many other aspects tap into metamodernism.
The most surreal feat of The X-Files is the blending of the paranormal and conspiracy culture set against a very authentic and realistic portrayal of the FBI and in its inner workings. Mulder first made a name for himself in the Violent Crimes Unit, and although it’s just part of the backstory, the first season references it often and really highlights Mulder’s practical worldly skills in catching serial killers. In the category of procedurals, The X-Files was a trendsetter for later shows like CSI.
By the end of Season 11, over 218 episodes and 2 films, The X-Files universe will amazingly have about 164 hours worth of content, not including bonus materials like the behind the scenes documentaries and “The Truth About Season #” series, which probably adds another 4–5 hours. As far as alien and conspiracy cinema goes, The X-Files is of the highest quality, despite being for TV. It has done more conspiracy world-building than any other film that may claim or reference the genre. About a third of all episodes and the first film make up the long-term mythology arc, focused on the government conspiracy to forestall an alien invasion. The rest are paranormal stand alone episodes.
I argue that on a deeper level the entire mythology of the show has metamodern qualities, right from the outset. The quest for unadulterated truth, despite knowing that postmodernism had fragmented it, makes Mulder a man ahead of his time. Other characters consistently mock Mulder’s belief that “the truth is out there,” but the show maintains a faith and integrity in the concept of truth. It treats the paranormal with respect by posing ‘what if?’ scenarios, while also upholding some level of disdain and mockery for the fraudulence and delusion that paranormal claims tend to actually reflect.
The show self-consciously knows it is dealing with both truth and untruth. There are real conspiracies, and there are also abundant hoaxes. We must be skeptical but also open-minded. Hence the shows other mantra, exhibited on that famous UFO poster: “I want to believe.” At the root of this faith is the scientific certainty that there is intelligent alien life in the universe (and to a microbe on Mars, we are the proof!), contrasted with the virtual certainty that aliens are also not here. We are on the cusp of knowing the truth, but want to believe in a story.
All of the worldly evidence of aliens and government conspiracies to keep them hidden is, unfortunately, untrue; that is, it’s the sum total of hoaxes, lies, misinterpretations, delusions, fantasies, and wishful thinking. That does not mean it does not point to some truth; it does. What is true is that, as I said, there are conspiracies, and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. So, it is not a huge leap to entertain the possibility of their intersection, hence the show’s popularity.
There is some vital truth in all myths, legends, and paranormal phenomena. Are ghosts real? No, but the phenomenon of mentally projecting and perceiving external entities from the subconscious in altered states of consciousness is certainly real. Is alien abduction real? No, but sleep paralysis and vivid/lucid dreaming about beings directly imprinted from pop-culture sci-fi is very real. Are sasquatches real? No, but bears are able to stand and walk on their hind legs looking like a Bigfoot, and a ginormous ape named Gigantopithicus absolutely once existed, so sasquatches are conceivable. However, in all these instances, hoaxes or delusions are all too commonplace.
The amazing thing about The X-Files is that it presents an arguably more plausible conspiracy narrative than most popular culture and sincere claims actually provide. For instance, there is The Disclosure Project, the closest thing to professional testimonial proof of alien technology you can get, but it falls apart under scrutiny and for lack of tangible evidence. What is more likely is that some engineers have indeed worked on advanced secret projects, and some pilots have indeed seen inexplicable things, but combined with misremembering, fame-seeking, neuroses (such as gangstalking), and other factors, the truth is less interesting than the fiction. The X-Files integrates these supposed truthful works into its mythology, making sense of them in its ‘what if?’ world.
The X-Files imports from every conspiracy theory out there and synthesizes it into a coherent narrative. It’s an archetypal metaphor for the ages: Everything’s connected, and two intrepid truth-seekers can uncover it. This is why Mulder and Scully were always threatened on multiple fronts. Their pursuit of truth exposes the machinations of secret governments, so their careers are constantly derailed, despite the great work they are doing. This is indeed how some sinister government forces act when covering up a scandal, except instead of alien trafficking its to cover for a black-op, a weapons deal, or an affair.
Real world examples of the suppression of truth are abundant. Take the true story of tobacco lobby’s insidious power in the film The Insider, or Scientology’s threatening of apostates, the well-funded institutionalized denial of anthropogenic climate change, or the defensive abstraction of the finance industry. There are always real conspiracies to be exposed, and this is the everyday ‘reality’ for the FBI’s most famous fake agents.
There are anomalies in our world that are left out of mainstream theories. If they don’t fit in the model, they are ignored. Being able to explain anomalies is what marks a paradigm shift, according to Thomas Kuhn. This is why I argue the show is metamodern. The X-Files pursues an epistemology or methodology (expressed through the characters) that can explain paradoxes, contradictions, and inconsistencies, rather than ignoring them. As the anomalies mount and the dominant paradigm fails to account for them, a better theory and explanation is needed and will eventually win over.
The X-Files gives conspiracy theory some dignity and traction, while also parodying the more absurd elements of it. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes they intersect, and reality matches the made-up story. This occurred in a shocking sense when The X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunman “Pilot” episode featured a hijacked airliner set to crash into the World Trade Center, as a false-flag attack to kick off a war in the middle east, no less. The episode premiered in March 2001, six months before the fateful 9/11 attacks. How can there be any doubt that we are through the looking glass?
The writers declare it is a pure coincidence, to be sure, but what is striking to me at least is that the scenario in that “Pilot” episode is more plausible than the official narrative of 9/11 was. That unskilled pilots could tactically fly jumbo jets into slim targets would be horribly bad writing, for its impossibility, whereas the computer-controlled flight path of the jet in The Lone Gunman story was based on available military technology at the time. The episode cites wargame scenarios, and 9/11 also saw a slew of wargames running that day. So whatever the truth is, its very likely that the hijackers were enabled or used.
Call it synchronicity or Machiavellian state terror (cf. David MacGregor), we at least know now that some Saudi government officials were complicit in the attack — something that was conspiciously omitted from the 9/11 Commission Report, which according to its authors was “set up to fail.” This is a rabbit hole we don’t have the space for now, but suffice it to say that The X-Files can help keep these legitimate questions alive, while also eschewing the deep end of conspiracy theory. Faith in the status-quo may appear to serve us in the short term, but accepting it uncritically is a fatal mistake in the long run.
Rather than just overindulge in or mock conspiracy theory, the show walks a fine line of doing both, while also attempting to transcend the either-or dichotomy. Government conspiracies aside, the quest for truth is universal and it promises (like the worship of God) to deliver us from evil (the truth shall set you free). The X-Files consolidates all worldly mythology and theology in order to guide us out of the darkness.
And if we want to talk about metamodern morality, well, Mulder and Scully are exemplars of how people should treat each other, professionally, emotionally, romantically. Show creator Chris Carter consciously kept them at a distance in what is probably the slowest and most epic courtship ritual ever televised.
Truth, Exo-Politics, Conspirituality
In philosophy, truth is some kind of mythical abstraction. In The X-Files, truth is something tangible; an artefact, a genetic sample, a paranormal event. It can be discovered, as in a scientific discovery, or a investigative uncovering, but this truth threatens the established order, so people don’t want to see it.
Like any major blockbuster series worth it’s salt, it even has an academic book written on it called “The Philosophy of X-Files,” with a foreword from the Cigarette Smoking Man himself, William B. Davis. In it he notes how Shakespeake’s genuis “sat on the cusp of two worldviews and he drew inspiration from both.” Shakespeare was a revolutionary in the transition from medieval to modern times, due to the printing press which prompted profound changes in worldviews.
“What has this to do with The X-Files? Is it possible that the show straddles a similar transition of worldview?” — William B. Davis
Yes. The X-Files straddles the transition from the postmodern to the metamodern era and worldview. We are now in a “post-truth” political environment, not because there is not enough truth, but because there is too much noise. Metamodernism as a methodology promises that we can at least grasp that truth, even if we cannot yet bring it back and share it with all humanity. It is the seemingly tenuous linking of a multiplicity of postmodern truths. Like in The X-Files, the public or the government of real life may not be ready for some particular truths, but metamodernism pressupposes that we are.
For now, at least we have a functional epistemology. The X-Files shows you a staged version of the truth, but also lets you see behind the curtain. We can and should continue Mulder and Scully’s quest for truth out of The X-Files into the real world. It implores us to “Fight the Future,” at least in the context of earthly conspiracies of corruption and white-collar criminality, if not in more esoteric ways.
This is where conspiracy theory and systemic-conspiracy meet. The essence of systemic-conspiracy is that bad shit just happens (and often benefits the powerful, appearing conspiratorial) because people are subsumed into corrupt games, like certain aspects of capitalism itself. Although The X-Files conspiracy is a mostly traditional one, it takes place in a world where there is also systemic-conspiracy (general corruption), and gives an explicit structural logic as to why the world is this way.
Along these lines, the concepts of exo-politics and conspirituality also serve as guideposts. Exo-politics is predicated on the visitation of aliens. It is the title of a book on that subject, as well as a song title by Muse.
Exo-politics: “The art or science of government as concerned with creating or influencing policy toward extraterrestrial phenomena and extraterrestrial beings” — Wiktionary
While I reject the visitation premise, the concept of exo-politics is still a worthy consideration or thought experiment. In 2008, Alexander Wendt wrote a paper called Sovereignty and the UFO, in which he quite elegantly challenges the anthropocentric nature of state sovereignty. The view from space quite clearly reveals that humans made up the very boundaries which help identify and separate them into discreet groups. Although he indulges the possibility of UFOs having alien pilots, we cannot discount the fact that the phenomenon exists, thereby taking a metamodern leap and challenging the current receding paradigm of state-sovereignty.
Conspirituality is a brilliant word developed upon in 2011 as a fusion of “conspiracy” and “spirituality.” It is the topic of a paper as well as the name of a Vancouver hip hop group. I posit that this convergence is necessarily a function of metamodernism, as the resolution of two major twentieth century worldview dispositions: conspiracy theory and new ageism. As with many things metamodern, it is the timing of the occurance that makes it significant. While the new forms of conspirituality are not necessarily crucibles of truth (still many hucksters), the concept at least helps point us in the right direction. Quoted in full is the abstract from that paper:
“The female-dominated New Age (with its positive focus on self) and the male-dominated realm of conspiracy theory (with its negative focus on global politics) may seem antithetical. There is a synthesis of the two, however, that we call ‘conspirituality’. We define, describe, and analyse this hybrid system of belief; it has been noticed before without receiving much scholarly attention. Conspirituality is a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews. It has international celebrities, bestsellers, radio and TV stations. It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.” — The Emergence of Conspirituality
In the paper they help define a typology of new-age and conspiracy beliefs, and track their convergence over time. The X-Files helped to merge these worldviews before the turn of the millennium. The Zeitgeist Movement united them more definitively (2006–2012+) in a cinematic (self-described “vaudevillian”) social movement to promote a global utopian worldview that is critical of “the system” keeping masses oppressed. TZM is featured as one of the major forms of conspirituality. All these things remind us that, if nothing else, religious and political systems are intertwined, and thus so is the conspiracy.
It is the realization of, or ‘awakening’ from, these conspiratorial matrices that is particularly metamodern. It begs the question though, is a believer fake awake, or actually emancipated? Awakening is a constant process, but we would hope that with metamodernism it is calcifying and actualizing in this particular time period. We would hope that finally, it is an actual paradigm shift, and not just another fad or cult. From the paper,
“The discourses of conspiracy and apocalypse… are linked by a common function: each develops symbolic resources that enable societies to address and define the problem of evil” — The Emergence of Conspirituality, citing Barkun quoting Stephen O’Leary
Read as a metamodern TV show, The X-Files is a brilliant discourse on exo-politics that we can now comprehend better in retrospect. It asks what would government be like if aliens were here, and it tells us what government is like even though aliens are not here. Similarly, The Emergence of Conspirituality does a great job objectively mapping the social movements coalescing under the banner of “conspirituality” to help us better understand both conspiracy and new age movements.
Seven years on now, we might wonder where its at. Conspiritual movements continue to morph and evolve, but are currently by the wayside, trampled by the spectacle of Trumpism, an entirely new “monster of the week.” Does Alex Jones count as a conspirituality? Definitely the Joe Rogan “Experience” represents a certain variety, of which I would count myself a member I suppose. At least we can still watch The X-Files for some metamodern conspiracy catharsis. It reminds us that the truth is something above and beyond… something meta-(modern).
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