The Play's the Thing

No discussion of conspiracy in the last two decades is complete without at least invoking The X-Files.  Over the course of nine seasons (which was at least three seasons too long), Chris Carter’s genre-bending hit television show made conspiracy a household name.  When it returned after over a decade’s absence, it had all the freshness of revelations about NASA’s fake moon landings, but it still remains unrivaled as the touchstone for all conversations about conspiracy and popular entertainment. 

I bring up The X-Files not as either the cause or symptom of the mainstreaming of conspiracy and paranoia, but simply as the most legible example of conspiracy as entertainment, in order to get at the question of conspiracy and play.  The experience of watching The X-Files is all about paranoid subject positions.


As an hour on television, The X-Files, like any televised fiction, should make us aware of the conventions of drama.  If we start watching an episode of Law and Order or CSI, we do not expect the culprit behind the evening’s murder to be aliens.  Indeed, they simply cannot be aliens.  If we’re watching The X-Files, however, aliens are not just possible, but likely.  Let’s say that we, like so many viewers in the 1990s, enjoy and appreciate both The X-Files and Law and Order, and might go from watching one for them at 8:00 to watching the other at 9.  For the first hour, we are willing to “believe” in aliens (at least within the confines of the story), but for the next, we rule them out entirely.  First we’re Mulder, then we’re Scully.[1] 

The point is not that The X-Files turns us into true believers in aliens (or that Law and Order trains us to think that a criminal case “ripped from the headlines” can be resolved in the course of an hour). More important is the way in which fiction allows (and even requires) an audience to temporarily adopt a subject position that might otherwise be alien.  One could even read all the X-Files alien abduction narratives in terms of the infiltration of viewers by an alien subject position, an idea to which we will return in the upcoming “Zombification” chapter.  

Immersion in fiction produces, if not an altered state, than an altered subjectivity.  For brief periods of time, we adopt the position of believer in mutants (The X-Men), intergenerational romance (Harold and Maude), or the efficacy of torture (24). A fictional narrative that cannot temporarily convince us of something we might otherwise doubt is a failure; if you spend the entire duration of a musical wondering how it is that all the characters know the lyrics and dance steps, then the musical has not convinced you to inhabit the temporary selfhood of someone who takes these things for granted. 

All of this returns us to Derrida’s notion of the possibility of play as a precondition for the serious.  If we can’t believe in a conspiratorial fiction that calls itself fiction, we will never commit to a conspiratorial fiction that calls itself fact.  We identify a paranoid subject position in others because we have experienced it ourselves.  If we keep conspiracy at a distance, we can see fiction as a laboratory for the careful containment of conspiratorial notions.  But if we’re less convinced by the epistemological boundaries between fiction and fact, then the circulation of motifs between entertainment and political tracts should come as no surprise. 

Moreover, the very conventions of narrative encourage interpretive habits that, in other contexts, look paranoid: the expectation that nothing is random or extraneous, and that the entire story is the result of careful design. 

Good readers make good paranoids.

Next:  The Conspiratorial Mode  


[1] Or at least Season One Scully.  By the time she’s been kidnapped and impregnated by alien visitors, all bets are off.