As usual, Mulder was right
Missing Time, a collection of essays by Ari M. Brostoff, is now available for preorder from the n+1 bookstore.
S. was the one who usually wrote our fanfic. It’s all there in my files, packed into the box my mom sends me from the Valley when I decide to write about the show. It tends to be in screenplay form and leans toward the carnivalesque. It’s 1970s night at the Haunted Mansion and we are all together: Mulder and Scully, me and S.; their nemesis the Cigarette Smoking Man, a deep-state puppeteer responsible for countless acts of terror, and our nemesis Ms. Simonds, an English teacher at Gaspar de Portola Middle School whose crimes I cannot recall. Exene Cervenka of the legendary LA punk band X makes a cameo appearance. After a few tequila-and-opiums, our gang throws open the gold-plated doors at a members-only club hidden in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and discovers we’ve passed through a portal to the Life Café, where everyone hangs out in RENT. We order soy dogs and sing.
My stuff sounds stilted and self-conscious by comparison. My one real contribution to the genre was a naive first attempt, a fanfic that could not yet speak its name, which appears as a notebook entry from the beginning of seventh grade.
God, we have a lot of catching up to do. Well, first of all, between now and maybe a month ago or so, I became an obsessive X-Files fan. Call it hanging out with S. too much, but it is seriously the best show ever made. I even have a completely screwed up, totally bogus theory about it . This is it :
The X-Files is not a Fox 11 TV show as commonly thought by a vast majority of sane people in the world. It is instead written and produced by the secret government. Now, Marissa, you may ask, what the hell are you talking about? Well, according to my theory, this Secret Government began around the time of World War II. What they intended was to gradually build suspicion about their existence until people began rebelling. Then they could declare the rebels, who would be the majority of the American people, a threat to society, and have them vaporized. (Am I starting to sound just a wee bit like a militia member here?) Unfortunately for them, the cold war and McCarthyist policies and stuff started. So people got their attention off the Secret Government, and vented their anger at the Russians instead. OK, skip to the ’80s. The cold war is almost over, and the SG (you figure it out) guys are thinking, OK, now we can get down to business. So they create fictitious people like George Bush and Bill Clinton to lure the people into a false sense of security. But all the while, they’re dropping hints to get people neurotic. So there should be a surge of UFO sightings soon (which, of course, are just planted by the SG) and that’s how The X-Files started!!!!! Don’t you just love my logic?!?
Anyway. I started the coolest club. It’s called the Messed Up People Club.
Things continue in this vein.
Sixth grade had not gone well. Around the beginning of the school year, I had become an ardent communist. I knew about communism from musicals and Jewish historical fiction and the night of the big earthquake when I was 8, when everyone left their houses at four in the morning to loop past the palms on March Avenue in silent procession because the location of safety had moved outside. A few months later, a big tacky house that only appeared to have cracked in a few places went on sale nearby, in the foothills at the far edge of the Valley, and we moved in. My mom spoke glowingly of our proximity to nature. Rabbits ate the lawn, and sometimes coyotes ate the rabbits. My parents hired a gardener to replace the grass with AstroTurf. It was the mid-1990s, but like a lot of people, we lived outside historical time.
As for the ardency, who can say? Like everything I started wanting in the months before my first period, the desire for communism seemed both endogenous and alien, secret and self-evident. To me it seemed to explain a lot of things, but I tried to keep quiet about it because it was, as we said at the time, very random. I found a Marxist reader in the den among my father’s college books; it was too hard for me, but I buried it like a fetish under my bed. It had always been my custom to hide the media that could hurt me, like novels with bees or Nazis, around the house. The philosopher Ernst Bloch distinguished between two currents of Marxism, one warm and one cold. The cold current — “the detective glance at history” — was about where capitalism came from, how it worked, and ways it could be overthrown, and about all this I knew very little. My current was the warm one, all strikes and hammers and bread and roses, a child’s communism. Sometimes, if I started having too much fun being with other people, I laughed so hard I peed in my pants, and a warm current froze into a cold one down my legs.
People think that only adults felt groggy and homesick after the end of history, but children were sad, too. In the Valley, you could dress up as any decade. Kids were covered in meaning. Or, I thought we were. Obviously I was bullied. Every day after school I sat at my desk drawing automated rows of smiling girls and tried to divine who would eat whom, just from looking. My only friends, B. and the other fuzzy glowworms who lived in my stomach, formed a council to address the crisis but schismed. At the end of the school year, I addressed them sternly in my notebook.
A Letter to B.:
I am writing this because I don’t think you should be a communist any more. In that Marxist book or whatever it is that Daddy has it says that the main idea in communism is to abolish private property. Well, obviously, that has to do with economics and all that. I think when we grow up we should focus on something less extreme and something that will actually be paid attention to by regular people. Here’s a list of practical causes and stuff that I can protest/advocate at some point in time:
Drugs (but not heavy ones)
The following entry, from August, concerns a birthday party to which I was not invited. By September there was S., and The X-Files.
Something had happened, and we could not remember what it was. In Missing Time, a 1981 best seller that helped establish the conventions of the alien abduction memoir, ufologist Budd Hopkins explained that evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation often took the form of precisely this sort of mysterious gap in experience. Abduction was a way of describing rupture in its purest form, a literal wrinkle in time. I could relate: it wasn’t like I had a better excuse for being such an old-fashioned girl. But I was not alone. In the 1990s, anyone could be abducted, though the aliens seemed to have a thing for white girls, and a way of making men feel like white girls even though they weren’t. Weird syndromes coagulated everywhere. The deeper in the suburbs they appeared, the more mysterious they seemed, like signs from another world. A postwar infrastructure of office buildings and tract homes designed to cordon off the white middle class from the contagious city turned out to be built from noxious materials that made people sick. Asbestos, formaldehyde, and 4-phenylcyclohexene, or “new carpet smell,” dewed up in moldy corners beneath the level of perception. Veterans returning from Iraq reported a rash of problems — memory loss, respiratory trouble — that they attributed to chemical exposure. When no physical marker could be found for Gulf War syndrome, mass psychogenic illness, a new term for hysteria, was extended for the first time to men.1
The X-Files was born into this biosphere in 1993 on Fox, an upstart network trying to figure out how to undercut its more established rivals with niche programming like The Simpsons (1989 to present) and the Fox News Channel (1996 to the end of the world). A seriously ambitious program, The X-Files “made TV cinematic,” as critic Theresa Geller put it in a recent monograph, inspiring waves of cerebral genre programming and launching the careers of showrunners like Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle). But the show was also a quasi-respectable cousin of Jerry Springer at a time when reality, too, was remaking TV. In this sense the series wasn’t science fictional at all, but took place in a world just like our own, where women being poisoned by their microwaves floated around with Lyndon LaRouche supporters and AIDS denialists and 12-year-old ex-communists in dubious pursuit of a history of the present. There they were, serially archived on a single flashing screen, from the Loch Ness monster and the chupacabra to the JFK assassination and the defamation of Anita Hill. In the last years of the 20th century, this solar system of conspiratorial thinking was where the postmodern condition lived its best life. You could find yourself in cozy exile there, social theorists said, if you’d tried too hard to picture technoscientific global capitalism and your brain broke. I’d barely begun to try, and mine already had.
On The X-Files, the United States government was a shell company for extraterrestrial interests in our GDP of biopolitical slop: neurons and wombs, oil fields and cornfields, radio towers and internet cables, Nazis and bees. The cold war wasn’t really over, but it had also never really begun, the whole thing having been, as Thomas Pynchon put it in Gravity’s Rainbow twenty years earlier, a front for the war of multinational technology cartels against everyone else. Now, in the Nineties, world-historical conflict farted in its fresh grave as hoax and scandal filled the deregulated airwaves. Cable news proved such a deadly carrier of “subliminal messages” that in one episode, people in a DC suburb watch TV pundits weigh in on Bosnia and are hypnotized into homicidal rage against their loved ones. In other words, paranormal activity caused by US–alien collusion manifested on a day-to-day basis as unaccountable violent symptoms bugging out the collective sensorium. In the parlance of the show, this sort of thing was an X-file, a local mystery with national implications that the federal government didn’t want to solve. Such cases fell to an odd couple of FBI agents: Fox Mulder (doofy, irreproachable David Duchovny), a believer bent on avenging a government cover-up of his sister’s abduction, and Dana Scully (acute, deadpan Gillian Anderson), a medically trained skeptic assigned to spy on him. Mulder and Scully spend the series investigating strange phenomena, from a 120-year-old serial killer who hibernates between meals of human liver to an American luxury liner perpetually invaded by Germans because it’s always 1939 in the Bermuda Triangle, on behalf of a regime that wants to snort their brains. The X-Files may not have been the best postmodern novel ever written, but it was, despite stiff competition, perhaps the longest.
The show ran until a few months after September 11, 2001. It spawned two forgettable feature films and started up again as a series in 2016 in a painful nostalgia exercise; this spring, it was ostensibly laid to rest for good. The X-Files’ creator, Chris Carter — a SoCal boy who spent thirteen years at Surfing Magazine before he started the show — shot episodes like small movies where the sublime architecture of conspiracy in the post-Watergate thriller entered the orbit of Lynchian Americana: All the President’s Men Meet the Log Lady. Some episodes layered one aesthetic atop the other: in countless scenes, girls in white nightgowns run barefoot through the woods illuminated by the glare of spacecrafts or SWAT teams. Others seemed located halfway in between, in endless gray suburbs where Washington and Main Street alike flicker in between commercials on a half-watched screen before a working mom is gobbled up by a swarm of irradiated cockroaches. Either way, everything looks like Vancouver, where the show was shot through its fifth season, creating the uncanny impression that, in the Nineties, the entire country was a Northwestern logging town haunted by industry. The show’s devotees created an online subculture largely populated by female X-philes, who debated the relationship between its conspiracy-driven “mythology” arc and its less sweeping but often more satisfying “Monster of the Week” one-offs, as well as the persistent question of whether Mulder and Scully should bang. (“Shippers” said yes, “no-romos” said it would ruin the show.) At a time when being obsessed with stuff on the internet was still the province of freaks and geeks, the show’s producers winked back, turning losers into collaborators.
Teetering between police procedural and science fiction, The X-Files, Geller notes, forgoes the positivistic comforts of a regular forensic drama, in which truth can be discovered and justice served in the space of a single episode. The show’s collision of genres, she writes, conscripts Mulder and Scully into the role of social detective — Fredric Jameson’s term for a sleuth, sometimes a policeman or a journalist, but sometimes a Jane Q. Public or even a whole community — who, motivated by forces beyond the need to file a report, approaches “society as a whole” as “the mystery to be solved.” As such, our heroes stumble through each X-file in a state of epistemological crisis. Halfway through the pilot episode, driving one stormy night down a back road in an Oregon town zapped with extraterrestrial enterprise, the agents are enveloped by a halo of light, and their car goes dead. When the light subsides, Mulder checks his watch and squeals that nine minutes have vanished into thin air. “Time can’t just disappear!” Scully, panicked for the first time, stammers through the rain at her giddy partner. “It’s a universal invariant!” Mulder, riveted beyond gloating, pants back, “Not in this zip code.”
By granting impressive measures of scientific reasoning to one and gestalt interpretation to the other, the show gives its leads a basic measure of dramatic and intellectual equality. Neither agent is Sherlock to the other’s Watson, and each contends with the harassment that befalls women who do autopsies and men who read tea leaves. Both are smart, stubborn, lonely, and brave. At the same time, a persistent sleight of hand gives ontological priority to Mulder: it’s his world we’re visiting, and in the final instance, his research methods tend to be the ones that work. (Not coincidentally, Anderson is a serious, thoughtful actress who would go on to play Lily Bart and Nora Helmer. Duchovny, at his best, just kind of is Fox Mulder. Had he not dropped out of Yale to play gender-bending roles in Twin Peaks and porny indie films, he might have finished his dissertation on Pynchon and his peers, “Magic and Technology in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry.”)
To be Scully — or, in a more archetypal sense, to be “a Scully” — is to insist on the laws of physics even as the aliens stretch you out on board their ship. It’s to begin a sentence, as she does in “Die Hand Die Verletzt” (The One Where Devil Worshippers Run the School Board), “I mean, there’s nothing odd about — ” only to be cut off by toads falling from the sky. It’s to climb the rungs of an institution that seeks to push you off the ladder, to stoically salute your authoritarian father’s coffin, to relax by studying the DSM-IV on a Friday night over a glass of wine, and still to somehow find yourself among mutants, the odd girl in a different boys’ club than the one you’d intended to join. As with her predecessor Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster’s dogged young criminologist in The Silence of the Lambs, Scully dares to look into the hearts of the coldest killers, and they alone dare to look back.
To be a Mulder, on the other hand, means your ears buzz with white noise but your sacred duty is to keep it Real. Because you’re obsessed with getting outside, you take a job way on the inside, put on the gray suit you were born in, and work both for and against the (Cigarette Smoking) Man, who considers vaping you every eighth episode but then just maims you again like a favorite broken toy. Your basement office under the panopticon is so close to where the maps are made, it’s off the map. You’re a polonium-tipped dart’s throw from knowledge but so far from power that they don’t even bother harassing you half the time. So you curl up in the belly of your own surveillance, eat sunflower seeds out of the bag, and jerk off at your desk beneath your iconic poster of a grainy UFO with its block-lettered caption, i want to believe. “It’s interesting,” a shape-shifting rapist tells him in an episode called “Small Potatoes” (The One Where Mulder Gets Impersonated by a Man with a Tail). “I was born a loser. But you’re one by choice.” To be a Mulder is to be a kind of idiot, and to be right. In many episodes, he crumples to the ground as though literally stricken by the force of terrible knowledge. I did that too, I bragged to my journal. And I liked to watch.
In our book, even in the late section titled “The Great List of Differences,” S. and I never quite come out and say that she is a Scully and I a Mulder. This might appear in retrospect like a correction for the show’s own bias, a critique of how contemporary metaphysics still estranges science from magic after all these years, or a mature recognition that Mulder and Scully aren’t real. In fact, I think S. was happy to acknowledge her own allegiance to the latter, while I was too uneasy to admit to such a fundamental split.
I had known S. since the second grade. We liked each other because we were both serious, but for the same reason didn’t play together much. Once I borrowed an armload of her books, then forgot about them for so long that we had outgrown them by the time I brought them back. In middle school we became part of the same carpool, and at the start of seventh grade she became what, had we been paranormal investigators, I would have called my partner. It was 1997. Earlier that year, the thirty-eight remaining members of Heaven’s Gate, a UFO cult that started in the ’70s, washed down phenobarbital with vodka for the same reason everyone did what we did in those days: the millennium was coming.
My mom, a special-ed teacher, only diagnosed me with autism spectrum disorders when I was getting on her nerves, which in those days I usually was. S. presented her with a complicated case. At school, most kids on the spectrum had trouble getting along, or only hung out with each other. S. gravitated in their direction, but she was as cool as an algorithm, or a brand, and could sense the same quality in the objects around us as disinterestedly as a nurse checking for fever. Later, when there were more of us, we spent years trying to account for her unaccountability, as though she had joined us from another planet. In retrospect, though, she was simply from a feminist cyberpunk future that never quite happened. She was a tiny child, pale with freckles and acne, who wore a spiked dog collar and soft bright T-shirts from babyhood and who seemed to have more processing power available to her than anyone anyone had ever met. She learned programming languages and, like the girls who took Korean lessons after school, turned her handwriting into a font. At one point she tried to make pocket protectors happen and almost succeeded; if we’d had more internet in those days, she might have. She was mean to boys and they fell in love with her; if we’d had more internet in those days, she might have become one herself. When she wrote about middle school as an adult, her alter ego was a secret robot.
To her great frustration, S. had to share a small room with her sister, but in my mind her house was, if not a portal to the Life Café, at least a peephole. Through it could be glimpsed a full-spectrum pastiche of cultural politics: her aunts and uncles on one side included Marxist art historians and a regional leader of the Objectivist society; on the other, a Sonic Youth producer with a bathtub full of records. It was her father, who drank wine and watched baseball and read John Barth, who informed me one day in our carpool, “Work is hell.” S. and I silently agreed that I would come as close as possible to taking on her tastes, habits, and Myers-Briggs classification (INTP: the Logician) and use the results to establish our superiority to the normies around us. Throughout my files from this time, our belief in the typological power of codes we had made up ourselves appears with a conspiracist’s selective rigor. (“I’ve finally figured out why my mom and I don’t get along,” I wrote. “She’s an ESFP!”) In the notebooks I manically maintained in the fall of seventh grade, I claimed that we had become so close, we seemed to be merging into one.
I kept, for those months, not one but two journals. In my regular journal, I fantasized about making a suicide pact with a boy in a Pearl Jam shirt and global annihilation as an antidote to slow violence. I copied S. I complained about my mom, who compared me during one fight, I reported indignantly, to another young woman lacking in “fundamental values”: Squeaky Fromme, the Manson girl who’d plotted murder from Spahn Ranch just a few miles up the canyon from our house. In my X-Files journal, which opens with an apology for “my ever-insistent urges to write even more rambling pages” about the show, I traced David Duchovny’s face out of Us Weekly, hit critical walls (what was the proper level of detail to include in an episode recap for which I was the only reader?), and tried to suck a political education out of my television.
History, we were told in the 1990s, was something that happened to other people. The recent past was littered with code-named police actions that, rendered pointless by the evaporation of the cold war, no longer even had the dignity of the unmentionable. Conservatives kept building monuments to the death of communism that no one wanted to visit. Liberals wanted to forget the whole messy business and gave themselves endless Oscars for movies about World War II. Only fools with sheaves of xeroxed newsletters thought they were smart enough to construct a narrative out of a deafening drone. The more distant past, upon inspection, turned out to be much the same, leading some to suspect that history had never happened at all. There were, however, exceptions to the rule: events taken to be unique in their world-shattering horror and exceptional people who had come near them and gotten away no longer quite themselves. We, too, could be exceptional: if we were good and listened hard, history could become something that happened, though only by proxy, to us. Every year on the Day of Remembrance, survivors came to Hebrew school and asked us to feel on our skin the licks of the Shoah’s eternal flame and to guard with our lives its redemption in the birth of a handsome nation. In history class in regular school, we learned nothing at all. And yet the past kept ghosting through like reruns.
Reruns were the form in which I watched the show, already five seasons in and beginning its long decline by the time I got on board. Seeing its baffling conspiracy arc unfold out of order saved me the hassle of getting fully invested in a plot that often made no sense. True to its times, The X-Files lacked a show bible, the reference guide typically used to maintain consistency over the course of a series. Yet even at its most labyrinthine the program imparted the crucial thesis that cataclysmic violence was not merely the stuff of historical memory, but an ongoing process of natural history still ravaging lands and bodies zoned for continuous extraction. “Something just clicked about the whole Holocaust,” I wrote, shaken, after watching season two’s searing “Anasazi” trilogy (The Ones Where Mulder Gets Decolonized), in which we learn that the Kissinger-era State Department collaborated with ex-Nazi scientists on the production of human-alien hybrids, using tribal populations as test subjects. When Mulder finds evidence, the government destroys the tape, but Navajo code talkers have already memorized its contents. The Final Solution, the episodes suggested, emerged not from the depths of an unfathomable hell but had a logic that preceded the camps and survived their dismantling; maybe it was even right at home in the United States. Here, if memory stood a chance at enduring through the body, it was lodged in throats intubated by colonial force.
People think that only adults felt groggy and homesick after the end of history, but children were sad, too.Tweet
Did I get all that, or did it go over my head entirely? Was it even there to begin with? The X-Files, a show whose social detectives are at the end of the day still cops, occupied a cunningly ambiguous slot in the ideological lineup of its equivocating era: symptomology without diagnosis, conspiracy without collectivity, paranoia for its own sake, a bossa nova accelerationism for a rainy evening with an eclectic drug collection and nowhere to go all night. Critics spanning the political spectrum loved it, especially those concentrated at its weirdo ends like S.’s aunts and uncles. The appeal to academics on the left of a series about intrepid hauntologists trapped in an institutional maze run by evil overlords perhaps goes without saying. The show was like Duchovny: if it hadn’t landed on Fox, it would have just taught cultural studies. Many of its most poignant, sophisticated episodes are seminars on the power, and the limits, of Mulder’s methods for patiently sifting through piles of cultural detritus on the lookout for connections between dubious Monsters of the Week and tortuous conspiracy arcs. On the dust jacket of her excellent cultural history of ufology, Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, the Marxist political theorist Jodi Dean broke the fourth wall of scholarly detachment entirely, posing in front of an i want to believe poster and appearing to suppress a giggle. But the libertarian right boasted hard-core fans as well, and for similar reasons. The show represented resistance to neoliberal governmentality in the form of clandestine cells: hacker collectives, militias, cults practicing archaic magics bright and dark. In doing so, it seemed to beckon its own cult following, wrote the libertarian scholar Paul Cantor, who has devoted hundreds of admiring pages to The X-Files, “as if the program were trying to replicate in its audience what it shows in the world at large.”
For me, too, The X-Files held out the promise of subculture, the meaning of style. I studied Mulder’s methods — suspend disbelief when doing fieldwork, wink at your interview subjects — and tried to make them my own. But because I was twelve and had never heard of anything, the show functioned even more literally as a dictionary of esoteric knowledge from which America could be inferred. The secrets made me giddy and desperate, like hearing an incredible bit of gossip over a wiretap. S. and I got on the phone every Sunday night after the show ended and talked for hours.
Fandom was a way of organizing knowledge and desire, a kind of epidemiology. You learned from the cluster of objects that drew near you what kind of person you were. The internet was like that, too: it sorted. S. loved it there and from it brought back news of our cult. From her I learned of the epic online battles between shippers and no-romos, and S. and I took up the cause of the latter with the passion of hardheaded agents who thought romance was for little girls. Around the beginning of seventh grade, men from the phone company had come to my house, too, and installed our own beeping, flashing modem. My journal makes no mention of the internet’s installation, but by the end of the year, it’s there in every entry, a thrilling, ugly hassle. I went through the motions of fury with my parents for limiting my access to its catacombs, but even S. knew I basically agreed with them: I wanted it to leave us, and hoped it still might.
Sometimes, through the entropy of perversion, curiosity, a hunch, I found myself in bad company. “I finally managed to subscribe to the INTJ page, and they’re all Ayn Rand freaks!” I griped to my journal. “‘Mercy is a trait that only an F can possess’!” And yet my diary itself, in the moments it draws most clearly from my X-Files notebook, sounds unnervingly like the adolescent fascism of 4chan. There is a short story about the Pentagon “vaporizing” rebels in Montana, a state my mother often used to illustrate the point that even in the Nineties, a Jew could not go everywhere. There is a poem called “Awaken” in which the speaker steps into reality, “where bureaucrats are not cheerful pink bunnies / And dreamers do not rule the world.” It wasn’t that I’d switched sides in my private political pantomime, where communists and fascists were still at war. If anything, I probably rested too easy in the assumption that I never could. It was simply that my enemies had the advantage of actually existing, at least in larval form, filling the web with paeans to the intellectual superiority of white men who liked to code. I dabbled in their language because, as far as I knew, I did not.
On New Year’s Day, I described a fight with my parents in which I lost access to language and became “a dead circuit.” Chunks of the recent past had gone missing, and the cloud of absence threatened the borders of the present. The visitors had landed, Jodi Dean wrote that year: the internet was changing people; it had gotten into our blood, scrambling codes. Just as Budd Hopkins, the ufologist, had promised, we were no longer the watchers but the ones being watched. I still have information sickness. I don’t know what it’s really called.
On January 2, though, I had better news. I took out what amounted to full-page ads in both my regular and X-Files journals, indicating in giant purple letters that something had changed in my house, something that meant I would now be able to watch the show every night:
And then, for months, I barely wrote at all.
When my journal picks up again around the start of eighth grade, a new kid has emerged, kind of hyper, in the midst of a determined cultural discovery process. I loved Sylvia Plath and the Violent Femmes and “anarchists” and my JNCOs. My mapping had become more focused; there were fewer global conspiracies and more genealogies of punk. An X-Files soundtrack had introduced me to Nick Cave, and a Nick Cave CD had a cover of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” led me down the stairs to the Velvet Underground. At some point in the process I no longer needed the show: I could read lots of things now. It was 1998. In Calabasas, where the rich girls from Hebrew school lived behind locked gates, a new outdoor mall was built in the shape of a fake Umbrian plaza. They called it the Commons.
By the time S. and I graduated from middle school, we had built a world together. M. and S.’s Book, made one long weekend after graduation in the summer of 1999, catalogued that world before it was destroyed, as we knew it would be, by our departure for different high schools: a math-and-science magnet for her, a humanities one for me. Like an eponymous first album, it did not have another name. Its cover is adorned with cutouts and stickers — a Lisa Frank palm tree, Beck, the Ayatollah Khomeini, a potato. Its handwritten pages are filled with song lyrics and comics and fanfic and assessments of our friends and endless inventories of our universe.
Things We Want (in S.’s writing), No. 41: No tongue so I can sound like the Sex Pistols (M. thought of this first).
Stuff That Scares Us (S. again), No. 31: Obsessive fans-turned-assassins. Where the hell is your brain, I’m talking to you, Mark David Chapman.
Things That Depress Me (my writing), No. 14: How Columbine made all these shitty laws happen and now you can’t wear trench coats and stuff.
___ No. 15: How my dad fucked my computer and I can’t get in.
___ No. 16: How communism didn’t work.
We wanted to distribute our book widely, but my mom read it, noted that it was, among other things, a burn book — “Oh, and her choreography sucks,” S. wrote of one friend — and forbade this, instead driving us to Staples to print the only two copies in existence. “It’s just me and S. again,” I wrote in my journal at the end of that summer, “and god we had the most depressing conversation tonight. About how we’re so worried about everything: high school, college, life. How this era totally sucks and even our parents admit they had it easy, but at the same time we are so lame cuz all our music is old and we act like it came out yesterday. We are obsessed with old dead people. Everyone is fuckin dead or they own stores in places like Silver Lake.” On bad days, I admitted, “I completely lose myself in time.”
Mulder and Scully’s partnership could not survive the turn of the millennium and neither could mine and S.’s. In the show’s final seasons, the agents finally seem to be sleeping together, ruining an important source of dramatic tension exactly as we knew it would. Both leads had pulled back from the series and were partially replaced by generic opposite-gendered investigators. George W. Bush was elected, the twin towers fell, and the national appetite for conspiratorial fantasy was sated, for a while, by the nightly news.
By that time I had stopped watching. S. stuck with the original series until the end; I quit when the going got tough. She wanted to remain an extraordinary child and I was trying to become a more ordinary miserable teenager. Neither of us could keep up with the other, and we suffered and quarreled. For S., computing offered safe passage to wonder; the beauty of form was on the inside. I remained locked out; computers break when I come near. At Armenian church camp one summer, she welcomed Jesus into her heart and kept him there for a few years, and I discovered my own bewilderment in the face of belief. She was celibate; I just couldn’t get laid. We both loved other girls but not quite, we decided, each other. Later, she would study engineering, and I would study its critiques. Later still, she would move to the Pacific Northwest, build brains for a big company, and fill a mansion with marvelous toys and then children to play with them. I moved across the country to my city, where I wander around staring uncomprehendingly at objects and waiting for them to stare back. I still have my i want to believe poster over my desk. It was the first thing I ever bought online.
What is easier to see with greater distance is that the epistemological tension that had held the show together — the coy flirtation between magic and science — had been consummated, just like the relationship between Mulder and Scully or between conspiratorial fantasy and political reality. We had been literalized into a strange new lifeworld entirely saturated by computer technology. The X-Files filled its characters with alien-manufactured microchips, but it never really caught up to a world with smartphones. Detective work on The X-Files had happened under the cover of darkness, the agents’ flashlights casting single beams across a blackened screen. But by the turn of the millennium, the night was fading. In Russia, a space company made plans to dot the sky with satellites that would reflect sunshine back to earth at all hours, creating “daylight all night long.” 2 The satellites never launched, but it didn’t matter: the new order of things had eliminated shadows, and with them, an entire methodology for seeing in the dark.
The X-Files reboot first aired in the early months of 2016, when the air was humid with denial. Fittingly, the real problem is the lighting. Anderson has a self-help book out; Duchovny, back from rehab for sex addiction, wrote a novel in which farm animals representing Israel and Palestine make friends, and has a Twitter account for his dog. In the new episodes, they uncannily seemed to be playing themselves — her with sharpened cheekbones, him with an open top button on a crisp white shirt — like they’d just come from brunch in Santa Monica. But an influx of daylight created a problem for the series on another level, too. In “My Struggle” and its sequels (The Ones That Felt Longer Than a Knausgaard Novel), the show’s updated myth arc revolves around our protagonists’ attempt to deal with a strange new bedfellow, a popular right-wing conspiracy peddler on the model of Alex Jones, who is both clearly odious and possibly onto something. For all the original program’s storied self-reflexivity, the new show could not figure out how to live up to its twist, both jaw-dropping and enragingly inevitable, on the old one: Fox Mulder Meets Fox News. The call is coming, all too obviously, from inside the house.
The reboot rebooted again in early 2018, its problems further magnified by everything we’ve learned in the past two years. Season eleven, does, however, include one all-time great episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (The One Where an Alien Does a Trump Monologue), a bittersweet film essay on the impossibility of The X-Files in a “postconspiracy” age when power refuses to go through the motions of concealing its most brutal machinations. In one montage that spans the Reagan through Obama years, a nebbishy paper pusher evolves from a bored postal clerk to a napping Securities and Exchange Commission operative to a CIA agent casually waterboarding a bound man to a drone operator accidentally bombing a far-off wedding, all from the comfort of the same cubicle. At the episode’s end, Mulder and Scully meet a bedazzled extraterrestrial ambassador who has arrived in a flying saucer to inform them that the aliens’ study of Earth is complete; the intergalactic confederation no longer wants anything to do with us. “We are building a wall,” he intones cordially but firmly. As a parting gesture, he gives Mulder a trim, leather-bound book called All the Answers, “in case you have any questions remaining.”
“It’s okay, Mulder,” Scully reassures her stunned partner when the spaceship has whizzed off. “There will always be more X-files.” “No! It’s not true!” Mulder howls, hurling the book and crumpling to the ground.
The New York Times recently reported that the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars on UFO research in the past decade. Weird objects are appearing in the sky again, or maybe they’re just Teslas. It’s all been met with a collective shrug.
As usual, Mulder was right.
In the months before the election, I lost my method, too. I was trying to write my own dissertation about magic and technology in contemporary literature, and left my city to be alone with my devices. Keeping myself safe from stories and refusing to stumble on mysteries, my information sickness spread until I could not know things at all. A dead circuit. Instead of a map, Trump’s giant face.
That November, the earth opened and we fell through the cracks, picking up speed. It wasn’t one big hole but endless small ones, like gas coming up through the tundra, or like our house in the Valley with its network of hidden fissures that opened up one day twenty years after the earthquake. Broken clocks floated by. They were melted but no longer missing. I am a communist again, like lots of kids. As I write this, children across the country are marching out of their schools together because the location of safety has moved outside. The rich are planning missions to the stars.
The world felt strange in the late 20th century when politics congealed into fandom, like being haunted by ghosts. Now that fandom on the right has melted back into politics, it feels psychotic, like being stalked by monsters or chased by cartoon frogs. When we get accustomed to the political unconscious becoming conscious, the imperceptible perceptible, we say we are woke; the Nazis say red-pilled. It is uncanny to remember a time when we spoke only through the things we liked and wore, like looking back at cultists who think they have outgrown the swaddling of history, but in fact simply will not speak the names of their devils and gods. When alt-right thinkers complain about a specter they call postmodernism, I wonder if they miss it.
It’s hard to say whether the new show we are living in is a sequel to the old one, or just its reboot. We were in the park at night: a different friend and I, a different time. I’d tangled myself in a swing and was spinning round and round when he told me about Roko’s basilisk. The basilisk, born on an internet chat forum for the philosophical wing of the new tide of fascism, is a super-powerful artificial intelligence from the future. He wants you, earthling, to work toward his establishment as a supreme being ruling a neofeudal order. He will not bug you if you do not know his name, but once you do, you’re in or you’re out, and if you’re out he will fuck you up, even if he has to rebuild your consciousness out of machine dust in order to do it. The basilisk is a folktale of our time. In him, we meet the ultimate conspirator in the shape of a chintzy Monster of the Week. Like a bit of malware in your head, he insists his story be passed on.
“Let him come,” I said to my friend. “If we refuse to speak of him, we give him the power of our childhood phantasms. The enemy has revealed himself. Now we can fight.”
“You are a white girl in the park on acid,” he said. “On the border, they are building camps.”
I put my foot out sharply and stopped spinning. One looks at one’s friends and neighbors and wonders who will turn. One turns to oneself.
I do not know if we can organize from a place this disorganized. But I want to believe.