Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900 to present) we feature an interview, or a conversation, with
a preeminent scholar in the field of American popular culture studies.
This fall 2004 edition, we are featuring Paul A. Cantor who is the
Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of
Virginia. After graduating from Harvard University, he went on to
publish myriad articles and books including: Macbeth und die
Evangelisierung von Schottland, Shakespeare: Hamlet, Creature
and Creator: Myth-making and English Romanticism, and Shakespeare’s
Rome: Republic and Empire. In a world of categories, labels,
genres, Professor Cantor has proven himself to be remarkably resistant,
publishing on Oscar Wilde one day, on Salman Rushdie another, on
Samuel Beckett another, and then winning the Ludwig von Mises Prize
for Scholarship in Austrian School Economics on yet another.
His diverse research interests have manifested themselves once again
with the publication of his latest book, Gilligan Unbound: Pop
Culture in the Age of Globalization, in which he turns his
academic eye to four popular American television shows: Gilligan’s
Island, Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The
Last winter, we discussed Gilligan Unbound with Professor
What caused an English professor, albeit one with diverse
research interests, to turn his attention from Shakespeare, for
example, to media studies, broadly, and television, in particular?
Although we did note that Shakespeare came in handy in a few of
Gilligan Unbound did not really mark any kind of abrupt
turn in my attention. I've always been interested in popular culture—I've
been a fan of TV almost from its inception—I've always liked
to talk about it seriously with like-minded people. And I've always
used popular culture as a reference point when I discuss serious
literature. For example, when I would lecture on the revenge motif
in Shakespeare's Richard III, I'd refer to the Godfather
movies. Or I would show how the Hollywood sequel principle is already
at work in Shakespeare's history plays—Henry IV, Part
One was a success and so Shakespeare followed it up with Part
Two. It was quite natural for me eventually to get around to writing
directly about some of the television shows I've been interested
You dedicate your book in memory of your devoted VCR, Sony
SLV-420. Tell us about that special relationship.
Well, some things are not easy to speak about in public. Let's just
say that I spent a lot of nights with that VCR, and one thing led
toanother—some rewinds, a lot of fast forwards, every now
and then a pause or two—and let's face it—eventually
it just wore out. The VCR, I mean.
Some English departments shun popular culture studies. Did
you find any such resistance when you embarked on Gilligan Unbound:
Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization?
I really wonder if there are any English departments left that shun
popular culture studies. If anything, I think it's just the opposite—cultural
studies is crowding out the traditional study of literature, and
I actually regret that.
In any case, I certainly did not encounter any resistance in the
course of working on Gilligan Unbound. It became a book
because the individual studies from which it emerged were greeted
with so much enthusiasm. The Simpsons essay won a prize at the American
Political Science Association conference for which it was written.
The lectures I gave on Gilligan’s Island and Star
Trek were always very well attended and provoked spirited discussions.
I never intended to create a book out of this material, but the
reception it received encouraged me to do so. A very few colleagues
let it be known that they thought I was wasting my time, but most
of them welcomed what I was doing. And students were particularly
You mention that this book started, as many do, with public
lectures. Tell us more about those early formative lectures and
the audience reaction you received.
The earliest lecture I ever gave on any of this material was way
back in January 1977—it was my last public lecture as an assistant
professor at Harvard, and I decided to have some fun. I was teaching
a course on "Myths of Creation," and I wanted to end it
with a discussion of the mythic elements of Gilligan’s
Island. The show was already in reruns then, and the students
seemed quite familiar with it. I thought it was a good way to end
the course and to end my career at Harvard.
Then we fast-forward to the late 1980s; I was invited by Professor
James Pontuso to give a lecture on professional wrestling at Hampden-Sydney
College, just south of Charlottesville in Virginia. From then on,
I gave a series of lectures on popular culture at Hampden-Sydney—on
Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, and The Simpsons.
I really owe a lot to my hosts there and to the students; I was
really quite impressed with the quality of the questions I was asked
on each occasion. It convinced me that there is an audience for
the serious discussion of popular culture and television in particular.
When did you decide to gather ideas from your lectures and
published essays into a book? How did you come to make this decision?
By 1999, I felt that I had gathered enough material for a book,
but I was still thinking in terms of just collecting the essays
I had already published, with some revisions. Oddly enough, I already
had the title: Gilligan Unbound—I just didn't know
what it meant yet.
I'd had some dealings with Rowman & Littlefield and so was thinking
of approaching them. I had presented a number of the papers under
the auspices of the Politics and Literature section of the American
Political Science Association. In the fall of 1999, I thought I'd
use the opportunity of the APSA conference to approach Rowman &
Littlefield with the project—they always have a booth at the
book exhibit at the APSA. I remember walking up to the Rowman &
Littlefield representative at the conference, Steve Wrinn, and before
I could say anything, his first words to me were: "Everybody
keeps telling me we have to publish a collection of your essays
on popular culture; how about it?" It was the easiest pitch
I'd ever done in my life.
Wrinn is a great editor and had total faith in the project from
the beginning—the only condition he added was this: "You
have to write a chapter on The X-Files." He's a big
fan of the show, and fortunately so am I; it's as if he'd told me:
"Let me take you out to dinner; the only condition is you have
to have chocolate cake for dessert." In fact, the one thing
I knew I wanted to add to the book was a chapter on The X-Files.
So it was no problem reaching an agreement with Rowman & Littlefield.
You had planned to publish a book of collected essays, but came
across an overarching argument.
We were targeting the book for 2001 publication, and so in June
of 2000, I sat down to write The X-Files chapter. I felt
that I had everything else pretty much ready to go, and with a thirty
to forty page X-Files chapter I'd be home free. I was planning
on writing something on the fundamental pun on "alien"
in The X-Files—the fact that the show dealt with
both "aliens" in the sense of extraterrestrials and illegal
aliens (strange creatures somehow smuggled into the US).
The X-Files chapter went well—too well. At the end
of a week, I found I'd written over 100 pages on the show. This
forced me to reconsider the book as a whole. I couldn't include
everything I'd written on The X-Files without cutting out
some of the other material. At the same time, in writing about The
X-Files, I began to see that the theme of globalization was
at the heart of much of what I had been analyzing in American television.
I made a quick decision—I would jettison about half the material
I'd accumulated, much of it about pro wrestling—and turn the
remaining material into an integrated argument. Once I made that
decision, everything fell into place.
I saw that what I really was doing was making a contribution to
the "end of the nation state" debate. The two shows I
had been dealing with from the 1960s—Gilligan’s
Island and Star Trek—represented the peak of
America's confidence as a nation state. The premise of Gilligan’s
Island is that you could drop a representative group of Americans
anywhere on the globe, and they would take over; indeed, they would
recreate American society in the face of all challenges. Star
Trek just galacticized this premise—wherever the starship
Enterprise went, it recreated other planets in the image of 1960s
America. In short, these shows represented a vision of the Americanization
of the globe.
But when I turned to the two shows that interested me in the 1990s—The
Simpsons and The X-Files—they deal with the
globalization of America and chronicle a decline of the importance
of the nation state in American consciousness. If you compare The
Simpsons with the sitcoms from the 1950s it harks back to,
you can see the difference immediately: if there had been a convenience
store in the Springfield of Father Knows Best, it would
not have been run by someone named Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The
Simpsons does an amazing job of showing how the texture of
life in contemporary America has been globalized, and I relate this
to a loss of faith in national politics in the show. It generally
celebrates this development. But The X-Files shows the
dark side of globalization. It shows America being invaded by all
sorts of "alien" forces: some of them extraterrestrial
and imaginary; some of them quite real (the problem of migrant workers,
for example). With all the shadowy conspiracies in The X-Files,
it reflects a decentering of American political consciousness--there's
no longer a sense that the people who appear to be in charge in
Washington really are in charge of the country.
Once I saw this overarching pattern, I had to go back and rewrite
the Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek, and Simpsons
chapters in light of this argument. It was a lot more work than
I had been planning on, and delayed the publication of the book
a bit, but I think it was worth it. I was helped a great deal by
the fact that an economics think tank, the Ludwig von Mises Institute,
had scheduled a conference on "the end of the nation state"
for the fall of 2000 and invited me to participate. The conference
was centered around a brilliant book by Martin van Creveld called
The Rise and Decline of the Nation State, and van Creveld
attended the conference. He was quite amused to hear his argument
applied to American television. But I found his book and all the
research I did on the "end of the nation state" debate
very helpful. I had vaguely known about this issue, but reading
up on it really helped me tie the book together.
I was also particularly struck by a book by Jean-Marie Guehenno
called in English The End of the Nation State; it read
like a commentary on The X-Files, though I would guess
Guehenno has never seen the show. Guehenno's concept that the new
image for power is a web rather than a center describes the vision
of The X-Files perfectly.
The joke in all this is that when I was finished integrating all
this material into a single book, I realized that Gilligan Unbound
was a much more appropriate title than I had originally intended.
So a short answer to your question would be: I came up with a title,
and eventually wrote a book to fit it.
Speaking of jokes, you use a lot of humor in this book—unusual
in an academic study. For example, you begin your “Notes on
Method”: “As a professor, I am expected to give an account
of my methods. My general readers, who are mainly interested in
what I have to say and not in how I am going about saying it, may
feel free to skip this section. My academic readers will probably
conclude that I am epistemologically naïve no matter what I
say. Now that nobody is reading, I feel ready to proceed.”
Later, you quote the chameloid Martia from Star Trek VI, “not
everybody keeps their genitals in the same place,” and quip,
“sound advice for interplanetary travelers.”
For me, the humor, such as it is, is a very important element of
the book. From the beginning, I wanted to have fun with this material.
I think too much of what passes for cultural studies is far too
serious in tone and, quite frankly, humorless. The spectacle of
Horkheimer and Adorno talking about Donald Duck in their ponderous
prose in Dialectic of Enlightenment is too much for me
to take. I feel like saying: "Lighten up, guys: it's only a
cartoon; it's not the end of civilization as we know it." I
often sense a complete disjunction in cultural studies between the
material being studied and the way it's talked about.
I tried in my book to suit the style to the subject matter. So I'm
rather light-hearted in my discussions of Gilligan’s Island
and The Simpsons. I get more serious in the X-Files
chapter, though even there I have some fun at the expense of the
sillier moments in the show. In fact, in its original conception
the book would have been more uniformly humorous. Writing about
The X-Files, and at such length, introduced a much darker
tone into the book. I actually regret having to omit the essays
on pro wrestling—in many respects, they would have been the
funniest part of the book, or at least the most tongue-in-cheek.
In “‘The Courage of the Fearless Crew’:
Gilligan’s Island and the Americanization of the
Globe,” we learn Gilligan’s Island is not just
another dumb show. There are lessons we can learn by watching it;
it’s a “window into 1960s America.”
I began with a rather low opinion of Gilligan’s Island,
and in some ways it serves as the whipping boy of the book—the
incredibly low standard by which the sophistication of the other
shows is measured. But in thinking and writing about the show, I
developed a grudging respect for it, and that's been confirmed for
me by correspondence with Sherwood Schwartz, the producer and creator.
He explicitly set out to create a microcosm of American society
and he succeeded—I think that's one reason the show has endured
and may be the most watched show in television history.
In its own nutty way, the show ended up exploring many of the serious
issues of 1960s America. You can see the beginning of feminist issues,
for example, in the whole question of the status of the women on
the island. I show in detail in my book how the show reflected Cold
War anxieties—I was surprised to discover how many episodes
dealt with the US/USSR missile race/space race. You can see the
issue of youth rebellion come up in the show, or the professor reflects
what used to be called the "egghead" issue—the whole
question of the status of intellectuals in American society.
You argue the castaways are not really lost at all.
Yes, the whole point of the show is that the castaways, in effect,
carry America with them wherever they go. Indeed, with all their
encounters with alien ways of life, their faith in America is never
shaken. Thus they feel quite at home even on the remote, deserted
In “Shakespeare in the Original Klingon: Star
Trek and the End of History,” do you think you finally
resolve the end of history debate?
I wouldn't say that I resolve the end of history debate because
in many respects it remains unresolvable. But I hope that my discussion
of Star Trek makes a contribution to the debate. I was
actually quite struck by the fact that the movie Star Trek VI
explicitly raises the issue of "the end of history"—that
has to be one of the few cases in which something discussed by Hegel
comes up in a Hollywood blockbuster. The makers of the film said
openly that the film is an allegory of the fall of the Berlin Wall,
and hence the end of the Cold War. It thus played right into the
debate that Francis Fukuyama had raised in his book The End
of History—whether the fall of communism and the consequent
triumph of the Free World was really the fulfillment of Hegel's
prophecy of the end of history.
My Star Trek chapter shows how the original TV series reflected
the Cold War polarization of the world—the Klingons represent
the communist bloc and the United Federation of Planets represents
the US and its allies. I trace how the logic of the Cold War works
itself out in the course of the original TV series. The Star
Trek chapter is one of the "oldest" parts of the
book; I eventually saw how the "end of history" theme
plays out in the other TV shows I discuss. My key insight was to
realize that what Fukuyama and others were calling "the end
of history" is, in fact, just the end of a particular phase
of history, namely the end of the era of the nation state. In that
sense, I don't resolve the end of history debate; I lift it onto
another plane. I could express the heart of my book by saying: "What
has been called the end of history is really just the end of the
Star Trek appears ideologically tangled in its Prime Directive.
Yes, the Prime Directive really takes us to the heart of the paradox
of Star Trek. The United Federation of Planets is committed
to non-interference in the affairs of other planets; Captain Kirk
and his crew are not supposed to change the way of life of other
civilizations. But, of course, they do it every episode—they
just go right through the galaxy destroying one functioning civilization
after another. I show that Kirk has a particular hostility to any
civilization that smacks of theocracy or aristocracy. What it comes
down to is this: the Enterprise will not interfere in a planetary
civilization—provided that it looks just like John F. Kennedy's
1960s America. But if it does not, it's time to get out the phasers
and blast away—to take down the Greek god Apollo, for example.
Star Trek provides a perfect reflection of the paradoxes
of America's foreign policy—the non-democratic imposition
of democracy around the world. The Enterprise was out to make the
galaxy safe for democracy—and it would destroy any civilization
that stood in its way. Gene Roddenberry's message was clear: woe
to any planet not ruled by a liberal democrat.
So Star Trek parallels Gilligan’s Island
in many ways.
The book really began to congeal for me when I saw the parallels
between Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island.
As I've said, both shows are about Americanization—the projection
of American power—first around the globe in Gilligan’s
Island and then around the galaxy in Star Trek.
What really surprised me is how important the space race is to both
shows. That's obvious in Star Trek—the whole conflict
between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets obviously
reflected the competition between the USSR and the US and specifically
the space race. That's why there's so much emphasis on technological
edge—whether the Klingons have superior starships and that
sort of thing. That kind of technological issue was very much on
everybody's mind during the 1960s, after the Soviet Union had shocked
the US with the launching of sputnik, and it took the US a long
time to catch up and, in fact, prove that it could get to the moon
But when you go back to Gilligan’s Island, those
concerns are already there. There's one episode about American astronauts
and one episode about Russian cosmonauts, and several episodes about
intercontinental ballistic missiles. Heavy stuff for Gilligan’s
Island. But it shows how much these issues were on the minds
of Americans, especially in light of the Cuban Missile Crisis of
As we turn to The Simpsons and The X-Files,
we have to discuss Fox. Fox Network came along and shook up broadcast
television a bit, didn’t it?
I myself was surprised at the role the Fox Network ended up playing
in my book. I certainly didn't set out to write a celebration of
Fox. I just chose The Simpsons and The X-Files
as the best and most representative TV shows of the 1990s, and after
awhile it dawned on me that they were both on Fox. But then I saw
that this wasn't just an accident. As an upstart network, Fox had
to take chances and it did.
I make the point that neither The Simpsons nor The
X-Files would have made it on to TV in the 1960s, when the
three original networks had a stranglehold on TV programming. It's
hard for people today to believe that there was once a time when
CBS, NBC, and ABC accounted for 90% of the prime time audience.
This year, for the first time, the share of the Big Three finally
dropped below 50%, and it will undoubtedly drop further. I was surprised
to find that a lot of TV analysts lament this fact—they present
it as the shattering of American consensus. I see it as a wonderful
liberating opportunity—above all, for a greater variety of
programming on television. And I really credit Fox for starting
this trend. In their effort to be different and establish a distinct
profile for themselves, they put a lot of junk on TV, but they also
produced remarkable quality in The Simpsons and The
X-Files; I think they're arguably the two best shows in the
history of television.
And here I have to give credit to the owner of Fox, Rupert Murdoch.
The Simpsons itself has described him as a "billionaire
tyrant," but I was surprised to discover in my research that
he personally gave the green light to both The Simpsons
and The X-Files; neither show would have made it on the
air without his approval. And I think it took both courage and insight
to back those shows. I don't know if I would have had such foresight.
I did love The Simpsons even when it consisted of short
features on the Tracy Ullman Show, and I suppose I would
have bet money on its success on its own (but maybe not my own money
the way Murdoch did).
I certainly did not like The X-Files when I first saw it,
and I think I would have rejected it if it had been my choice whether
it made it on the air. So I really admire the Fox executives and
Murdoch in particular. Academics tend to look down on businessmen
and especially businessmen in the mass media. We all think we're
so much smarter than they are and could do such a better job at
programming. It's mostly envy, of course, the defining vice of academics.
But one lesson I learned from researching Gilligan Unbound
is that TV producers and even network executives can be very canny.
Academics are brilliant in retrospect. We're wonderful at showing
how talented Shakespeare was, for example. But how many of us would
have known to invest our own money in a young, uneducated kid fresh
from Stratford when he proposed doing a trilogy on Henry VI?
("Come on, Willy, three whole plays on Henry VI? He was just
a little boy!")
That's what impresses me about people like Murdoch. Unlike academics,
they have to put their money where their mouth is and make a real
bet on where the next genius is coming from. Murdoch was right about
Matt Groening of The Simpsons and Chris Carter of The
X-Files—at a time when it was by no means obvious that
their shows were going to dominate television in the 90s. So—in
my view—and you won't hear this phrase too often—more
power to Murdoch.
Now at this point, conflict of interest rules and basic ethics dictate
that I reveal that I'm in the pay of the billionaire tyrant myself.
That is, I've written five or six pieces over the years for The
Weekly Standard, which Murdoch owns. So I figure I'm into Murdoch
for a couple of thousand dollars and a free trip to New York once
to review a play on Broadway. My readers should be aware then that
I have financial connections to Murdoch. But, since I would guess
that just about one out of every two people on earth is somehow
getting money directly or indirectly from Murdoch, I really don't
think my writing for one of his magazines is all that distinctive.
And, honestly, I chose The Simpsons and The X-Files
before I even thought of their connection to Fox and Murdoch.
Clearly, you admire The Simpsons. Indeed in “Simpson
Agonistes: Atomistic Politics, the Nuclear Family, and the Globalization
of Springfield,” you go so far as to say, “The Simpsons
may seem like mindless entertainment to many, but in fact it offers
some of the most sophisticated comedy and satire ever to appear
on American television.”
By now I believe more people would object to my referring to The
Simpsons as "mindless entertainment" than to my calling
it "the most sophisticated comedy and satire ever to appear
on American television." Again, I take some credit for having
recognized the quality of the show from its debut—I was a
fan from the start. But it's true that the initial reaction from
most people was to reject the show as vulgar and boorish; they focused
on the superficial characteristics of the show--the fact that Bart
said things like "eat my shorts," for example—and
missed what was going on beneath the surface—the genuine satirical
It's particularly ironic that much of the initial criticism of The
Simpsons focused on the idea that the show was undermining
family values. As I show in my book, in fact, the show marked a
return to family values on American television. I call it the "worst
case scenario" defense of the nuclear family. It's rather easy
to defend the family when you've got Jim Anderson of Father
Knows Best or Ward Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver presiding
over the household. But as we all know, that's an unrealistic image
of the American family. The real point is to show a family with
Homer Simpson as father and make the point that even that family
is better than none. I think by now most people realize that The
Simpsons actually offers positive images of family life; there
are ministers who use clips from The Simpsons to illustrate
their sermons, and there's even a book called The Gospel According
to The Simpsons by Mark Pinsky. I take some credit for the
fact that I was making this argument in public lectures as far back
Talk to us about the globalization of Springfield. Why is
I already mentioned the central role of Apu in the show, but there
are many other ways in which The Simpsons shows that Springfield
has been globalized. People from all over the world come to Springfield;
we learn in one episode that there are three direct flights a day
to Springfield from India, for example. And all sorts of global
celebrities show up in Springfield, from Paul McCartney to Stephen
Hawking. And when Lisa needs to find a Buddhist temple, it's right
there in Springfield for her.
The Simpsons does an excellent job of showing how the texture
of daily life in America altered in the 1990s, how much more open
the United States became to global influences—and again this
is very evident when one compares The Simpsons to sitcoms
from the 1950s and 60s. The kids in Leave It to Beaver
were lucky if they ever made it a few miles out of Mayfield, and
they were completely befuddled the one time they met a kid who speaks
is the all-time academic underachiever, but when he's shipped off
to France in a student exchange program, he ends up speaking French
without even trying. And, of course, by now the Simpsons as a family
have traveled all over the globe, much to the disgust of the Brazilian
tourist authorities I might add.
I relate this aspect of The Simpsons to the end of the
Cold War—I think it's no accident that the show made its debut
about six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the Cold
War threat finally neutralized, Americans became much more open
to the world, and The Simpsons reflects that fact.
Yet the Simpsons are “more attached to the local than
to the global.”
My basic argument about The Simpsons is this: the show
follows from a disillusionment with national politics—Washington
DC is portrayed very cynically in the series, and the chief representatives
of the federal government are the IRS and the FBI—both viewed
as unnecessarily intruding in the daily lives of Americans. With
the Cold War over, Americans feel less dependent on their national
government to protect them. With the nation state devalued in the
show, the citizens of Springfield are free to turn in the direction
of the global and the direction of the local. But I think the show
emphasizes the local pole. That is, after all, where most people
live their lives.
The Simpsons makes fun of the traditional American small
town, but it also displays a sort of affection and even nostalgia
for the old small town ideal. We see the worth of one small town
institution after another in the show. Bart and Lisa go to a local
school, for example. The show, of course, satirizes the school mercilessly,
but it also shows its advantages. Homer and Marge can actually speak
to the teachers of their children when necessary.
Matt Groening has made the point that he doesn't like power when
it grows remote from people. So The Simpsons shows the
advantages of small town government. Mayor Quimby is a crook, but
he's Springfield's own crook, and he's actually quite responsive
to local needs—simply because he wants to get re-elected.
Certainly more responsive than the federal government in the view
of the show—all the IRS ends up doing is shut down the Krusty
the Klown show.
You write, “The success of the X-Files in
the 1990s would seem to reflect a growing cynicism in the American
people about their government—a distrust of their leaders
and a new disposition to believe the worst about them, no doubt
fueled by the seemingly endless series of political scandals that
emanated out of Washington in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.”
Yes, my X-Files chapter begins with my amazement that a
show with such a dark vision of America ever made it onto national
television. The X-Files basically takes the paranoid political
vision of 1970s movies like Coppola's The Conversation
and mainstreams it for the television viewing public. You have to
make a decision to go see a movie, but television brings a story
right into your home—thus the success of The X-Files
suggests to me that an attitude that was on the periphery of American
culture in the 1970s had moved much closer to the center by the
I believe that all the political scandals between Watergate and
the Clinton administration helped fuel this development, but I also
relate it in my chapter once again to the end of the Cold War. Once
the American people no longer felt they needed their national government
as much to protect them, they became more skeptical about that government,
and willing to question its ways.
Even still, Marshall McLuhan keeps popping up in academic
arguments. Talk about his relevance to your X-Files chapter.
I brought up Marshall McLuhan in my X-Files chapter simply
because it seemed to me that the creators of the show had his theories
in mind in the episodes that are called the Anasazi Trilogy. The
degree of cultural literacy of The X-Files is actually
quite impressive. It has to be the only television show that ever
named an episode after a book by Martin Heidegger ("Sein und
Zeit"). And in the only existentialist joke I can remember
on American TV, the show made fun of the famous formula "existence
precedes essence" by naming two episodes "Essence"
and "Existence" and having "Essence" precede
Anyway, getting back to McLuhan, in the Anasazi Trilogy, The
X-Files deals with the whole issue of media, and the way they
relate to stages of history. It basically pits the oral culture
of an Indian tribe, together with the electronic culture of computer
hackers, against the print culture of the nation state and its official
institutions. This is actually my favorite section of my whole book
and the argument is rather complicated, so let me refer people to
what I say in the chapter. But I'm convinced that Chris Carter and
the other creators of the show had McLuhan's theories in mind in
these episodes—especially his ideas about the limitations
of print culture.
One of the issues I explore at length in my X-Files chapter
is the relation between technology and the nation state. The show
was very canny on this issue—it sometimes takes the Orwellian
position that modern technology has made the nation state stronger
than it has ever been, but it also considers the possibility that
technology will prove to be the Achilles heel of the nation state.
Many X-Files episodes deal with this issue—sometimes
we see the power of computers allowing the nation state to spy into
the activities of its citizens with unprecedented power, but at
other times we see the effects of the new hacker culture—as
a challenge to centralized authority. In many ways, I believe this
is the most interesting problem The X-Files explores.
Can you relate the experience of 9/11 to The X-Files
and, more generally, has it changed your view of popular culture?
The central argument of Gilligan Unbound is that the end
of the Cold War led to a demotion of the importance of the nation
state in the lives of the American people, which was reflected in
the popular culture of the 1990s—when people turned at one
and the same time to more local and more global—and less national—concerns.
My claim was that once the American people felt less threatened
by foreign forces, they came to depend less and less on the nation
state. The events surrounding 9/11 have thus not disconfirmed my
thesis; now that the American people feel threatened in a new way
by foreign forces—the threat of terrorism—the nation
state has once again assumed a kind of centrality in their lives,
and this development is also illustrated in popular culture—for
example, all the new TV series about intelligence agencies counterracting
The most remarkable thing for me is how The X-Files predicted
these developments. This is especially true of the spinoff from
the series—The Lone Gunman. Chris Carter took the
three computer hacker/conspiracy theorist characters who had become
popular on The X-Files and gave them their own series in
the spring of 2001. The plot of the pilot episode involved terrorists
trying to fly an airplane into the World Trade Center. I'm not making
this up—this episode aired in March of 2001. This has to be
one of the most uncanny moments in television history, and I'm surprised
it has not been commented upon more, although for obvious reasons
the episode has not been shown again and probably never will be
(I'm glad I have several copies on tape with my new VCR).
The disaster of 9/11 was, in a sense, unimaginable as so many people
at the time claimed, and yet The Lone Gunman had, in fact.
imagined it (not in the exact terms, but close enough to be scary).
For years, The X-Files had been serving up plots involving
terrorism—bomb threats, biological weapons, secret invasions—and
especially during the anthrax scare following 9/11, I couldn't help
feeling that we were all living out a bad X-Files script.
Here I want to quote a few sentences from my book about The X-Files,
written in the summer of 2000: "The X-Files portrays
a kind of free-floating geopolitical anxiety that follows upon the
collapse of the clear-cut ideological divisions of the Cold War.
. . .The central image of threat during the Cold War was a nuclear
explosion—destruction that starts at a clear central point
and spreads outward. The central image of threat in The X-Files
is infection—a plague that may begin at any point on the globe
and spread to any other— thanks to international air travel
and all the other globalizing forces at work today."
Those lines were, of course, true when I wrote them, but they seem
to be so much truer today. And my respect for the show has only
increased in light of what happened on 9/11 and subsequently. The
X-Files turns out to have predicted the world we're now living
At the end of your conclusion, you write, “Popular
culture has much to teach us.”
I feel that the whole of Gilligan Unbound is devoted to
showing what popular culture can teach us, but in light of the preceding
question I'll focus on one issue.
Popular culture can be a sort of radar screen for the future, the
cultural equivalent of a distance early warning system. Back in
the 1890s, Great Britain seemed to be sitting on top of the world,
presiding over the greatest empire ever seen. If you looked at most
aspects of British culture at the time, you would have seen all
sorts of signs of self-confidence and even complacency. But there
were some disturbing signs in the popular culture of the day, and
here I'm talking mostly about popular fiction. The great age of
Victorian self-confidence was also the great age of British horror
stories. Bram Stoker's Dracula came out in the 1890s, and
it showed a Britain being invaded by a strange foreign force that
could barely be resisted. H. G. Wells brought out War of the
Worlds in 1898—at a time when the British military, and
especially the navy, seemed invincible, Wells created a story in
which a technologically superior force from Mars invades Britain
and brings the British military to its knees. I could go on and
on like this—Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, for example,
reflect all sorts of anxieties about Britain's vulnerability to
foreign forces. But my basic point is simple—at a time when
the British appeared to be on top of the world, British popular
culture was beginning to register doubts and to suggest that perhaps
British mastery of the world would not last forever.
We often think of popular culture as passive—as simply reflecting
popular ideas, but what I'm saying is that in the 1890s British
popular culture, as represented by extremely popular authors such
as Stoker, Wells, and Doyle, was way ahead of the curve—these
authors saw the coming horrors of the twentieth century in ways
that few of the politicians of the day could imagine. That's the
point about popular culture—it can be genuinely imaginative.
I see an exact parallel to the British situation in the 1890s in
the American situation in the 1990s. Now it was the United States
that was sitting on top of the world, with its power apparently
unchallenged. With the Soviet Union gone as an adversary, Americans
were tempted to proclaim the end of history and assume that liberal
democracy had triumphed once and for all in the world. If you wanted
to see a challenge to this complacency, once again the place to
look was popular culture.
That's my point about The X-Files—at a time of American
triumphalism, it was registering serious doubts about the future
and especially as to how the phenomenon of globalization would play
out. The central thrust of the show was to suggest that America
was not in control of the world. It's amazing to me how the fictional
fears of The X-Files have begun to haunt us for real in the twenty-first
century. This isn't a very pleasant thought, but it is, I think,
a tribute to the vitality and importance of popular culture.