Featured Guest:
Professor Paul A. Cantor

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 X-Files.

Last winter, we discussed Gilligan Unbound with Professor Cantor.

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 your arguments.

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 in.

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 encouraging.

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 island.

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 nation state."

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 first.

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 1962.

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 wit.

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 as 1995.

Talk to us about the globalization of Springfield. Why is this significant?

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 Spanish. Bart
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 1990s.

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 "Existence."

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 terrorism.

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 in.

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.

© 2005 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture