Any mass media phenomenon as big as The X-Files, the hit television series that initially aired on Fox from 1993 to 2002, will serve as a cultural Rorschach Test. How critics read X-Files will tell us as much about their investment in and understanding of the cultural milieu of the 90s as it will about the show itself. Critics have decoded the sociopolitical meaning and historical significance of the supernatural happenings depicted by The X-Files in manifold ways. As a polysemic variable, “X” offers an open set of potential readings, which I am tempted to call “The Allegory Files.” The show has been read as an allegory of illegal immigration, the dangers of the military-industrial complex, the American mistrust of government post-Watergate, the impact of television on contemporary society, the paranoid state of American politics, the current ideology of cynicism, the limits of the Enlightenment, the limits of postmodernism (does it get more mutually exclusive than that?), and the epistemology of chaos theory. A less obvious allegorical interpretation focuses on the show’s significant use of and focus on spatial geopolitics. For example, Emily S. Davis argues, “With its trademark melding of science fiction, gothic horror, and detective and thriller genres, The X-Files makes the perfect vehicle for representing ways in which anxieties about the dangerous intimacies of the ever smaller global village—along with more general anxieties about social change, sexual taboo, and technological development—come together.”1Emily. S. Davis, “The Intimacies of Globalization: Bodies and Borders On-Screen,” Camera Obscura 62: 21.2 (2006), 32-73.
I, too, am interested in The X-Files as an allegory, the resonance of its dark and mysterious spaces, and how the show expresses general anxieties about the social changes wrought by the millennial forces of globalization. But my curiosity lies with an “allegory file” yet to be opened, one that delves into the meaning of the post-industrial spaces that make up the backdrops of many of The X-Files’ episodes, specifically those of the first five seasons filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia. Why do so many episodes contain climatic scenes set in dark abandoned warehouses and factories? Are these settings merely a convention of the sci-fi/neo-noir/horror genre, or do they register latent anxieties about life in a post-industrial society? Without overturning previous interpretations of The X-Files, I argue that what is difficult to accept, cope with, and understand is not a U.S. governmental conspiracy to conceal the existence of extraterrestrials, but the country’s rocky transition away from a manufacturing-based economy. The birth pangs of the burgeoning post-industrial order are recorded in the recurring spaces of the first five seasons of The X-Files. The fact that the first five seasons were shot in Vancouver cannot be overlooked. A major port city traditionally known for its timber, fishing, and mining industries, Vancouver now boasts of thriving tourist, software development, financial, and biotech industries. Commenting on the redevelopment of areas like Yaletown, Victory Square, and False Creek, Thomas A. Hutton deems Vancouver “a classic post-industrial city.”2Thomas A. Hutton, The Transformation of Canada’s Pacific Metropolis: A Study of Vancouver, (Montreal: The Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1998), 147.
Another key component of the city’s shift to a post-industrial economy is its cultural industries. Vancouver competes with Toronto for the moniker “Hollywood North,” and British Columbia was the third-largest film production center on the North American continent during The X-Files run in the 1990s. (It fell to fourth behind Ontario in 2011 but has returned to third in small part due to the 2016 reboot of The X-Files, which returned to its origin city.) Tim Jepson highlights the major reasons for filming in Vancouver: “the favourable exchange rates, the cheap (and union-lite) labour, the easy flight from LA and, above all, the wide range of locations that easily double for [the] US. Tenements, skyscrapers, alleys—especially the alleys—docks, waterfront and more need little or no disguise to double for New York, Philadelphia, Chicago or other Stateside cities.”3Tim Jepsen, The Rough Guide to Vancouver, 2nd ed., (London: Rough Guides, 2004), 172 (Tax credits, facilities, and talented production crews are also cited as benefits of shooting in Hollywood North.) Will Brooker sums up that “the city substitutes for the US partly for economic reasons, but also for its perceived anonymity.”4William Brooker, “Everywhere and Nowhere: Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 10.4 (2007), 427. Beyond its cost-saving measures, Vancouver offered something vital to The X-Files. Series creator Chris Carter admits, “Vancouver was critical to the look of the show. I don’t mean to take anything away from David or Gillian, but I’ve always felt that Vancouver was one of the stars of the show.”5Alex Strachan, “X-Files Creator Bids B.C. Sad Adieu,” Vancouver Sun, 30 Mar. 1998.
What elevated this Canadian city from a utilitarian film location to a starring role in the show? Location manager for the first five Vancouver-based seasons Todd Pittson describes the importance of the city as a thematic backdrop:
What is perhaps most poignant is the evolution of The X-Files’ [moody] “look” as it fed on brooding landscapes, seamy downtown neighbourhoods, and arboreal winter light. This visual aesthetic became, in turn, a touchstone for the distrust, tension, and angst of the nineties. In this sense, the “look” the Lower Mainland gave the show was both tangible and unique.6Louisa Gradnitzer and Todd Pitson, X-Marks the Spot: On Location with The X-Files, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press), 153.
Notably, Pittson makes these remarks in the context of learning about The X-Files’ relocation to Los Angeles for season six when the quality of the show depreciated. I limit my analysis of The X-Files to its first five seasons precisely because the brooding landscapes and seamy downtown neighborhoods that comprise Vancouver’s visual aesthetic are post-industrial. They record, in inchoate fashion, a particular brand of 90s distrust, tension, and angst: the mental and physical disorder spawned by our post-industrial world.7Daniel Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, Trans. William McCuaig, (Cambridge: MIT, 2008), 22. If, as Douglas Kellner argues, “The X-Files shows a society in transition, with its institutions, values, and identities in crisis,”8Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle, (London: Routledge, 2003), 150. I specify that the principal component of this transition involves turn-of-the-century capitalism’s systematic dismantling of industrial society in the U.S.
French economist Daniel Cohen identifies five post-1980s ruptures that created the “great transformation” to the post-industrial era, one economical, financial, geographical, social, and cultural. If Daniel Bell forecasted the coming of the post-industrial society, Cohen confirms the arrival of “the new economy” as its initial rupture, a transition from an energy-intensive to an information-intensive technical system that signals nothing short of a third industrial revolution. With new information and communication technologies (ICTs) like the Internet, economic production becomes knowledge-based. Firms shift gears from processing materials to creating knowledge. This “dematerialized” and “weightless” modern economy is “characterized by the increasing importance of software over hardware and of knowledge and service relations over material components of commodities,” as George Liagouras points out.9George Liagouras, “The Political Economy of Post-Industrial Capitalism,” Thesis Eleven 81 (2005), 21. In post-industrial capitalism, cognitive, communicative, and aesthetic components of commodities—symbolic resources—take precedence over physical ones in the movement of capital.10Ibid., 24.
Several stand-alone X-Files episodes convey anxieties about ICTs. In “Ghost in the Machine” a computer system goes HAL 9000 on its operators. In “Killswitch,” written by William Gibson, artificial intelligence takes control of a satellite-based weapon system. In “Blood,” electronic digital displays subliminally order their owners to “kill.” Much the same happens in “Wetwired” with a warped television signal. But perhaps the purest expression of the new economy of post-industrial society occurs in the “mytharc”11The term refers to the overarching mythology of The X-Files, which involves a conspiratorial shadow government called the Syndicate that covers up not only the existence of aliens but also their plans to colonize Earth. episode “Paper Clip” from season three. In this episode, Mulder and Scully cast their flashlights on an “extremely elaborate filing system” (Scully) “locked inside a mountain vault” (Mulder) in the tunnels of an abandoned coal mine in rural West Virginia. The walls of these tunnels are lined with a vast array of filing cabinets containing the medical files and tissue samples of everyone born in the U.S. since the 1950s who was inoculated for the smallpox virus. (The agents also discover aliens, a UFO taking off, and governmental assassins hired to snuff them out.) The Well-Manicured Man (John Neville) informs them that genetic data of the general populace once collected for the purpose of post-apocalyptic identification became biotechnological information used for the creation of a superior race of alien-human hybrids.
In “Paper Clip” we have post-industrialism in a nutshell: a former industrial site has been retrofitted to house information. No longer is the site used to mine natural resources; it now stores symbolic resources for the purpose of biotechnological production. The endless filing cabinets in a mining tunnel work as a metaphor for the space that computers have come to occupy in post-industrial society (fittingly, the cabinets were computer-generated). To boot, the location of this setting is the British Columbia Museum of Mining, operated by the Britannia Beach Historical Society. In post-industrial society, entertainment industries like tourism and television mine former industrial sites for new economic opportunities.
Cohen cites the ascendancy of finance, the “stock market’s seizure of power in the management of companies,” as a second rupture in the arrival of the post-industrial era.12Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, 30. The X-Files all but ignores this aspect of post-industrialism, displacing blame for the “conspiracies” of global finance onto the evil-doers in the government. (In this way, the show anticipates the Tea Party movement.) As Charlie Bertsch observes, “The X-Files has been less than attentive to the ways in which the prevailing economic system might have an impact on the personal or the paranormal. Money simply doesn’t come up. The absence of capitalism from a narrative that points towards practically all other forms of conspiratorial agency implies an ideological blindspot.”13Charlie Bertsch, “‘The Personal is Paranormal’: Professional Labor on The X-Files,” American Studies 39.2 (1998),121. John Edward Campbell corroborates the “essential absence of capitalism” in the show. See “Alien(ating) Ideology and the American Media: Apprehending the Alien Image in Television Through The X-Files,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.3 (2001), 339-40.
The X-Files does a better job with the third rupture of post-industrial society identified by Cohen, the emergence of globalization. Cohen explains:
the “vertical disintegration” of the production line at the international level, to start with, is a reflection of the process of externalization of work begun with the industrial countries. Like the Internet, production follows a great variety of routes to arrive at its goals. The largest industrial companies become much more strategists than the hands-on operators of a skein of production distributed around the world.14Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, 57.
So not only do we have former mines and warehouses being used for techno-scientific research and development in the United States, we have outsourced the hands-on production to aliens. The intergalactic alien-government conspiracy in The X-Files operates as a metaphor for global economic integration. (Perhaps the extraterrestrial rock with black oil fits in here somewhere.)
A brief exchange between Mulder and the Lone Gunmen in season three’s “Nisei” demonstrates the show’s awareness of new economic realities:
Langly: [Examining a satellite photograph.] Just got to love those German optics.
Mulder: So you’re saying that’s from a German satellite?
Byers: No, the optics are German. The technology is probably ours, but the satellite is most likely Japanese.
Frohike: Launched from South America.
Mulder: Got to love that global economy, huh?
Several sets also double as evidence of the “vertical disintegration of production” brought on by the severance of conceptualization and prescription from fabrication across the globe.15Ibid., 48 The shipping yards full of containers in “Nisei” as well as the aforementioned “Killswitch,” which depicts a hacker taking up residence in one of them, come to mind.16One counter-example is “Folie a Deux,” a fifth season episode that retells Kafka’s The Metamorphosis with a twist: the evil boss of a telemarketing company plays the bug. The episode feels anachronistic because the workers are predominately white, middle-aged Midwesterners being brainwashed into office drones, a far cry from Thomas Friedman’s flat world of Indian call centers servicing American customers.
A basic tenet of the theory of historical materialism is that changes in production lead to changes in people, hence Cohen’s final two ruptures involve social and cultural developments in more developed countries which have offshored large swaths of their industrial sector. Socially, post-industrialism ushers in a new conception of human labor that is accompanied by a concomitant rise of individualism on the cultural front. Former AT&T Vice President for Human Resources James Meadows encapsulated the post-industrial workforce in 1996 when he said:
People need to look at themselves as self-employed, as vendors who come to this company to sell their skills. In AT&T, we have to promote the concept of the whole workforce being contingent though most of our contingent workers are inside our walls. “Jobs” are being replaced by “projects” and “fields of work,” giving rise to a society that is increasingly “jobless but not workless.”17Edmund L. Andrews, “Don’t Go Away Mad, Just Go Away: Can AT&T Be the Nice Guy as It Cuts 40,000 Jobs?” New York Times, 13 Feb. 1996.
In the post-industrial era we shift from being “organization men” to “portfolio people,” free agents of the labor market. The new post-Fordist workforce is comprised of flexible and mobile knowledge workers (since mental labor now predominates over manual), the professional and technical “white-collar” occupations that Daniel Bell theorized would come into preeminence. In many respects, Mulder and Scully represent “symbols-manipulating” workers, producing an intangible form of capital: the X-Files themselves. As stand-ins for Chris Carter and the Fox network, Mulder and Scully create (show)case after (show)case tracking supernatural phenomena. Although some cases are closed, most are left unsolved, leaving us to wonder, what ultimate service does the X-Files provide? In the last episode of season five “The End,” the Cigarette Smoking Man burns down Mulder’s office, including the filing cabinets holding the X-Files. But not to fear—the first shot of Mulder in season six’s opening episode “The Beginning” (the first filmed in L.A.), is of him painstakingly “reassembling the fragments” of the X-Files with the aid of computer imaging technology. (Talk about the immaterial activity of the prototypical post-industrial worker!)
As for representing the post-1960s upsurge in individualism that Cohen cites as contributing to the emergence of post-industrial society, The X-Files can perhaps take most credit, for this is a show about, by, and for “lone gunmen.” The 60s left the institutional authority of the family, the factory, and the school shattered, with the legitimacy crisis spreading to the government in the 70s and 80s. These cultural developments are interwoven with the economy. As Bell himself noted in 1973:
Capitalism was not just a system for the production of commodities, or a new set of occupations, or a new principle of calculation (though it was all of these), but a justification of the primacy of the individual and his self-interest, and of the strategic role of economic freedom in realizing those values through the free market. This is why the economic function became detached from other functions of Western society and was given free rein.18Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 481.
What happens to the atomized individuals who lose faith in authority, and for whom all belief systems bow down before the so-called “free market”? They become fetishistic believers like Scully (who believes in her religion although she knows better), paranoiacs like Mulder (who finds conspiracy everywhere, especially when wrapped in another conspiracy), or Monsters of the Week, those genetic mutants who do all they can to survive in a hostile world. Might not the Eugene Toomses, Donnie Pfasters, and Robert Modells of the “creature feature” episodes be surrogates for the displaced workers of post-industrial society? These monstrous metaphors represent the “paranoid sense that individuals have lost control of their institutions and even the ability to map and understand the machinations of a complex global society and culture.”19Kellner, Media Spectacle, 127-28. Kellner correctly notes that many of them are the “creation of social forces, of societal ills rather than the incomprehensible forces of nature.”20Ibid., 137.
Many of these characters live or die in post-industrial spaces. Tooms lives in an abandoned downtown apartment building. In the episode “Beyond the Sea,” Lucas Henry falls to his death in a deserted brewery. Mulder shoots and kills John Lee Roche in the Translink bus graveyard in Surrey, B.C. Samuel Aboah is killed in a demolition site and Augustus Cole in an abandoned part of a rail yard. The Pusher escapes two cops in an empty factory, and his twin sister Linda Bowman almost convinces Mulder to shoot Scully in the same dark and empty factory. Even the Jersey Devil is pursued through a dilapidated building before being hunted down in the woods. The gloomy spaces in which Mulder and Scully confront these monsters are post-industrial. They represent the return of the repressed of the post-industrial order.
The X-Files was popular in the 90s because it expressed the high degrees of complexity and uncertainty emerging with the post-industrial era. Its characters were alien and alienated. As Cohen quips, “like video games that make it hard for children to live in the real world, post-industrial society widens the gap between the imaginary and the real.”21Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, 9. Ultimately, The X-Files did just that, widen the gap between the imaginary and the real. No wonder why it’s been rebooted.
Kirk Boyle is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina Asheville. He is the author of The Rhetoric of Humor (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2017) and co-editor of The Great Recession in Fiction, Film, and Television: Twenty-First-Century Bust Culture (Lexington Books, 2013). His scholarly work appears in The Žižek Dictionary, Film-Philosophy, Jump Cut, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, the International Journal of Žižek Studies, Postscript, and the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture.
|↑1||Emily. S. Davis, “The Intimacies of Globalization: Bodies and Borders On-Screen,” Camera Obscura 62: 21.2 (2006), 32-73.|
|↑2||Thomas A. Hutton, The Transformation of Canada’s Pacific Metropolis: A Study of Vancouver, (Montreal: The Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1998), 147.|
|↑3||Tim Jepsen, The Rough Guide to Vancouver, 2nd ed., (London: Rough Guides, 2004), 172|
|↑4||William Brooker, “Everywhere and Nowhere: Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 10.4 (2007), 427.|
|↑5||Alex Strachan, “X-Files Creator Bids B.C. Sad Adieu,” Vancouver Sun, 30 Mar. 1998.|
|↑6||Louisa Gradnitzer and Todd Pitson, X-Marks the Spot: On Location with The X-Files, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press), 153.|
|↑7||Daniel Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, Trans. William McCuaig, (Cambridge: MIT, 2008), 22.|
|↑8||Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle, (London: Routledge, 2003), 150.|
|↑9||George Liagouras, “The Political Economy of Post-Industrial Capitalism,” Thesis Eleven 81 (2005), 21.|
|↑11||The term refers to the overarching mythology of The X-Files, which involves a conspiratorial shadow government called the Syndicate that covers up not only the existence of aliens but also their plans to colonize Earth.|
|↑12||Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, 30.|
|↑13||Charlie Bertsch, “‘The Personal is Paranormal’: Professional Labor on The X-Files,” American Studies 39.2 (1998),121. John Edward Campbell corroborates the “essential absence of capitalism” in the show. See “Alien(ating) Ideology and the American Media: Apprehending the Alien Image in Television Through The X-Files,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.3 (2001), 339-40.|
|↑14||Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, 57.|
|↑16||One counter-example is “Folie a Deux,” a fifth season episode that retells Kafka’s The Metamorphosis with a twist: the evil boss of a telemarketing company plays the bug. The episode feels anachronistic because the workers are predominately white, middle-aged Midwesterners being brainwashed into office drones, a far cry from Thomas Friedman’s flat world of Indian call centers servicing American customers.|
|↑17||Edmund L. Andrews, “Don’t Go Away Mad, Just Go Away: Can AT&T Be the Nice Guy as It Cuts 40,000 Jobs?” New York Times, 13 Feb. 1996.|
|↑18||Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 481.|
|↑19||Kellner, Media Spectacle, 127-28.|
|↑21||Cohen, Three Lectures on Post-Industrial Society, 9.|