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I would say that the paranoiac is someone who, paradoxically, is threatened with losing his own limits. That is why he needs to provoke the other into becoming his persecutor. The other will thus protect him from the threat of dissipating like a liquid; he will set a border which the paranoiac must constantly confront in order to reestablish the certainty of his existence in a circumscribed physical or psychic space.
--Francois Roustang, "How Do You Make a Paranoiac Laugh?"
Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top ... someone or ... something. Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and glistening like wet leather. But that face ... it ... it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it.
--Orson Welles, War of the Worlds
America has always been a land of uncertain boundaries. Even with two oceans abutting either coast, its initial status as a colony--and later internal colonizer of Native Americans, African slaves, Chinese and Mexican slave labor--has marked it as a nation of perforated borders and mixed ethnic identities. How little surprising then that its paranoid tendencies should oscillate between distrust of centralized government power and fear of an "alien" breach of national security.(1) US cultural constructs of the alien repeatedly link illegal or unassimilated aliens and their mythological counterparts--aliens who descend from outer space, with, to use Orson Welles's fictional account, gray snaking bodies and faces so unfamiliar that they inspire sheer horror. I am suggesting here that American anxiety about aliens follows a paranoid structure, manifest in radical reifications of identity that purify the paranoid subject as "good" and externalize all internal instabilities (failures, "evil" and maladaptive intent) onto some other. This paranoid scenario involves repeated dissolution of boundaries and disruption of identity consolidation, so that attempts to differentiate self from other are launched with increasing agitation. In the 1990s in the US, gestures of aggression against historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups accelerated. Jasper, Texas, became the media's exemplar of racial hatred in June 1998, with the murder and mutilation of an African American man receiving national scrutiny amid a culminating rise of white supremacist actions, through which the multiculturation of American society was being stringently resisted.(2)
Curiously synchronic with the decade's swell in violence against internally perceived "aliens," the Fox television network ignited unexpected fervor with The X-Files (which debuted in 1993) and its stories of externally perceived aliens invading from outer space. A film noir, paranoid detective scenario centered on reports of UFO sightings and paranormal events, the program garnered a global following, closing its first season with 5 million households viewing, eventually attracting a full 13.7 million.(3) Under Chris Carter's tutelage, the show unfolded a series of classic American paranoid scenarios, linking cultural anxiety alternately to governmental erasure of evidence of UFOs and to fear of those aliens themselves. Interestingly, the series shifts between scapegoating and advocating for aliens, with the show's two main characters, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) functioning as rebel FBI agents repeatedly accused of operating outside the bureau's regulations. Mulder and Scully determinedly pursue traces of evidence supposedly erased by the US government and, in consequence, face repeated career- and life-threatening suppressions, while their conspiracy theories appear to oscillate between government(center) and alien- (other) focused suspicions. In fact, in a paranoid gesture, any radical externalization of alienation suffices to salve momentarily the discomfort with identity instability, and so the alien may be found conspiratorially within (in governmental, supposedly protective structures) and without (in outer space or outside the boundaries of the normative culture).
Aliens may tacitly be those frightening beings who drop from outer space, but this cultural phantasm operates as a thinly disguised anxiety about illegal aliens who cross national borders, allegedly abduct jobs, and create "mutant" children through miscegenation. So while paranoia, as Francois Roustang describes it, need not practice racial othering, in the American consciousness, with its identificatory core defined by a history of flight from persecution, necessary relocation, and ethnic assimilation, cultural paranoia is often focused on ethnic and racial instabilities. This may be caused by the very heterogeneity of US origins, which contradicts normative notions of pure, reified origins and identity. If, in Jacques Lacan's analysis, all subjects suffer from internal alienation--a fissure between egoistic and superegoistic functions--the paranoiac can be distinguished as one who fails to come to terms with the realization that we are all defined by this internal ambivalence, lacking any fixed, core being.(4) Paranoiacs symptomatically insist on their individuality and perceive a conspiratorial world to help them consolidate their imaginary, psychic boundaries, and in US culture the multicultural other as "alien" (illegal or otherwise) serves as the negative double that both threatens and then affirms (as a locus of negative identification) the paranoiac's identity. The X-Files simultaneously plays on this oscillation in American identity while also triggering an implicit cultural-psychological analysis of its more oppressive constructions of racial and cultural "others." Most remarkably, the show does not merely repeat the simplified othering of aliens; rather, it rescripts and therein opens up a critique of the classic gesture of marginalization in American anxiety about aliens and alienation.
In its first five seasons, The X-Files engaged in a subtle dialogue with aggression against marginalized groups, demonstrating how aggression shores up "whiteness" and a homogenized American image.(5) Yet beyond each season's shifting depiction of government- and alien-entwined plots, the very construction of American conspiracy theories and postmodern paranoia is explored, as the show makes visible the buried social implications of centrist politics. Viewers become increasingly aware of how conspiracy narratives must constantly rupture and how demonized aliens are in fact no more than stand-ins for marginalized groups. This occurs as Chris Carter and his team of writers engage in a critical revision of the very genres of hard-boiled detective drama and film noir upon which The X-Files draws.(6) In American hard-boiled detective fiction, hoodlums are repeatedly cast as foreigners and marginals, those who must be beaten back because they pose a threat to the white, heterosexual, middle-class values espoused in Bogart films and novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.(7) Now, in the particularly American appropriation of noir in the 1990s, aliens provide an emotional cathexis point for anxiety about Americans' history as colonizers (geographically and culturally) and as scientists--colonizers of knowledge, which can be used for germ warfare, genetic manipulation, surveillance, and spectacular weaponry. In The X-Files, the technological grandeur of alien ships is cause for wonder--a kind of futuristic sublime--while the alien's role as hyperdefamiliarized scientist taps into fears of technology beyond human reach and available for manipulation toward malevolent ends. The paranormal may be aligned with the feared alien race, which is more technologically advanced, or alternately it may reside in marginalized cultures that have been suppressed in the making of the American image.
While still participating in this construction of American paranoia, The X-Files also effectively deconstructs American conspiracy theories and that same paranoia.(8) Arriving in a decade that has seen increasing cynicism about simplistic constructions of "the enemy" and a rising interest in cultural fragmentation, alienation, and paranoia as a form of postmodern culture, the show spins a witty web of references to current American conspiracy theories and political innuendo. It appears to be self-consciously aware both of its own historical material and the complicated nature of history itself. Slogans like "The truth is out there" are counteracted by "Trust no one," so that trust and truth repeatedly spiral into an opposition that leaves history at once groundless and necessary. However, the show's writers step beyond the temptation simply to be noiresque and nihilistic; they realize their own roles as history bringers, via television, through which they may--wittingly or not--participate in yet another conspiracy: that of draining the agency out of the American masses. The X-Files series frequently reflects back on the media's role as arbiters of agency in a country caught between apathy and paranoia. In the 1990s, technologically orchestrated disruptions and erasures may be the greatest fear, as paranoid culture seethes around the question of consciousness itself: whether it is strongly individuated or easily persuaded and molded. How inviolate--or vulnerable--may our minds, memories, and identities be to rescripted histories and hypnotic impression?
Fear of the (In)Visible: History as Erasure
In the episode that concluded the second season of The X-Files, Albert Hosteen of the Navajo nation reminds Fox Mulder that "nothing disappears without a …