Is the Truth Out There?: Boundaries, The X Files and the World Wide Web

Miranda Kaye
Dept of English
University of Otago
Dunedin, New Zealand

Deep Southv.2 n.3 (Spring 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Miranda Kaye

"The truth is out there" - Opening credits of The X Files

"There is no there there" - Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on The Information Superhighway

"Even at times of its greatest cohesion, the subject teeters on the brink of a yawning hole which threatens to draw it into it." - Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions

The X Files is an hour-long TV show that debuted in the US on the evening of 10 September 1993. Its framework was simple - set in the deep recesses of the FBI, Dr. Dana Scully is given the assignment to watch over the activities of a certain Agent Mulder and decide if his work on unexplainable phenomenon is worthwhile to the Bureau. The two agents, initially wary of each other, eventually establish a working relationship that sees them chasing 'X' files all around the US and the world. From its opening, The X Files has established its narrative agenda, its material, and its characterisation. The 'X' of the title refers to that which is unnamable and undefinable, and the show recurrently deals with things beyond the boundaries. Its trademark is making the marginal seem central and the ethereal seem concrete. Couched in pseudo-scientific jargon, the programme (much like its cult predecessors, Dr Who, Star Trek and Twin Peaks), strives to make the impossible plausible and the uncanny credible. Often exploring contemporary manifestations of old tales and taboos like ghosts, voodoo, and vampires, Mulder and Scully investigate late Twentieth-Century phenomenon such as radioactive mutant lifeforms, rogue computers, mechanised insects, genetically manipulated children and more. These investigations are often presented as being barely within the jurisdiction of the FBI, and often the main characters seem to hover on the bounds of reality as they investigate their cases.

...A Good conspiracy...

By way of defining the parameters of this paper, I propose dividing The X Files episodes into two kinds: an 'episodic series', which is defined as "an individual storyline almost never stretched beyond the limits of a single episode" and a 'continuous serial', in which plots are "designed to be infinitely continued and extended"[1]. Using the model suggested by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado in their study Dr Who: the Unfolding Text[2], I would identify the majority of the show as an episodic series, with occasional and increasingly frequent episodes that can be identified as being in the style of a continuous serial. The show began with episodic, one-off episodes, wherein the personality and motivation of the main characters are explored, but as in Tulloch and Alvaradoís model, whatever dramatic event Mulder and Scully experience, the audience knows it will be resolved in some way - although not always explained - by the close of the episode. In these episodes, the characters grow and change, and become known to their viewers, but often time and logic is absent. The logic within these episodes is largely 'TV logic' - that is, except for the characters, each episode is narratively and temporally unrelated to those that went before. Each episode is logical only unto itself.

The recurring, two-part episodes that I am calling continuous are far more interrelated. They are viewed with the understanding that there will be continuity in the logic of these concomitant shows. This narrative space has been created by the showís writers to allow them to present the conspiracy theory storyline. Like any good conspiracy, the one currently being explored in The X Files is complex, convoluted, and always changing - just the kind of storyline best suited to the style of a continuous serial.

The recurring narrative is that of abduction, aliens on planet Earth, genetic experimentation, and international government conspiracies. This narrative has been established little by little from the beginning of the first series. The second series had seven episodes that explicitly dealt with this expanding narrative, including episodes where Scully is 'abducted' and returned comatose; where Mulder discovers an adult woman whom he believes to be his missing sister who was 'abducted' by aliens as a child; where new and recurring characters are established; and as always, the aliens on Earth plotline [3]. By the third series, these plot threads had become the series' reason for being, with a nail-biting opening two-parter and several more as the series unfolds. It is these 'conspiracy' episodes from the third season that I wish to look at in this paper.

..The Abject...

The over-riding theme for the series is "The Truth Is Out There". Both FBI agents adhere to this theory, but each has a different interpretation. In Dana Scully, we are presented with the sceptical scientist, a pragmatist whose 'truth' is finite and achievable. Her 'there' is the realm of verifiable knowledge, databases and mathematical theorems. In Fox Mulder, we have the freethinker, the dreamer whose understanding of knowledge is that it can never be fully true. His 'there' is elsewhere - beyond humanity, beyond earth and often beyond the third dimension. Both agents constantly come back to the philosphy encapsulated by a poster on Mulder's office wall that reads "I Want to Believe". Mulder and Scully want to believe that there is a truth - regardless of how differently they rationalise it - out there. Both, however, in the course of the show, have had their perception of 'there' undermined.

I would like to explore how The X Files narrative problematises the opening title. I am going to open my discussion of The X Files narrative with a reading of Julia Kristeva's theory on abjection. The 'Abject' in Kristeva's terms can be seen as that which is excluded from civilisation/society and "can never be fully obliterated but hovers at the boundaries of our existence, threatening the apparently settled unity of the subject with disruption and possible dissolution" [4]. Further, commentator Elizabeth Grosz maintains, it is impossible to exclude these psychically and socially threatening elements with any finality. The subject's recognition of this impossibility provokes the sensation Kristeva describes as abjection. At its simplest, I believe abjection is a theory which enlightens The X Files narrative well.

The theories of abjection, with their discussion of society's attempt to contain the disruptive forces of "death, corporeality, animality [and] materiality" [5], establish a dialogue around the concept of borders and boundaries, the relationship between the margins and the centre, and what exists in the ambiguity of these borderline states. Grosz states that, according to Kristeva, "[e]ven at times of its greatest cohesion, the subject teeters on the brink of a yawning hole which threatens to draw it into it" [6]. It is this certainty of the uncertainty of what lies beyond that I maintain The X Files narrative investigates. In her book on abjection, Powers of Horror, Kristeva posits that what causes a state of abjection is that which "disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite" [7].

...inside and outside collapse...

Overtones of the abject are present in abundance in the conspiracy episodes. In the episode 'Anasazi', the first of the three-parter that ends series two and begins series three, Agent Mulder acquires an encrypted computer disk which he believes contains evidence that the US government knows of and which perpetuates the existence of Extraterrestrial life on Earth. While attempting to translate the disk Mulder stumbles across alien corpses with classic 'alien' features - small in stature with a big head, large eyes and overly elongated limbs and fingers - and Mulder believes he has found evidence of there, signified by that which looks different. It is telling, perhaps, that one of the climactic moments in this triptych of episodes occurs when Mulder is locked in with the dead aliens, firebombed and left for dead. Thus connected to death and 'the other', Mulder becomes able to access the boundaries. He traverses the border between life and death, hailed by friends and family dead before him: being party to, but not part of, the abject state known as death.

His partner Scully is also given her chance to explore the borders when she is taken -'abducted' - and secretly deposited back in a city hospital where she is kept alive by machines. In 'Anasazi', she discovers that as a result of her abduction experience, her name is in the Defence Department file they are attempting to translate. She is fearful that she has become part of the world The X Files has sought to explain. For if the file does contain evidence of alien life, then why is her name linked to it? What was 'out there' for them both is now 'in here'. They are the abject incarnate, the enemy within.

The grotesque nature of the abject is evidenced in a two-part episode, in which a supposedly alien entity is using human beings as hosts in order to gain access to its confiscated space craft. The alien being moves from body to body, each host getting it closer to its craft and freedom. Here is evidence that the abject "attests to the impossibility of clear borders, lines of demarcation or divisions between the proper and the improper, the clean and the unclean, order and disorder" [8]. The characters have been invaded by the alien, that which threatens them - yet their bodies are not violated as such, but hybridised, transformed. The definitions of inside and outside collapse.

Viewer's knowledge itself is without limits and boundary-less in The X Files narrative. Every time during these conspiracy episodes we believe we have been given an invaluable clue to the mystery, it is often revealed in subsequent episodes to have been a red herring, or at least something that is not what it seems. In this way, the series has enabled itself to develop tangential plot threads and play with viewer expectations, and thus tease out the narrative. In the episode 'Jose Chung's From Outer Space', the show did a send up of its own conspiracy story, with a convoluted and multi-layered version of the 'truth' of aliens, in which The X Files playfully undermined its own narrative. It represents UFO spotters as crazy and warped by too many conspiracy theories, while memory and story-telling are portrayed as faulty and open to abuse by those in authority. Most noticeable, however, is that the episode posits the idea that the aliens are just military men going around brainwashing Western society. In this episode, the narrative reaches something of a turning point and collapses in on itself: 'there' is 'here' and They are actually Us.

" short, we are cyborgs..."

In her book Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Donna Haraway discusses the "boundary breakdowns" between animals, humans and technology. She politicises the remodelling of a new society reliant on interactive technologies and technological sciences. "By the late twentieth century", she says, "we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs" [9]. Short for Cybernetic Organism, the word cyborg was coined by science fiction authors and is loosely defined as a human being who is directly interacting with, or part of, a machine. Theories and science fiction writings of cyborgs explore "conceptions of bodily boundaries and social order" [10], exploring the possibilities of a race whose identity is reliant on relating to technology. Here, in cyborgs, is another boundary collapse. As the characters playing host to the alien lifeform found their bodies abjected by an alien being, so Scully finds herself hybridised. A computer chip in her neck implanted during her 'abduction' is investigated and discovered to be a microscopic memory bank, recording and potentially re-ordering her thoughts. This tiny chip brings Scully into the realm of the cyborg - human/machine interaction.

"...The New World Wide Web Order..."

To set the scene for a discussion of the role machines play in the breakdown of boundaries, I will briefly describe the technology I am talking of. The Internet began its life in 1969 as a communication experiment by a branch of the US Department of Defence. With 213 hosts (or Internet-linked computers) in August 1981, there were 535,000 by August 1991. The Internet can be loosely describe as a collection of networked computers that use compatible communication standards and have the ability to make contact and exchange data. The Internet is most commonly known for e-mail.

The World Wide Web originated from an idea in 1991 at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland. Conceived as a way for scientists to share information with software that had multi-media capabilities, CERN established the specifications for the Web, and computer scientists began writing the software [11]. Welcomed by the Internet community as a comprehensive means of navigating the Net, the World Wide Web was gaining 300 new servers per month by 1994, only two years after it became available.

Now only four years old, the Web has become immensely popular with a computer-literate generation raised on MTV and channel-surfing. To quote Wired e-magazine's columnist Nicholas Negroponte, "there is life after television and it's all about the PC" ('Bit by Bit PCs Are Becoming TVs. Or Is It the Other Way Around?' Transcript at The Web has become especially popular with pop media fans, perhaps because of its graphic nature or perhaps because the majority of Web users seem to set up and access Web sites as a form of entertainment. Regardless of the reasons, the TV sites on the Web have become an extension of television itself - with soundbites, cast details, pictures and stills, merchandising, and indepth and ongoing analysis of what each episode means. When I first visited the CineMedia site (at - a site with many lists and links relating to film, TV, radio and new media - in October 1995, there were 24 listed sites for The X Files. By early April 1996 there were 55 listed sites, and as of October 1996, there are over 160. The most popular TV pages seem to be those that relate to sci-fi shows. With the exception of Friends(52) and The Simpsons(119), some of the largest listings are for Dr Who(35), Babylon 5(54), and of course, the original Star Trek, which tops the lot with 274 listings (and that's before we count in Star Trek: Next Generation(20), Star Trek: Voyager(22) or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine(16)!). The classic web-page owner, then, looks as if they have an inclination toward sci-fi. Those that dwell and play in cyberspace also like to be televisually entertained by the notion that there is something 'out there'.

Coined by William Gibson, the term 'cyberspace' generally means the virtual space beyond the screen wherein some kind of virtual interaction takes place. He in turn, got the idea from watching video game freaks who believed that the space behind the screen was as interesting - or even more so - than the space in front of it [12]. The 'out there' of The X Files is not the deep space of Star Trek, going light years to where no one has gone before, but the vast conceptual and created space "on the other side of the computer screen and in the dark interior of the body" [13]. Cyberspace is a good analogy for the 'out there' of The X Files narrative - unseen, somewhat inconceivable, but present nonetheless. Yet, cyberspace is a convention, a construction. It does not exist except for that we create it. With Websurfing, one finds that 'there' is continually deferred, as one clicks on link after link, often finding more lists of links. This seems to be especially true of pop culture events and sites which are susceptible to the vagaries of trends and fandom. Often these sites have moved, or the connections are no longer current, meaning that the information you seek has disappeared into the vast nowhere of cyberspace.

As Cliff Stoll wrote: "there is no there there". In the episode 'Nisei', Mulder and his computer geek sidekicks, the Lone Gunmen, are discussing satellite technology: "the optics are German" they say, "the technology is probably ours, but the satellite is most likely Japanese, launched from South America". To which Mulder replies "Gotta love that global economy". This conversation demonstrates the dispersal of space in our late Twentieth-Century world. In an era in which it is increasingly difficult to define 'here', how can The X Files look to 'out there'? One of the best WWW examples of how place collapses into itself is The X Files site at ( The home page for this site is an image of the show's logo and the two main characters on the screen of a laptop computer. A computer screen displayed on a computer screen. The page is set up like a Macintosh with windows (or files) that read 'CIA' and 'FBI'; an FBI file server; and a hard disk icon that is called 'Terminal X'. A virtual computer that does everything the real ones do.

The X Files production team are not unaware of the relationship between their show and the fans that set up Web pages in homage. Executive Producer Chris Carter in an interview on c|net television last year described The X Files' place in what he called 'the New World Wide Web Order'. "The X Files just happened to come of age with [the online services and the Internet]. So it seems like the perfect show at the perfect time with the perfect medium [14].

In conclusion, I believe that The X Files undermines its own narrative device - the 'out there' Mulder and Scully base their work on is shown to have folded into itself. The aliens they chase are in fact hybrid beings, leaky bodies - part human and not the quintessential alien beings they hoped would answer all their questions. The boundaries they have to cross to access this information is mutable and ambiguous, often less of a boundary and more of an undefinable space between entities. In both The X Files narrative and in the cyberspace of the WWW, these boundaries are not so much crossed as travelled, explored, and collapsed. Despite the optimistic message of the poster on Mulder's wall, it doesn't matter how much you believe because there really isn't a there 'out there'.


[1] Lavery, David (ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995), p. 33.
[2] Tulloch, John and Alvarado, Manuel, Dr Who: the Unfolding Text, (London: Macmillan P, 1983).
[3] These episodes are: (2.4) 'Sleepless'; (2.5 and 2.6) 'Duane Barry' and 'Ascension'; (2.8) 'One Breath'; (2.16 and 2.17) 'Colony' and ' End Game'; and (2.25) 'Anasazi'.
[4] Grosz, Elizabeth, Sexual Subversion - Three French Feminists, (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989), pp. 71-2.
[5] Grosz, Elizabeth, p. 73.
[6] Grosz, Elizabeth, p.73.
[7] Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Roudiez, Leon (trans.), (NY: Columbia UP, 1982), p. 4.
[8] Grosz, Elizabeth, p.73.
[9] Harraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs and Women, (NY: Routledge, 1991), p.150.
[10] Harraway, Donna, p.173.
[11] Browne, Steve, The Internet Via Mosiac and the World Wide Web, (Emeryville, Calif: Ziff-Davis Press, 1994), p. 32.
[12] Hayles, N. Katherine, 'The Seductions of Cyberspace' in Rethinking Technologies, Conley, Verena Andermatt (ed.), (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1993), p. 176.
[13] Hayles, N. Katherine, p.184.
[14] Aired on c|net the week of August 12, 1995. Transcript available from

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