I can’t get The X-Files out of my head. This past summer, my 18-year-old daughter and I decided to watch the entire series from the beginning. We made it halfway through season 4 before she had to leave for college.
I miss her.
There are two episodes that I keep on thinking about: “Die Hand Die Verletzt” from Season 2 and “Reflections of a Cigarette Smoking Man” from Season 4. These two installments from The X-Files epitomize my own fractured identity as a teacher and as a writer, and it’s freaking me out.
Then write about it, Mom, my daughter text-messages me in California, all the way from Massachusetts.
But The X-Files does more than help me reflect on my personal situation. I sense strongly, watching the show, that these episodes have something powerful to say about two semi-professions that many of us creative types engage in: teaching with its claim to altruism, and writing with its claim to artistry.
Anyone who has done either of these jobs for a living has heard the official uplifting verbiage about teaching and writing as spiritual callings that serve muses, children, young adults, and the values of civilization as we know it. But behind the language lurks thinking that is considerably less admiring. The X-Files episodes that I am thinking about reveal the underbelly of teaching and writing, calling into question the hows and whys of the work that teachers and writers do, and getting us to wonder why in the world we want to keep on doing it.
Of course, “work” in The X-Files is always a problematic term. The show repeatedly focuses on icky professions and questionable jobs—registering and opening up the ways in which most kinds of labor literally and figuratively stink. Think of the ways in which toilets insistently make their appearance in the show. Entities are always slithering up through the pipes; in this sense The X-Files is a kind of ongoing homage to Freud’s anally compulsive and anxious military officer, the Rat Man.
Slavoj Zizek—a wild-man philosopher who uses Lacan and Marx to discuss movies like Independence Day—has argued that the unconscious KNOWS what is going on in the real world, and that, consequently, the unconscious produces in art whatever is being repressed. His book Welcome to the Desert of the Real (a title that self-consciously references the first Matrix movie) implies that sci-fi (sf) does this repression-busting just about better than any art form.
I think Zizek is right about the power of sf; think, for example, of that waterboarding episode in the first season of the new Battlestar Galactica, or the manifold creepy ways in which the struggle with the Cylons forces us to confront our national struggles with racism, slavery, fundamentalism, and Manifest Destiny.
Like BSG, and arguably, in a more sustained subtle and troubling way, The X-Files brings to the surface all kinds of unspoken shame, anxiety, rage and disgust around the work that we don’t want to do, and try to avoid or ignore. More importantly, though, I think the show uses these awful jobs as the jumping off point for some intense psychological and political explorations in and around the American Dream, the nature of desire, and even who we fear/want to be spiritually.
The show does this by a double-maneuver. First, the various episodes display a cavalcade of underappreciated help: nurses and eldercare givers, dog catchers, sanitation workers, sewer-line managers, museum guards, and livestock-killing floor operators to name some examples. Then the episodes link this work with the monstrous/supernatural.
The X-Files’s linkage of work with the monstrous/supernatural is so effective because the series keeps on playing—as my toilet references already suggest—with what literary critic Julia Kristeva calls “the abject.” The abject is whatever is so icky and disgusting that we can’t even allow it into our awareness.
Consequently, the abject is everything that just grosses us out for reasons we can’t explain, because we are in the throes of the moment of just being too disgusted by it to even think about it directly.
Which brings me back to teachers and writers.
Wait a minute, my daughter text messages. It’s clear how illegal immigrants and dogcatchers are abject workers—but teachers? Writers?
Make no mistake about it: members of the teaching profession are abject too (I’ll get to writing in a minute). I am a college professor at an overcrowded public university, and so consequently am slightly less abject than my compatriots who teach k-12. But given the fact that more and more of my students admit to being only quasi-literate, that I have to pay for my own phone calls, and all my office furniture is broken, the difference between us is shrinking rapidly. And the k-12ers generally make more money than the profs (which is fine by me, by the way, since they teach about 19 hours a day).
Teachers are abject as a type because people secretly (and not so secretly) spit on us, and think what we do is stupid, a luxury, or just unimportant, and that we are lazy, overpaid, and pretentious (well, ok—the last one is true about profs—more on this later).
From this point of view I can tell you that in some ways being a professor is worse than being a teacher, because no one knows what to do with you. When I tell people what my job is, they look at me blankly.
“Oh—so, um, what do you profess?” says one brave person at a party.
I tell them that I teach world literature, and people look really confused.
“Is that like Shakespeare?” they say. And then they run for the bar.
When I meet these people on another occasion, they honestly can’t, for the life of them, remember what it is I do for a living.
Abjection in action.
Being an educator seems particularly nonsensical, if you consider the fact that in 1967 education reformer Neil Postman called our educational system a completely antiquated and downright dangerous veneration of the past. Many educational reformers since Postman have decried how American education still venerates the West, binary truths, hierarchies of values, and so on.
That’s all true. But the fact is that the educational system is still here, and I’m still here in a tenured job teaching about European literature and art. OLD literature and art.
Which brings me to the first reason why I love the episode “Die Hand Die Verletzt.” I love it because the title is in German and I love German literature and culture. So does my daughter, who is taking “Intro to German Language” right now.
Many episode titles from The X-Files are in German. A serial killer even speaks in German to Scully in one show, and it’s pretty amazing when she fixes her steely eyes on him and says, “AUFHOEREN!” Which means “CUT IT OUT” auf deutsch. I love that, and I feel excited whenever German comes up.
Yes, I know about the Nazis. AND I’m Jewish. But German is awesome. And the connection between German and sf is strong and I love that Chris Carter gets that.
My daughter texts me: We are going to take Germany back. One Jew at a time.
Which doesn’t entirely make sense. But I like it.
Somehow I think The X-Files is doing something similar—making German cool again. One monstrous episode at a time.
The second reason I really like “Die Hand Die Verletzt” episode is because it’s about a high school run by witches.
And the story gets even better.
The school is run by witches who have fallen down on the job. They have gotten smug and fat-cat lazy about making the requisite rituals and sacrifices. So unbeknownst to them, and to Dana and Fox (who’ve come down to solve the mystery of several student deaths), an agent of the Devil has arrived on the scene. The agent has come to wreck revenge and obtain by all means necessary the proper sacrifice due to the big guy of darkness.
That Satanic messenger—that epitome of metaphysical malfeasance—moves unseen and unnoticed by everyone, except by us, the viewers.
Because this malevolent force is embodied in the most abject member of our abject pedagogical profession. Satan’s messenger in this episode is THE SUBSTITUTE TEACHER.
I love the actress who plays this part. She is middle-aged like me; she wears glasses like me; and she’s got on what my adopted niece Elena Largeman has called “the proverbial teacher’s dress.” This item is a high-necked, flowing and vaguely hippyish long shift, which I would still be wearing if my students hadn’t trashed my gear in so many student evals that I’ve had to amend my style to jeans and a t-shirt.
So, here comes the dried up looking substitute teacher, the middle-aged, purse-lipped dame with a semi-job which is like a migrant worker of the intellect (South Park gets this—they just aired an episode with migrant Hispanic workers teaching Math). She quietly takes over the class, quietly offers to help the scared young girls, and quietly manages to kill a bunch of people. The episode culminates in the sub sending off a familiar—a giant boa constrictor—into the principal’s basement to swallow him whole.
She sits at her desk and flicks her tongue in ecstasy, her snake eyes dark with pleasure.
Now, that’s great television.
By the way, “Die Hand Die Verletzt” means “the hand that wounds,” and that is an important idea too. The episode lays bare the issues that my friend Jo Scott Coe writes about, herself a recovering teacher from k-12. She has observed that we never talk about the ways in which teachers are themselves both wounded and abandoned. Teachers are increasingly left to their own devices to cope with the kids, expected to be saints, to have no lives or needs of their own, even as they are micro-managed by a team of suits—professional educational managers. The X-Files takes this idea to its logical extreme, making literal the suggestion that the educational suits are in league with a variety of devils.
Think this is an exaggeration? Remember your own public school education? Talk to any teenagers lately? Talk to anyone currently involved with American edu, and if they possess a shred of honesty, they’ll agree that our broken schools worship the devil of bureaucracy, the devil of social control, the devil of conformity, the devil of crowd management, the devil of corporatized testing.
As Zizek says, the unconscious knows!
And college is getting to be the same way as we teach to the test, recruit students to campuses with no parking, no computers, no Coca Cola (I work at a Pepsi campus), and churn out the widgets in the “knowledge factory” (Stanley Aronowitz’s term).
“Jeez,” says a former student of mine, back for a visit to his alma mater. “This place—I don’t even recognize it. It’s HUGE. I feel like an insect.”
Welcome to Termite U.
The idea of the wounding hand makes me think of something I read in Henry Miller. He talks about art as the song that contaminates. Maybe that’s what teaching is. Knowledge that contaminates and changes your view of the world. And isn’t that what the good council of Athens said that Socrates did? CONTAMINATE the youth. Looking at my students, I wonder if that wouldn’t be more effective teaching than proclaiming the useful, the true, and the beautiful. And even if it isn’t good, at least it’s interesting. And “interesting” would already be an improvement over STAR testing and the SAT’s.
Did you know that the testing corporations are moving in on the university?
Talk about malevolent aliens seeking to colonize…
Devil substitute teacher—YOU GO GIRL!
But the fact is, being an abject worker does get to you after a while. As Jo Scott Coe has observed, a lot of teachers just give up—to the amazement of parents, children, and administrators (“But I thought you loved teaching!”). And we all know that a writer erases his/her hard drive every day. Every minute. It’s just too hard. You get real tired of trying.
Why is being a writer abject?
Because most of us can’t do it all the time, and “Reflections of a Cancer Smoking Man” gives us a truly scary, sad, and preposterous view of a part-time writer and how he spends his time when he isn’t writing.
I watched this episode—which narrates a series of reminiscences about the Cancer Man’s career with the FBI—with increasing discomfort.
I resemble the villain of The X-Files in many ways.
Like the nefarious Cancer Man, who stalks through the episodes (and even the movie version) of the TV show, I’ve had a successful career as a government man; after all, I’m a senior member of a state-run university, which I can tell you has wheels within wheels and more administrators that you can shake a broomstick at. The FBI’s got nothing on the university in terms of bureaucratic layers. We just don’t have guns.
I’m certainly not the first person to say that there is something weird and downright awful about academics. The endless research papers. The socially retarded conferences where people who were all the smartest kid in their class compete for the elusive Smartest Kid Ever Prize, and get drunk but but without having sex with anyone (this factoid reported by the housekeeping staff at the DC Hilton). Finally there’s the contradiction of the relatively low salaries combined with the just about ironclad job security; you make crap money but you can never be fired, if you toe the line enough.
So all that remains in government and in academics is to get power and influence, and the Cancer Man has that. So do I. Like him, I have the power to kill hires, promotions, and initiatives, making me something of a potential killer of ideas, like all professors.
But, it turns out the Cancer Man has a secret creative side, only revealed much later in the series.
I shiver when I think about this episode. Like the Cancer Man I wanted to be a writer for years, and, like him, I finally started. Late—at around 45. Like the Cancer Man, I would love to quit my job and relinquish my work as a paid undercover man for an invisible government within a government. And instead become an artist, a person who creates.
So, when we got to the part of the episode where the Cancer Man refuses to kill the alien lying in the locked room on life-support, I felt weirdly exhilarated. I hoped that perhaps he would suddenly be redeemed.
And when the Cancer Man gets back to his office and gets the phone call accepting his story for a magazine, I felt a rush of hope.
A hope to be saved by writing.
In this episode, the Cancer Man finally gets a story published. I wept, watching his etched face change. He smiles. He’s truly excited.
Writing this piece in the present, I look up from my computer and see my first acceptance letter tacked to the wall along with a check for 5 dollars—never cashed— marking the “sale” of my first short short story.
The first acceptance, no matter how tiny, is sweet (I heard Richard Russo quite shyly admit the exact same thing last night). But watching “Reflections of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” I finally put into conscious words what I think I have already always sensed, but not wanted to know. The thing I’ve been “abjecting” and denying.
Writing cannot save you. You cannot be redeemed by it.
My stomach sank in recognition as I watched the Cancer Man make the same discovery.
He types a letter of resignation, leaves the office, and buys a copy of the magazine with his story in it. He starts reading.
“Hey,” he says, “That’s not how it ends!” With disgust, he throws the magazine down, tears up his resignation letter and lights up another cigarette.
Back to the business of lying and spying! An abject killer with dirty lungs; a murderous bureaucrat who wears shabby clothes in a shabby job.
When the Cancer Man is writing, he isn’t killing, and I like to think that the act of sitting at the old typewriter is an act in favor of life.
That’s not abject, and it feels great.
In her scary snaky way, the demonic substitute teacher is also affirming life—the vitality that crashes through when you call it like you see it and reveal it for what it is. The joie de vivre that bursts through when we finally acknowledge that a system is broken and give the devil his—or in this case her—due.
The final moments of “Die Hand Die Verletzt” encapsulate this demonic vibrancy with a wry humor. “Nice working with you,” writes the satanic sub in perfect script on the classroom blackboard at the end of the episode. And in a way, it’s an entirely sincere message. Because Devil Substitute Lady has no interest in harming either Mulder or Scully. She only kills those complicit in the system. Her good-bye message signals what we are already guessing: she, Dana, and Fox are ultimately on the same mission—to find and expose the truth.
Likewise, when we write and when we make stories, we are in a small way giving creativity ITS due. We affirm living over dying, imagining over following orders, and the primacy of our own knotty little experiential truths over the official received wisdoms from whatever source. This gesture can enable small acts of, if not virtue, then maybe doing the right thing, at least some of the time. John Gardner wrote about moral fiction, and so has Martha Nussbaum and so has Hans Georg Gadamer (German!). So there may be something to it. And even if it’s just a respite from whatever crappy day job we have, a respite is a refuge. A respite is rest. My writing teacher Tod Goldberg has said that the only reason to write is for the passion. And if passion (aka love) isn’t a refuge, then I don’t know what is.
So The X-Files has made me realize that—ok—maybe I’m not ever going to be able to quit my job as a professor. But maybe I spend too much time trying to make my students feel safe. It’s the Cancer Man in me, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. Let’s bypass and file all the scarier questions.” I think I need to waggle my snake-tongue at them more. I need to be more of a demon at the university. And so do they.
After I get home from the university, I will still need to sit at my desk and write.
I write, because, like the Cancer Man, I have to. And like him, I wait for the envelopes to come that mostly say no, but sometimes say yes. I think about my daughter away studying back east, and I can’t wait for her to come home for Thanksgiving so we can finish season 4 and start season 5.
That’s where the Cancer Man and I part company. I do have a family, and friends. Unlike him, I am not alone.
In his book Power Misses, David James writes that even when artistic expression is absorbed into the commercial structures of the media, its subversive potential is not diminished. Something emancipatory and revolutionary remains about subversive cultural work that cannot be neutralized. Not even by commercial breaks and DVD movie previews that you can’t skip past.
Watching The X-Files 10 years after the show originally aired, I feel my unacknowledged monsters stirring, as a being—once an integral part of me (in me, as me)—separates, and lives a foreign existence in a far away place.
She has departed, seeking intelligent life elsewhere. I scan the skies that lie beyond my darkened television set.
Hoping for a visitation.