SEP 6-8


Tues, Sept 6

VIEW: X-Files, ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’


  1. BulletPeter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, 227-29, 234-35

  2. BulletPrimer on X-Files, ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’

  3. BulletDefinition of ‘frame narrative’

  4. Bullet“transference”

  5. BulletFreud Module on Trauma and Transference

Thurs, Sept 8


  1. Bullet Material from Tuesday


In these first four weeks, I will introduce students to the basic structures of narrative form, specifically the distinction between "story" and "discourse" and between the "proairetic and hermeneutic codes" of narrative. Students will also begin to analyze film, thus becoming familiar with those terms from film theory that we will build on over the course of the semester. Two pop cultural shows (Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files) and one experimental film (La jetée) will serve to help us in our exploration of the narrative limitations of human consciousness.




"The Citizen Kane of X-Files Shows"

This week, we analyzed "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," what could be called the Citizen Kane of X-Files shows, given its structure of framed narrations. The episode allowed us to continue our discussion of focalization techniques, particularly as these apply to frame narratives and, even more specifically, framed narrations. As you explained, narration is another example of the discursive manipulation of story. That is, given a certain sequence of chronological events (the story), an author can choose to relate those events either through third-person omniscient perspective or by way of a narrator (first-person narration), who could be any one of the characters involved in the actions. One can also have a third-person narration that is focalized through a single, main character, as we saw in “Cause and Effect.” (See third-person-limited narration.) The choice of narration completely changes how we have access to the story, but the story itself (what actually happened) does not change, even if certain narrations may be misleading or even plain wrong. In "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," we assume that an actual story does exist ("the truth is out there"), that there is one explanation that accounts for all the elements of this narrative; however, through various conflicting and questionable narrations, we are left questioning what that story might be. The episode, along with the entire series, thus also invokes the hermeneutic code: we keep watching because we want to learn the "truth," however evanescent that truth turns out to be. This particular episode extends as far as possible the implications of our difficulties in understanding "the truth." As Jose Chung states early in the episode, "truth is as subjective as reality," or, as he states a little later, he is fascinated by how our very perception of reality can be "transformed by words, mere words." As the Man in Black later tells Roky (the science-fiction writer and, later, cultist), we don't even understand how our brains process supposed "reality," so how can we be sure of anything, or, as Lieutenant Jack informs Fox Mulder in the diner scene, "I don't know if any of this is really happening. I don't even know if you're real." Fox's response: "I can only assure you that I am real." Of course, as a viewer of this fictional series, we can't help but realize in this scene that, indeed, Fox is not real but a fictional character. The show could thus be said to be quite postmodern in its self-consciousness and self-reflexivity. Even the claim that "seeing is believing" is questioned in the episode, for we see (through a reference to Roswell) that even recorded "reality" can be edited to seem like most anything one wishes. Through the constant cutting from one framed narrative to another to yet another (even the first sequence with the red and grey aliens turns out to be a scene from Roky's science-fiction screenplay), the viewer becomes so disoriented that we are made to experience precisely what the show is about: "truth is as subjective as reality."


We then turned to the opening sequence of "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," in which we appear at first to be given an establishing shot evocative of the opening of George Lucas' Star Wars; however, as the camera pans out, it becomes clear that what we are actually seeing is a close-up (NOT a long shot) of the underside of a utility vehicle. Also, it becomes clear that the 'ship' i
s not moving; rather, that is an illusion—it is the camera that is actually moving. The story here, as Vivian Gu explained, is: "a guy is fixing an electricity pole"; however, the discursive tricks of the episode all suggest at first a completely different story, one involving extraterrestrial travel. Thanks to Caitlin Stamper and Alex Reynaud for leading us in that discussion. The opening thus perfectly exemplifies the theme of the episode, in which it is never perfectly clear what precisely the truth is. The show thus plays with the generic preconceptions and perceptual illusions of the viewer,  which is to say that the show thus makes us question, as does the Man in Black played by Jesse Ventura, whether "seeing is believing," as Naser Abdulghani explained. The episode could be said to be caught between two possibilities: either we are being presented with non-fiction or with science fiction; Jose Chung is, indeed, writing the first "non-fiction science fiction." It's also unclear whether in various scenes we are being presented with an objective treatment of events or a subjective treatment; whether we are being given clues about "outer space" or given some subjective truth about "inner space"; whether, as the show's two mantras might say, "the truth is out there" or we only "want to believe" (it's no coincidence that Scully's interview with Jose Chung is shot in front of a poster with the latter slogan). Even the show's title plays with the opposition, as you explained, since we are first led to think that "Jose Chung" is himself "from outer space" before realizing that the title refers to his nonfiction sci-fi book.


We then discussed a later sequence that explains what exactly we are seeing in the first sequence before the credits. As it turns out, what we are seeing is Roky's version of events, helpfully presented to Mulder and to Jose Chung in screenplay format. The series of frames here is incredibly complex: Lord Kinbote and the inner core of the earth > Roky's version of events > the screenplay version > the screenplay is read out loud by Fox > Scully relates Fox's reading of the screenplay to Jose Chung > Jose Chung writes down what Scully tells him in his book, From Outer Space, plus yet one more layer: Scully reading the book, which we see in the last scenes. You gave a number of reasons for why a show would feel obliged to present a story through such a complicated frame structure: it underlines the limitations of one's point of view; it also underscores the limitations of memory; I pointed out that such a frame structure highlights the psychological motivation of the teller (the desires that are in play);
the show thus highlights the process and problems of transmission (which implicates the viewer as well, of course); such a structure keeps us guessing and therefore invokes Barthes' hermeneutic code; the structure thus underlines the theme of the episode ("truth is as subjective as reality"); we can also tie our reading of the structure to our readings in Peter Brooks: the ripple-effect of such frame narratives often revolve around some lack of closure. As Brooks puts it, "The reader is finally left with a story on his hands, a story he doesn't know what to do with, except perhaps eventually to retell it. In this sense, the movement of reference is one of 'contamination': the passing-on of the virus of narrative, the creation of the fevered need to retell" (220). Like Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now (which we'll see featured when we turn to Buffy), we also have a traumatic core at the heart of the frame structure; indeed, Scully 's interpretation of the events is precisely that we are seeing an example of what Mulder calls "sexual trauma." The subsequent retellings function like Freud's and Brooks' understanding of transference: a form of repetition compulsion seeking to bind the traumatic core and thus to put "the story to rest," to "find peace," or, as one might rephrase their comments, to allow the story to "rest in peace." The goal of the transference is a "transference of past desire into terms that can be realized and made to render real rewards" (Brooks 228). For this reason, the show ends by illustrating how each of the characters have dealt with the repetition compulsion and transferences of the episode, with Chrissy and even Blaine (the sf geek) succeeding in the end to re-enter society in productive ways.


Of course, the hypnosis scenes are also clues that the writer of this episode would like us to interpret the show through a psychoanalytical lens.  One fascinating aspect of the two scenes of hypnosis is that the characters/aliens in each are perfectly matched up with the figures in the objective scene (including, most notably, the figure who holds a coffee—or cup of glowing yellow liquid—in each ‘frame.‘  We have two explanations: 1) the suggestion is thus made that the figures in the objective scene are influencing what Crissie recalls under hypnosis, thus putting under suspicion anything she says; or 2) there really was a trauma that Crissie experienced and she’s dealing with it through Freud’s transference—replaying her violation through three different scenarios.  The other psychoanalytical term we witness is the ‘abject,’ on the topic of which you’ll be reading Julia Kristeva in a few weeks.  Blaine is perfectly fine witnessing a dead, alien body, but once he recognizes it as a human body, he is confronted by Lacan’s Real and vomits, much as Clyde Bruckman did in last week’s episode. Thanks to Kailey Merida for pointing this out.


This week, we also began to discuss postmodernism. I stated that this episode is highly postmodern, as are each of the shows and films we'll be seeing from here on. So, I asked students to start characterizing what constitutes a postmodern work (as distinct from 'postmodernity,' which refers to the world around us—see Linda Hutcheon on this). Some of the elements we have already identified include: disorientation of the viewer; self-reflexivity (e.g., about the scriptedness of the fictional show being presented to us [the repeated bits of dialogue, the fact that Roky's rendition of events is put in screenplay format] or the way the show comments on its own discursive tricks, as in the editing of the autopsy in the 'Alien Autopsy' segment); intertextuality (e.g., all the B movie references); self-consciousness about genre and the ways genre bends our perception of reality; a self-consciousness about mediatization (the medial transfer of the episode, hence the importance of the mise-en-abyme home video of the 'Alien Autopsy'); a camp sensibility--hence, the purposively hoaky aliens in the opening sequence; and finally, the breakdown of the distinction between fiction and reality. I suggested that the lattermost point provides us with a way to distinguish 'postmodernism' from 'modernism' to which it is clearly related. The modernists are best characterized by the rupture and "modern" rethinking represented by the great, revolutionary thinkers of the period 1850-1950: Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud. What could be said to mark the postmodern break is the loss of the belief that, through some sort of radical rethinking of ideology or the world order (hence the proliferation of manifestos in the modern period), we can get to the REAL truth. The shift from Einstein's theory of relativity to Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and quantum physics generally, which suggests that reality itself is not stable once one reaches the quantum level of existence (which has led to such contemporary theories as many-worlds interpretation, including string and superstring theory), is exemplary of this shift. On the level of psychoanalysis, the same shift can be seen in the shift from Freud (who wanted to believe that there is some buried truth at the heart of the psychoanalytical treatment) and Jacques Lacan who argues that our very entrance into language and what he terms the symbolic order means that we are forever dissevered from what he terms the Real. Freud’s Wolf Man case, which Peter Brooks discusses in Reading for the Plot, is particularly significant on this score.

I gave you the example of how your answer to a question as apparently simple as “what is a tree?” is, in fact, structured by language (thanks to Gabby Teter, Alex Reynaud, Kailey Merida and others for your expert definition!).


We discussed a number of discursive techniques as well throughout the two classes. We examined how a "collapsed cut" and sound bridge during Roky's narration of his encounter with the Men in Black serves to underline the breakdown between subjective treatment and objective treatment, as Naser Abdulghani pointed out. We think we are inside his narration (a subjective treatment) only to realize that we are, in fact, back in the more or less objective frame (Roky recounting his events to Scully and Mulder). A similar technique is used in the interrogation of the boy in the episode.

An analogous trick occurs later in the diner scene, when we see Mulder asking the owner of the diner questions while eating pie. Right after he asks "have you ever experienced missing time," we have a jump cut, which is literally an example of "missing time," as Caitlin Stamper explained: an edit that jumps forward in time, creating a jerky sequence. The discourse thus, once again, perfectly mirrors and literalizes a story element.


Synopsis for Sept 6-8

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :