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Your Pals Are Not What They Seem 2: Faith and Reason in Lost's Season 5 Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, May 30, 2009 02:07pm | Post a Comment
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Being a congenital skeptic, I had expected Lost to go the way of other fantasy shows exploring the issue of faith. It began by establishing the central antagonism between its central characters, the rationalist doctor Jack Shephard (the de facto leader -- get it?) and the faith-filled, ironically named John Locke (the namesake of the famous British empiricist whose philosophical inbred progeny was one B. F. Skinner). In regaining the use of his legs after crashing on the island, Locke was granted something of his own revelation. By way of this objective correlative, Locke and the audience had a inkling that there was something more to the island than Jack's skepticism allowed. Throw in a smoke monster, people coming back from the dead and time travel and any reasonable person starts sympathizing with Nochimson's vaginal heroism. The lure is there to wrap the antagonism up in the same generic package as all the aforementioned failed fantasy programs. Affirm faith by killing it with literalism (compare the deracinated horror of Stephen King's CGI-infested movie-adpatation of his The Shining to the dread of Stanley Kubrick's).

Seems to me that faith is both an opening and a closing. The believer must remain open to mysterious possibilities that defy the normative limits given by our best explanatory models while digging his heels in the sand and claiming his irrationally derived belief is the truth. Therefore, faith requires mystery. If the implausible is made normative, as it is so often in fantasy, there is no faith involved. Of course, the recipient (viewer, reader) must maintain a level of faith by way of the classic suspension of disbelief. Similarly, lest the believer become a mere ideologue, he must live with uncertainity, a nagging suspicion that he might be wrong (i.e., not all that different from the fantasy genre's suspension requirement).

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Your Pals Are Not What They Seem 1: Faith and Reason in Lost's Season 5 Finale

Posted by Charles Reece, May 24, 2009 10:32am | Post a Comment
When Twin Peaks veers into the conventions of illusionism, which pay homage to the rationalist's faith in a phallic force and properly directed will, the series loses its sense of the benign subconscious and the affirming power of femininity. In the later episodes, the seeker regresses into a stereotypical hero. Proper reason directing Cooper's will becomes the heroic focus of the action against the typical perverse will and reason of the villain. The traditional conquest of Earle -- not the desire to see -- becomes the desire of the series. -- Martha P. Nochimson, David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood, p. 93

The only thing Columbus discovered was that he was lost! -- Wyndom Earle

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Since Ron Moore and colleagues sank my Battlestar, the only show I've cared about is Lost. As the former demonstrated, TV is determined by its own law of entropy, where any show gets worse in direct proportion to the length of time it's on times the structural quality (plot, characters, diegesis, etc.) that the creators initially developed. Clearly, BSG went on for about 2 years longer than the initial fund of creativity allowed. Its keg was all but tapped by the beginning of the third season. Given its tenuous beginning, Moore probably thought his show wouldn't make it much past the mini-series, hoping that he'd at least have one of those cult-celebrated shows that could've been. On the other side of the coin, TV executives don't much care about quality, but about how long they can wring some advertising dollars out of the shows they're broadcasting. As such, they are creatures of chaos, encouraging the steady dissolution of the creative order; they are, in a word, demonic. It's the nature of the beast that creators have to get in bed with these incubi to give birth to a TV show. This Faustian dialectic requires as much blind faith from the creators as it does money being thrown about by investors. Little wonder, then, why so many SF-fantasy shows are predisposed to defending faith over reason. As articles of faith in the face of overwhelming odds, they came into being as the result of big, dumb chance.

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A classic example is X-Files, which burned out after the third season and whose endings justified every ludicrous theory the conspiracist Agent Mulder came up with. After a few years of this, the skepticism of Agent Scully's ratiocinations came across as implausible, or just plain dumb. Faith in something that's demonstratively true isn't really faith; it's empirical knowledge. Contrary to some interpretations, X-Files didn't really analyze the role of faith, so much as side-step it by making the supernatural natural. You'd be one stupid hobbit to doubt magic in Middle-Earth. The hero in an absurdist universe can either fight it like Agent 6 did in The Prisoner, or just embrace it like Maxwell Smart in Get Smart. On the former journey -- Kafkaesque in its structure -- lies madness, cancellation and no end to the story, much like what waits for the rationalist in the real world; on the latter, you get a better chance at a few more seasons, but, like a business going public and expanding, the product begins to feel like a cheap imitation (just look at X-Files).

Contrariwise, David Lynch and Mark Frost built the possibility for endless expansion into Twin Peaks with the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder -- what Lynch has called "the golden goose." They intended to keep it ongoing indefinitely while exploring the epiphenomenal mysteries arising from the central investigation. ABC felt that endless mystery would tax the faith of viewers, and "asked" the creators to wrap up the Laura storyline in the second season. The end of that mystery wasn't all that killed the show's élan: both Frost and Lynch went away to work on other projects, turning the reins over to a bunch of cheap Lynch clones, resulting in a whole lot of James and Lucy. It was with the return of Frost that the show began to regain some sense of direction, but more along the lines of the classic good versus evil struggle to which Nochimson alludes in the above quote. Agent Cooper now had a Moriarty, Wyndom Earle, a damsel in distress, Annie, and there was a white lodge to go along with the black one -- tropes that a Jungian once called archetypes, but are now known as clichés. Nochimson is herself a Jungian feminist who sees Cooper as a hero-seeker, a protagonist who leaves himself open to questions, tapping into the universal unconscious, rather than one who is out to conquer the Other. Openness, you see, is the province of universal femininty -- think the woman's classic coital role ('classic' should here be read as another synonym for 'cliché', or 'stereotype'). Reason is phallic, controlling, penetrating, and thusly the province of masculinity.

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Despite the reductionistic men-are-from-Mars-women-from-Venus rhetoric, Nochimson's book gets it right that Lynch isn't much of an us-versus-them sort of narrator. As becomes increasingly evident from Blue Velvet to Inland Empire, all of his protagonists possess a Hermann Hesse-duality that drives the narrative more than some external battle with another. However, Cooper is his purest hero, only shown to face his dark side when Lynch returned for season 2's finale. By listening to his dreams and going with his occult intuition, Cooper might be considered a man of faith, albeit one who doesn't put all his eggs in one basket. (These eggs aren't of the hysterical kind, though.) But he was until the final episode, and against Nochimson's reading, always in control. He asked the right questions and proffered the best hypotheses again and again. I'd say, given the preternatural realm of Twin Peaks, Cooper belongs philosophically with his cohort Agent Mulder to Noam Chomsky's brand of rationalism. ("Mulder" even pops up in Twin Peaks as an FBI investigator in drag, an agent of scientifico-rationalism mocking the identity politics inherent in Nochimson's account.)


Against the bottom-feeding positivism of behaviorism that was dominant back in the 50s, Chomsky countered that unobservable mental models (the a priori, or given) were necessary to understand linguistic behavior. Scientific discovery, like language learning, is guided by models, where one has an initial theory that undergoes modification as experience dictates (I speak loosely here, so see these entries on Universal Grammar and Modularity if you're curious). If the data is consistent with the theoretical model, no change is necessary; it is, for all intents and purposes, rational knowledge. Mulder and Cooper's seemingly outlandish theories might not work in our world, but they tended to be confirmed by (were consistent with their experiences in) their own diegeses. Their faith is more analogous to David Hume believing that one billiard ball will move when struck by another, i.e., it always had in the past (as far as he knew).

July 30, 2008

Posted by phil blankenship, July 30, 2008 03:55pm | Post a Comment
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(In which Job flirts with science-fiction with, as yet, unknown results.)

Posted by Job O Brother, May 9, 2007 12:08am | Post a Comment
I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to.

No, not renting out a room in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion (you would not believe what they’re asking for a studio, which doesn’t even include holograms of ghosts eating cake!)

I’ve begun watching “Doctor Who”, starting with the original series, which ran from 1963 to1966 and stared William Hartnell as a particularly unsexy lead.

Some of you know I am a sucker for British television, though the love is not unconditional. I would no sooner sit through an episode of “Are You Being Served?” than a lecture on safe-sex from a 19th century French poet.

Still, many of my favorites (“League of Gentlemen”, “Absolutely Fabulous”, “Black Adder” to name a few) hail from the Isles, and I do expect a certain sophistication from its programming. It’s not that I need obscure historical references in order to evoke a giggle, I just appreciate that, as opposed to many US shows, not every actor looks like they live at Hefner’s mansion, and not every joke is accentuated by obvious pauses, eye-rolling, and orchestrated laughter from a studio audience.

So far the show is good fun. Because of its spookiness and languid pace, I can only convince myself to watch it at bedtime, which is a minus.

It’s not uniformly entertaining. The scenes which focus on the core characters (the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and her school teachers, Barbara and Ian) are enjoyable and emotionally complex enough to be intriguing, though the actress playing the granddaughter seems to sometimes forget she’s on a TV show and not a West End production of Electra.

Inevitably there must be scenes which focus on the antagonists. In the first storyline, these happen to be a bunch of primitive cavemen, who may not know how to make fire, but manage to speak modern English better than most US high school students. These scenes tend to run long, so far.