A few days ago, Terry Teachout had a piece on pop culture writing in the Wall Street Journal specifically, why theres so much high-quality pop culture writing, to the apparent exclusion of higher forms of culture. He thinks it indicates a basic frivolity. It used to be that we didn’t take popular culture seriously, he writes, but now we don’t take anything else seriously.
But the problem is nearly the exact opposite. People are told by our whole educational system that in order to speak about a work of art, its necessary to read the conversation surrounding that work of art. To paraphrase a dropout from academia that I once knew, “I left because I realized I would have to spend all my time reading things I didn’t care about, just to have a chance to write about Shakespeare.” He had tried to write his dissertation on a piece of literature he wasn’t really interested in, just because its relative obscurity gave him space to think about it, and excuses to drag in other subjects. In the end, he’d given up. It could be that we take high culture too seriously so seriously, you need to be credentialed to think about it.
Pop culture is different. All you need is access to the work. What matters is whether or not you can craft a convincing case for your reading of that work. If you want to write about Breaking Bad , all you have to do is watch the show. And pleasure figures in to pop culture writing in a way it doesnt for writing on high culture. That means theres a visceral quality to the experience of pop culture that people have, perhaps, trained themselves not to feel when theyre encountering high culture.
In that sense, pop culture has one thing going for it that seems Teachout neglects. Pop culture, because it is fun and enjoyable, makes us vulnerable. It can push us out of ourselves. When I encounter a great work of art, I have a defense up. But when Im watching The X-Files , I dont, because I dont really expect The X-Files to address me directly. When it does , then, it strikes pretty deep. It can use the complacency Ive developed as a weapon. I mention The X-Files because, in fact, it did this to me recently in a way that has, days later, still left me a little unsettled.
The X-Files , for those who dont know, is about Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, two FBI agents who investigate paranormal events. Mulder is paranoid, conspiracy-prone, and (incidentally) an atheist; Scully is skeptical, grounded, and (a little less incidentally) a Catholic. The X-Files is a thriller (a genre Teachout singles out) although its thrills have less to do with drug deals than with aliens.
But then there are episodes like Clyde Bruckmans Final Repose, a forty-five minute memento mori . Its about a man who has the worlds worst superpower: He can see how people will die. Because were all going to die, the episode showcases how people deal with his unexpected powermostly through a combination of humor and denial. Nobody is really capable of staring death in the face without looking away. Except Clyde Bruckman, because he doesnt have a choice.
Bruckman cant look at another person without seeing their death. Every night, he dreams about his own decomposing body. Feeling theres no point in acting in a world like this, he withdraws, isolated and hopeless. Mulder and Scully try to get him to help them catch a murder, but Clyde Bruckman cant see the point. Everybodys going to die. The future is written.
The X-Files is a show steeped in death, very little of it with lasting impact. People die in every episode, every week, many of them unnamed. The consequences of these deaths are rarely given the emotional weight they deserve, because then the show would be so bleak as to be unwatchable. The show only pauses to mourn the characters whose deaths advance the plot. And even then, it doesn’t linger.
So when The X-Files pauses to pay this tribute to death, its striking back at an audience it has trained not to care. It rubs death in your face; its heavy with the knowledge that every person working on this episode and every person watching it are all going to end up dead. Normally, The X-Files is a fun, goofy show, whose tense moments come more from a sense of the mysterious than from a concern about death. Since Mulder and Scully will always emerge to fight another day, we know that any threat they face is only temporary. Except, the show reminds us, theres one threat they cant do a thing about.
The scope of such an episode is limited, and it passes up some interesting possibilities. For instance, Clyde Bruckmans Final Repose would have been an interesting episode for Scullys Catholicism to come into play. Of the characters in the episode, she is the least undone by her encounters with Clyde Bruckman. (Mulder, after a conversation with Bruckman, is unable to sleep.) But Scully can face the reality of death and still act. It wouldnt be a stretch to say that might be because Scully is already accustomed to thinking about death, and has faith in something beyond it.
For whatever reason, the episode never goes thereperhaps because there isnt a lot of give in the story for such a conversation, or perhaps because it would detract too much from the overall goal of forcing the audience to think about death. And, of course, in the next episode weve moved on to some other story. Whatever gets opened up in Clyde Bruckmans Final Repose is quickly closed again. Its just one episode out of many.
So, The X-Files isnt great art. Its frequently not even good television. And I agree with Teachout that thinking too much and too hard about fleeting things can make us shallow. Good art pushes back against us, doesnt lend itself to easy interpretation, and forces us to encounter something outside of ourselves.
But perhaps the growth of serious pop culture writing comes from something a little nobler. Perhaps the issue here isnt one of seriousness. Perhaps it has more to do with the requirement of having a credential to analyze Shakespeare, and being forbidden, in any event, to feel anything about him. If you want to talk about death (or justice, or love), where can you go, if not The X-Files ? Where else will something be allowed to confront you on a level where you can still feel it?
Image from The X-Files Wiki .