Nathan Goldman: Hello, and welcome back to On The Nose, a Jewish currents podcast. I’m Nathan Goldman, the Managing Editor of Jewish Currents, and I’m your host today. I’m here with Editor-in-Chief, Arielle Angel and Senior Editor Ari M. Brostoff. Today we’re celebrating the recent release of Ari’s first book, a collection of essays called Missing Time, published by our friends at n+1, by discussing the titular piece, which explores Ari’s dedication to the X-Files as a seventh grader, beginning to come to political consciousness.
The essay, originally published in 2018, interprets the show with its eerie conspiracist and interest in experiences of inexplicable rupture against the backdrop of the mid 1990s when, like a lot of people, Ari writes, “we lived outside historical time.” The piece investigates the relationship between the original run and the 2016 and 2018 reboots as a way to think about the gap between two recent historical epochs, when history seemed to stall and then sputter back to life.
While Ari was a childhood X-Files devotee, Arielle and I came to the show much later. We both became kind of obsessed with it around the beginning of the pandemic. And the three of us have had an ongoing Slack conversation about it ever since. So, as a group of X-Files fanatics, we wanted to take the occasion of the publication of Missing Time to talk about Ari’s essay, the X-Files, and the end of history. Ari, do you wanna start us off by reading just a bit from the essay?
Ari M. Brostoff: Yeah, I would love to. Thank you, Nathan. Thank you guys both for doing this.
“Something had happened and we could not remember what it was. In Missing Time, a 1981 best seller that helped establish the conventions of the alien abduction memoir, ufologist Budd Hopkins explained that evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation often took the form of precisely this sort of mysterious gap in experience. Abduction was a way of describing rupture in its purest form, a literal wrinkle in time. I could relate. It wasn’t like I had a better excuse for being such an old fashioned girl. But I was not alone.
In the 1990s, anyone could be abducted, though the aliens seemed to have a thing for white girls and a way of making men feel like white girls, even though they weren’t. Weird syndromes coagulated everywhere. The deeper in the suburbs they appeared, the more mysterious they seemed, like signs from another world. A post-war infrastructure of office buildings and tract homes designed accorded off the white middle class from the contagious city, turned out to be built from noxious materials that made people sick. Asbestos, formaldehyde, and 4-phenylcyclohexene, or new carpet smell, dewed up in moldy corners beneath the level of perception.
Veterans returning from Iraq reported a rash of problems, memory loss, respiratory trouble, that they attributed to chemical exposure. When no physical marker could be found for Gulf War Syndrome, mass psychogenic illness, a new term for hysteria was extended for the first time to men.”
Arielle Angel: Ari, maybe you should tell us a little bit more about this essay.
AB: So this essay came about because I wanted to write about these journals that I had found from middle school that I got kind of fascinated by, that were largely about my very intense friendship with my friend, who in the essay I just call “S,” and which was sort of largely organized around our mutual obsession with the X-Files. And there’s a lot of typical kind of pubescent angst and goofiness, and very funny, sort of like precocious, but also like really clueless and unhinged politics that are shot through these journals.
I had started thinking of myself as like a very devoted communist the year before, and I was actually kind of going through like a break. I was becoming sort of an ex communist.
AA: In the seventh grade, of course.
AB: In seventh grade, as one does. But all of this was done in my own sort of like imaginary terms, fairly privately. I think I was using political language that I was finding in stuff that I read. And, you know, and then to some extent, like in the X-Files, just like ways of talking about, you know, my own experience of middle school angst. I think I got, as I say somewhere in the essay, a very particular kind of political education from the X-Files. And I started thinking about that a lot more at the beginning of the Trump administration for, I guess, maybe just reasons that we’ll talk about more over the course of this conversation.
AA: Could I just read the one from, from the essay, the letter about you kind of denouncing communism? “I’m writing this because I don’t think you should be a communist anymore. In that Marxist book or whatever that daddy has, it says that the main idea in communism is to abolish private property. Well, obviously that has to do with economics and all that. I think when we grow up, we should focus on something less extreme and something that will actually be paid attention to by regular people. Here’s a list of practical causes and stuff that I can protest/advocate at some point in time. For abortion, gun control, death penalty, drugs, but not the heavy ones, assisted suicide.”
AB: I feel like it should also be clarified that that is me writing to myself. Like the “you” in that is me.
AA: Maybe we should talk about sort of like what vision of the world the X-Files was sort of reflecting in the ’90s when it started and how did that change over time?
AB: Yeah, so I think that the X-Files was a really interesting product of like the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 interregnum also known as the 1990s. It’s kind of a crazy quilt of conspiracy theories of the 20th century ranging from--
AA: The JFK assassination.
AB: Yeah, exactly. Like very sort of like overt interventions into American political life. Like the JFK assassination, or like, what maybe would later be called, you know, something like the deep state as represented by, you know, this shadowy figure called the Cigarette Smoking Man. And then also, sillier, more “Bee Movie” style like “Monsters of the Week,” as they were called in the fandom for the show.
Anything from like mythical creatures that just might be real, like the Chupacabra, to like twins who were serial killers. Almost that kind of like proto-internet texture of just like throwing every crazy thought you could ever think of into like one bag and kind of shaking it up. Like a lot of deep suspicion of the state, a sense of like a world order that is both kind of falling apart and deeply ungraspable.
I think in the moment, right after the Cold War, you know, American hegemony kind of like reigned supreme, but yet was also the subject of a huge amount of anxiety. And I think that this show was actually like a kind of amazing reflection on that entire postmodern moment that had led up to that point. Like, it really was a very good kind of like historical primer for a curious 12-year-old. And I think in terms of how the show changed, by the time I got into it, it was like, sort of just at the end of the period when it was really good and about to enter into its period of precipitous decline when like Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, who, you know, played the leads, both kind of dropped out to a certain extent.
You know, it just, it all like sort of gradually falls apart. I actually didn’t watch a lot of the show starting with probably like, season like six or seven. I did go back and watch like the last season when I was working on the piece. But Arielle, maybe you can speak better to what happens in the, in that later period since you’ve watched it recently.
AA: I have not actually. So I started watching the show during the pandemic. I have had a long standing interest in the paranormal and also extraterrestrial stuff, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. Um, but I didn’t watch the show ’cause I generally don’t watch like quote unquote scary things. And the only episode that I had ever seen of the show, even though I don’t consider the show to be at all scary, was like, happened to be a, a kind of scary episode, so I sort of never got into it.
NG: Which one was it? Do you remember?
AA: It’s actually like so silly now that I was so scared. But it’s this one where this woman is like the granddaughter of a serial killer who’s like reenacting his crimes, but she doesn’t know that she’s the one who’s doing it. She like has a lot of information about the crimes themselves and then like, you know, slowly discovers that her genetics make her like able to recreate these crimes. Anyway, it’s just kind of scary, cuz it’s a lot of like, it’s a, it’s one of the more like murder centric ones. The tagline is “Somebody’s gotta pay, little sister, and it ain’t gonna be me.”
But, but yeah, I actually haven’t made it up to the later ones yet. I’m like now at the end of the sixth season, beginning of the seventh and it’s, I mean, for a show whose premise is kind of jumping the shark, to have jumped the shark so intensely is sort of jarring, you know? But I don’t have unfortunately much to say, cause I’m not there yet. Except for the episode that you asked us to watch from the 11th and final season.
It’s called “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.” And it is one in a line of kind of like ridiculous X-Files episodes. I mean, I happen to love the ridiculous ones, but not all of them have that tone. And this one is sort of that to the extreme. I’m not sure it’s super successful. But in terms of like ideas, I think it actually does something that the show would have to do to continue doing, Ari, what you were talking about it being able to do, which is sort of like commenting on a certain kind of cultural zeitgeist, which is basically asking the question of like, What happens when we are in a post-conspiracy world? Which is a question that they ask very directly through this character called, like, “They,” the idea of like, who is They?
Like, there’s this guy Dr. They who like delivers this speech that sort of like, it doesn’t even matter if I tell you all the things that I’m doing, ’cause like either no one will believe you or like a few people will believe it. And then that will actually be useful because it will so kind of confusion. And so we don’t have to hide anything anymore, you know, ’cause nobody cares.
AB: Over the course of that season, it becomes clear that we’re like now living in a world, um, with a network very much like Fox News and a kind of conspiracism that is like being put out into the ether and encouraging a lot of violent, right wing behavior that forces Mulder to reckon in some ways with like his own relationship, you know, what is like the responsible relationship to conspiracy theory, which, you know, is like a very interesting thing for Fox to be doing at the beginning of the Trump administration, right?
And then the episode that we were just talking about is I think the most interesting one in that season, which, you know, I think that the season mostly doesn’t work, but that episode I think is really clever and takes like a, a meta look almost at the whole show and kind of says like, well, what if the fundamental question of the show, which is, are there aliens? Like what, like, like what is the truth just got answered? Like what would happen to the motivation for like Mulder and Scully to go on with their paranormal investigation at all? Like, like, do we want the answers essentially? And I think that that was a question that made a lot of sense to ask in that way, in that moment where people were really unasked, just starting to kind of enact these like conspiratorial fantasies.
NG: There’s a phrase you use in the essay, Ari, that since I reread it, I’ve just been thinking a lot about and I love, using this phrase, “cozy exile.” I’ll read a little from the piece so you get the context. Um, and this is sort of, as you’re introducing some of the premise of the X-Files you write, “There they were, serially archived on a single flashing screen from the Lochness Monster and the Chupacabra to the JFK assassination and the defamation of Anita Hill. In the last years of the 20th century, the solar system of conspiratorial thinking was where the postmodern condition lived its best life. ‘You could find yourself in cozy exile there,’ social theorists said. If you tried too hard to picture technoscientific global capitalism and your brain broke, I’d barely begun to try, and mine already had.”
So I know you’re using the phrase there to refer to like the moment and all these, this constellation of things. But I was thinking about it in terms of the like disjunction and the different historical moments and what it felt like for me to like, get into the show in like pandemic year. Just because I think the phrase, “cozy exile,” speaks to the way in which there’s a real like soothingness to this show. I think like, thinking about it or watching it from now, and part of it is this like very ’90s vibe of sort of unmoored, conspiratorial spookiness that, though it activates all these political things, you’re talking about it. And for you, Ari, obviously as a young person, like did contribute to this formation.
It also feels like, I don’t know if it’s like that it feels stakeless exactly, but it feels like not activated in a certain way or, or something, or it sort of feels like a sort of like comforting, spooky playground place to be in. I don’t know. Or it feels like in some way a tamed version or safer version of some of the like existential unmoored angst you’re talking about in some of the, other of the like postmodern novels or that you find even in like earlier stuff in like Kafka or something. It seems like, in rebooting the show part of what they had to answer too, was the way, and you write about this, the way that the subjects of the show had taken on new valences that felt like more actively dangerous, or like the world felt politicized in a different way. And so it presents this like problem for how to like bring it into the 21st century.
AB: Yeah. I think that’s really, really helpful, Nathan. I mean, the kind of playground of it all, you know, I think is very much why it’s like a show I would very much recommend for your like, uh, suicidal goth 12-year-old in, in your life, you know? Which I was, and yet was also like a sort of delicate enough flower that like anything that was actually, you know, like I couldn’t listen to like Korn, you know, it was like too upsetting. Like there was like a very immediate wall that I was always hitting around that age in like trying to get too far into nihilism, you know? And I think that the X-Files was actually very good for me in that way, in that it like was consistently flirting with the kind of like, questions of recent history and what it means to live in a world where so much devastation has happened and like where we’ll never know the answers.
And then it kind of moves on. Like it’s kind of a police procedural, right? Like this is, this is like one thing that, you know, has often been noted about it is that it has that kind of like slapstick, odd couple, almost like sitcom relationship between Mulder and Scully at its center, but unlike a police procedural, the questions that they’re trying to answer are sort of definitionally unsolvable.
I think that that’s maybe related to the stakelessness that Nathan’s talking about is it’s like, because nothing can ever really be solved, there’s like a way that it doesn’t totally matter. Like it’s always going, those questions are always gonna drive Mulder crazy, but he’ll be sort of like quietly tormented and he’ll get to keep his job.
And I think there is something comforting about it because it’s like nothing is ever really going to change. Like that’s both the comfort and the terror, right? It’s like nothing will ever really change. You’re not gonna really unseat the deep state. Maybe you’ll find out a little more about it. You’ll basically be alone in your convictions.
NG: I think that’s all right. And also it seems important, and as you write about in the essay, you write that the show gives ontological priority to Mulder because almost always, Mulder is right. ‘Cause the dynamic of the show ‚for people who don’t know, is that something paranormal will happen and, and Scully will say it has a very simple, scientific explanation and Mulder will say no, it’s aliens or it’s Sasquatch or something. And almost always Mulder is right. Even if they don’t fully solve the case.
AA: I just wanna point out that one of the only times that he’s wrong is when there’s like a, a male rapist ghost. That Scully is like, “There’s a rapist ghost, raping nurses.” And Mulder’s like, “Ridiculous.” So I just wanna point that out.
NG: No, it’s true. That, yeah, that episode is nuts. Um, that just made me think about the way you talk in the intro of your book, Ari, about the idea of left wing melancholia. And it, it, I don’t know, that seems related to me, this idea of Mulder really is in the position of sort of being continually defeated, almost killed, never quite solving the biggest mystery, solving some of the smaller ones, but then yeah, always sort of his ultimate success deferred. But the show is pretty insistent. Like he knows what’s going on. Like, he’s correct about the way the world is, basically, which I don’t know has some similar structure to the, to a, like a common post 20th century, like leftist subject position.
AA: The question that comes to mind is like, is the show quietest in that regard? Like, are you seeming to be suggesting in a way that it is like, nothing’s gonna change and it’s enough to just kind of be right. But I don’t necessarily feel that way about it. Or that maybe like the part of things that is the most interesting to me is actually not the part that lies along a political access in a, in a certain extent, and lies more along kind of like a, a spiritual access.
Like you set up this question about, uh, science and magic. You know, like, if like Scully is science and Mulder is magic, but, but also to a certain extent, Mulder is kind of like using a scientific method himself. He’s just sort of more open to the possibilities. And I kind of feel like the question of being open to the possibilities generally is super generative and subversive in a way that I do feel like has power that goes beyond this question of like, are they just kind of like libertarian conspiracists or are they insurgent leftists fighting the power from within or something?
I think for me the thing that ends up comforting about it in that is just the sense of possibility is comforting. I mean, it’s like, even though in this version, like the aliens are just trying to like harvest our biological material for whatever their colonialist enterprise is, the fact that they’re out there is, it means that our world is bigger than we know, right? I mean, even with the monster of the week, you know, even like with clairvoyance and all the, and ghosts, and all these other things, like it, it like opens a window on things.
I mean, like right now we’re in a situation where, as we’re talking, it’s like, it feels like there’s like crisis upon crisis, right? Like weird timing to be recording this, like as Russia is invading Ukraine. And, and talk about like the question of like where we are in the moment of like history and whether we’re outside of history or like, you know, back in it or something. To watch this like European ground invasion that feels very like 20th century is a really surreal thing.
And that on top of Texas basically making it illegal to be a trans kid or the parent of a trans kid, climate change, pandemic, all this other stuff. And I think what was interesting about the show is like, there was this feeling of like letting the entire world in, like anything could kind of show up, but also there was like a window out of it. There was like something that defied the laws of physics or something that defied what we know that would kind of step outside of the paradigm in which we were understanding our world. And, and I find that hopeful, even when, even as we’re watching like a police procedural, which means that like somebody was killed or like, you know, like something bad was coming out of that.
AB: Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. I see what you’re saying about like the quiet and I mean, I think that is what I was saying earlier, but I actually think that the show is just like radically, politically open. Like something I talk about in the piece is that it garnered a lot of critical writing at the time, like a pretty unusual amount for a TV show, particularly like before, you know, the prestige TV era, and its diehard fans ranged really, really far from left to right. I think there were a lot of people who saw their own washed up political tendencies finding some kind of a, a, a home there, like at least like, you know, an expression, you know? Which is like, I think what I was enjoying about it too, in a way I wouldn’t have known how to articulate yet.
And I think like part of how I see what you’re saying is like, there’s always this like radical outside and it’s like the sublime, like the aliens are kind of the sublime, right? Or, you know, the kind of like other possibility that the show presents that like maybe the aliens themselves are just like a screen for this government conspiracy. In that scenario too it is like a true conspiracy, right? Like there’s an answer that will always elude us, but there is one. Somebody knows the truth and the truth is like a lot more specific than just like “It’s capitalism, dummy.”
That vision of the world, I think, have taken like very literally in like in sort of either of those cases have taken very literally that can be very conservative, right? ‘Cause you’re like always, instead of like believing in like the possibility of collective action in this world, you’re like believing in like the possibility of like total break with this world and like the intrusion of this totally external force. But if you take that more figuratively, then that can also just be like a vision of, you know, of any kind of rupture. So yeah. Like you really can kind of go a lot of different ways with it.
NG: I think that’s right. I mean, I think what you’re talking about, like is one way of talking about like a messianic impulse, just to say it like points outward, which can be quietest or can be saying there’s something here to unlock the potential of.
I mean, that seems really related to both the like, sort of pair of taglines of the show. I mean, the one that like appears at the end of the opening sequence, literally “the truth is out there.” And then there’s the sort of famous words that are on this poster in Mulder’s office that say, “I want to believe,” which feel like they both point toward what you’re talking about, Ari, the idea that the truth, there is some truth. It’s out, and, it’s out there. It’s not just right here. It’s like something, somehow transcendent, but you can reach toward it. And then the “I want to believe” is this like hopeful statement about the drive to have this like kind of experience of faith. And I do think what the show points to is this idea of, in a almost anti-postmodernist way, the idea that there is some grand world picture and there is some progress toward it, even as it gets deferred or whatever.
But, but one thing I was thinking about is the way in which like the show, as we alluded to is, is divided into these two categories of episodes. One that gets called “monster of the week,” and the other is usually called “myth arc,” or like myth, mythical, mythological arc, which is sort of the long alien conspiracy plot.
And I feel like one thing the show does by alternating between these is the “monster of the weeks” actually do get, tend to get more satisfaction or closure where they’ll often like, sort of solve a problem locally to be like, “Okay, it was Bigfoot,” or like it was whatever. Whereas the “myth arc” sort of does get kind of solved at like various points, but it always undermines itself such that I find it imposs, even for whatever amount I’ve watched it, impossible to actually keep in my head what the true story was or whatever.
Um, but yeah, I think it’s something about having these two types of episodes, lets you keep alive both this spirit of like “the truth is out there and you can figure it out” and also like “the truth is out there and it will like continually allude you forever.”
AA: Maybe this is the segue into whether the truth will allude you forever or not in terms of actually what’s been happening over the last couple years and like how that affects the conversation about the things that we’re talking about.
AB: Arielle is saying, in a very gingerly way, that she’s completely alien-pilled. And now she’s gonna tell us about how that happened.
AA: Well, so I mean, I can just like summarize some of like, what has been happening, which is that a journalist named Leslie Kean has basically been following a story about how the Pentagon and other kind of military people have videos of UFOs and like credible firsthand accounts of encounters with UFOs, that display technology that is not known to this world. And this was reported on the front page of The New York Times, uh, subsequently picked up in a story by The New Yorker.
So like there is this kind of growing kind of mainstreaming of the idea that there are UFOs and, and as Leslie Kean says, and I think it’s very fair to say at this point, um, the vast majority of UFO sightings are explainable and you know, not what they say they are, but there are a handful that are extremely credible and are also happening at the military level.
A lot of people who are in the military have had encounters with UFOs and reported them and kind of gotten nowhere. And, and, you know, there’s a lot, a lot of credible evidence about this, including like the Nimitz, which is like a, a ship that was stationed, had like some close encounters and were able to film it. And then some people showed up and took their data from the ship and, and all of this is kind of documented.
So, you know, Leslie Kean is sort of like, it’s not a question of whether there are UFOs. There are UFOs. The question is sort of like, what are they, you know? And then like the answers are kind of slim. Like they’re either extraterrestrial or they’re like secret government tech. And I guess the way that you fall on that is really just a matter of belief at this point. But. I mean, there’s, there’s like people in the Pentagon now who have come out and talked about having been part of these programs that, you know, track UFOs.
I’m not like being super specific because I, you know, Ari actually in the essay talks about the Ernst Bloch concept of like cold and warm communism where it’s sort of like the cold communism is sort of just like rooted in kind of historical materialism and hard Marxism and like warm communism is all like strikes and bread and roses. And like, just like that feeling. And I’d say like, I’m like a warm alien enthusiast. Like it’s not really that important to me. Like the details. Although I do spend like a fair amount of time kind of like reading credible stuff about it.
But basically, you know, like Harry Reid from Nevada was a huge UFO guy in Congress. Now actually that mantle has been taken up by Marco Rubio. So like again, also, by the way, you see kind of like the, the political sides to this, like it’s not--
AB: Bipartisan consensus.
AA: Right. Or if not bipartisan consensus, like it’s like being politicized differently, I guess. Or like different people feel like they need to be kind of like the barers of the truth at different moments.
So what ended up happening is that Rubio pushed for something in the kind of last omnibus spending bill before Trump was out of office that made it so that all of the intelligence agencies had 180 days to release everything that they had on UFOs. And that was sort of done in a way where it’s like very hard to read or, or see through it.
And I think people are still sorting through that stuff, but like in the wake of that, Obama was like, “Yeah, there are UFOs.” I mean, like, there’s been kind of all of this growing credibility for this idea. And I have the experience very often of like, talking about this, like to people, like friends and whatever who look at you like you’re completely insane.
And yeah, like at the same time, I also like believe in the magic of tarot and like, you know, like all of these other things, you know. But it does seem like there’s kind of something happening or shifting around specifically around the idea of UFOs. And I don’t know, like, I don’t know what that means, you know? I do know that it puts one in a very weird position to talk about it, you know?
And that’s the uphill battle with this. And also what I see as sort of like an unnecessary constraint on like what it means to know things or how you can actually see the world accurately when you run up against these constraints about what is possible. And thinking about these things as kind of like a binary between science and magic again, as Ari puts in the piece, when actually the more we know about science, the stranger things get actually.
AB: I love this. We were talking for a second, um, before we started recording about like, you know, sort of what our priorities are to talk about on this episode. And, um, we were joking that like my number one priority was to get Arielle um, on the record, um, talking about aliens. And I’m realizing now, in this space of actually like recording this episode for public consumption and like giving you slash forcing you into the space of being like, “Here’s the deal,” like, “Here’s like the current research on aliens” as like, as opposed to doing that just in like regular conversation, it is very epistemologically like shifting, I think.
Like, even like, for me as a listener, because I’m like, oh right. I actually, that actually all does make total sense. And you’ve been like, following this much more closely than me, like, oh, right. Like, I guess I actually like, do also believe all of that. And like, and, and like always have, but like, I don’t access it as belief. If that makes any sense. And I actually think that that is like part of what the X-Files is about.
AA: What does that mean? You don’t access it as belief?
AB: Well, so like, I think that there’s a kind of space in between the like kind of hard Mulder and Scully positions, right? Which is like maybe a space that the show actually invites you to inhabit in some way, where your belief structures are actually just being kind of like held in limbo. For me, that’s like a very kind of like basic everyday way of relating to the very weird experience of like living in the world, and like maybe more specifically, the modern world that we live in now.
Like I don’t, I mean, to give like, sort of an absurd example, like, it takes like all of my force of belief to understand that, like, when I get on an airplane, we are like really going into the sky and then we’re like staying there for several hours and then we’re landing in like a different part of the planet and like, nobody dies. Like I haven’t wrapped my head around that and I’m not sure I ever will actually.
And I think there’s a lot of stuff like that for me. Like, there’s like a, I think that I kind of operate in general in like a permanent state of disbelief because I just, I’m just like, I don’t, like the world just feels very far beyond my capacity to understand it.
And I think that aliens represent a like choice point of like, you can either choose to like really take that seriously as a yes or no question, like as a question to actually have a relationship to you where you would be trying to find out the truth. Or, you can take it in a very different way as kind of like, that seems right.
But there is something I think, specific about the format of like the interview or the intake that like happens on the X-Files all the time where people are actually being asked to describe their experiences of the paranormal in like very, very direct ways, like, like in like the ways that you’d find like in a police procedural, right?
And so like, this is something that comes up that I really loved in this episode. I just rewatched “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” where this like science fiction writer played by Charles Nelson Reilly is writing this book about alien abduction and he calls it non-fiction science fiction. He says that this is like this genre that he’s developing and he’s going around interviewing people about their abduction experiences.
I was just like, so taken with that. It’s such a fun conceit to think about that as like the kind of question that you can ask somebody that will produce really interesting information about their own relationship to belief and to just like what they think the world is like.
NG: Yeah. I think what you said and what Arielle was saying speaks to is partly that even though that question is often treated and, and the X-Files treats it this way, often between Mulder and Scully, even as they like sometimes will come more together or switch places or ebb and flow or whatever, is as this sort of diad of dogmatic positions of being like with regard to the existence of aliens or whether aliens have encountered, have come to earth, is to say like, it’s definitely true that they have, or it’s definitely not true. Versus this idea of just, I think part of what Arielle was talking about, is this question of like, What kinds of evidence and possibilities are you like open to admitting into your framework? And are you open to ones that might contest ways that you take the world to be, or have assumed it to be, or that have been like established as, as marginalized.
AA: Well, something also that I love about the show, just for what it’s worth, is that it also like seeds, quote unquote real, or like verifiable pieces of like alien lore into the show. Like I was watching on the one in the 11th season about forehead sweat about Grenada, did you guys know that that piece of information about the president of Grenada, basically saying that aliens had landed or crashed on Grenada and like, and like kind of pushing for like the UN to investigate did proceed this coup in the country? Which like, I’m not saying those things are related, obviously, that’s like kind of crazy, but like that’s, that’s, that’s also real, you know, like that really happened.
And also like the more you start looking into this stuff, the more you have like a lot of weird stuff. Like, you know, the, the head of psychiatry at Harvard, John Mack, studied abductions, basically being like, what is the psychological explanation for people reporting abductions? And like visited all these people who had been abducted and determined that they were really abducted because there was no, like that they had no shared underlying diagnosis. There was like, it wasn’t like he was seeing like a mass hysteria. Like these were people who otherwise had really normal lives and like, didn’t wanna have this and were beset by the trauma of having gone through it and not being believed.
Again, I’m not saying that that is real. I’m just saying that like, you know, you have a, a joint press conference with like head military guys who like run nuclear facilities being like, “We get visited by shit.” I don’t know.
NG: Arielle, I’d be curious what you think, because, as someone who’s like the most in, into, and knowledgeable about this stuff as any of us and has a lot of conversations about it, what do you feel like, or what is your experience maybe from those conversations when you feel like you’re talking to somebody and they’re like, you can tell, like, sort of think you’re crazy, what do you think stands in the way of openness to belief in these things?
AA: It’s just stigma. I mean, it’s, it’s literally, I mean, and that you see in the show, right? It’s like Mulder, the re, the thing that makes Mulder so good, or like able to solve all the mysteries of the X-Files is because he doesn’t care if people think he’s a fool. And I think it does make you seem crazy. I mean, like, it’s funny because I, like, I did like a rec, I think, for the X-Files a while ago on our Shabbat reading list, which you should subscribe to, it’s really fun.
And I like started it by saying like, “Oh my husband doesn’t think I should talk about aliens on the reading list.” And I got like, you know, some person writing back being like, “Yeah, you really shouldn’t like, you’re, you look like a crazy person,” you know? It’s like, it’s, it’s very exposing, like here I am, I’m like the editor, I’m like supposedly a journalist, I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever really associated with that self label, but I’m the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine that fact checks things and like is supposed to care about where truth is. And I’m basically like, “Yeah, I believe in everything,” you know? It’s like a very uncomfortable position to be in.
AB: It is interesting, too, to like, think about that in relation to the specific work that we’re doing at Currents, in terms of like, uh, trying to get people to, in some cases, think about Israel/Palestine in a different way, or to get like access to information and perspectives that they often like wouldn’t get in US media, and just like, sort of generally as a magazine of the left, the work of challenging people to sort of like examine their assumptions. And like the work that we’re always sort of doing internally of like trying to really figure out what we think about things and report out questions that seem like, uh, you know, sometimes like so buried in layers of deceit that, uh, you know, that it’s like why even bother. Right? I think coming from the position of doing that kind of work, it does seem like particularly vulnerable to be like, “Oh, yeah, guys, like, it’s not just Palestine. It’s also aliens.”
AA: No, it definitely occurred to me while I, while I was saying that, that that’s like probably the thing that people would think. I just wanna, just point out again, that The New York Times reported this. Like, it’s been like on The Ezra Klein Show, on 60 Minutes, like Chris Hayes, like mainstream journalists believe that this is happening.
AB: Well, this is the whole thing, right? Is that like, I think this is kind of what I was trying to get at earlier, it’s not even that I think what’s so UTRA or like transgressive or something here is the kind of like evidence at hand, which like obviously is getting like a very real public hearing. It’s more like having an orientation to it at all.
I actually think that what I was saying about myself before, um, is something that is like very common of just like, kind of just like inhabiting a, like a level of agnosticism where you’re just like, “Oh, like if I looked into that, I would probably believe that too. Or I could certainly imagine it, but like, I haven’t. So I won’t.”
And also that space of going between thinking about things in material terms and thinking about like, the thing about UFOs is that unlike terrestrial politics, we’re not really being like, forced to think about them on a daily basis. Or at least most of us aren’t, right?
And like, I mean, this is, again, I think a thing that comes up in The X-Files and like in the kind of abduction narratives that you’re talking about, like anybody who has had an experience of seeing something is now really forced to have to deal with that, literally like coming into their lives from the outside.
And so like, if that’s a thing that has happened to you, then your politics are not going to be merely terrestrial anymore. I think for me, that has like largely been a, kind of like a place that I go more like imaginatively than in like real like material thinking. But like, I don’t know. I’m like, well, now that it’s like, here, we are like, uh, like it’s World War III and like, we’re talking about alien, like, you know, like, what are you gonna do?
NG: I guess, I just wanna say also, like maybe for the record or to make sure Arielle doesn’t feel like the only one out on limb here or something, like I’m totally open to the possibility. It seems clear that there are these UFOs or what they call them, unexplained aerial phenomena, right? And I’m very open to the possibility that they’re alien in nature. I also 100% think there’s definitely alien life out there. And we’ll often get into arguments with people who think there only might be, or that there isn’t, which seems like a ridiculous position to me. I think obviously there is. And the only question is whether we’ve made contact, but, um.
I think part of what I find interesting about the alien question in the way, in terms of not just the question itself, which is obviously interesting. And the way people relate to it is I feel like it straddles this like line between natural and supernatural.
I dunno if this is right, exactly. But like even thinking about the stuff that’s in the context of like the show, some of the things that Mulder and Scully encounter, like there are certain things that are more obviously magical or like spiritual or something. And then there’s sort of like, if aliens exist, in some way, that is just a natural phenomenon. That just is like, there are kinds of beings in the world that are different than we know about and there might be secrets that we don’t know about in terms of how they’ve come or whatever.
But because there’s this way in which like they come from quote unquote like out there and they contravene these assumptions about the ways the world works, they take this place that feels like sort of between the like natural and supernatural or, or something. So they have this role, it seems to be related to the way they feel like stand-ins often for like spiritual or religious questions, where it’s sort of like asking people, like, “Do you believe in aliens ?“or “Do you believe aliens have come to earth?” is like, can be a way of asking, like, “Do you believe in God or these things that don’t fit into naturalistic paradigms?”
Even though it’s not quite on the level that, ’cause in a certain way saying like, “I believe in God” is like a much more radical claim, open to accusations of being naive than just like, “I believe in aliens.” But the questions feel like interrelated. And I was thinking about, um, when I reread your essay, Ari, the way you write “To be a Mulder is to be a kind of idiot and to be right,” which just made me think about like the figure of like a holy fool or a profit, this idea of like, I don’t know this relationship between, between idiocy or naivete and, and access to different kinds of explanations that also feels characteristic of like what it would mean to be religious.
AA: Yeah. I, well, first of all, like one of my favorite, um, kind of canonical sightings is this UFO sighting that took place in 2006 over Chicago O’Hare airport. And a lot of times there are sightings that happen that don’t get reported on just ’cause people feel stupid. Um, but this one, because it delayed air traffic and because the pilot and like all these people who worked at the airport are like on the ground and stewardesses saw it, you know, it got reported on and there was a lot in like the original Chicago Tribune article of like people being like, “Oh, my whole faith is shaken,” like I think I recall somebody saying like, “Oh, I don’t know if I believe in God” or like my whole, you know, whatever.
There’s a few things that are interesting about it. One is that we accept the, a belief in God as totally normal, whereas like a belief in aliens, which like actually could deal in like material reality is like totally insane. But also that, even that distinction, like even making that distinction, that we understand how one relates to the other or something, like that we understand them as like diametrically opposed or something or that one doesn’t exist without the other. I mean, that’s also something interesting that the show sort of explores, although it explores in a similarly kind of divergent way where like Scully has these episodes without Mulder that are religious in nature, because Scully’s, I mean, Scully’s a Christian, a believing Christian, even though like not a dogmatic one. And there’s like all these ways that like, she has like episodes where like, things are happening with like stigmata and demons and like all this kind of stuff that she believes and that Mulder thinks is nonsense or whatever.
So, yeah, I mean, and, and I thinking about all of that, I also thought about, I remember when I was growing up, somebody came to speak at my Jewish day school that had like done all of this work to like dive into rabbinic commentary and like reconcile the Torah with science, like basically being like, “No, they do talk about dinosaurs, it’s over here,” or whatever, you know, like trying to like make these kinds of reconciliations.
And, and again, I just think it’s like, I think that’s actually, I mean, I’m like tempted to make fun of it now, but I think it’s actually sort of interesting to like, try to take all of these things as like part of our world at the same time and not try to separate them out. I mean, I just wanted to, Nathan, you said, you know, “I’m open to the idea that there are aliens,” and I guess I just wanted to ask, why are you just open?
Not that you have to believe the evidence of like the videos and like all these, you know, military guys and et cetera, et cetera, but like, what is stopping you from being like, “Yes, I believe “?
NG: It’s a really good question. I feel like I have a few answers. So one thing, I don’t think you’re, are you, do you think there’s definitive proof that these UFOs are alien in origin? It sounded to me like you were saying that feel, that seems like the most likely explanation.
AA: I think there’s definitive proof that they, that there are UFOs.
NG: I agree.
AA: The question is kind of what you believe that they are. And so then I think there’s also some other evidence that they may be extraterrestrial.
You know, it’s funny because like, when I was kind of, when we, we often talk on the staff about like, who’s a believer and who’s a nonbeliever since I’ve gotten like so pushy about it. And like, Jacob, for example, who’s like been reading about like covert CIA stuff is like, “Well, obviously it’s government tech. Like you, you wouldn’t believe the shit that they did.” Like that kind of thing, but you haven’t said like I come down on one side or another on this, you know, I’m just curious.
NG: I think it’s related to a, I mean, I think it is a personal problem or like a personal question. Like I, one thing I’ve been thinking about in thinking about this show and like my love for it and different things I love about it. ‘Cause I was trying to think about, you know, Ari talks about this some in the essay, the way in which part of what’s cool about the show is Scully and Mulder provide this sort of like typology of being like, well, are you a Mulder or are you a Scully? Are you a skeptic? Or are you a believer? And like, if that question was put to me, I would sort of say, like, I usually feel like a Scully, but I want to be a Mulder. And maybe that’s partly like the show orients you toward wanting to be a Mulder.
But I feel that way in my life a lot. I feel this about like religion, too, or like I’m increasingly in my life as, or like since I would say I was at my, like most skeptical as a teenager and have been pushing in the like believer direction on all kinds of things ever since then. But I feel like a block or something where my immediate response to things, this is true about like astrology and other things too, feels like I end up feeling like I actually prefer the more believing position and like would do more to like argue for that position, but often my reflex isn’t to like, go for it or something. And so I don’t know what that is exactly, but I think that maybe what’s inhibiting it.
I guess maybe I would also say, like, it seems to me the more important question isn’t whether, like, do you believe, I guess I take the openness as like the more fundamental break or something. I feel very attached to like the line. Like “I want to believe,” that really like resonates with me more than like ‚a bit more than the claim, “I believe.”
AA: Yeah. I mean, now I’m like, of course, like reflexively, doubting myself, just being like, like I also want to believe, but then I also do believe like, and that goes for a lot of things. I take a kind of position of like, I’m just gonna be open to, you know, like I said, like one of the examples is like tarot, like this feeling of like, oh, I’m like, ” There’s something in this. Like, why does it keep having answers like that feel important to know? And like, why is it accurate?” or whatever. Or like the feeling of like, when you hear a really good ghost story from somebody who experienced it, like just the feeling of not saying like, “I wanna believe you,” but saying like, “I believe you,” like, “This happened to you,” or something.
Like, I think something that really pissed me off when I asked everyone to watch that Unsolved Mysteries episode about this thing that happened in 1960s, Western Massachusetts, where like all these kids say that they’ve been abducted, like in different places and at different times and don’t know, relationship to one another. And like some other people saying that they saw the craft and whatever. Is like the frustration of just being like, all these people are telling a story that they believe happened to them and our first response is like, “This didn’t happen to you,” or something. And so like, I guess I feel like agnosticism can be like, not nice in that regard.
NG: Yeah, I agree. I think there and I like critique this in myself, I feel like, where I feel like there is something that is actually insulting about it. And I mean, the, you can like this idea of saying like, “I’m gonna sit here as the judge of the experience or verifiability of this thing,” And the idea of going in with a skeptical position actually is an antagonistic position.
It’s sort of saying like, “Okay, I’ll believe you, if I can rule out everything else.” That feels like my go-to posture toward a lot of things. And obviously, I think we’d all agree, there’s like ways in which that can serve one well and it’s important in like reporting and all kinds of things.
AA: Yeah. Right. Of course, of course. As a reporter, I would not, I would be approaching this very differently than as a person. I just wanna make that clear again.
NG: Totally. I just, I agree that I, there’s something almost like cruel about the posture or something. And it’s part of what makes me feel frustrated with it in myself.
AB: Yeah. No, I just wanted to agree with that. Like again, like if we’re talking about terrestrial politics, I think it’s very clear that like, there’s a, a kind of, it’s like liberal noblesse oblige or something, or like soft skepticism that I think can be like really cruel and doesn’t understand itself as such. Where like, you know, in the course of listening to something that someone’s telling you about their experience, that you just like don’t want to accept, you suddenly take on a position where like, actually the issue is that you just don’t have any beliefs in reality at all. You know? Like there’s like a kind of slippery slope that gets opened up. And I think that’s, that is actually a really interesting point about kind of like the stakes of all of this. Um, even if it’s like more as like a thought experiment on some level, because it’s like, not something that is again, like coming up for most of us, like in a day to day way where we’re like actually being forced to think about it a lot.
And then the other thing I was thinking is like, Arielle, you were saying earlier that one dynamic in this show is like Mulder is always kind of making fun of Scully for her faith, for her Christian faith. And I do think that there’s something in that too, where it’s like, Scully’s kind of dogmatic belief in science and her Christianity do sort of run like parallel to each other. Right? Like she kind of believes in these like theories of the world that are both, um, sort of totalizing, even if the show doesn’t really get into whether she thinks that they have anything to do with each other, or it only presents that, you know, in these kind of like episodic ways, like when she encounters a demon or something.
And I think there’s like a way that Mulder’s openness is like its own kind of materialism in a different way. There’s like a, a, a, a flatness or something to his belief structure where it’s just like, “I’ll believe it if I see it” or “I’ll believe it if somebody experienced it.” That sort of like, it’s not in the realm of like the leap of faith and like, and that does feel like a little bit Jewish to me.
AA: Well, also he listens to people. I think that that’s like something you see again and again, is that he like really listens to people who have experienced something. And I don’t know. I mean, obviously like saying these things, there’s all of these things that come up around like believing women around sexual assault, or like children, you know, like the fact that there’s like a hiddenness or like believing people of color when they talk about their experiences of racism, and all of that kind of thing.
Obviously like the other side of this is like Havana Syndrome and like, you know, Morgellons, and like all these kinds of things that are kind of like, they could be a mass hysteria or something like that, you know? But there is a value I think, in listening to people that does feel important to me, or like that feels like it gets like trampled on in these conversations that it makes me feel, like makes me feel a little bit crazy because I’m like, “Wait, all these people are saying they experienced this thing, and they don’t have anything to do with each other, and they have, they’re regular people, and they have no reason to lie, and they have nothing to gain from saying it. So like, why are we so resistant to them? Why are we so resistant to listening to them?
NG: That’s our show. Thanks so much for listening. Please rate and subscribe to the podcast and leave us a review. And as always, subscribe to Jewish Currents, uh, to get our print magazine, and check on our website, jewishcurrents.org to see our latest.
AA: And buy Ari’s book, Missing Time, uh, from, published by n+1. Uh, it’s really wonderful. I’m really enjoying reading it. I’ve read a lot of these essays, uh, as they were coming out, but I’m really enjoying reading them again. And it has a really wonderful new introduction. So go pick that up for sure.
NG: See you next time.