The X-Files and the Borders of the Post-Cold War World

Article excerpt

It hardly seems coincidental that The X-Files's climb to cult status and beyond took place during a period marked by a nationalist discourse obsessed with borders and immigration typified by California's passage in 1994 of Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to deny welfare, medical benefits, and education to so-called illegal aliens. The topicality of both The X-Files and political paranoia about an "alien nation" are symptomatic of the 1990s political moment in a far broader sense as well; both speak to the narrative and political indeterminacy marking the end of the Cold War. The Cold War drew lines that were both ideological and territorial, globalizing the borders of the United States through the abstraction of the free world and its communist other. This abstraction was literalized at various places and times across the globe: most monumentally by the Berlin Wall, but also the naval blockade of Cuba in 1961 and the partitioning of Korea and Vietnam. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it carried with it the totalizing narrative of otherness on which this expanded notion of American nationalism depended. The U.S., in effect, returned to its own borders and found them suddenly vulnerable and in crisis.

As Proposition 187 proves, Latinos have been particularly stigmatized by the allegorizing of a newly alien nation. One morning in 1994 I opened my local Riverside, California newspaper and read the following, pointedly exploitive headline: "Crash Kills 7 Aliens, Hurts 19." The lead story concerned yet another fatal result of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) patrolling of Riverside County roads, but it also played quite overtly to the lead story in the entertainment section, a full-page cover story on "The X-Files." The Press Enterprise, a relatively small, independent newspaper struggling to raise circulation, latched onto the spectacle of aliens to extend their purview. Pete Wilson, then governor of California, sought, and ultimately failed, to do much the same thing when he tried to ride the issue of illegal immigration to a presidential bid. Just as the border has become a key literal and symbolic rallying point for attempts to coalesce national platforms and identities, the critical paradigm of the "borderlands" has come to offer one of the most powerful counternarratives to the unified conception of American nationality, history, and identity globalized during the Cold War.1 Performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena has offered some of the wittiest plays on the material and symbolic importance of the borderlands in a post-Cold War world, declaring himself a "warrior for Gringostroika." As Gomez-Pena notes, "with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the increased militarization of the U.S. Mexico border, the word 'border' changed its meaning drastically" (31).

At the heart of the new meanings being ascribed to the "border" in a post-Cold War world is the need to address a basic uncertainty in the relation of foreign and domestic, public and private. It is this uncertainty that animates the shadows of "The X-Files" From 1945 to 1968, the Cold War fixed those boundaries in a global and fictional order that was breached not simply by the Vietnam War and the domestic battles over the war's conduct, but by Vietnam's connection to the struggles over such domestic borders as those of racial segregation and a woman's place.2 Ronald Reagan was able to mobilize the fiction of Cold War culture in the eighties, achieving something like the domestic consensus about foreign policy that held before Vietnam. The X-Files is unmistakably a product of the Clinton era, in which government was consistently divided in power, practice, and vision. Clinton's troubled relationships with the military and with "family values" were the focus of repeated attacks directed by conservatives against Clinton personally and against the liberal agenda he claimed to uphold. National and domestic borders were hysterically claimed in danger; endangered, many of the most vocal insist, by the very man charged with defending them. …