Reflections on Lost, part 1: “I don’t understand”

by zunguzungu

Today, I leave you at the tender mercies of frequent dissenting commenter Seafan, whose belief that Lost is interesting teevee should, if nothing else, convince us all to regard his account of Avatar with profound suspicion. Ye shall know them by their fruits:

Greetings, all. The big ZZ asked me to spice up the blog a bit (because, let’s admit, he can sometimes be more of a zzz). Since this week saw the premier of the final season of ABC’s Lost, I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer some reflections on the groundbreaking series.

It’s hard to believe the show started only a half-decade ago. So much has happened since then, and show’s narrative density seems to have multiplied with each passing season. At the end of Season Four, when the show’s producers had at long last negotiated an end-date for the series, I remember wondering how they could possibly draw things out for so long. But just one season later, the question was how they’d ever manage to tie things up so quickly.

This oscillation between dispersion and contraction is what I want to address in this post because it organizes nearly every aspect of the show. It even governs some of its most superficial (and boring) aspects, such as the Jater vs. Skater controversy imposed upon the show by ABC’s marketing department. And, in fact, for you Lost theorists out there, let me also suggest that this oscillation also determines how the show "answers" its most fundamental questions.

Here’s an example: we already know what the island "is." Having rewatched the entire series over the past month, I promise you we do. That information was tossed to us a long time ago, back in Season Two, when Desmond informed us that the Hatch was designed to protect an electromagnetic energy source. It was made even more explicit in the finale of Season Four, when Dharma chief Edgar Halliwax explained in the Orchid orientation video that the island sustains a Casimir effect: a quantum phenomenon that could potentially stabilize a pocket of enormous energy, like a wormhole or singularity. But, accurate as this answer may be, it is so unsatisfying that it ultimately obfuscates itself. It’s an interpretive black hole, if you will.

What I find so compelling — and maddening — about Lost is the way it answers questions. Contrary to legions of skeptical viewers, it doesn’t only offer more questions (although it most certainly does that). In fact, it gives expression to an epistemological crisis (yeah, that’s right) that we’re all far too familiar with, and that reached its most urgent pitch in 2004, when the series first aired. I’m referring, of course, to the unreality that emanated from the interpretive black hole of the Bush administration. The primary symptom of this crisis was that the lie and the fact were given the same empirical status, whether we liked it or not; and, indeed, whether we knew it or not. This state of being forced to take ethical action in a world of helpless knowledge is, I believe, what the show is most deeply concerned with. Sure, the melodrama and overcooked mythico-sci-fi stuff makes it outsized and ridiculous at times, but this historical referentiality is what’s going on under the hood.

All of this was presented to us in miniature during this week’s premier, specifically when Flocke (faux Locke, the Man in Black) told Ben that Locke’s last thought before he died was "I don’t understand." This might be said to be the show’s cogito moment: its most fundamental statement on contemporary subjectivity and existence. The show is, in other words, ultimately interested in the myriad ways its characters — and, indeed, viewers — fail to understand, and especially in how they react to those failures. Locke is interesting not because of what he knows, but because of what he does with what he doesn’t know. And Lost theorists are just as enamored with theory building, and developing ways to cope with their uncertainty, as they are with verification. That being said, even though the show has so famously come to be dominated by what the Times critic Mike Hale calls "mythological" questions, I predict this season will be more interested in the existential desperation of Locke’s final thought than the empirical explanations it begs for.

Another way to think of all this is to look at the moments when characters are presented with proof. The efficiency of empirical explanations always gives way to the dispersion of affective understanding, and vice-versa. In Season Five, when Ben promises Sun proof that Jin is still alive, he presents her with Jin’s wedding ring; she believes him immediately, then agrees to go back to the island. None of this makes any sense. A few episodes before that, when Richard Alpert asks Daniel Faraday to prove that he won’t detonate "Jughead," Faraday confesses his love for Charlotte and says that he’d never do anything to hurt her; Alpert believes him, then sends him to the bomb. Again, no sense has been made. What’s happening is that people are hearing what they want to hear, which makes proof operate as the mere endorsement of a mysterious, previously made decision. Call it preemptive certainty. It’s all about what poses as proof in these moments, and how it is received.

The most powerful encapsulation of all of these issues can perhaps be found in a scene from Season Five’s "316," in which Ben recounts to Jack the story of Saint Thomas the Apostle. This scene demonstrates most efficiently how the show thinks about knowledge and certainty — and, indeed, what it means to be "lost."

The story of Thomas’s doubt in Jesus’s resurrection comes up in response to Jack’s question about why Eloise Hawking is helping them get back to the island. The point Ben wants to make is that faith and empirical certainty are ultimately indistinguishable, and that all knowledge is, in the end, reducible to belief. Jack seems comforted by this answer despite the fact that it has nothing to do with his original question. The entire series is riddled with similar paratactical frustrations. What’s important to note in this scene is that Ben’s performance (his Ari Fleischer impersonation, if you will) is enough to overwhelm and interrupt Jack’s empirically-minded search for answers. Knowledge, therefore, isn’t figured as a passive ground of verification merely in need of illumination, but as something that must be cathected (emotionally invested) in order even to operate as knowledge. Because of this dynamic, the performance of question and answer can easily take the place of real questions and real answers. Answering becomes indistinguishable from the performance of answering — at least in the moment. If answering were explanation in Lost, the big reveals wouldn’t all be met with the same dumb silence with which, in this scene, Jack responds to Ben.

The Caravaggio print Ben is looking at while he recounts Thomas’s story focuses these problems in the conundrum of Thomas’s gaze, which, depending on how you see the angle of his head, may or may not be directed at Christ’s wound. I think it’s worth considering briefly.

If Thomas is looking directly at the wound while touching it, the painting could be read as the dramatization of empirical certainty. If he is looking slightly to the left, as the furrow of his brow suggests, then the painting makes possible a fascinating complication of the traditional association of knowledge with seeing: touch, or a kind of immediate relationality, becomes the figure for certainty. An interesting tension emerges, too, because the Bible never describes Thomas actually touching Christ’s wounds. Or — we can try to account not only for Thomas’s gaze, but also for the expression on his face, where we see the stunned look of a man who, being confronted with the power of Christ’s presence, no longer needs to touch his wounds to believe.

These figures of knowing are dramatized in Jack’s storyline — from man of science in the first four seasons, to the man of faith that begins to emerge in Season Five. The show, to be sure, makes no sincere attempt at characterizing this as a story of spiritual development. Jack won’t be going from lost to found. What Jack’s story does is enact the demand that the show makes upon us to develop a critical relation to our own modes of knowing.

Still don’t understand? Well, if I’m honest with myself, I’m pretty sure we’ll all still be lost when the series winds up. But the pleasure will most likely come from seeing things at a slightly different angle.

No more pretentious thoughts on epistemology, I promise. I just want to register, officially, to a broader public than the hapless victims I’ve managed to corner over the past several years, the theory I proposed at the end of Season Three. THE ISLAND IS THE NEXUS OF DIFFERENT REALITIES! ZZ said he’d buy me a pony if I was right. Help me keep him accountable.

If I’m wrong? Meh.