The Impossibility of Irony in “Lost”

Alright, let’s talk about Lost. Like you, friend, I’m in the shit deep, and while I’ve hitherto forgone any mention of this television show here at P&O, I’ve good reason these days and wanted to engage you with a few brief questions. This largely comes on the heels of David Foster Wallace’s very excellent essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Buy it, seriously. Much like Lost, this is essay is far too expansive to do any justice to in a single blog post, but I want to zero in one of its main arguments and use this view as a way of looking at Lost as, perhaps, an important historical change in television and television culture. Or at least, I’ll try to tickle this idea.

And it goes as such: television is inherently ironic. Wallace does much to explain the technical medium of television and how it leads to irony, and he cites several early and contemporary examples of profuse irony within television’s content itself, not to mention its effects, raison d’etre, and basically anything else one would want to know, but I will save all of that for tomorrow when you read his essay. Also, this essay was written almost twenty years ago, and given how forward-looking Wallace is, one does well to pick up on his “forecasts” and see how television now has become even more ironic. Granted, I don’t watch a lot of television—Lost is basically it—but I am a young U.S. citizen, born within television’s historical boundaries, and I feel I know it as intimately as the next person. I certainly have watched a lot of television. And what I see is an almost bombastic deployment of irony. There is the obvious irony in “reality television,” (American Idol somehow holds both number 1 and number 2 in Nielsen’s rankings), where YOU are both the star and the audience, but there is also the irony, quite differently rendered, in shows like The Office, which is essentially one long telling of the joke “no one really behaves like this, but wouldn’t it be great if someone did?” Both shows are way complicated, and I’m really just using them as reductive examples of basically million horsepower irony transmissions (a clean double entendre for you there).

These are obvious places where irony works, but I think people (and by this, I mean the people I talk to, which is granted not a representative slice of America) tend to watch ALL television in a kind of ironic way. The other example of this sees equal counterparts in pop films, as well, but in TV it surfaces in shows like House or 24, which are also complicated and have their own, perhaps, ironic humors written into their code, but which are ultimately sincere. More importantly, hyperbolic. Just think of the deafeningly loud clock ticks that are the hallmark of 24—it’s maybe one of the most over-the-top sales pitches for suspense I’ve ever encountered. And the general feeling I have is that people enjoy hyperbole because 1.) it isn’t really asking them to believe it, and 2.) it’s exciting to watch how ridiculous the hyperbole can get, how much technology can be deployed.

And Lost pretty obviously falls in this latter category, except it does hyperbole so well, with such commitment, that it makes any show not about deserted islands, smoke monsters, quantum mechanics, time travel, ghosts, submarines, multinational corporate conspiracies, human fertility, utopian science cults, assassins, torturers, drunks, spinal surgeons, con men, fugitives, heroin addicts, codes and lies and black stones and white stones and planes-ripped-in-half-mid-air seem about as serious as Teletubbies. However, where I can watch a show like 24 ironically, and be somewhat amused, if hate myself a little, it is absolutely impossible to do with Lost. I mean, I know they are kidding around, they must be, no one can take this shit seriously (not even the producers and writers, if you watch their somewhat irreverent features), and yet, for some reason, I am compelled to believe. And by that, I don’t mean believe the show literally, but rather, believe that the show, through its bombast, is trying to touch something deep and core and human in me that is like the single golden eye hook through which time and history and all of humanity slides at the very center of my being—that the show is trying to connect me. Now let’s be very clear: I am not saying that the show is successful at this, at inducing some kind of religious (vis. religion, from re-ligio, linking back) experience in me. In fact, enough about the show prevents it: mostly, by being mediocre: that the characters and their situations in no way exhibit anything like verite, that the dialogue is so awful I feel embarrassed even tolerating it. Rather, what’s important here is that the pursuit for “religious” experience, for connecting viewers to a deep, cosmic order, feels genuine, so that an ironic viewing of Lost, and this is where it is unique, seems profane. The hyperbole must be dealt with as an earnest assessment of the way things are, and frankly I think our culture is a bit surprised by this.

Now, I’m not certain this surprise, pleasant or otherwise, is the reason so many of us continue to watch. Wouldn’t that make us conservatives, socially at least? Rather, I think there is a primary, if somewhat convoluted, reason Lost maintains its arrest on our attention: reference. I see reference in Lost as working in two primary ways: within and without itself. That Lost references everything from King Lear to Watership Down to A Brief History of Time, that its characters listen to Petula Clark and the Pixies, is no secret. But Lost spends equal effort referencing itself, and the subsequent games of recognition and the geometries of parallelisms viewers engage is one of the most entertaining aspects of the show, and the show knows it, so as the seasons have progressed the self-referencing has become more and more ostentatious. Now, both methods of reference are something contemporary viewers can understand deeply, especially as both methods are placed side by side, or, perhaps, even within each other. I mentioned in an earlier post an argument along these lines, that we have unprecedented technologies by which to access the world and history outside of us (internet) and unprecedented technologies by which to access the world and history inside of us (basically, psychology, but also physical technologies, like cameras with essentially infinite memories and networks where we can not only exhibit ourselves, but archive them, this blog, case in point), and that, basically, the boundaries between our interior selves and the exterior world have become a little slippery under the burden of information. And Lost enacts this notion exactly, so the real, true recognition of ourselves in the show is not in the characters but in the show’s mechanics—it’s M.O. is the same as ours.

And let me argue that we are very near, in fact, a very deep irony in Lost. Let me argue that the question viewers are asking about the end is not exactly how the show will end, what “side” will prevail, but rather, what is the ultimate reference? To what do we ultimately owe our experience? In a more naïve sense, this is a question about the first cause of the island, but as I am positing it, this question extends out beyond the limits of its plot and the universe of the script. It is a question about ourselves, what “version” of us is the true one, just as, what “version” of the island is true? And the irony is that, simultaneously, all versions and no versions are the true one. The reference will always be a reference to a reference, and the meaning we garner will be a performative one, an acquaintance with such regress where no first cause exists. Or something like that. Apologies to Baudrillard.

2 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Irony in “Lost”

  1. Insightful stuff, sir. Can I ask, does the question of which mythical tradition (Greek, biblical, etc.) provides the ultimate reference prove equally unanswerable? Do all versions of myth come together in Lost in a kind of Campbellian universal symbolism?

    • Thanks Jay! Absolutley, the ultimate location, the terminus if you will, is equally unanswerable in both Lost’s inward and outward references. There is no one true point of plot in Lost, and there is no one true, most important, previous work it references, so we are equally without meaning because any allusory references we bring in could be in conflict with any other. I am absolutely making the argument that all (or at least, many, many, many) mythologies come together in a kind of Campbellian (or more appropriately, Jungian) universal mythology. It’s a unified theory of myth, one might say. I don’t think this is a good or bad, or successful or unsuccessful, and one could certainly argue that Lost haphazardly incorporates myth references in entirely uneven and incongruent (i.e. unsuccessful) ways. But the action of such incorporation creates great tension when trying to read Lost’s references as allegory–allegory simply cannot exist because the end points of its links are too various (there are too many things to which Lost’s references refer :)), so the tenor meaning is, for lack of a better term, lost, and I think this might be a conscious maneuver.

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