Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

How ‘Lost’ Teaches Us to Grieve It

with 11 comments

The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.
—Guy Debord

I caught a bit of a break in assigning Guy Debord in my “Watching Television” class the day after the Lost finale extravaganza, which I’d asked my students to watch “for as long as they could stand.” (Many of them made it all the way from Lost: The Final Journey through the episode itself before petering out sometime during Jimmy Kimmel. That’s over six hours. I count myself among them.)

Debord’s well-known argument in The Society of the Spectacle is that our inner lives are increasingly structured and monetized by corporate interests; “the society of the spectacle” pushes out real life, as it was once authentically lived, in favor of imagistic simulacra fed to us by mass media. The result is deep alienation not only from each other but from our ourselves, from our own wants and desires. As Debord puts it:

The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.” With ever-increasing concreteness the spectacle recreates its own presuppositions….

In the spectacle, a part of the world presents itself to the world and is superior to it. The spectacle is simply the common language of this separation. Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.

I knew when I originally constructed the syllabus that Lost: The Final Journey would be a nearly perfect example of spectacle’s “never-ending monologue of self-praise,” and in this respect it certainly didn’t disappoint; think only of the frequent ad bumpers that showed viewers’ love letters to Lost being read by characters on the show:

The language here is intense emotional commitment; in both cases the rhetoric of romance is used, and it’s clear that for at least a certain segment of the audience the relationship with Lost surpasses any one might have with other people. (You may not have friends or real human relationships, but you have do TV.) More precisely, this is how ABC wants us to think about viewership; this is the model of fandom-as-devotion it presents to us to follow. (Who knows, after all, if Marcia S. or Chelz W. are even real people.)

Where Lost brings people together, we are shown, it is only to share in the transcendent experience of watching the show; we see this at the start of the Jimmy Kimmel special after the show, in which we see Kimmel’s audience’s tears as they finish their shared “journey” at their own Lost “viewing party”:

This was the level of self-praise I anticipated when I saw there’d be a special, which is why I assigned the Debord. Where I caught my break was in the strange self-reflexive turn the narrative content of the show took in its final hours, which now turn out to have been an extended celebration of Lost itself all along. In the trope of the flashes-sideways, we find our heroes (living lives where they never visited the Island) experiencing climactic epiphanies in which they suddenly remember key moments from the series:

Hurley and Libby, Sayid and Shannon, Sawyer and Juliet, Kate and Aaron, Charlie and Claire, and on and on—this precise epiphanic sequence, down to the quick cuts, overwrought music, serene gaze, and gasping tears, is repeated over and over, at least once for every major character on the series. Surpassing the self-indulgent self-reference of even the Seinfeld finale, but without the irony, the plot of the final season has been a literal recapitulation of the viewers’ own vicarious participation in the series all along, with the major characters’ entire narrative arcs transformed into tiny testaments to the greatness of the series itself. In this way the division between the audience and its protagonists is made to erode: these characters are on a quest to remember their adventures as we, their audience, have been watching them all along—and in the happy moments when their quest for revelation is achieved we get to glimpse again the show’s iconic sequences, naturally seeing them not from the characters’ visual perspective but from our own. The series reproduces itself in tribute to itself.

And in case we missed how we were supposed to feel about all this, Christian Shepherd makes the point as explicit as he can in the series’s final monologue, a moment that is visually framed as a religious funeral, with contextually appropriate dialogue about “remembering” and “letting go.” Consider what he says at approximately 3:10 in the linked clip:

Ostensibly speaking to Jack, but really speaking to us, just a few degrees away from looking directly at the camera, Christian sagely, hypnotically intones: “The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people.”

Who could ever doubt it?

11 Responses

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  1. I didn’t see the SciFiWire post until after class, but it hits some of the same notes: How Lost TRICKED YOU into liking the finale.


    May 25, 2010 at 10:52 am

  2. I didn’t watch the show so shouldn’t comment, but all the discussions have been fascinating. So far it sounds like this take is the most consistent. Five seasons of set-up with mixed results, then a season of retroactive apologia. Which is probably the second-most-brilliant way to end other than a successful conclusion, because everybody I’ve read or listened to has said they’d watch the show again if they had it to do over. My sociology professor liked to talk about TV as nothing other than a way to keep you in place and show you an advertisement, so as long as “Lost” succeeds at that, the artistic concerns are secondary.


    May 25, 2010 at 12:24 pm

  3. My sociology professor liked to talk about TV as nothing other than a way to keep you in place and show you an advertisement, so as long as “Lost” succeeds at that, the artistic concerns are secondary.

    My students really bristle at any suggestion of this sort. They hated Debord, for instance, and I imagine they’ll be similarly mad at Adorno today.


    May 25, 2010 at 12:33 pm

  4. I strongly disagree with the SciFiWire post. All of these (forgive me for using this word) “noob” reviewers think that a lack of resolution of mystery = a lack of coherent closure.

    I agree with your reading (as one of many possible things that Lost left the viewer with). Fortunately, I didn’t watch all six seasons and had no relation to the show whatsoever. Finale was the first episode I ever watched, start to finish. But there are a number of other things to point out, as to how the show was resolved (and it did, even if it didn’t resolve mystery, follow a perfect mythic pattern; less Abrahamic, albeit with a redemption narrative sprinkled in, more Upanisads).

    The flashback moments that you mention, while certainly being an ode to the show, are also – with the exception of John’s flashback and Jack’s flashbak – all odes to heteronormative coupling and baby-making. Benjamin Linus, who tried but was unable to develop meaningful affective relations with others (was he homosexual or Jewish?) was left out of the church: “Und wär’s nie gekonnt, der stehle/ Weinend sich aussem dieser Bund.”

    Of course, we should also add a Marxian (“religion is the opiate of the masses”) critique. The world that we thought was the world of the present (politics, social struggle) is actually an illusion, and the world of bliss in an afterlife is the real world. One of the things that struck me significantly about this show is that, despite its multiculturalist emphasis – we are in a world of transnational capitalism – in the end, it is white men who run the island. Of course, one could read Jack’s passing of the torch to Hurley as passing it to “the people”: he says, “You need to lead, Hurley” or something to that effect, but he’s looking directly at the camera when he says “You”. Nevertheless, it’s significant that a white man stands in for “the people.” Said, who would have been the other obvious non-white choice for a leadership role, is well out of the picture by this point, and of course a woman is not going to be in that role.

    So there’s a dual message:
    1) The political world, the world of the island, is false. Only the personal world of domestic bliss is real.

    2) Because the political world is false, we should be okay with the fact that it’s run by white men. It is, after all, the role they were destined to play.

    Sounds like perfect closure to me.


    May 25, 2010 at 12:53 pm

  5. Jorge Garcia / Hugo “Hurley” Reyes is actually Latino, which complicates the white-men-are-destined-to-lead thing a bit. But it remains a fair point, I think, as does the heteronormativity of the flash-sideways universe; as you say, this is a universe where more or less the only thing that matters is heterosexual coupling. That ABC framed so many of its “letters to Lost” as love letters seems interesting in that context.


    May 25, 2010 at 1:45 pm

  6. I also have to mention: I loved the almost Monty-Pythonesque idea that there’s a plug at the center of the island and if you pull the plug, the island sinks under the ocean. They should have had Terry Gilliam animate the final battle between Jack and Locke with the island sinking.


    May 25, 2010 at 2:51 pm

  7. Alex can perhaps also be forgiven for the “white-men-are-destined-to-lead” cliche for not knowing that the Island’s earliest shown protector was a woman.

    Lewis Francis

    June 1, 2010 at 1:59 pm

  8. Fair point, Lewis Francis — to me that progression seemed to be mapping onto the history of religion, from Earth Mother to monotheism to something like Christianity (Jacob/omniscient, loving but cold father, Jack/dying human son). I’m sure Hurleyism, the next stage in human spirituality, gets it all right.


    June 1, 2010 at 2:07 pm

  9. Interesting article, but hugely biased right form the start when you admit that you assigned Debord BEFORE you could even possibly know what the finale would be like.

    Of course it took a turn for the “meta” answer, this is postmodernism after all. Think of all the major finales in recent past, Seinfeld, Sopranos, there was always a moment of reflection not just of but also onto the medium in them.

    OK, so that might be precisely your point. What I don’t agree with though is your somewhat cynical interpretation of this reflection as a way of viewer bonding by ABC (or should I say “the corporations”?). What’s the point of binding viewers who are already severely dedicated to a series that is in its last 10 minutes ever on screen?

    I for my part thought Christian Shepherd’s line “You all made this” was a somewhat humble and maybe even touching admission. Claiming that the line “the most important time of your life was the time you spent with these people” was directed at the audience and ment to be taken literal (!) is not just far fetched.

    It’s your way of using the final lines to critique TV as a medium, a medium that is per se commercial and lives of viewer bonding but nevertheless is more than capable of stepping beyond that and actually teaching and touching us, contemplating with, not for, us about human nature, philosophy, religion, literature and in Lost’s case most of all friendship.


    June 3, 2010 at 3:41 am

  10. Interesting article, but hugely biased right form the start when you admit that you assigned Debord BEFORE you could even possibly know what the finale would be like.

    It was a six-hour TV “event.” Let’s just say I had a feeling.


    June 3, 2010 at 9:43 am

  11. […] Check out this interesting piece about how Lost celebrates itself. […]

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