Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Imaginary Studies in Individualistic, Island Living on LOST, Pt. 1

Ex-Lost-ed: Getting Caught-up in the Cultural Phenomenon I recently watched in a rather short period of time the first and most of the second seasons of Lost. I subsequently read the summaries of the rest of the basic storyline. A lot of people around me had mentioned the series, and so when a friend of mine had the first season and a half on DVD, I decided to take a look. I have a rather obsessive, do-it-all-at-once-or-at-all personality, so I watched most of these first episodes in the span of 4 or 5 days (I have a social life you know!). While most of the time I read a good amount of books, which most people have never heard of, let alone taken the time to read, I enjoy dabbling critically in popular, cultural phenomenon (Harry Potter, DaVinci Code, etc.), because arguably what is popular, seen, watched, and appreciated on a broad, widespread level tells us more about our society and its ways of doing and organizing things than obscure literature.

The basic story of LOST is an interesting mixing of a Survivor-like scenario and an unexplained, mysterious, supernatural side. I suppose much of the story on the island revolves around several of the main characters who survived a plane crash trying to uncover what the heck is going on on the island. This includes the adventures of previous groups and people on the island (the French lady and her group, the Others, the Dharma Initiative, etc.). While survival remains an element to the story, in fact the group’s real survival is less about acquiring food, water and shelter but about protecting themselves from certain hostile forces and groups on the island. It is also clear that many people on the island don’t really want to leave the island due to things that happened before at home.

While there are a few initial moments at the beginning of Season 1 where Sayid (our dashing Arab and former Iraqi Republican Guard Soldier) organizes teams for basic needs after the crash and where Jack (our never-fear, lead-by-example doctor and leader) declares in frustration that “We need to work together, because this everyone-for-themselves attitude is not going to work,” it is clear from the narrative format and from the way events and choices unfold on the island that this is a rather individualistic, liberal form of political strategy and communal living.

Narrative Format focused on Individual Leaders, Personalities, and Histories

Every episode of LOST after the pilot follows two storylines, one showing what is happening on the island and the other dealing with the back story of one of the characters. So, as we discover the behavior and personality of the survivors on the island, we come to know through these background stories what their lives were like before the crash.

The narrative is particularly interesting because it provides a very interesting concept of time particularly in the sense that time isn’t simply a passive going by but is spliced with foresight (namely in the character of Desmond) and with hallucinatory, predictive dreams along with the “history” or past time of individual characters. It makes me wonder if there is even a move towards Steven Hawking’s conception of time.

Outside of playing with narrative time, this narrative format comes to focus on what these people are really like according to the all-knowing, all-seeing objectifying eye of the camera. Characters become static and predictive personalities to the extent that their personality adjectives don’t really seem to change. Jack is the doctor-leader with a perfectionist, never-let-go, Mr. Fix-it attitude. Sawyer is an asshole who is only looking out for himself. While there a few instances of characters whose attitude changes during the course of the story, these seem rather rare and periodic (Yen towards his wife). Every character has a long, well-described history, which mysteriously interconnects with many of the other survivors, but these backstories still seem to direct us toward a rather fixed and predictable character profile.

In some ways, this is a heart of a good sitcom, well-established and predictable character types coming into conflict with other contrasting, well-established and predictable character types. There is a collective desire to get off the island as an overall storyline of events and circumstances on the island that all the characters have to deal with, but during this storyline what matters are the individuals as individuals.

For better or worse, LOST as a narrative structure focuses on individuals, their personalities, and their histories. And as such, conflicts and problems throughout the story end up being confronted by a the strong, leader-centered political strategy and organization. The story is driven by a certain attitude of, as my father likes repeatedly to say, lead, follow, or get the hell outta the way.

Caught-Up in the circumstances, by the Island****

The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 haven’t exactly landed in a welcoming situation. Their plane carrying some 324 passengers crashed leaving 72 initial survivors (including 1 dog) spread across the island. Initially we see a frantic Jack attempting to help numerous injured passengers. Eventually some passengers from the middle section of the plane gather on the beach and organize themselves to survive until rescue arrives. Others like Shannon (the pretty, skinny, rich girl) prefer to do nothing while waiting for rescuers that are surely coming:

Shannon: [as Boone offers candy] As if I’m gonna start eating chocolate.
Boone: Shannon, we may be here for a while.
Shannon: The plane had a black box, idiot. They know exactly where we are. They’re coming. I’ll eat on the rescue boat!

As Sayid says, “You’d think they would’ve come by now.” But rescue doesn’t arrive immediately nor will it arrive.

This fact will radically change the nature of life on the island. In a normal, non-TV situation, the people would be spending a lot of their time finding and preparing food, and even though Locke and Boone do spend some time hunting, in this magical island food issues don’t seem to be a problem. People seem to, more or less, have enough to eat. Food is mentioned from time to time, but it is clear from Locke that there are more important and uncanny things, namely the mysterious hatch, than hunting for food.

The island where the plane crashed is one weird place. There are polar bears, strange psychology complexes, electro-magnetic forces, and even a strange black, shadow cloud monster. As Locke says in Episode 5 entitled White Rabbit:

I’m not a big believer in… magic. But this place is different. It’s special. The others don’t wanna talk about it because it scares them, but we all know it, we all feel it.

Throughout the story it is really Locke that connects with the island in a profoundly spiritual or mystical way. In that same episode, he says in Locke fashion, “I’ve looked into the eye of this island, and what I saw… was beautiful.” To beginning with, Locke was unable to walk before the plane crash but suddenly after the crash he could walk. The island has changed him in such a strange way that he feels he is driven by destiny.

In any case, the weirdness of the island isn’t initially apparent to everyone who was on the plane. In fact, on numerous occasions many of the realities and discoveries made by different members of the group are not shared with the group at large. Several journeys are made into the jungle, and, while the TV viewer knows what’s going on, for these adventurous, knowing leaders, these new-found facts shouldn’t be shared with the rest of the group. They never really say why the group-at-large shouldn’t know what is going, but it is apparent that this select group thinks that people aren’t smart to know and that knowing would remove their hope.

This is an important point that bears further reflection. In deciding not to tell the rest of the group, this selective group (Jack, Sawyer, Locke, Boone, Sayid, Kate, etc.) has essentially said that they know what is better to do than the others. This is not a democracy where all intelligent individuals are supposedly able to make good decision together; this is an elitist dictatorship of a knowing few. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be leaders, but in leaving some people out of the discussion, you’ve opened the door for what will be played throughout the series: *the island living means that there are two groups, namely one of the ambitious few who can get things figured out and done and another of the ignorant others whose only role is to follow the ambitious. *

While we can assume that the majority of the survivors are in a state of waiting, the rest of the characters are repeatedly portrayed as being caught up in the circumstances around them (namely Michael getting off the island for his son Walt) or by the island itself (namely Locke and Boone).

This state of being caught-up subsequently such a central concern that characters rarely interact or work together. People are so disconnected and so caught up in the situation that they don’t even know each other or even how many people there are. Understandably, this is a weird place with weird happenings, but by getting caught-up so completely in what is around them, they lose touch of any sense of collective engagement or communal responsibility in decision-making and action.

This is not exactly a community I want to live in, because after 5 or 6 days on an island, you would think that, even if you are more than 40 people, you would at least know everybody by name. Hugo seems to be the only character aware of this lack of knowing your neighbors, and he takes it upon himself to do a census of the survivors’ names and addresses. As he says bluntly in episode 10,

So, I had an idea. I’m out here looking for some psycho with Scott and Steve, right. And I’m realizing… who the hell are Scott and Steve?

This is a very “I” centered universe where characters rarely go out of their way to interact with the others. They may have found themselves on an island in the middle of nowhere with an increased need to working, think, and act together as one, but their attitudes aren’t that different than our contemporary, liberal, individualistic society where personal interests and individuals rights go before anything communal or collective.

Not only do they not interact, they don’t even have basic trust with one another. Look at this scene from episode 8:

Jack: [Trying to get Shannon’s inhalers] You attacked a kid for trying to help his sick sister.
Sawyer: No, I whooped a thief ‘cause he was going through my stuff–
Jack: Yours? What makes it yours?
Sawyer: –which I had to move because everybody wants to help themselves.
Jack: You can just take something out of a suitcase, and that makes it yours?
Sawyer: Look, I don’t know what kind of commie share-fest you’re running over in cave town, but down here possession’s nine-tenths and a man’s got a right to protect his property.
Jack: Get up!
Sawyer: Why, you wanna see who’s taller?

Sawyer is an extreme example but this liberal pattern gets repeated in other ways particular when we see how decisions get made by individuals and never by groups. Actions may be done by groups, but every, single important decision and initial action in LOST is made by an individual leader or originator who is subsequently followed by others.

To continue on this train of thought, go to Part 2.