Minding the Borderlands

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

Imaginary Studies in Individualistic, Island Living on LOST, Pt. 2

As we saw in Part 1, LOST has an interesting concept of time in its narrative format, which focuses primarily on individual characters, their personalities, and their histories or backstories. Equally important is the way that all the major characters in LOST are so “caught-up” in some situation or absorbed by mysteriousness of the island that they fail to act or think together. It is also clear that there is an elitist separation between knowing and doing leaders and ignorant followers of the group-at-large.

A kind of cognitive dissonance is used by the main characters to keep the group-at-large in the dark about what is going on, even the fact that there are more people on the island than just them. It is so extreme that when the Michael’s boat is burned, all preliminary incriminations are directed at members of the group, specifically Yen. It is only in episode 17 when Locke comes out and says to the group-at-large:

They’ve attacked us, sabotaged us, abducted us, murdered us… We’re not the only people on this island and we all know it!

But this is only the admittance that there are other people on the island. Many other “discoveries” and mysterious happenings are kept secret by a select few. As Hurley says in his characteristic bluntness in episode 18,

You don’t know?! Okay… that thing in the woods? Maybe it’s a monster. Maybe it’s a… pissed off giraffe, I don’t know. The fact that no one is even looking for us? Yeah, that’s weird. But I just go along with it, ‘cause I’m along for the ride. Good old fun.

The general dissention on the island is amplified by part of the group lead by Jack moving to the cave where there is freshwater and another part of group lead by Sawyer staying on the beach. Arguably, these status and “clan” divisions along with the phenomenon of being “caught-up” in the island’s uncanniness makes for an entertaining and engaging plotline; it also makes for a rather poor community. The majority of the characters only care about themselves and their own objectives (even they are sometimes, like in the case of Jack, positive, helping objectives).

Over time it becomes clear that Jack has been designated the de-facto leader. Some characters like John Locke encourage him to take up his leadership role. As Locke says, “You’re the leader. I’m the hunter.” This de-facto assuming of Jack’s leadership causes some chagrin in some characters, in particular Sawyer who at one point refers to him in bitter irony as the “new sheriff in town.”

Let’s look at the political organization and leadership as well as how actions and decisions are made on the island before turning to Jack’s speech in episode 5 and Hurley’s notable exception of collective action.

Leaders decide, followers follow: Island Decision-making

After several days on the island with little food, a decreasing hope that rescue is soon coming, and an increasingly apparent fact that there are other people, dangerous people, living on the island, stress and tension are high in the camp. Jack isn’t sleeping, and numerous characters are obsessed with figuring things out on the island or finding a way out of the island. I would even go so far as to claim that tension is high in the camps, because they haven’t really figured out what to be doing with themselves as a collective group, even if established by serendipitous forces.

There is little or no organization outside of the general assumption that Jack is the leader and that Locke and Boone are the hunters. One notable exception is when Sayid, it must be noted, stands above the group and organizes three groups to gather up electronic equipment, to ration the food, and to collect water. The other important moment of “bringing people together” takes place during Jack’s speech at the end of episode 5, which we will look shortly.

Outside of these moments much of the storyline follows one or two characters initiating an action or making a decision and other people following him or her. For example, there are several group treks into the jungle, which aim at establishing radio contact or at any number of other tasks. All of these situations follow more or less the same pattern. Someone has an idea or is driven by the moment “to lead” a group on such and such adventure. Subsequently, a group of volunteers are found to participate.

There is never a single instance during the first seasons when the group votes on what to do. Equally disturbing is the fact not even a general discussion is held about what should be done. Speeches, more like directive statements, are occasionally made by one of the leaders towards the group and what people should do, but there is never an open dialogue about what they as a collective “we” could and should do together. Even if the characters are caught up in the events around them, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be caught up together and engaged these problems as a cognitive union of persons.

One of the most important collective actions during the first seasons is when the group is under threat of attack from the others and so everyone is “ordered” to move to the caves. Originally it had be planned to move to the “hatch,” but its subsequent open reveals that it isn’t an ideal home for the moment. Eventually everyone contributes to the move, but it is clear that the decision come from “above” and didn’t really involve the group-at-large.

Live Together or Die Alone: Jack’s Speech in Episode 5

Jack leaves the group in episode 5 to try to figure things out. As Locke says, “A leader can’t lead unless he knows where he’s going.” He more or less abandons the group, and no replacement leadership or organization structure is put in place during his absence. Jack as a voluntary, liberal, unencumbered individual chooses to leave the group on his own and find his own path. He subsequently finds water cementing his place in the group as successful leader.

It’s at this moment that Jack delivers his first, real political speech, which merits being quoted in full:

*It’s been six days. Six days, and we’re all still waiting. Waiting for someone to come. But what if they don’t? We have to stop waiting. We need to start figuring things out. A woman died this morning just going for a swim. He tried to save her and now you’re about to crucify him. We can’t do this. Every man for himself is not going to work. It’s time to start organizing. We need to figure out how we’re going to survive here. *

Now I found water. Freshwater, up in the valley. I’ll take a party up there at first daylight. If you don’t want to come then find another way to contribute! Last week most of us were strangers. But we’re all here now. And God knows how long we’re going to be here. But if we can’t live together–We’re gonna die alone.

The rhetoric of his speech is important, because in using the “we” as in “we’re all still waiting,” he has positioned a collective unity in relation to a collective, shared happening. Everyone who crashed on the plane is together in the time of waiting. But, as his speech continues, it cannot be a passive waiting, it must be an active participative moving forward beyond mere waiting. The “We” of “We need to start figuring things out” takes on a new tone, because there is no a collective need and necessity to “figure things out” together as unity of people who were waiting and must now “stop waiting.”

Clearly, their group has had some setbacks, as Jack notes, with the death of the women who went swimming and with hateful search to find a guilty person (namely Boone). Jack takes on a fatherly tone to his leadership role in saying “We can’t do that,” which signifies more like “you, you children, shouldn’t do that.”

Jack then offers up the political core of his speech and his concept of uniting the group. He says, “Every man for himself is not going to work.” While he doesn’t say it explicitly, it’s clear from past encounters that Jack is referring to Sawyer’s mentality to think only about himself and his acquired and salvaged “things.” This individualistic, egoistical conception of every person for him or her self fails according to Jack, because survival depends on working and organizing things together. A number of things need to be done, like collecting freshwater needs, which means everyone should—err needs to—contribute. Survival together means contributions from everyone.

Even though before they were all strangers, in Jack’s speech they have become situated in a here and now together vis-à-vis a collective aim. This isn’t exactly a contract but there is a kind of engagement such that they are in this together until who knows how long. Jack’s speech ends in a brilliant rhetorical strategy of either-or: either we live and work together or we are going to die alone.

Jack’s speech has ring of a politician or a military general. It is clear from Jack’s words, like those of a general or a president, that working and fighting together is important, because if they don’t, they will lose and will die. This is a technique to bring people together in a crisis situation. The enemy or threat is present such that working together is the only option. While I admire many of the ideas Jack evokes, the context shows that Jack is concerned mostly with circumstantial or need-be “bring-together” or body politic. Jack’s speech reminds me of the same rhetorical strategy employed in Menenius Agripp’s speech to the peasants during a period of political unrest in Rome. While there is admittedly a need to bring people together to face these threats, a community founded on an outside threat fails to constitute a real, lived community of togetherness. Rhetoric is nice but it doesn’t make it a real, lived communal activity of being, acting or even playing together.

Playing Golf: Hurley’s efforts for bringing people together

With all the mystery and stress compounding on the group, people are at the breaking point. They don’t know what to do. It is at this moment in episode 9 that Hurley, while everyone else is intently occupied with what is purely necessary to do, decides to build a golf course.

As you would expect, there was at least one set of golf clubs on the plane, which were recovered after the crash. So, in Hurley fashion, he takes it upon himself to dream up a way to help people relax and calm down. Hurley puts together a few holes of golf, and it is clear from the characters’ reaction that much relief is found in simply playing. In fact, the tired and weary faces of the survivors take on an air of peacefulness and tranquility playing together.

This is, in my opinion, one of first time we see people doing something together. There is a real sense of being together. Even though there is the prospect of competition and, as such, winners and losers, what matters is that people are finding collective meaning and shared happiness by acting together towards goals and roles. George Herbert Mead has much to say about the bringing together of self and other through playing game.

In spite of the fact we find little collective doing or decision-making on the island, at least we find a humorous moment of playing together which helps to transgress their individualistic worldviews. Even the fact that they don’t all know what is going on can be laughed at and point temporarily aside in their shared playing:

Hurley: Welcome to the first and… hopefully last Island Open! It’s two holes, for now, three par, and no waiting!
Jack: Hurley, you built… a golf course?
Hurley: Rich idiots fly to tropical islands all the time to whack balls around!
Michael: [incredulous] All the stuff we gotta deal with, man… this is what you’ve been wasting your time on?”
Hurley: Dudes… listen. Our lives suck! Everyone’s nerves are stretched to the max! We’re lost on an island, running from boars and monsters… freakin’ polar bears!
Michael: Polar bears?
Charlie: You didn’t hear about the polar bear?