Conspiracy Theories

Lost in Political Philosophy

The popular show drops plenty of clues but, can you trust them?

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ABC's TV series Lost, whose fourth season premieres tonight, has multileveled mysteries and a cruelly withholding storytelling style that inspires passionate love and passionate frustration.

The love comes from the show's fascinating and compelling adventure-intrigue-SF storytelling. The scenario: plane crashes on an uncharted island. Some passengers, most with a fair amount of dark intrigue in their past, survive and try to forge a workable civilization—and to escape. Previous inhabitants of the Island bedevil them. Everything ensues.

The frustration comes from the fact that halfway through the show's entire six-season arc, the viewer can be certain of very little—neither what lies ahead nor precisely what's already happened—and certainly not the meaning of what's happened.

The search for meaning bedevils characters and viewers. No element of the show is as suggestive and aggravating as its heavy reliance on political philosopher references.

The show stars a John Locke, which initially just seemed a curiosity. But as the show progressed, we were introduced to a Danielle Rousseau, a Desmond David Hume, a Mikhail Bakunin, a Richard Alpert, and even an Edmund Burke.

But what does any of this mean?

IN THE CASE of Locke, obvious references and ironies abound. Like the philosopher, he stands for political and personal liberty within a civic context.

Locke "leads" generally through service to the commonwealth—yet sometimes acts imperiously and dangerously, pursuing a personal vision of what is best for them all, in a disturbingly Filmerian manner.

He claims to be an empiricist—a real "meat and potatoes" guy—but comes to a seemingly mystical belief in the island's power. Complicating his role as the "man of faith" in the island is that his mysticism is based in his experience of healing from the island, and his personal encounter with the smoke monster—so character and philosopher might be able to get along as fellow empiricists.

Most significantly Lockean is island John Locke's mantra: "Don't tell me what I can't do," the cry of the man who despises paternalism and unjust government. (In what is probably more an in-joke, Locke's evil father is "Anthony Cooper," after philosopher Locke's mentor, the first Earl of Shaftesbury.)

Lost fans love clues, and if Locke's name is one, it likely suggests that what Locke thinks he has empirical evidence for, he probably does.

DANIELLE ROUSSEAU'S link with her philosopher is obvious: she is the lone savage on the island, separated—by choice—from the human societies available to her. Her primary skills are sheer survival and the trapping and killing of animals and other humans.

Her personality is more stunted and weird than the apotheosis of human capabilities and sensibilities her namesake seems to promise from the "noble savage." Her being "Rousseau" is both obvious and ironic. If it's a clue, the viewer can wonder whether Danielle had her child taken from her, as she claims, or abandoned it, as the philosopher did with his five children.

The philosopher Mikhail Bakunin believed in a socialist anarchism, freely-organized worker federations controlling the social order. Lost's Mikhail Bakunin has an uncanny ability to survive fatal injuries, and is a brutal enforcer for his boss Ben (the sinister leader of the "Others").

If the name is anything more than the creators having fun, the clue may be that, as with Bakunin's rivalry with Karl Marx over taking over the existing state, the show's Bakunin might have a serious difference of opinion as to how their community should run with his "master" Ben.

The real Richard Alpert, former Harvard partner to Timothy Leary, represents using modern science to achieve religious transcendence, and later, renaming himself Baba Ram Dass, going straight for the religious transcendence.

The character Alpert is seemingly ageless. If his name is meaningful, it could relate to the apparently religious mission of his group—the "Others"—compared to the almost parodically scientistic pre-crash Dharma Initiative that they seem to have superseded.

ALL SUCH SPECULATION is hazardous, however, since Lost almost asks not to be trusted. It loves season openings and closers deliberately designed to confuse the viewer as to what he's seeing, where and when.

Lost's constant use of the number "23" indicates a love for the fiction of Robert Anton Wilson. The philosophical science fiction novelist celebrated "guerrilla ontology"—wild techniques to make people question the nature of the reality they are perceiving.

Despite all the political philosopher namedrops, Lost doesn't show much of a functioning society, and definitive answers, both narrative and philosophical, continue to slip away. Ultimately, the show sells classic sociopolitical anxiety: the world is mysterious and strange, with inexplicable forces that might save your soul or might kill you, and you'll never know why; scientific planners and religious fanatics alike have complicated plans in which they use humans as pawns; the wealthy and powerful pursue secret agendas that may either save or destroy us.

By naming characters after philosophers, Lost reminds us that the conflicts of ideology, power, and social relationship are timeless, perhaps "eternally recurring"—like character Desmond Hume's re-cycling through his own life, like the seeming series of "powers" rising and falling on the island (from the creators of the 4-toed statue to the Black Rock crew to the "Hostiles" to Dharma to the "Others" to…?).

With its echoes of everything from Homer's The Odyssey to O'Brien's Third Policeman, Lost's intricate webs of meaning and suggestion make it not only an exciting example of post-modern referential bricolage, but also the most significant pop adventure tale of our time.

Even in a "state of nature" on the island, its flashback-strewn storytelling reminds us that none of us have a Lockean "blank slate." Our past choices, failures, sins and obsessions will always shadow and influence our present. Built the heart of the viewer's relation to the show's mysteries is a faith that its writers, our "leaders"—the gods of the fictional universe we are watching—are careful, caring, omniscient and omnipotent, that not a plot thread or mysterious reference is dangled that they won't ravel together with care.

We may be saps to believe it—but Lost fans know that attitude makes experiencing the show more delicious.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of the books This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism. This article originally appeared in The American Spectator.

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  1. Lost….

    Used to be the shows title but now describes the plot…

    Sorry, Lost, but you lost me after the second season.

  2. Your “loss”… Season 4’s “flashforwards” just made the thing a whole lot more interesting.

  3. He claims to be an empiricist-a real “meat and potatoes” guy-but comes to a seemingly mystical belief in the island’s power. Complicating his role as the “man of faith” in the island is that his mysticism is based in his experience of healing from the island, and his personal encounter with the smoke monster-so character and philosopher might be able to get along as fellow empiricists.

    FWIW (which may be very little), William of Ockham claimed contra Aquinas that faith and reason are not compatible; that they are seperate fields. That didn’t make Ockham any less of a Christian or inhibit his belief in the mystical nor did it deter him from exploring the natural world with the eye of an empiricist.

  4. ABC’s TV series Lost, whose fourth season premieres tonight

    Although, at the time this was reposted on H+R ‘tonight’ actually means ‘last Thursday’.

  5. Well done, Brian.

    Lost is a ritual at our house. My kids love it and are just at the right age to enjoy the goosebumps and the plot twists.

    I can understand the frustration some might have with the plot, but we’re hooked. One of *MY* Xmas gifts was Season Three on DVD. We charged through that before the New Year.

  6. It isn’t The Twilight Zone, but Lost is petty good stuff. There is a market for good television. The market for trash is far larger, but good stuff does make it to the networks from time to time.

  7. Lost only doesn’t make sense when you think that the writers have a plan for the show. What we are witnessing, in fact, is what happens when a show suddenly becomes popular and the creators realize that they have to come up with the rest of the show and they don’t know how to resolve storyline conflicts. I used to think the show was clever, now it just strikes me as the kid in school who tries really hard to be “different” because deep down he’s not very interesting.

  8. Used to be the shows title but now describes the plot…

    We saw all three seasons on DVD and I think that helps. You aren’t prisoner to a oddball ending you didn’t expect when you can immediately shift to the next episode.

    It flows better on DVD. Even better than Tivo, which we’re doing for this season.

  9. I had never seen lost before, but my friends were watching last season’s finale (the last five minutes) and so I sat down to see what it was about. I kept saying, to their grand annoyance, “what do you mean ‘Lost’? They’re in the middle of a freaking city!” Apparently I missed some of the plot development.

  10. …and they don’t know how to resolve storyline conflicts

    I hope you’re wrong but in the end I’m afraid I’m going to be unhappy.

  11. Lamar:

    Get it from Netflix, you really have to go through the episodes from the git-go.

  12. What we are witnessing, in fact, is what happens when a show suddenly becomes popular and the creators realize that they have to come up with the rest of the show and they don’t know how to resolve storyline conflicts.

    Cf. the second season of Twin Peaks.

    TWC,

    I stopped watching early second season, but have been meaning to go back through the whole schmear via DVD. Thanks for reminding me.

  13. Did Lost ever bother to explain how the fat guy stayed so fat? You would think being stuck on a tropical island after a plane crash with no access to snacks and refined food would be a great weight loss program, but that dude never seems to lose a pound.

  14. Did Lost ever bother to explain how the fat guy stayed so fat?

    Yes, they found a hatch that contained, among other things, snacks and refined food.

  15. John,

    There was even a scene where they showed Hugo eating an entire gallon jug of ranch dressing.

    [hork]

  16. Lost only doesn’t make sense when you think that the writers have a plan for the show. What we are witnessing, in fact, is what happens when a show suddenly becomes popular and the creators realize that they have to come up with the rest of the show and they don’t know how to resolve storyline conflicts. I used to think the show was clever, now it just strikes me as the kid in school who tries really hard to be “different” because deep down he’s not very interesting.

    That was certainly evident in the first six episodes of season three, when it was clear that the writers had no idea how to extend their mega hit past the early stages. That said, however, they took a lot of flak for it and have since made amends.

    There will only be three more seasons (including this one) and they will each only be 16 eps long. In other words, there is actually a full and definite story arc with a clear ending point now so we won’t have to worry about meaningless extension ala the Sopranos.

  17. lost is easily my favorite show of all time.

    Lamar you can also see all of the past season on the internetwork on abc.com.

  18. Did Lost ever bother to explain how the fat guy stayed so fat? You would think being stuck on a tropical island after a plane crash with no access to snacks….

    He had Dharma Initiative snacks that he was hording. Now that they got past that your point remains valid. We just suspend our disbelief and figure he’s got a bad metabolism. Besides, they haven’t been on the island all that long, certainly not long enough for Hurley to lose 150 pounds.

    You also notice that all the girls are still looking like babes, like they just stepped out to go shopping…….

  19. It was my luck to start watching the show in the middle of the first season, when they kept running re-runs of previous shows, so I was seeing it COMPLETELY out of sequence.

    I just accepted that this was some kind of Slaughterhouse 5 time swirling thing. As the season went on, it kept making MORE sense to me.

    I keep getting to the point of being fed up, and then something pulls me back in — like, VW van as a weapon. Priceless.

    I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t catch the philosopher references. What about Hurley and Sayeed — any obscure Spanish or Arab philosphers they’re named after?

  20. I loaned my three seasons of Lost DVDs to my brother, who became hooked. He then gave season one to his in-laws, who apparently are DVD-challenged.
    They watched just the first episode from each of the six discs, thinking they’d seen the whole thing. They apparently came to believe the entire series centered on Charlie, who happens to be featured in those eppys, or so says my brother. Still, they enjoyed it.

  21. Oh yeah, and Hugo, there’s another trippy name for a character who just happens to be Huge-oh. And the Hurley thing. Something there as well.

  22. Or maybe there is some obscure connection to Victor Hugo. I’m not up on the classics so someone else maybe can fill in the blanks….

  23. They watched just the first episode from each of the six discs, thinking they’d seen the whole thing.

    That made my day. Thanks! I’m not making fun of your extended family, but that is hilarious.

  24. That’s ok, de stijl. My family can take it. (In fact they’re used to it.)

  25. I was a friend of Damon Lindelof’s father, and so I started seeing Damon when he was in plays at Teaneck HS. I think I understand his sense of humor, and you can go to http://users.bestweb.net/~robgood/teach and read the Get Lost files in chronologic order, where, treating it as a game like those we used to play, I’m sure I have it pretty well nailed down. To put it simply, it’s hoaxes, flim-flams, and magic tricks, and nearly the entire cast of characters is composed of con artists. Ignore the ostensible Losties-Others division, which is merely for show. Everything is fake, including the plane wreck, Jack’s surgeries, Locke’s paralysis, and Claire’s pregnancy & childbirth.

    Those philosopher names are obviously pseudonyms. However, Desmond David Hume’s was clearly a shout-out with the snowman riddle and the Swan equipment to illustrate a situation that Humean philosophers pose, wherein someone had someone else in a box and could control all hir experience, resulting in the subject’s being totally fooled about cause & effect.

    The show is a ton of fun and makes you think about epistemology, ethics, stuff like that. And the allusions to Shea & Wilson go a lot farther than the 23s. The Island is almost certainly Fernando Poo.

  26. I suppose none of you Lost fans felt burned, like I did, over some of the 90’s Chris Carter shows. After about three years of Millennium, I vowed to never again watch a mystery series with non-existent plot development. It took me about 300 milliseconds to realize that Lost fell into the same category, just enough time to hit the button on my remote and change the channel.

  27. “Lost” is my favorite series. But I fail to see any similaries between the character Mikail Bakunin and the the great anarchist philosopher of the same name.

  28. Note that the last episode added a C. Staples Lewis. Well, CSL was not a philosopher, so does this signal a new direction?

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