In the first article of this series, I set forth the hypothesis that Lost is a modern-day retelling of The Lord of the Flies. That famous novel, you’ll remember, was an allegory with the moral of “Anarchy bad; British society good!” (Also, “Anarchy bad; Jesus good,” but that’s another story for another day.) I argued in that post that LotF espoused a Hobbesian view of humanity, and that Lost, through the character of Jack, did the same, sans all the Jesus-talk.
This week, I’d like to talk more about the differences between Lord of the Flies and Lost, particularly the differences between views of modernity in the 1950s, when the novel was written, and views of modernity now, in the era of Lost. And anthropology! Lots of anthropology. But first, let me quickly summarize the episodes I watched this week.
Episode 2.1 (“Man of Science, Man of Faith”): In the past, Jack learned to do exactly what every episode of Scrubs warned against: give his patients false hope. In the world of Lost, false hope is better than anything in the Universe. Er, I mean “faith.” “Faith” is the most important thing in the Universe. In the present, Locke and Kate go down the hatch and find Desmond, brother. Hooray for new characters and new settings! My interest in Lost is back, baby!
Episode 2.2 (“Adrift”): In the past, Walt’s mom was annoying, again. In the present, Michael shoots a shark? In retrospect, not very much happened in this episode.
Episode 2.3 (“Orientation”): Ah, here’s the meat. In the past, Locke was banging Katey Sagal! Go Locke! In the present, the hatch appears to be some kind of psychological experiment and/or a nuke. Also, Team Raft gets captured by Team Ana Lucia.
Episode 2.4 (“Everybody Hates Hugo”): In the past, Hurley won the lottery. First it was good, then it was bad. In the present, Hurley doesn’t want to be the one to ration the hatch food. Ana Lucia takes Team Raft to her team’s hatch.
Episode 2.5 (“…And Found”): In the past, Sun didn’t want to get together with the man the matchmaker picked for her. Then she did. Then he dumped her. Jin got a job with fancy schmancy hotel, then quit. In the present, Sun loses her wedding ring, and Team Raft avoid the Others.
Episode 2.6 (“Abandoned”): In the past, Shannon’s dad dies and her step-mom takes the inheritance. In the present, Shannon sees Creepy!Walt and needs Sayid to believe her. Sayid eventually admits he does and that he loves her, so of course Shannon gets killed. Boo. I liked Shannon and thought she’d make it at least until the middle of the season.
Episode 2.7 (“The Other 48 Days”): Oh, boy. A lot happened in this episode. The back of the plane crashes. Ana Lucia thinks Nathan is a spy, but it turns out to be Goodwin. A bunch of people who were on a list of “Good People” are taken away by the Others. Ana Lucia kills Goodwin. They find Team Raft. Ana Lucia kills Shannon.
Episode 2.8 (“Collision”): In the past, Ana Lucia was a cop who lost her unborn baby when a thief shot her. She kills the thief. In the present, Ana Lucia feels guilty about killing Shannon and decides not to kill Sayid. Oh, also Sawyer’s dying or something. (No, I’m kidding. I love Sawyer like whoa.)
We Were All Fine Until We Found the Potato Chips.
Note: The information about anthropology in the following article comes mostly from my misremberances of college anthro courses, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and games of Civilization III. If you know better than I do about these topics, feel free to correct anything I say.
If I’m misrembering correctly, political systems tend to align with society size and economy. Humanity started out in small hunter-gatherer bands that shared food fairly equally. They didn’t need a leader. Then, as their sizes grew, and as agriculture allowed societies to stick around in one place, humans began to need leaders to resolve conflict and protect property rights. Thus, the social contract was enacted. But as wealth grew, those leaders would try to keep more and more for themselves. They became kings, enslaving people and forcing them to build them palaces and monuments. Monotheistic religions became more popular. Social classes became more stratified. The barter economy was replaced with some type of market economy, though sometimes it was controlled by the king. Finally, after a long time of growth and many uprisings, the people received what they demanded: a democratic society, or at least a constitutional monarchy, and modern, industry-based capitalism. I’m not trying to espouse some ridiculous theory of historical Progress, just pointing out how societies usually develop in the world we live in.
Let’s step back for a second and go back to comparing Lost to Lord of the Flies, this time with a focus on political theory. What is the very first thing that happens in The Lord of the Flies? Do the boys start building a fire to connect to the outside world? Do they start fighting? Do they start looking for food?
No. The very first thing they do is hold an election.
How ridiculous is that? How optimistic the novel’s author, William Golding, was! If the novel is a slow descent from 1950s notions of civility and modernity to 1950s notions of savagery, then Golding must have believed that the democratic process was the most civilized aspect of the modern world. The difference between man and beast, in the mind of Golding (as well as some of the above political philosophers) is democracy. In other words, modern, democratic, Westernized society is the pinnacle of human development. The rest of the novel is a descent: democracy=>Jack’s monarchy=>tribalism=>complete anarchy. It’s the opposite of the tech tree in Civilization! That is No Good.
What happens at the beginning of Lost? Do the mostly American passengers of flight 815 hold a democratic election to see who will run their merry band? Ha, no. Jack immediately becomes the de facto leader simply because he is the doctor. The same thing happens on the other side of the island, where Ana Lucia becomes leader due to nothing more than force of personality.
I don’t want to sound too ethnocentric, but it does seem like Lost is working in the opposite direction of Lord of the Flies in terms of political development. LotF started with a civilized democracy that slowly degenerated into anarchy. Lost, on the other hand, starts with complete anarchy (watch the first five minutes of the pilot to see what I mean), not democracy. Then, once Jack becomes leader, the political system shifts to the more anthropologically sophisticated system of Big Man politics. In a tribal, Big Man society, a leader rules not through inheritance or wealth, but through influence and charisma. Being basically anarchocommunist pseudo-states, these tribal societies are fairly equal in terms of socioeconomic status. The Big Man doesn’t usually amass most of the society’s wealth; there’s just not that much wealth to go around. The Big Man’s just the one you go to when you want to make decisions.
Sounds similar to Lost, Season One, doesn’t it? Jack’s the Big Man. On the other side of the island, Ana Lucia is the Big Woman, with a little less success.
So Lost starts with anarchy, then changes to tribalism. Then what?
Well, then they get guns. The discovery of the U.S. marshal’s suitcase brings Jack’s little society to a new level of political development: the autocracy. Suddenly, he’s not just the Big Man whom you go to if you have a minor conflict or need general leadership. Now, he’s the man with the key to the suitcase full of guns. Notice that Jack wears the key around his neck for all to see at all times. It’s like his crown. “I am the keeper of Force,” the key seems to say. “Argue with me at your peril.”
I’m being a little hyperbolic here, sure. Jack seems like a relatively benevolent dictator. But he is a dictator. Now that he has access to the guns, he has a monopoly on force. Unlike a tribal Big Man, who is first among equals, Jack now seems to see himself as the sole authority on any decision. Notice how impatient he has been growing when it comes to Locke’s insubordination. He and Locke used to be on relatively equal footing. Jack was the Big Man; Locke was the Hunter. Now Jack, the dictator, is getting sick of sharing power.
Jack the dictator is also building a small army around himself. Consider poor, doomed Arzt. Though his bitching that Jack and Kate and Locke and Hurley and the rest of the main characters are part of some “cool club” or clique was played for laughs, there was a lot of truth to it. There were the people who had access to the weapons (Jack, Kate, Locke, Sawyer) and there were those who did not. There were the loyal subjects to Jack, who were given the currency of secrets; those just on the margins (like Charlie); and those left on the far outskirts (like Arzt and the other unnamed masses). Once the guns came into the picture, a little caste system began to develop.
Now, with the opening of the hatch, though, everything has changed. Team Jack now has access to a variety of luxuries, such as shampoo, rifles, a shower, and, as Hurley mentioned, potato chips. Jack’s no Big Man now. Now he has a palace. Only a select few can come into this palace. Only they have access to the weapons. Only they can decide who gets what. If they were greedy, they could simply hole up in the hatch with their luxuries, leaving the rest of the masses to remain on the beach at their lower standard of living. Team Hatch might think, “They’ll be fine out there. They were fine before.” But that’s not the case. Now there’s an income disparity. An extreme one. The beach dwellers will want those potato chips. Which is why Jack and co. need the guns. Welcome to the world of monarchy, island inhabitants.
God Save The King.
Jack’s not only a king now. He’s a king by divine right.
I know, I know. “Divine right!?” you’re saying. “How could Jack be king by divine right when he doesn’t even believe in God. He’s the Man of Science!” To that, all I can say is just… bear with me.
The difference between a simple dictator and a king is divine right. In a tribal society, the Big Man is chosen to lead because everyone likes him; he’s first among equals. In a monarchy, however, the king isn’t chosen by the masses in a social contract. He’s grandfathered in somehow. The king isn’t the coolest guy on the block; he’s the one with the guns or the one with the right dad.
But without a firm social contract, how can such a king hope to rule without civil strife? Easy! The king can claim divine right. God chose him for this task of ruling the nation. The king didn’t want to do it. He has to do it. Have faith, peasants, and you’ll understand why you have to do whatever the King—and, by extension, God—says to do. In this divine right scheme, the King’s not the CEO of the country. He’s the supreme Middle Manager.
In the land of Lost, people are starting to mutter about Jack. Locke disobeys him in front of the masses. People like Charlie and Arzt have started wondering who put him and his army in charge. Now Ana Lucia is here, and I’m sure she’s not going to love giving up her power to this doctor. Jack needs some way to justify his rule. He needs some divine right, fast.
Luckily, Jack’s got some divine right standing by, waiting for him to use it. It’s not divine right from a bearded dude in the sky. Anyway, Jack wouldn’t believe in that. No, it’s a God of Science: the people behind the Dharma Initiative.
Think about it. Jack goes down into the mysterious hatch. He meets a man who tells him what he must do for the Dharma Initiative. The man gives him the hatch and all the food and supplies inside.
Or, in a more religious light: Jack goes down into the deus’ machina. He meets a prophet who tells him the duties bestowed upon him by the gods. The prophet gives him his palace and his new wealth.
Notice how the use of the word “faith” has changed from the first season of Lost to this second season. In the first season, faith almost always referred to some spirit in the sky: Jesus, Fate, Lady Luck, whatever. But from “Orientation” on, faith has a new meaning. Locke is saying, “We have to have faith” not in reference to God or to Fate but to the researchers at the Dharma Initiative. We have to have faith that they (the creators) had a plan. Thus the orientation video is Locke’s Bible (notice that he wants to watch it repeatedly), Desmond a link to the old prophets who actually spoke to the Dharma gods. I’m also sure it’s no accident that the initiative is named after a religious concept (dharma) and that the timer is set to 108, a number with religious significance in Hinduism, Buddism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The members of the Dharma Initiative aren’t literal gods, but they’re setting themselves up to be the island’s figurative ones.
Of course, Jack doesn’t have to say, “Do this or God will strike you down” to his subjects. But now, with this divine right he can say, “Do this or the island will blow up.” (Interestingly, Jack doesn’t even necessarily believe in this God, himself. In episode 3, “Orientation,” he almost let the hatch’s counter run out to prove that he can beat those Gods of Science, who have probably trapped him in some giant Skinner box as a practical joke. To tell you the truth, if I were running that island, I’m 90% sure I’d let that damn timer run out, too.)
We therefore see that, unlike Lord of the Flies, Lost’s political development has been moving toward complexity rather than degenerating into anarchy. If we were to plot Lost onto history, it might look something like this:
The first half of season 1 : Paleolithic Era (hunter-gatherer society) : Big Man politics : Anarchocommunist/barter economy : Social equality
The second half of season 1 : Neolithic Era (Sun develops agriculture, but the island still operates based mostly on gathering) : Big Man politics + weapons : Anarchocommunist/barter economy : Caste system developing
The beginning of season 2 : The beginning of empire (I assume Team Jack is going to take over Team Ana Lucia) : Monarchy : Beginnings of a command economy (Jack and Locke are forcing people into doing certain jobs), potential for the development of a premodern capitalist economy : Caste system solidifying
If Lost continues in this fashion, we should expect to eventually get a constitutional monarchy and maybe even a democracy. We may see the barter economy develop into a true market with a currency, or we may see some version of feudalism. Ultimately, the characters may return home to their modern democratic societies and capitalist economies.
But is this seen as a good thing in Lost? Remember, in Lord of the Flies, democracy was the pinnacle of human existence. Civilization was to be yearned for, a return to modern society a noble goal.
In Lost, it’s not all that clear that the modern world is so great. We look at the character flashbacks, and what do we see? Locke is alienated from his work, a peon in the cogs of a box manufacturing company. Jin’s life is made increasingly more difficult because of his social status. Hurley lives a meaningless existence as a guy in a chicken suit until he wins the lottery. Then life gets worse. Shannon is made to give up her dream of being a ballet dancer because she lacks the capital to make the move to New York. Walt must give up his dream of being an artist and give up his son due to unfortunate economic circumstances.
In Lord of the Flies, home is heaven. I said back in another post that Los Angeles might play that role in Lost. I might have to retract that statement. Home is not at all that heavenly in Lost’s flashbacks. In Lost, modernity may not something to strive for. It is full of con artists looking to make a quick buck, middle managers waiting in the lunch room to crush the last vestiges of your masculinity. Lost’s political and economic systems may be growing ever more complex as the show continues. But is that a good thing? I’d bet it won’t be. From the looks of it, Lost’s writers have an ill view of modern society, so the closer Jack’s tiny nation gets to modern America, the worse it may get.
Maybe everyone was better off without the potato chips.
Next time on Overthinking Lost: I figure out what the deal with the Others is? I hope? Maybe?
Remember, everyone: when you’re commenting, no spoilers past season 2 episode 8!