Love in the Time of Empire
Orson Krennic, director of the Death Star project, is a middle manager type who has achieved a position of authority above his abilities, possibly owing to his pre-existing relationship with engineer Galen Erso. He climbed the greasy pole owing to his association with a brilliant technician, and their partnership working on a prestige project. He’s ambitious and unscrupulous, but also essentially inadequate. He spends the entire film playing catch-up, being bounced between various superiors, looking for recognition, taking his frustrations out on others, and generally failing.
Tarkin’s attempted usurpation of Krennic’s control over the completed Death Star looks like a cynical power-grab, but could as easily be seen as a sensible management move. As Tarkin correctly notices, Krennic is not suited to a command role. In any case, Krennic’s shocked outrage is ludicrous given that this is just how the Empire works. His own successes come from appropriating the work of others, yet he has the temerity to feel aggrieved when his own work is appropriated. Moreover, the usual way you rise in the Empire is by showing more ruthless unscrupulousness than the other ambitious drones. You ‘work towards the Emperor’, and fuck over any competitors as you ascend. Then you get to preach against ‘ambition’ to those lower than you. It’s social-darwinism as a government system, and is yet another clear indication – and an unusually acute one – that the film sees the Empire as a clear analogue for Nazi Germany.
(The Nazi state was similarly based on this kind of wasteful infighting between multifarious bureaucrats with overlapping remits. And this was deliberate. It was doctrinal. Hitler believed the best way to get results was to set ambitious men against each other. Their epic pen-pushing battles over spheres of responsibility were supposed to mirror natural selection, the struggle for supremacy inherent in all life, or something.)
In Rogue One, it is strongly implied – in a flashback sequence of Jyn’s that adds nothing to the plot – that Krennic knew Galen and his wife, not only professionally but socially, before Galen fled imperial society. Krennic then spends years looking for him, to bring him back onto a project that could manage without him. The first thing he does, despite his stated intention of taking Galen’s wife and daughter alive, is to kill his wife. He hardly needs to, given the situation. Unable to find the daughter, he basically forgets about her. She’s out of Galen’s life. It’s fairly clear: Krennic wants Galen all to himself.
Despite claiming that Galen is a terrible liar, he allows himself to be fooled by Galen’s resigned-act for two decades. He has to be informed (in a roundabout way) of the obvious – that Galen is the traitor – by someone else. His refusal to see Galen’s treachery before then causes him all the career problems he spends the entire film coping with. Upon learning of Galen’s betrayal, he stages a public humiliation and punishment for Galen, killing everyone but him. His only actual punishment of Galen takes the form of a slap across the face. We already know, from the scene where K2SO slaps Andor, that slaps across the face can be fake, performative, done for the benefit of those watching in an attempt to hide the truth of a relationship. Moreover, K2 clearly loves Andor. It’s clear that Krennic loves Galen, to the extent that he is capable of love. His love takes the abusive form of a desire to possess Galen, to have him in his power, to make him do what he wants, to strip him of all other relationships and have him all to himself. He certainly strips Galen of all relationships with females. All his colleagues on Eadu are male… but then the Empire is entirely male-homosocial until Phasma turns up in Force Awakens. Krennic pointlessly kills Galen’s colleagues after Galen tries to sacrifice himself to save them. He’s jealous.
Just as he desperately wishes to achieve a leadership position for which he is unsuited, so Krennic wants to be with a man for whom he is unsuited. But it is not that his love is thwarted and turns to evil as a result. It is rather that his love is entirely self-absorbed. It is externalised narcissism. Galen is the libidinised object into which Krennic pours his own distorted, alienated, monstrous subjectivity. And yet, as Sartre said of sadism, Krennic can never escape the gaze of his libidinised victim, even when on another planet. The great eye of the Death Star stares at him, and it is Galen’s eye. It looks out across the entire galaxy. He can never not be seen by Galen. He can only take refuge in not seeing him, which means his desire to possess and control Galen is always unsatisfactory, self-defeating. In the crudest sense, his lack of supervision of Galen allows Galen to scheme and plot behind his back.
This isn’t a gay relationship, whatever Krennic’s repressed desires. Galen clearly does not share any fondness for Krennic. At most, Mads Mikkelsen implies a sadness, even a fearful pity, in Galen towards his old friend. And Krennic doesn’t really want actual affection or sex from Galen. It is a portrait not of destructive homosexuality per se, but of toxic, destructive, abusive masculinity – which can happen in gay men just as it can happen in all men in a patriarchal society. The urge on Krennic’s part is to master and subjugate that which represents his own weakness, as he sees it, much as Iago’s intense attraction to Othello is based not on homosexual desire (as some critics have thought) but on a need to eradicate a reminder of his own hollowness and filthiness. Iago wants to obliterate his own meaninglessness, and destroys Othello because Othello’s meaningfulness, his fullness and content, is a dreadful implicit reproach. Such behaviours are built on the very unconsciousness of emptiness which is usually denied in the fictional portrayal of evil.
(By the way, the film is careful to buttress Krennic with no less than two positive depictions of love between males. As noted, K2SO clearly loves Andor. K2 is definitely coded as male, unlike BB8. Pleasingly, K2’s reprogramming seems to have made him free to give allegiance where he wishes, rather than simply reassigning his enforced obedience to new masters. He can disobey orders. He directs his allegiance into a passionate platonic (presumably!) friendship with Andor. More clearly, Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus are obviously a couple of some kind. And there is also the lovely decision to keep the relationship between Jyn and Cassian platonic. By the end of the film they clearly love each other in some way, but do not kiss. All this, coupled with the actual mechanics of the Krennic-Galen relationship, makes it difficult to see the film as picking on homosexuality particularly. Clearly, a lot of thought went into this.)
Ironically, it’s Krennic’s relationship with Galen, the relationship which seems to lie behind his triumphs, which most glaringly demonstrates his inadequacies. He allows someone who is actually superfluous to requirements, and who has every reason to resent both him and the Empire, to carve out a position of immense (relative) power within the Death Star programme. Galen proceeds to design a deadly flaw into the Death Star.
It’s obviously analogous to the deadly flaw within Krennic. It is, moreover, a metaphor for the deadly flaw at the heart of the Empire itself. It is designed and operated by people who, being tyrannised by it, do not actually want it to endure. Except at the very pinnacle, it fundamentally lacks ideological conviction. This holds for both Krennic and Galen. Galen obviously has no real conviction. But neither does Krennic. He is committed to his own goals, chasing his own white whale. The Empire is the vector by which he does this.
That there is an essential lack of real conviction at the heart of the Empire is made clear in the prequels, in which the creation of the Empire is the work of a Sith Lord acting on hermetic, secret, even occult motives. Even Palpatine doesn’t actually believe in the Empire; it is simply a means to an end for him. The public ideological justification for the switch to an imperial model is largely accepted by the Senate, either through fear of reprisals or genuine anxiety about the safety of the Republic… but the Senate’s acceptance of the Empire is based on the fictional – or at least evasive – terms presented to them. They support the new Empire because they think it is something it isn’t, because they think it has objectives it doesn’t really have. (It is open to question whether their opinion of a problem-riddled Republic is accurate. On the one hand, the problems Palpatine adumbrates are mostly artificial, created by him… and yet, looked at another way, is he himself not an internally-created problem of the Republic, or at least a problem which the Republic system permitted, tolerated and even coddled?)
Sith ideology, the fetishizing of the Dark Side, is inherently a negation. The Empire that flows from it is a negation, the photographic negative of the Republic, just as the Sith are the photographic negative of the Jedi. It is the hallmark of fictional evil – designed by people who don’t really understand evil – that it should knowingly be an ideological and moral void. In reality, evil thinks it is good, negative thinks it is positive, emptiness thinks it is full – at least consciously. Evil is often echoingly hollow, and sometimes goes to great lengths to eradicate any fullness which shows up its emptiness, but it never arranges itself around the principle of emptiness. Nihilism is not evil, though evil can be nihilistic. “Are we the baddies?”
But the Empire is an elaboration upon the celebration of nothingness, of subtraction. It constructs, but only to destroy more. Even so, this is not actually accepted by those within it. Even Vader, we discover in the prequels and in Empire Strikes Back, does not actually accept the Empire on Palpatine’s terms. His acceptance of it, of Palpatine’s dominance, is provisional, cynical, opportunistic. This seems to be something the Emperor understands and approves of, if we go by Revenge of the Sith. It seems to be built into Sith ideology. There are always two Sith: a master and a student. It is considered natural that the student should betray the master. If he succeeds, it is because the master was weak, which means he deserved to be betrayed and toppled. This cut-throat Darwinian logic is extended downwards throughout the entire imperial command structure, something else we see in Empire Strikes Back.
Many imperial officers seem to be in denial about this. Admiral Ozzel blunders badly but doesn’t realise he’s being replaced until he starts choking, and Captain Needa thinks an apology to Lord Vader will do the trick. The inefficiency of simply killing any commander who fails (how can your officers get better if you don’t let them learn from mistakes?) is tolerated in the name of obeying a culture of dominance, in which your rule is based on your refusal to tolerate any deviation from your expectations or demands. The rational army structure is here subordinated to the irrational impulses of ‘empire’. Thus, empire doesn’t come from militarism; rather empire is a psychopathological adaptation of militarism, or possibly even something imposed on militarism, a perversion of it… after all, the Republic has a military, and the heroes of the prequels are commanders in it. Militarism may permit such an adaptation, and even enable it, but does not originate it. The entire Imperial military is thus suffering from a raging case of cognitive dissonance. It fights to champion a system of nothingness, with no actual ideological attachment to nothingness, but with an ideological hatred of content – and it does so using the collectivism of atomised individuals, all of whom fight non-ideologically for an ideological allegiance to anti-ideology. The politics of the system is the politics of alienation, even of schizophrenia. Yet the system is based on the subordination of individual psychology. And yet the encouraging of warring subjectivities is structurally built into it.
There is a fault line running down the entire Empire. It is the divide between the public and the private, between the political and the personal. The Empire runs on this divide. It creates this divide. This divide powers it. This divide destroys it. It is built on alienation, which then causes seismic tectonic seizures which make it totter and fall.
In Empire, it’s very personal. Vader is choking subordinates left, right and centre, because he is “obsessed with finding young Skywalker”, and this imperative is ultimately revealed to be part of his plan to recruit Luke, turn him, topple Palpatine using Luke’s power (note again the power imperative) and turn the Empire – nay, the galaxy itself – into a Skywalker family concern. (As long as we take him at his word when he speaks to Luke, and I think we should.) Interestingly, even as Vader’s scheming against Palpatine is in line with Sith ideology and Imperial practice, it is based on a violation of both. This violation is the same hidden internal flaw which will eventually lead Vader to destroy Palpatine: his desire to protect his son. This is not, to be sure, as noble an impulse as Return of the Jedi seems to think. I’ve never understood why being unable, at the very last moment, to quite bring yourself to stand by and watch your son being tortured to death, means you’re ‘good’ after all… especially if you happen to still be a mass-murdering war criminal. But that’s actually beside the point at the moment. The point is the personal pathology of it all.
The Empire is an attempt to systematise the ‘war of all against all’ that the series assumes to be a fact of life, stemming from personal neuroses. It is an attempt to cope with that very inevitable neurotic aggression, to harness it to civilisation. It tries to collectivise the inevitable war, and turn it into a cooperative enterprise, with the aggression generated within turned outward, transmuted into order. It is constructed out of impersonal internal combat between people who are fundamentally uncommitted to what they’re doing. Because of course they are. They are all seething with their personal neuroses, or they are blank (these are basically the only two kinds of people in the Empire). The flaw at the centre of it, lying unseen, is that such people will adopt the selfish and psychopathological impulses of the structure but without any ideological content to ensure loyalty to the structure…. indeed, with loyalty to the structure discouraged as motivation while being enforced as practice!
The Empire originates from psychopathology, works by stratified anxiety, and falls to value-neutral personal neurosis. And this goes right the way down, spatially and temporally. Within Vader’s own story, his entire turn to the Dark Side is based on just this kind of interaction. He is anxious about his place in the hierarchy of the Republic/Jedi, seeks a higher place in a new usurping hierarchy, and consciously allows his movement to be powered by his personal neuroses. The incoherence of Anakin’s characterisation in Revenge of the Sith only emphasises this. It stops mattering that his thinking and motivation are random and illogical, or that neither he nor Palpatine could ever have reason to see his conversion as based on sincere commitment or loyalty. The point isn’t whether his neurosis and the resultant choices make sense, but rather their interaction with a system of predatory stratification.
So we see, in Star Wars, tyranny comes from the externalisation of private neuroses. In many cases the specific form of neurosis is the alienation of private bourgeois family life. In later episodes, the psychopathology of abusive masculinity has been highlighted. Indeed, in Star Wars, all government structure comes from the externalisation of the psychology of masculinity. The assumption is that the subjectivity of private family life – albeit alienated – is inherently the province of the male. The Republic is itself the light side of this – individualistic, constructive, civilised, anxious. The Empire is the dark side of this – collective, destructive, atavistic, neurotic. But both are hegemonically male. This is the secret inner reason why Leia doesn’t become a Jedi.
All political, military, and technological structure in the galaxy is some form of externalisation, or reification, of aspects of the male psyche. This is the secret inner reason why Rey is seen as a transgressive figure, and Kylo Ren a threatening one, by many an internet manbaby-reactionary. They don’t understand the clash they sense, but that’s what it is. Rey should really not be capable of externalising any kind of structure into existence; she’s got the wrong flavour of neurosis. In this respect, it’ll be interesting to see if the fan-theory about her being the reincarnation of Anakin turns out to be right.
So the grand narratives of the galaxy turn out to be expressions of psychology. More than that: of the anxious, private, alienated psychology of the bourgeois family. And more than that: of the resultant turmoil inside male brains.
Star Wars, of course, is a product of the point in history that is now, retrospectively, the fulcrum between social democracy and neoliberalism in the Western capitalist world. It is, as I pointed out in previous posts, in many ways a product of social democracy which now haunts neoliberalism, which now calls to us from the past. Even so, as a product of the fulcrum, it is a chimera. Its intense focus on the private and neurotic as integral to political structures is very much a product of its time, of the historical moment when the political questioning of oppression began to slide away from radical and structural critiques. This theoretical drift was part of the ideological transition to what became the privatised neoliberal ideological consensus. Radical critiques auto-privatised. Even the radical critiques of Reich and Fromm and Marcuse began to be increasingly divorced from the material basis they were supposed to adjoin and extend, and to be turned inwards.
Star Wars, which seems to have a galactic scope but which is really about the damaged subjectivity of men – really, the men of one family! – is an expression of this shift. The fact that a shift is going on is evident in the very grand political scope in which the depiction of atomised, privatised, psychologised alienation is couched.
There is an extent to which Rogue One, like The Force Awakens, shows signs of this trend beginning to be questioned. Yes, in traditional fashion, the Death Star – the greatest new power in the universe, the great eye that sees all, the new god, the ultimate expression of the galaxy’s hegemonic power – is the child of Galen and Krennic… but then Jyn is the child of Galen and Lyra. The child of the abusive, coercive relationship can only be destroyed by the child of the constructive, human relationship. This is the story of Jyn encountering her monstrous half-’brother’, and helping to put ‘him’ out of his misery. In this, of course, it works by the same logic as the original trilogy, in which only the son of Skywalker can put right the damage done by Skywalker. Unfortunately, for all the checks and balances that were carefully put into the film, this still looks like the restoration of heteronormative order; and is still based in the same privatised view of politics stemming from private neurosis, or the alienation of the bourgeois family.
February 24, 2017 @ 12:34 pm
Wow. This piece is an incredible tour de force. I’m completely blown away by the scope and elegance of this piece, and I don’t even like Star Wars that much. This is one of my favorite things you’ve ever written.
February 24, 2017 @ 6:11 pm
Bravo. Nice and crunchy headcandy.
I actually want to watch this movie now.
February 24, 2017 @ 7:35 pm
“K2 is definitely coded as male”
A while ago something (it may have been the comments on one of your or Phil’s posts, or it may have been the rumour of a female droid in Han’s Solo Movie) led me down a rabbit hole of how droid gender in the Star Wars universe worked, which seemed to be that it was a matter of programming. So +1 double meaning there.
February 24, 2017 @ 8:38 pm
Droids seem to be either male or genderless. Which is interesting.
February 25, 2017 @ 1:32 am
EV-9D9 in Return of the Jedi is female, but that’s not made clear in the film itself.
February 25, 2017 @ 1:44 am
TC-14 from The Phantom Menace is female, and voiced by Lindsay Duncan!
Anthony D Herrera
February 25, 2017 @ 2:27 am
As long as we’re piling on there’s also the droid waitress from Attack of the clones. Female droids just get way less screen time it seems.
Great essay BTW.
February 25, 2017 @ 8:40 am
Ha. See, this is what happens when you make pronouncements about something you’re not really a fan of.
February 25, 2017 @ 2:16 pm
And here I was thinking the bit about Needa was you just being rhetorically facetious 😛
Roderick T. Long
February 25, 2017 @ 6:03 pm
I know Phil has said he has no interest in looking at the tv shows, but how about you? They’re pretty interesting. I’m pretty struck by the way the second Clone Wars series emphasises, over and over, the need to disobey one’s superior officers.
April 17, 2017 @ 2:27 pm
Hi Jack! I stumbled upon this essay last month while looking for something entirely different–and WOW~!! Really fantastic. The point you make about Star Wars depicting political/social tyranny as an externalization of private neuroses, and specifically in Rogue One the weirdly homoerotic nature of the relationship between Krennic and Galen Erso, is a point I was also trying to make back in December…albeit in fanfiction, as opposed to essay, form. At the time, I articulated the underlying message of the story as a complaint about how cruelty begets more cruelty and how there is a dialectical relationship between social and personal restraint (or lack thereof). No clue if anybody reading the story actually “received” the intended message, as it were, but if you’re curious: http://archiveofourown.org/works/8896006