Welcome back to Eruditorum Press: A Star Wars Blog (apparently).
Some notes before we start.
Firstly, I still have a Patreon, and I send life-changing good vibrations through the ether to all those people who contribute to it.
Secondly, episode 2 of Wrong With Authority is still downloadable, here.
Thirdly, this post coincides (purely accidentally) with an excellent piece about Rogue One posted yesterday at Storming the Ivory Tower by Sam Keeper. Here. I strongly recommend it.
Fourthly, I may be dishing up something more substantial about Rogue One myself soon. It’s an interesting movie.
Finally, please forgive me if what follows is a bit sub-par. I’m really quite ill at the moment.
Oh, and SPOILERS
The alt-Right and MRAs and MGTOWs etc have a point about Star Wars these days. They say all the new Star Wars films are part of the cultural Marxist/white genocide/misandrist conspiracy against straight white men and the Right. They’re wrong about that, of course… though it certainly is nice of them to admit – in the manner of Fox News labelling some wallscrawl reading “NO FASCIST USA” as ‘anti-Trump graffiti’ – that they, and the version of straight white maleness they prize, are essentially identical with “the evil GALACTIC EMPIRE” (as the opening crawl from Star Wars describes it). But yeah, I for one certainly walked out of Rogue One wanting to go and kill fascists. Of course, I feel like that most of the time, so that makes it hard to judge how much of it was down to the movie.
But there’s no denying that the film at least clearly thinks, and openly says, it’s about a brave, multi-ethnic band of rebels, some of them explicitly the denizens of a world occupied and looted by foreign imperialism, led by a woman, killing loads of space fascists and giving their lives to help destroy space fascism. It doesn’t just think and say it’s about this… unlike many fantasy films which are under the impression that they have an uncompromisingly anti-fascist message, this one makes a good case for itself. It’s claims for itself are fairly convincing.
Rogue One is, of course, a massive exercise in nostalgia and pastiche. It is as much a ‘structre’ (the spectre of a structure) as The Force Awakens (see here). I won’t go into this in huge detail. There is something interesting in the way Rogue One deliberately gets everything slightly ‘off’. Even as it slavishly aims for aesthetic continuity with Star Wars, to the point of designing itself to be satisfyingly watched immediately before Star Wars, it nevertheless deliberately leaves out all sorts of key elements. There’s no opening crawl; there are no wipes. The film is very consciously not positioning itself as fantasy, as a pastiche of Flash Gordon the way the original did. Instead, Rogue One is self-consciously Star Wars as a war movie, very specifically a World War II spy movie. In its original form, the heroic group of titular rebels would all be played by Richard Burton and Richard Harris, etc, and Krennic would report to Donald Pleasance’s Himmler instead of a CGI Cushing as Tarkin. This is probably the deep genre reason – besides sheer wish fulfillment – that the film makes the otherwise unfathomable decision to rely so heavily on a character played by a dead actor.
All this only emphasizes the fact that the Empire are, at least as far as the film-makers seem concerned, simply space Nazis.
Many were the moments during the film when a person of colour, or a woman, or even people coded as Arabs, kicked the living shit out of, or casually blasted, an organised fascist, or blew up some piece of fancy fascist hardware, and the film left us in now doubt that we both wanted to, and should, cheer. Fuck ‘is it okay to punch Nazis?’. Rogue One is, as long as we’re relocating Nazis into space and putting heavy artillery in their hands, not just content but delighted to give an emphatic ‘yes’ in response to the question ‘should we fucking kill and maim and incinerate as many fascists as we can, and refuse to agonise over it for even a second?’ You wouldn’t think this’d be a big deal in a world that idealises World War II as ‘the good war’, and thinks of Nazis as its default image of evil, but apparently it is these days.
The Force Awakens had similarly (relatively) forthright things to say about the connection between the fantasy enemy that is the Empire/First Order and the perennial armed Right of the real world. It too felt able to put a woman and people of colour up there in positions from which old Star Wars excluded them – and which most mainstream blockbusters still do. (Please see my ‘Forward, to the Past!’ Trilogy for discussions of how TFA is consciously more ‘right on’ than previous Star Wars films, and some of the problems lurking within this, and also for how the First Order is likened to the Confederacy, and how the Empire is generally linked to various conceptions of tyranny from American historical awareness.)
There is, in passing, much to be said about how the representation of Nazis in the Western capitalist culture industries has impacted our ability to recognise and understand actual fascism… something Phil recently tweeted about. We don’t recognise real Nazis because we’ve surrounded ourselves with them disguised as Death Eaters and, hey, ‘Stormtroopers’, etc. Not what I’m looking at here, but certainly an issue.
Of course, there are interesting (if not entirely delightful) reasons why Star Wars has, with its revival in recent years, taken what could be called a ‘Left turn’ (even if that overstates it massively). The political economy of blockbusters is inextricable from risk assessment. Movies are a massive investment of capital, and the risk of making a spectacular loss is real and great. This is partly what accounts for the runaway gigantism of Hollywood films, with its vicious cycle of ever more hysterical bombast and incoherence. It’s almost as if Hollywood has decided upon a strategy of attempting to brutalise us into a state of hypnosis, in which we are addicted to ever-more sense-assaulting experiences. It’s also, in conjunction with the privilege, insularity and conservatism customary with elites in almost every sphere of corporate capitalist culture, why the casts of big movies still tend to be dominated by those considered ‘neutral’, and to therefore have the widest appeal, by the people who run and make movies: i.e. straight white people, with men front and centre. The two most recent Star Wars movies have bucked this hegemony – to an extent – and the reason why is interesting. There’s a positive reason, I think, which is that capitalist culture will do whatever it takes to survive and retain ideological hegemony, even if that involves concessions to demands. There’s also a negative reason, which is that the very dominance of the Star Wars franchise is probably seen as a degree of insurance against any possible backlash by the audience Hollywood always thinks it has to chase. Put crudely, they think the Star Wars logo will attract Mr & Mrs & Master & Miss (White) America, even if Chris Pratt (or someone largely indistinguishable from him) isn’t the headline actor.
And they’re right. The presence of John Boyega and Felicity Jones and Jiang Wen in space pisses off a vocal minority… but this vocal minority still pay to see the movie, and then just moan about it in internet swamps and/or make YouTube videos claiming it’s going to bring down Western civilisation… which means that Lucasfilm and Disney give no more of a wet fart about the complaints of those guys than they do about Marxist critiques on niche blogs.
Parenthetically, one of the quintessential traits of present-day neo-quasi-fascism is its simultaneous power and weakness. It is currently ascending and winning, but its foundations are built on the wet sands of isolated minorities of whingeing young fogeys and increasingly-mortal old fogeys. As nasty and dangerous as the alt-Right and Trumpism undoubtedly are, they are morbid symptoms, the frantic flailings of a creature backed into a corner by time and history. (We just have to make sure that, as they die kicking and screaming, they don’t take us all with them.)
Another thing about the internet alt-Right. They – especially the small fry – are obsessed with this supposedly leftward trend of new Star Wars (which is actually nothing more than a modern restatement of the series’ longstanding confused liberalism) for two reasons:
One is that a vital background/vector/recruiting ground for the alt-Right is the online whingepit of white, straight, male, internet fan/geekery. This because it’s disproportionately a locus of the privileged but challenged, those who are anxious and disaffected but within a relatively cosseted positionality. The ruining of the (often unconcluded) emotional childhoods of such people – i.e. by the wanton insertion, by heartless liberal entertainment elites, of girls and their cooties, and icky gay stuff, and people who don’t look like them – is a juicy motivation for their seduction by the Dark Side (a singularly inapposite term in this context, given the overpowering whiteness of the whole thing).
Secondly, Star Wars as a franchise – again because of its high profile – is a current cultural locus for the discussion of what ‘rebellion’ means. And the alt-Right, and pretty much the entire ecosystem of neo-reactionaries and anti-feminists, etc, are consumed with a desire to look and feel like they are rebels. It is an absolutely characteristic trait of modern reactionaries, this yearning to present oneself as a rebel, a brave underdog, a contrarian, an iconoclast, fearless of giving offence, flouting the orthodoxy and political correctness and the liberal elite and the luegenpresse, etc etc etc. It’s hard to say if this grew up in response to the ideological notion that the Left now constitute the dominant mainstream, or vice versa… as with all such dichotomies, I suspect a dialectical unity evolving without a clear ‘first cause’.
Even so, I think we can identify a certain lineage.
Firstly, as much as it is now distinctive, it’s not really all that new. It’s been a strain in reactionary thinking going back to the year dot. Arguably, it has become more and more central to reactionary thinking the more feminism has chipped away at male privilege.
The reactionary impulse to appropriate aspects of counter-culture and protest – to simultaneously degrade them and take on some of their glamour – is satirized in the increasingly-due-for-revival-and-reevaluation movie Bob Roberts (1992). In this film, a hard-Right candidate for Senator (I think) runs a populist reactionary campaign and rallies fanatical support by taking on the persona of a Dylanesque folk singer. Roberts’ songs (often direct Dylan parodies) couch reactionary messages in terms of wistful protest.
Roberts gets to have it both ways. He gets to present himself as a crisply respectable suit-wearing businessman who advocates the virtues of the market and old fashioned values, while alternating that persona with that of a poetic dissident. The implication is, of course, that to be for ostensibly old fashioned values is now a rebellious, radical position, now that the values of the Left have won so totally.
But we can’t just blame the Right. The allure of some counter-culture figures lies not only in their ‘rebellion’ but in a certain machismo. Hunter S. Thompson, for instance, is, I suspect, one of the models for a certain kind of right-winger, especially of the libertarian kind. This isn’t entirely his fault, but it isn’t entirely not his fault either. Bill Hicks is another such figure. He once described himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes”, and he drips with proto-MRAish insecurity and misogyny alongside his railing against George Bush and the military industrial complex. Hicks, of course, famously faked his own death and reinvented himself as Alex Jones, and you can see the seeds of that even in his most radical and oppositional stand-up. I’m not just talking about his conspiracism but also his raging case of “nice guy syndrome”. Along with many ‘angry’ comics, like his imitator Denis Leary, Hicks set a kind of template of the raging dissident, screaming truth to power along with infuriated invective at the “peon masses”. You see the influence of this style of essentially reactionary dissent all over YouTube, with its epidemic of game-and-movie ‘review’ channels called the Angry This or the Angry That, in which privileged but anxious white boys bellow their infuriated resentment at what they take to be the inanities and insanities of the world, and in the process position themselves as edgy enemies of orthodoxy – all set to rock music and pictures of skulls. The New Atheists, especially Hitchens, helped import a disdainful and sclerotic rage into popular atheist discourse, which feeds into the same matrix. YouTube’s rash of reactionary atheists, right-wing political commenters, anti-feminists, etc, is a direct outgrowth of this, and they all love performatively yelling and thumping their desks at the madness of political correctness, and the simultaneously useless and all-powerful Left that lives in their heads.
It’s no wonder, given this confluence of geekery, nerdboyish privilege, reactionary resentment, performative fury, and fetishization of rebellion, that Star Wars comes in for special flak when it starts trying to engage progressively (albeit as imperfectly as was always inevitable) with the fact that a liberal discourse about diversity, racial supremacism, rebellion and tyranny was always in its source code. Underlying all this is the sheer privilege blindness that enables them to watch far too much Star Wars throughout their lives without noticing that it at least attempts to be about, on some level, the evil of organised white supremacism. Some online reactionaries, such as ludicrous right-wing charlatan Stefan Molyneux, find themselves unable to decide if they resent leftist Star Wars for making all the villains white men (yes, I know who did Vader’s voice), or like it for making the Death Star a representation of the big state. (Here’s a very funny video responding to Molyneux’s bizarre misreading of TFA. Stick with it, it gets better and better as you go along.)
There’s also the vulgar fact that you can’t really expect these people to engage with the details of texts they’re not prepared or able to read. They’re not going to fight their battles on the level of what Angela Davis or Judith Butler say in their books, because they’re not realistically going to read them. They are, however, going to go and see the new Star Wars movie, even if it does star a woman and people of colour. (Proving the soundness of the studio’s cynical gamble I postulated above.) That’s something they can actually concentrate on for long enough that they can work up a nice, enjoyable lather of self-pitying terror – all from within the safety of a film about magic space wars that reminds them of being eight.
One last thing on this topic. The appeal to childhood emotions is a big thing here too. I’m on record as defending a certain tactical childishness in one’s approach to politics. I think there’s a purity to a child’s cry of “that’s not fair”, given that it definitely isn’t, despite us constantly being told that it is, and this then being denied every time anyone points out that it isn’t but could and should be. But you have to be careful with it. You can’t let yourself couple the attitude with actual childishness, in the sense of being all ignorance and self-centredness and raging id. Of course, some people in this world are assured, tacitly, to an extent, that they can and should be able to get away with some version of that sort of thing, essentially all their lives.
It’s worth bearing that in mind when we ponder the closing line of Rogue One. “Hope”. The kind of people who found an intense satisfaction in “Make America Great Again” are also going to be able to map the two sentiments onto each other. Such is the drainedness of so much political discourse these days, and the devastating disorientation left behind by decades of neoliberalism, coupled with the poisonous pamperedness of some. And I, of course, speak whereof I know. I am, in many respects, a pampered and privileged nerdboy myself, overinvested in my fantasy commodities. It’s hard for me to resist the temptation to map Leia’s “Hope” onto my own slogans – and I really shouldn’t, even though mine are closer to the general ballpark the film was aiming for. There but for the grace of… well, I dunno… the right books? socialism? my clever friends who educate me?… go I.
Rogue One is hell of a hostage to fortune. The CGI recreations of Cushing and Fisher are a big part of this. They’re tolerably good, but… well, I don’t mean to downplay the skill involved in them, but the human face, with all its spontaneity and life, is still the hardest thing to replicate. And those were two very charming and distinctive human faces, and attitudes… in their different ways. But, as good as they are now (and the goodness of all CGI is relative… personally I’ll take competent stop motion over most of the best CGI) they will very soon look utterly rubbish. Of course, the films can always be meddled with, Lucas-style, with all the attendant pointlessness.
But more deeply than all that, there is the odd way the film has taken on an entirely new significance with the changes which occured in the surrounding context between its creation and its appearance in cinemas. America got unexpectedly (to most) taken over by people who are reasonably describable as fascists. This has inevitably and irrevocably changed the meaning of Rogue One. This sort of thing has happened to a few texts in current culture, re Trump. The TV series based on The Man in the High Castle, for instance. But Rogue One underwent a particularly drastic sucker punch. Because Carrie Fisher died.
It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Leia’s appearance at the end of Rogue One was meant to herald, and then celebrate, Hillary’s victory. At the very least, this was always the way some would’ve read it, if she’d won. (Discomforted by this, I don’t know whose record to pick at first – Hillary’s or Leia’s) Instead, young-Leia-reborn unexpectedly became an onscreen memorial to both Carrie Fisher and the glorious moment when everyone assumed Hillary would beat Trump and everything would go back to being more-or-less perfectly okay. I don’t believe for a moment that Rogue One was intended as a manifesto or clarion call to domestic political rebellion against Trump, still less against normal US neoliberalism and imperialism.
In any case, the actual effect was to create something accidentally incredibly relevant… or something which was bound to be perceived as incredibly relevant. A war movie about the struggle against fascism, centred upon a coalition of nobodies and reprobates of various ethnicities, with the categories of rebellion and resistance and roguery highly emphasized, with the word “hope” spoken at the end as a ghost’s exhortation. That has a certain pleasingly gothic tang to it, but it also smacks of all sorts of potential problems. As much as Rogue One thus takes on the appearance of the pre-neoliberal reaching out to us from the grave to exhort us to change things, I worry (as I will) about the idea that we – or some of us – might think that going backwards is thus the answer. Because it isn’t. This is a danger, an inbuilt conservatism, inherent in all these loving nostalgic pastiches. Back to a time when we had Star Wars figures to play with (without any need to feel self-conscious or defensive) and the world wasn’t quite totally fucked-up yet. As noted, that kind of thing is more suited to the morbidity of the Right than to any constructive politics. And it doesn’t even necessarily have to encourage wrongness in that direction. The last thing we need – and Star Wars being so hegemonic, I think this is a reasonable concern – is to foster the idea that we can mend what’s now broken (as if it just got broken) by reversing entropy and going back. Going back to Obama won’t work. Going back to social-democracy won’t work. It’s not just that these will be inadequate for perfectionists like me. As a strategy simply for stopping Trump, it literally won’t work.
We don’t want to put the word “hope” too firmly in the dead, animated mouths of software ghosts.