Forward, to the Past! – Episode III: Rebel Yell
Or ‘American History X-Wing’
Yes, it’s the third and concluding episode in my trilogy of posts about Star Wars. I’m going to be making all sorts of generalisations about ‘America’ in this post. Please bear in mind, I don’t mean them to apply to all American people. Far from it. I’m talking about mainstream historical narratives, and the culture industries, and ideology, and so on. Also, in keeping with tradition, I’ve included an unnecessary and irritating (but also rather cute, if you’re honest) teddy bear. Oh, and in twenty years time I’ll come back and reissue these posts with crappy extra passages edited in for no good reason.
Three political categories dominate the Star Wars galaxy: Republic, Empire, and Rebellion. This is the arrangement in The Force Awakens just as much as in the original trilogy. Indeed, it is the apparent impossibility of telling a Star Wars story in which the galaxy is arranged any other way which determines the inevitability that The Force Awakens will be, and has to be, a ‘structre’ (as covered in previous episodes).
Galactic politics is in a constant state of fluctuation, but the fluctuation is between these three poles. Republic breeds Empire, Empire attacks Republic, Rebellion destroys Empire and restores Republic. And then the whole thing begins all over again. It unfolds with the inevitability of a Hegelian triad (but that joke isn’t funny anymore, so we’ll leave that there).
The three modes correspond to the way in which America conceives of its history and its future. America sees itself as always in a state of being one or the other, becoming one or the other, splitting away from one or the other, redeeming one or the other, fighting one or the other, falling from being one or the other into being one or the other. Left and Right agree on this, though they inflect it differently (natch).
Tied to this is the perennial idea of America ‘losing its innocence’ whereas, as James Ellroy put it: “We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.” Interestingly, he still seems to think that a ‘fall from grace’ did happen.
Hollywood has been playing with these three categories for some time actually. What are the great Hollywood Biblical epics but negotiations of the political and moral valences of republics that become empires, and rebellions against empires. In Ben Hur, Spartacus, Quo Vadis, The Robe, Cleopatra, etc, there is Rome as the great republic-turned-empire, dominating the world; and there are the Christians and/or slaves bravely defying her. The Ten Commandments does something similar with Egypt and the Hebrews. Star Wars reiterates these old Hollywood testaments in many ways, most especially the prequels with the slaves of Tatooine (slavery exists in pockets alongside the benevolent Republic… notice and store for later use), and in the religiose choral moments in the score of Return of the Jedi.…