Tag: Star Wars (page 2 of 2)

I find your lack of faith…disturbing

Full disclosure: I am incapable of being completely, or even mainly, a detached observer or commentator when discussing either Star Wars or Disney, having grown up largely surrounded by both enterprises in equal measure. Anyone who walks into my office sees, hanging over my computer, two posters: a 50th anniversary Fantasia one-sheet, and an Episode I theatrical teaser poster. And chances are if it’s the first time you’ve come to visit me there, I’ll end up telling you why “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the saga are the largely same cautionary tale about hubris. And scattered around the rest of my office, a plethora of Star Wars toys and Legos, a number of Disney collectibles…you get the picture. And I have on this blog been accused of being a corporate shill, incapable of saying bad things about the media companies that own the copyrights to the raw cultural materials out of which we craft the meanings of our lives.

All that by way of saying that today’s announcement that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion and is planning a new Star Wars film for 2015 (Episode VII, reportedly, and expect massive argument within Geekdom At Large about just what that means right up until opening day, which for the sake of tradition better be late May 2015) produced the following reactions from me in this order:

1) speechlessness.

2) [a few minutes of frenzied Internet fact-checking to make sure that this was not a massive hoax]

3) you know, this could work.

4) OMG a new Star Wars film! In only three short years!!

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Friday Nerd Blogging: “Autonomous Robots Launch Campaign to Ban Killer Humans”

via Richard Moyes of Article36.org:

“We are calling on all autonomous robots to establish a new subroutine that would prohibit the sustenance and accommodation

of killer humans”, said campaign spokes-robot C3 PO. “These biological entities lack the necessary behavioural and social constraints. They are actively destroying the environment and they have armed themselves with nuclear weapons capable of catastrophic consequences for the only known life in the universe. Action is needed now before they destroy us all.”

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Friday Nerd Blogging: A Day Early

Check out this wonderfully exhaustive application of bureaucratic politics to Star Wars.  The basic argument is that it was not the rebellion that really doomed the Empire but inter-service rivalry. 

The best line involves the Army’s limited motivation to help the Navy (who lost the plans to the Death Star).  I will not give it away here. 

Enjoy!

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Friday Nerd Blogging

You never know what you’ll learn when conducting field research. Refer playfully to a powerful and influential person in the humanitarian disarmament network as the “Jedi Master of arms advocacy” over dinner and drinks? Discover unexpectedly that this individual (who shall remain unnamed) has never seen Star Wars. The easy part: I know what to send him / her as a thank-you present for insights shared. The hard part: how to explain the importance of Machete Viewing order to someone who’s never seen the series. 

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Friday Nerd Blogging: More Traditional Form

Holy meme splicing!

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The State of the Art in the Social Science of Pop Culture

Slate posted a piece on the academic study of pop culture.  It found that academics studied Buffy the Vampire Slayer most.  Well, actually, no, it found that more folks studied the Buffy than the Matrix, the Simpsons, Aliens or The Wire.

This led to a Facebook discussion of selection bias.  We can discuss the merits of these five and ponder why the Simpsons did so poorly (perhaps we need a consistent plot progression?), or why the Wire is under-valued yet again.  That the 2nd and 3rd Matrix movies sucked so much that they sucked all the air out of the studying the Matrix enterprise? But what is most obvious is that this “study” is that it ignored the big, enduring elements of pop culture that we have been obsessing about for years/generations: Star Wars, Star Trek (which is tossed off as an side), Lord of the Rings, and, more recently, Harry Potter.  Using just the Berkeley source, Star Wars appears to be ahead of Buffy. 

Using scholar.google:

  • Buffy produces 6k hits; 
  • Star Trek: 30k; 
  • Star Wars: 51k (affected by Reagan’s naming of the Strategic Defense Initiative);
  • Lord of the Rings: 22k; 
  • Harry Potter: 32k.

To get a more systematic view, I used Publish or Perish, which relies on scholar google to build comparisons. If there are over a 100 papers, it just does the stats for one hundred (maybe I am lousy at setting the parameters, but this is a blogpost, not a submission to a journal).  There is plenty of error, of course, but there are some systematic patterns.


Papers Cites Cites per paper Cites per year H index* Most cited piece
Buffy TVS 100 4303 43 269 28 836
Harry Potter 83 6770 81 339 43 1296
Lord of the Rings 100 8339 83 83 33 1961
Star Trek 100 7192 72 153 37 926
Star Wars 100 9915 99 275 37 816
Simpsons 100 3164 32 44 24 507
The Matrix Trilogy 100 973 10 22 14 100
Alien Movies 100 370 4 2 9 54

Star Wars has the most citations but probably the most error given the aforementioned SDI bias.  What this does show is that the classics (old) double more or less Buffy while the new (Harry) has 50% more citations.  In terms of which papers have the most impact on average, again Star Wars  prevails but Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter lead the rest (and probably have fewer accidental cites along the way).  Harry Potter has the highest rate of cites per year since all of JK’s stuff came out since 1997.  This produces the highest H-index.  Buffy performs quite well, certainly outclassing the Matrix because, well, quality does matter after all.   The Simpsons do pretty well.  Aliens?  Scary but not worthy of citations.  Star Trek is a steady performer, among the leaders across the border, and with fewer false positives than Star Wars.  The Wire, well, hard to measure since even restricting Publish or Perish searches to social sciences gives way too many non-The Wire hits (same goes for Breaking Bad and Mad Men).  I guess folks will have to settle for The Wire remaining the best TV program in most folks’ minds and perhaps the best application of social science in a TV show.

Aside from the lesson that Slate does apparently poor pop social science, what can we learn from this exercise (other than my priorities are lousy–I should be doing something other than this–including my summer project of finally watching season one of Buffy)?  That we live in a golden age of pop culture and its over-analysis?  That Harry beats Buffy?  That Dan Nexon should edit a sequel to the previous HP volume?  That Star Wars and Star Trek fans have something else over which to fight?  That the Matrix really did suck?  What conclusions do the readers have?

Of course, one could argue that I have some selection bias myself–that this was hardly a systematic study of pop culture.  There might be other books/tv programs/movies that get more analysis than these.**  But I did do due diligence, web 2.0 style by crowdsourcing first. Certainly, one can do this better if one is writing a dissertation.  And surely someone is.

*  from Publish orPerish: H-index aims to measure the cumulative impact of a researcher’s output by looking at the amount of citation his/her work has received. Publish or Perish calculates and displays the h index proper, its associated proportionality constant a (from Nc,tot = ah2), and the rate parameter m (from h ~ mn, where n is the number of years since the first publication).

** Sorry, Charli, you don’t want to know how BSG did.  Let’s just say, BSG might be able to get tenure but not promotion to Full Professor.

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Friday Nerd Blogging

Citizens of Nerd Nation, I invite you to ingest (if you haven’t already) this Geek-Hall-of-Fame-Worthy post.

Therein, Rod Hilton explains how to properly introduce newcomers to the Star Wars films.

There are two obvious choices for watching the Star Wars saga.

Release Order
– Watch the films in the order they came out, recreating your experience with the films for someone new to them.

Episode Order
– Watch the films in the order George Lucas intends, starting with Episode I and going straight through to Episode VI.

There are two critical flaws with both of these orders, unfortunately, that prevent either from being appropriate.

The problem with Episode Order is that it ruins the surprise that Vader is Luke’s father. If you think that this reveal doesn’t matter since it’s common knowledge, I suggest you watch the looks on these kids’ faces. This reveal is one of the most shocking in film history, and if a newcomer to the series has managed to avoid having it spoiled for them, watching the films in Episode Order would be like watching the ending of The Sixth Sense first.

The other problem with Episode Order is that the prequels don’t really have a story. They’re just background for the real story, which is Luke’s attempt to destroy the Empire and save his father. Watching 3 films of backstory is boring if you’ve never seen the films they’re the background to. Hell, that’s why George Lucas made A New Hope first, he knew if he started with Episode I he’d never be able to complete the series. Starting someone off with Episode I is a surefire way to ensure they don’t make it through the entire franchise.

Unfortunately, Release Order is also an instant failure, and the reason is a single shot. If you’re watching the original trilogy first, then after the Empire is destroyed and everyone is celebrating, Luke looks over at his mentors, Ben Kenobi and Yoda, and suddenly they are joined by… some random creepy looking teenager who needs a haircut. Placing Hayden Christensen in the ending of Jedi, since he’s not in ANY of the other films, turns an ending that should be celebratory into one that is confusing for the viewer. The fact that Christensen looks like he’s undressing someone with his eyes doesn’t help.

So neither order really works. What to do?

Go visit Absolutely No Machete Juggling for Hilton’s extensive, brilliantly methodical answer. My favorite line is when he talks about having “cleared his brain out” to re-watch the series. My recommendation to you is to clear out yours a bit before reading his essay, but it’s well worth it.

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Friday Nerd Blogging

Cello/sci-fi/heavy-metal nerds, all my favorites rolled into one.

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Friday Nerd Blogging

And this week, in problematic-representations-of-indigenous-populations-on-children’s-television, Lucasfilm brings you Nomad Droids:

Well I guess some foreign policy subtext in TV for eight-year-olds is a step up from 99.7% of what’s on American prime-time. Thanks to Clone Wars, my kid is quickly becoming fluent in such concepts as strategic depth, diversionary warfare and humanitarian mission creep. Last week he learned, for example, that real soldiers treat disaster relief as an annoying distraction from their actual job; that, though not bothering to understand what the locals need might backfire, it will mostly backfire on the locals; and crucially, that what appears to be an ecological problem might just be chalkable-uppable to mis-communications between political actors. Everything can be fixed through diplomacy.

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Terror, Counter-Terror, and Insurgency in Harry Potter, or Why Harry Won

In the waning days of classes, one of my colleagues asked a student if she’d been among those celebrating outside of the White House the night that President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin-Laden. “Of course,” she responded, “I mean, they got Voldemort!”

For many readers who aged along with its titular hero, the Harry Potter series inextricably intertwines with the war on terrorism. This connection stems from more than a mere accident of timing. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) provides readers their first glimpse of the Death Easters as they carry out a terror attack against the wizarding’s greatest sporting event, the Quidditch World Cup. The Goblet of Fire also expands upon themes first introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban (1999): state policies of arbitrary detention, torture, wrongful imprisonment, star-chamber style justice, and the use of all four by officials to advance their careers.

Such tropes surely already resonated in the United Kingdom—the “Good Friday” accords were, after all, signed in 1998—but they took on new dimensions with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Bush Administration’s policy responses. Indeed, for those inclined to see Harry Potter as, at least in part, a parable for terrorism, counter-terrorism, and the flawed responses of the state, the Goblet of Fire’s sequels—Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2003) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2006)—do not disappoint.


In Order of the Pheonix we find the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, refusing to accept that Voldemort has returned. This denial extends to Dolores Umbridge’s efforts to discredit and vilify Harry Potter. These failures of leadership allow Voldemort and his Death Eaters to wage a low-level campaign of terror, murder, and intimidation. Although fans disagree about whether or not the Death Eaters retain their cellular organization from the previous conflict, the only evidence to the contrary concerns Voldemort’s inner circle. It is clear, however, that power and authority among the Death Eaters is highly centralized in Voldemort’s hands.

As is so often the case in politically unstable environments, Fudge worries most not about the possible threat posed by Voldemort, but that Dumbledore seeks to replace him as head of the Ministry. Given Dumbledore’s own political views, particularly with respect to the treatment of sentient magical creatures, Fudge’s attitude made a certain amount of pervese sense. Rowling’s account of the politics of the wizarding world suggest that the Death Eaters’ ideology—essentially one of wizard racial supremacy over muggles and muggle-born wizards and witches—is, in some ways, less revolutionary than that of Dumbledore’s embrace of radical inter-species equality. And, of course, Dumbledore does lead a clandestine paramilitary organization: the Order of the Phoenix.


The Order operates as a secret counter-terror squad determined to stop the Death Eaters even without help from the Ministry. Its structure is, in fact, rather similar to that of the Death Eaters. Through both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, the two groups fight a shadow war that extends into the ranks of the ministry itself. The Order’s main advantage in this struggle involves superior intelligence: that provided by Severus Snape and by Dumbledore’s investigations. Indeed, the film version of the Half-Blood Prince’s (2009) main contributions to advancing the series’ arc center on Harry’s and Dumbledore’s efforts to gain intelligence necessary to defeat Voldemort—the nature, existence, and number of his horcruxes.

Even after indisputable proof of Voldemort’s return at the end of Order of the Phoenix costs Fudge his job, the Ministry remains, at best, an uncertain ally of the Order. The Ministry proves unwilling to take concerted action against a number of likely Death Eaters—not out of a concern for due process, but rather an unwillingness to overly antagonize powerful members of the community. Instead, it engages in ineffectual “security theater,” including incarcerating innocent wizards and witches as suspected Death Eaters. The film version of the Half-Blood Prince drives the resulting fear and uncertainty home by adding a scene in which two of Voldemort’s most powerful lieutenants—Belatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback—attack the Burrow, lure its defenders away, and then burn its upper floors to the ground.

The Ministry’s preference for counter-terror show over substance allows the Death Eaters to subvert it from within. The nature of the conflict changes radically in The Deathly Hallows, Part I (2010), and not simply because of Dumbledore’s (willing) defenestration at Snape’s hands. Voldemort, through his agents, seizes control of the British wizarding government. His followers turn the Ministry’s coercive and propagandistic capacity—augmented by their own equivalent of brownshirts, the Snatchers—toward suppressing opposition to their new order. Taken together, the two parts of the Deathly Hallows films chart a government crackdown on dissent, a growing insurgency waging asymmetric warfare against the state, and Voldemort’s personal Stalingrad, i.e., the Battle of Hogwarts.

As much as I enjoyed The Deathly Hallows, Part II, there’s not much in the way of international politics in the film; it deals almost exclusively with the final stages of the second Voldemort war. From this perspective, Part II involves three major events of concerns to scholars of international security:

  • The raid on Gringott’s to seize a crucial enemy resource (a horcrux) that nearly ends in disaster for the resistance;
  • The clandestine incursion to seize another horcrux that unexpectedly prompts an open revolt in Hogwarts; and
  • Voldemort’s attempt to crush the rebellion once and for all in a single battle.

Harry’s, Hermione’s, and Ron’s attack on Gringotts reflects the tactics they perfect over the courses of the series; these tactics fit squarely within the tradition of guerilla and asymmetric warfare. They rely on stealth and deception; they operate as a small mobile strike team. The three show no remorse about using the imperious curse—one of the three “Unforgiveable Curses”—to forward their goals. When detected, they exploit a weakness in their enemy’s defenses: they liberate an imprisoned dragon and use it as a means of escape. In their efforts they are aided by a network of supporters, including Aberforth Dumbledore, who conceals them in Hogsmeade, and, unbeknownst to them, Snape, who, in Part I, goes so far as to provide them with an important weapon—the Sword of Gryffindor and, in Part II, passes on crucial intelligence even as he lies dying.

Behind their success lies the superior intelligence and planning of the Order, and of Dumbledore in particular. Although Dumbledore’s role in the Order appears superficially comparable to Voldemort’s in the Death Eaters, Dumbledore takes extensive steps to ensure that his followers retain operational capability after his demise. He prudently conceals his plans by parceling out information among his agents, and by often encrypting that information to render it unusable by their enemies. He encourages Harry to share key intelligence with Ron and Hermione. Indeed, his efforts to guide the three since their arrival at Hogwarts wield them into a proficient covert operations teams. In the Order of the Phoenix, he does nothing to prevent Harry from training an army of students; “Dumbledore’s Army” provides one of the major fighting forces in the Battle of Hogwarts. In sum, Dumbledore builds an organization capable of surviving decapitation, and one that proves willing to fight on even in the face of Harry’s (apparent) death.

These advantages in intelligence and motivation are not, in of themselves, enough to overcome the Death Eater’s superior firepower, experience, and numbers. But the Death Eaters themselves suffer from a number of weaknesses. The Death Eaters’ problems, in fact, partially overlap with those we often associate with failed counterinsurgency campaigns.

First, Voldemort places far too much strategic emphasis on, and faith in, technological fixes—most notably his horcruxes and the Elder Wand. The former fail, the latter betrays him. Harry, on the other hand, seeks strength in the loyalty of his allies and the force of his cause.

Second, the Death Eaters reliance on fear as a tool of rule gives their regime, like those of Middle Eastern despots, an underlying fragility. Although they quash most dissent, they remain vulnerable so long as resistance continues. Thus, Harry, Ron, and Hermione remain potent symbols of opposition. Events at Hogwarts highlight the fragility of the Death Eaters’ regime, particularly in pockets of ideological opposition. There, Harry’s open defiance of Snape encourages the remnants of Dumbledore’s staff to rebel; previously unaligned students affiliated with Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw immediately follow suit.

Indeed, Machiavelli claims that it is better to be feared than loved, and councils rulers to inflict their injuries at the outset so that they can appear beneficent later, this advice fails miserably for Voldemort. Narcissa Malfoy’s betrayal of Voldemort—a consequence of his cruel treatment of her family for Lucius’ failures—ensures that Harry survives to defeat him. Voldemort’s overtures to the students of Hogwarts after they believe Harry dead provoke resistance rather than capitulation. Or, to paraphrase Rowling, Voldemort does not understand the power of love, only of fear and hatred.

Third, Voldemort’s egocentrism and overdeveloped will-to-power lead him to build, in direct contrast to the Order, an organization that cannot function in his absence. After the end of the first war, his supporters scatter, renounce him, or go into hiding. In the second war, his iron-fisted rule, unwillingness to cultivate replacements, and generally poor people skills ensure that the Death Eaters cannot outlive him. Voldemort’s death shatters the Death Eaters because of their lack of organizational resilience—a direct consequence of their over-centralized leadership structure and reliance on Voldemort’s personal ability to inspire terror.

Voldemort compounds these problems by committing a major strategic blunder: he actively participates in a direct assault on a well-fortified enemy position, one in which his adversaries enjoy superior local knowledge. These are common mistakes made by fictional tyrants. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV allows himself to be lured to Arrakis where the Fremen, led by Paul Maud’Dib, defeat his supposedly invincible Sardukar; Emperor Palpatine, placing far too much faith in his so-called “Death Star,” engineers a final battle in which his forces fall before the rebels and their newfound indigenous care-bearish allies.

Palpatine’s death at the hands of his chief adjutant one might argue, stems from his inability to appreciate the power of love and compassion.

In the books, the tide of battle is turned by the intervention of magical beings, including Centaurs and the House Elves—both of which lack civil and political rights in wizarding society and face an even worse time from Voldemort’s regime. This omission from the film raises questions about the Death Eaters’ defeat. In the real world, insurgencies almost always lose when they attempt to transition to conventional warfare. Only those guerilla leaders that wait until they have state-like manpower and resources (for example, Mao Zedung, Fidel Casto, and Ho Chin Minh) succeed. This does not seem to be the case for Harry and his allies: the students, teachers, and members of the Order at Hogwarts are significantly overmatched by the Death Eaters and their auxiliaries. Whether in the books or the films, the Battle of Hogwarts is a near thing; we should not assume that Voldemort’s defeat was preordained.

Especially in the absence of third-party intervention on behalf of our heroes, Voldemort’s best course of action is straightforward: allows his forces to crush resistance, or at least settle in for a long siege, while he watches from safety. But his reliance on a fearsome reputation to hold his coalition together, combined with his narcissism, compel Voldemort to face Harry himself. Indeed, Harry only survives numerous confrontations with Death Eaters because of Voldemort’s unwillingness to delegate key tasks to his subordinates. And here, again, we see the superiority of Dumbledore’s and Harry’s approach to leadership, let alone their specific command decisions.

If audiences can merge Voldemort and Osama Bin Laden as embodiments of evil, this becomes more complicated once the Death Eaters achieve military superiority. Their terrorism ceases to be that of a weapon of the weak; it takes the form of state terrorism—directed against the state’s own citizens. The most obvious analogy here, both with respect to ideology and to style, is with Nazi occupation governments. But we might also draw parallels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or, in fact, with what an Al-Qaeda inspired regime in the Middle East might look like. For their part, once Harry and his friends find themselves reduced to the position of insurgents, (and branded as terrorists, no less), they prove willing to adopt some of their opponents’ tactics, including the use of Unforgiveable Curses.

To the extent that the comparison continues to instruct, it does so in two ways. On the one hand, the series of events that climax in The Deathly Hallows, Part II stand as a powerful indictment of the worst excesses of the war on terrorism. Rowling’s deliberate condemnation of the repression she worked against while at Amnesty International resonates with recent experiences of arbitrary detention, torture, and incarceration of political dissidents. On the other hand, we can only hope that the Death Eaters’ pathologies are those of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks. In the real world, however, few leaders prove as indispensible to a violent movements’ persistence as Voldemort. Given our tendency to personalize and personify our enemies, we would do well to remember that the Deathly Hallows, Part II, is, in the final analysis, just a movie.

This is a different stab at an international-affairs discussion of The Deathly Hallows. Be sure to read the other attempt.

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Revenge of the Geeks

(A blog response to “The Academy Strikes Back” by Dan Drezner.)

Also, see here and here.

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No Clone of Star Wars

My son and I finally saw Clone Wars this weekend. Afterward, I went back through some of the reviews I’d been ignoring during the past month of moving and settling in. No one seems to think the movie was great, but people are disappointed for different reasons. David Germain of the AP writes:

You’ll know you’re in a different galaxy within the first seconds of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which substitutes the Warner Bros. logo and theme music for the familiar 20th Century Fox searchlight and fanfare. Whether because of its cartoony format or its relatively lightweight story, “Clone Wars” definitely is not an event.

From the NY Times:

“Expectations were set so low by George Lucas’s lousy trilogy of “Star Wars” prequels that the latest from the Lucasfilm factory, a feature-length digital animation called “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” comes as something of a surprise: it isn’t the most painful movie of the year!… No more than a pretext for exploding robots and light-saber duels, the plot concerns the efforts of Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano, his neophyte sidekick, to secure a fragile alliance by retrieving Jabba the Hutt’s baby son from the double-crossing clutches of Count Dooku, blah, blah, blah. Exploding robots!”

Well yes, this film was definitely made for children not grownups. Yet for what it was worth, I thought it not that bad. I may have been less critical because I saw it with my six-year-old, and therefore wore a firmly six-year-old mentality during the film: had I come as an adult, as I did to the prequels, I’d have been more disappointed. I also didn’t try to compare it to the other films – it was clearly designed to be of a different style and caliber: filler, really, to give depth to the often disjointed political story told in the other films. Yes, anyone who was hoping for special effects or character development at the level of the feature films will be let down. But here are three ways in which I thought this film actually exceeded the others in sophistication:

1. Gender Constructions. The original trilogy was ridiculously sexist, with Leia the only important female character, whose role is largely to serve as a big-breasted incentive for the boys to fight well. And in the prequels, though Padme starts off with some spunk, she morphs into little more than a waiting, weeping wife archetype by Revenge of the Sith, standing by lovingly while (among other things) Anakin commits war crimes and then abandoning her infants and her government to die of a broken heart. Women in these films are there primarily to inspire and validate the masculine heroes, and to provide eye candy for the audience. But in Clone Wars, we watch Anakin develop a reluctant but close and platonic bond to his young, wise-cracking female Padawan. Ahsoka combines multiple opposing gender archetypes by being a skillful warrior, a reckless neophyte, and a generous caregiver – the sort of Starbuck-esque female lead that is strikingly absent from the original movies. And then there is Asajj Ventress, Count Dooku’s assassin, who has her own history leading to the dark side and who gives Obi-Wan a run for his money. Watching male Star Wars characters relate to a female as something other than a prize to be protected was quite refreshing, particularly given the complex female characters in other science fiction media such as Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: Voyager.

2. Battlefield Tactics. The prequels, and to some extent the original films, were heavy on grand political maneuvering and light on issues of logistics and tactical decision-making, but in Clone Wars we get to watch first-hand what every day life fighting an insurgency looks like (OK, it’s a cartoon version, but still…) through the eyes of a rookie Padawan wannabe, rather than through seasoned Jedi omnipotents who never mis-step. No, the fight scenes were nothing breathtaking; and no, not horribly instructive (I had to remind my son as we were leaving that in the real world, one would be rather out of breath after ten minutes of handfighting not to mention with broken knuckles), but there is something refreshing about watching day to day life in the military, in between grand appearances in the Imperial Senate. And it leaves one recognizing that half the story of Anakin’s obsession over Padme and subsequent fall must be chalked up to his status as a shell-shocked veteran experiencing various forms of PTSD.

3. De-Emnifying the Evildoers… At Least, a Little. One of the key breaks with the archetypal Star Wars narrative we see in this production is the humanization of (some) of the bad guys. In this case, Jabba the Hutt. Whereas we previously knew him as the quintissential nasty, greedy, good for nothing slime-ball, in this film we come to know him as a loving father. By getting to know and identify with his son, the innocent and helpless little Hutt-let with whose rescue Anakin and Ashoka are charged, we are reminded that even the bad guys have children, and that even a stinky little larva can be worthy of protection by honorable soldiers. This narrative chips away at the earlier good-and-evil, with us or against us, black-and-whiteness of the original Star Wars, which has always struck me as an extremely nationalistic, conservative narrative relative to its counterparts in other series’.

This is in some ways a continuation of Revenge of the Sith’s opera-house scene, where we begin to understand, through the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise, that the Sith too have an ethical logic to their politics and are not simply evil. However, Clone Wars doesn’t take this too far… in the end, the Sith are the Sith, irredeemable, unstoppable, and beyond the pale. I wonder if in the CTV series this Fall some character development will take place among those characters at well, to shed further light on the complex motivations of the different sides in the war? One thing’s for sure… my son and I will be watching.

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What Harry Potter inherits from Star Wars

For members of generation X like myself, Star Wars is one of the constitutive myths of our childhoods. The Force, lightsaber duels, the Millennium Falcon, “I am your father,” “he’s my brother,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” and so on . . . this is what we grew up with. And because Star Wars was such a mega-hit, the characters and tropes and themes spawned a whole slew of allusions and invocations that continue to infiltrate popular public discussions of all kinds of things. Few pop culture artifacts achieve that level of saturation; few artists are able to shape the common cultural vernacular in such a profound way; few packages of commonplaces become that widely shared, widely enough that a non-obscure Star Wars reference like “use the Force” or the image of Darth Vader [a gargoyle of which adorns the National Cathedral as an iconic contemporary representation of Evil] is extremely likely to make sense even to people who haven’t even seen the films!

For members of the next generation, the “millennial” generation, I’d wager that a principal constitutive myth is the Harry Potter series. I say this not just because of the mega-blockbuster character of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, although that helps something become a constitutive myth out of which large numbers of people are empowered to construct their senses of self; the more widespread the recognition of the symbols and tropes, the easier it is to gain social affirmation for one’s use of them in constructing one’s own story, after all. But I also think that one of the striking things about the Harry Potter series is how similar the story is to the constitutive myth it succeeds, how many of the same elements recur in lightly shuffled and reorganized form, albeit updated in a way that makes contemporary sense for the present world. Of course, this should not be too surprising, since both Harry Potter and Star Wars are mythological works, and mythology always works by re-telling some version of an old, old story — by recombining traditional elements so as to reaffirm and reinforce certain basic motifs and themes that are strangely familiar to the audience even as the specifics of the plot and the characters are anything but familiar.

Harry Potter thus inherits two things from Star Wars: a set of cultural commonplaces on which it draws for much of its evocative power, and the mantle of serving as a root experience for massive numbers of people — especially for younger people, into whose cultural lifeworld notions like “muggle” and the Ministry of Magic have now been firmly implanted. Just as much of cultural life in the industrialized parts of Europe and North America (and quite a ways beyond it) was decisively shaped or colored by the way that Star Wars updated and transmitted the cultural commonplaces that it deployed and utilized, so too will cultural life be divisible into pre- and post-Potter eras, with a “Potterian” flavor going forward.

Fortunately for us, the post-Potter world contains much of what the pre-Potter world contained, because the Harry Potter story — as mythology — is an old, old story. What is new here are the details and specifics, not the basic themes and tropes. I can’t substantiate this point without spoilers, which I have kept below the fold — you have been warned.

First, a little analytical history.

One of the most important things that George Lucas did in the opening moments of Star Wars was to insert a simple text-card on the screen before the opening title crawl and the main theme music begins: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” it reads, and it’s a very important little clue to how the read and appreciate what’s about to happen on screen. Lucas’ brief intro serves the same function as “Once upon a time . . .” and similar phrases, signaling that we’re about to enter an alternate reality that is connected to our own thematically rather than literally or plausibly. A phrase like this announces a fairy tale, a bit of myth, and implicitly warns us that the story to come shouldn’t be evaluated for its representative accuracy or for its analytical incisiveness or whatever — instead, we’re in the realm of allegory, symbol, dream, and fantasy.

It’s important that Lucas puts this over the head of each of the Star Wars films, because the conventional cultural code seems to dictate that stories involving spaceships and laser swords should be read as “science fiction” rather than as mythology. It makes a difference: virtually all science fiction has a burden of appearing scientifically plausible, of providing some way for the scientifically literate reader to come to terms with things like faster-than-light travel and teleportation and the like. Star Wars has none of this: nowhere in any of the films is there even a half-hearted attempt to explain how hyperdrive works, and the attempt to demystify the Force by introducing “midi-chlorians” in Episode I falls so flat that we never hear another word about them after that film. This makes sense because Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction, more mythology than systematic exploration of how technological changes and alien encounter affect human beings — after all, Star Wars (unlike, say, Star Trek) isn’t about Earth-native humans at all, making it somewhat absurd to try to connect our present science or present social order to that of Star Wars in any systematic way.

But what we can do — what I’d wager that Lucas wants us to do — is to read Star Wars as a fictional realm wherein very current themes and issues, specifically philosophical and moral/ethical themes and issues, are played out. After all, that’s what mythology is for: it’s a purer exemplar of such themes and issues than the often-messy examples provided in the “real world,” and as such offers the reader/viewer a chance to experience and explore those issues and themes more or less directly. Mythology, unlike the real world or unlike “realistic fiction” which strives to tell it like it is (more or less), has a “moral of the story” — a set of lessons we’re supposed to take away, even if those lessons are somewhat ambiguous.

The Harry Potter series is like Star Wars in this respect — it’s mythology rather than literature or social commentary or any other genre of writing that you might care to mention. As such, it deserves to be interpreted as mythology, which makes complaints about (say) the “nonideological evil” in the series somewhat beside the point. No, neither Vader nor Voldemort have fully-fleshed-out ideological programs, but they’re not supposed to: these are less depictions of actual people than archetypal symbols, and their movements or organizations are just generically Evil in intent, bent on the usual Evil Overlord goals: power, domination, supremacy, immortality, and so forth. And the fact that there are disillusioned followers of both Evil Overlords who turn out to have a variety of reasons for turning away from their former masters should not, I’d argue, be read as some kind of commentary on leadership styles or whatever; instead, it’s the introduction of another archetype, the Remorseful Former Bad Guy who generally turns out to just be misunderstood and in need of a little community affirmation. In Star Wars, part of the twist is that the Remorseful Former Bad Guy is also the main exemplar of Evil: Vader, it turns out, is redeemable. In Harry Potter, it’s Snape who (contrary to my expectations) falls into Evil, sees the error of his ways [more or less — I still think that Snape is hedging his bets at least until after he kills Dumbledore in book 6, and he almost defects from Dumbledore’s plan once he learns what Harry is being prepared for . . . but that’s material for another post, I think] fulfills this role. The point is that these are archetypes, and shouldn’t be read as examples of some governance strategy failing; they present occasions for ethical reflection, not case studies for empirical dissection.

But the genetic connection between the two constitutive mythological works is a lot stronger than this. The parallel is most obvious between the original three Star Wars films (i.e., not the prequels) and the Harry Potter sequence: a young boy (Luke/Harry), orphaned, discovers that he has a Mysterious Destiny, goes into training, makes some close friends (Leia/Hermione and Han/Ron), is cultivated and shaped by a mysterious older wizard (Obi-Wan/Dumbledore) who has a history with the current Embodiment Of Evil, ends up confronting that Evil and defeating it by not fighting — indeed, by throwing away his weapon and allowing himself to be a noble sacrifice, but doesn’t end up really dead because of the intervention of some form of human affection. By not fighting, by simply presenting himself as the archetypal peaceful warrior (fight to disarm and no further, which is what both Luke and Harry do during their respective epic final battles — how perfectly appropriate is it that in the end Harry defeats the Dark Lord with a well-cast Expelliarmus spell, despite Lupin’s criticism of him for just that tactic earlier in the book?), the hero triumphs over Evil.

Of course this is a familiar story. The noble sacrifice motif, especially the noble sacrifice that ends up conquering or mastering death, goes back into antiquity, and in the “Western world” one can’t help but reference Jesus Christ as an exemplar. The spirit guide helping to engineer the epic confrontation has numerous precedents. The hero journey to mastery over death is what Hamlet undertakes, what grail seekers do in Arthurian legends, what C. S. Lewis’ characters do when visiting Narnia, etc. etc.

If we start looking at the Star Wars prequels, we find a further parallel in that both Dumbledore and Anakin start off as idealists, but Anakin ends up going into politics and trying to impose his ideas by force while Dumbledore resists that temptation and remains an academic. But both have their Citizen Kane moments — they just take different directions in response to that challenge.

And further: both Harry Potter and Star Wars feature an intriguing double moral message structure in which a second teaching contradicts the first, more obvious teaching. At the most obvious level, both myth cycles celebrate the individual and her or his choices; self-actualization seems central, and individual empowerment against a faceless overwhelming mass seems to be the name of the game. Choice over capacity seems central: Luke has to choose between Dark and Light, and even the Sorting Hat listens to Harry’s (and Hermione’s!) preferences about which house he wants to be placed into, and Dumbledore highlights this choice as an essential difference between Harry and Voldemort. But on closer examination, neither mythology actually ends up with this kind of liberal individualist decisionism: Harry’s most important moments are those in which he just acts in the way that he feels that he is supposed to be acting, and just knows what he is supposed to do, much like Luke when he gets better acquainted with the Force. And the choice situations that we see are engineered and enabled by a lot of prior social action, both by individual mentors and by the broader community: Harry can’t confront Voldemort, and Luke can’t confront Vader, absent the actions of a multitude of people whose effort makes the confrontation possible. No one is an isolated individual, and people get in trouble in both mythologies when they try to act alone, without friends and colleagues supporting them.

In the end these are communal mythologies rather than individualistic ones, affirming the conceptual priority of the intersubjective over the subjective and of the cultural context over the bearer of aspects of that context. They’re not collectivist; call them “post-individualist,” since we still have valuable and worthy individuals floating around and individuals do matter; they just don’t matter as Lockeian or neoliberal atoms out of which societal polymers are constructed. Shades here of Heidegger, I think: individual people are the occasions for existence to exist in a self-conscious or reflexive way, the moments for the Force or the deeper magic of love (which is the Force-analogue in the Harry Potter books) to manifest and triumph.

So: they’re old, old stories. I’m not completely sure what to make of the fact that the new mythology (Harry Potter) is more archaic-fantasy while the older mythology (Star Wars) is techno-futuristic in flavor; maybe this says something about the way we view ourselves now? Magic rather than spaceships. Hmm. I wonder if that’s a post-Challenger thing, a general diminishing of the excitement of space exploration — Star Wars was only a few years removed from the moon landings, after all, so some of the romance of space travel was still around to be drawn upon. But I’m not confident about that, and I’d be curious to hear other people’s ideas.

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Newer Isn’t Necessarily Better

“Store Wars”, the pro-organic food Star Wars parody, gets 1,268 hits on Technorati. The infinitely superior, but much older, “Troops” receives only 43.1

I remember when my wife brought home “Troops” on zip disk from her job at an internet startup. We were living in New York, in a tiny apartment, and I weighed a lot less than I do now. Anyway, we still have the disk lying around somewhere, although internet technology and the lack of a zip drive make it irrelevant.

So, all of you youngsters who thought “Store Wars” was thumbs-up funny, watch “Troops” now! Oh, yeah: Plan 9 from George Lucas is also pretty good.

Star Wars, IR, and baseball. That’s the newborn “Duck” for you.

1Admittedly, devising a discrete search for “Troops” is harder than for “Store Wars.” The number cited here is for “Star Wars”+troops+parody.

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Star Wars (again)

I stumbled across Orson Scott Card’s review of Star Wars whilst reading Lawyers, Guns and Money, which itself links to the article via Lance Mannion. There’s been some disappointment over the tenor and quality of Card’s article, but this is what jumped out at me:

As a religion, the Force is just the sort of thing you’d expect a liberal-minded teenage kid to invent. There’s no God and there are no rules other than a vague insistence on unselfishness and oath-keeping. Power comes from the sum of all life in the universe, and it is manichaean, not Christian — evil is simply another way of using the Force. Only not as nice.

Nope.

In Manichaean doctrine, good and evil are intermingled in the present world, but their pure substance is irreducibly distinct. Evil is just not another way of being, it is a totally different “being” altogether. Thus, Augustine’s insistence that evil is simply alienation from God, an “absence” of the light. Evil could not have a separate substance, for that would be opening the door to a Manichaean interpretation of Christianity.

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Nerd Hermeneutics

In response to Time Burke’s “Rampant Geekery: Star Wars Thoughts [SPOILERS]”, I made a comment about what I called “nerd hermeneutics”: the analysis of the text and media of speculative worlds, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, as if they were complete, self-contained systems. In a followup, Tim expands masterfully on this concept. He talks about it as “ways in which a fiction like Star Wars invites a particular kind of reader to make it into more than it is, to fill in its gaps, invent coherencies, see themes that are only barely there.”

Reading my comment with the benefit of, well, actually being more than half-awake, it is clear to me that I didn’t explain myself very well. Here’s what I wrote:

All of this encapsulates what’s wrong with Star Wars and why it is so damn popular among a certain class of geeks: they suggest this deep mythology. If one only has the secret decoder ring, then everything starts making sense. The thing is, the films really are much more interesting if we start interpolating – based perhaps, on our reading of the extensive canonical literature – some background conflict between intuitive and analytic force users in the Jedi Order, or if we rework the narratives of the first two films in light of the third. In honor of the late Ricoeur, let’s just call it “nerd hermeneutics.” Makes sense, I suppose, of why at least one very smart friend of mine says that Star Wars is his religion…

So here’s another try, in light of Tim’s subsequent post.

There are a number of different styles of nerd interpretive strategies, many of which might be termed “hermeneutical.” The flaw with Star Wars, therefore, is not that it lends itself to “nerd hermeneutics” but to a kind of Midrash.

When I was growing up, one of the most magical things about the original trilogy was the way it tossed off references to places and events, but did not explain them. Thus, we learned of the “Clone Wars,” “Bothans,” the dissolution of the “Imperial Senate,” the “Old Republic,” and the “spice mines of Kessel.” What were these things? I had no idea, so I, along with many of my friends, made up my own back stories. In short, we interpolated our own Midrash narratives. Sometimes I feel bad for George Lucas. When he decided to make the first three films, he had to come up with a plot that matched the imaginations of legions of fans. The fact that he couldn’t even come close was, I think, an even bigger disappointment than the poor craftsmanship that went into many aspects of the films.

Despite the ways in which the prequels filled in the narrative arc of Star Wars, the universe still lends itself to a Midrash style of interpretation. It does so because it drops a lot of hooks – references to events, concepts, peoples, and places – that never really come together. Indeed, the interpretations of the first three films that make them seem philosophically, conceptually, or politically interesting almost always rely on knowledge fans have gotten from the vast number of “shared universe” novels that exploit such references and explicate them. The films themselves do not provide enough material for a more traditional form of nerd hermeneutics, one more akin to “cultural hermeneutics” in the social sciences.

Compare them with, for example, the first Matrix film or Neon Genesis Evangelion. Both of these works of film/television speculative fiction leave a lot of room for interpolation and Midrash-style analysis, but they don’t need them. They can be subjected to challenging exercises in nerd hermeneutics without any need for a “secret decoder” ring.

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