Joshua Glenn recently posted an interesting critical response to my Star Wars Klein group diagram (which you can see above) on his website HiLoBrow. I explained my original diagram in a post titled Rosalind Krauss is a Jedi, and Glenn's response is called Star Wars Semiotics. The titles themselves signal two very different approaches to the same problem. Glenn admits to being “wary of structuralist heuristic devices” but dives right in, and does a great job reworking my diagram along more the more orthodox literary model used by Fredric Jameson (who uses the term “Greimas or Semiotic Square”). In my post I likewise freely admit my own limits, which after reading Glenn's post are clearly far more limiting than his (kinda bums me out that Glenn didn't find time to explain what the terms "complex" and "neuter" indicate). So it's not surprising Glenn believes his Star Wars Semiotic Square improves on mine. In the interest of intellectual good will I did my best to answer his requests that “Someone good at drawing or Photoshop should send me a diagram…” I’m not especially good at either, but I've done my best:
Glenn's approach is exactly the same approach Fredric Jameson takes toward Star Wars, which may be why the film is mentioned only twice in his mammoth study of science fiction and utopia, Archeologies of the Future. The first time he pauses briefly to finger Lucas as the source of contemporary special effect (he does not seem pro): “We are told, indeed, that the current development of special effects technology can be dated from George Lucas’ establishment of a Star Wars laboratory in 1977.” The second time is in an essay about Philip K Dick in which the theorist contrast Dick's Capraesque "average heroes... caught in the convulsive struggles of monopoly corporations and now galactic and intergalactic multi-nationals, rather than in the Star Wars feudal or Imperial battles." Jameson does have a bit more to say about Lucas in his book, Postmodernism and Consumer Society:
This particular practice of pastiche is not high-cultural but very much within mass culture, and it is generally known as the "nostalgia film" (what the French neatly call la mode rétro - retrospective styling). We must conceive of this category in the broadest way: narrowly, no doubt, it consists merely of films about the past and about specific generational moments of that past. Thus, one of the inaugural films in this new "genre" (if that's what it is) was Lucas's American Graffiti, which in 1973 set out to recapture all the atmosphere and stylistic peculiarities of the 1950s United States, the United States of the Eisenhower era… But let me first add some anomalies: supposing I suggested that Star Wars is also a nostalgia film. What could that mean? I presume we can agree that this is not a historical film about our own intergalactic past. Let me put it somewhat differently: one of the most important cultural experiences of the generations that grew up from the '30s to the '50s was the Saturday afternoon serial of the Buck Rogers type - alien villains, true American heroes, heroines in distress, the death ray or the doomsday box, and the cliffhanger at the end whose miraculous resolution was to be witnessed next Saturday afternoon. Star Wars reinvents this experience in the form of a pastiche: that is, there is no longer any point to a parody of such serials since they are long extinct. Star Wars, far from being a pointless satire of such now dead forms, satisfies a deep (might I even say repressed?) longing to experience them again: it is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artifacts through once again.
The end of imperialism and dematerialization of the object have both generated compensatory forms of Nostalgia for the good old days of colonialism… American film makers compensate for the end of imperialism with fantasies of futuristic archaic empires—the evil Empire of Star Wars… Like the period in popular culture after World War II when American cinema reflected the emergence of Pax Americana… cinema at the turn of the twenty-first century replays the imperial spectacle in its heightened virtual mode, with more garish violence and special effects then ever before.
Glenn spends a lot of time breaking down highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow aspects of the film, but all high/low intermixings are not equal. In the case of the original Star Wars film that seems to all but silence serious discussion, which is too bad, because it is also a startlingly original visual object. I am disappointed that thinkers as adventurous as Jameson and Mitchell don''t have single essay's worth of material on Star Wars between them. It's telling that they dismiss the film on curiously similar terms.
Perhaps the closest we get to an exception to the rule is Henry Jenkins. He does not treat Star Wars as literature, and he embraces the phenomena of Star Wars fandom - but again, he does not (as far as I have been able to sus out) discuss the film itself - except as a fictional literary universe that fans plug into:
The Industrial Revolution resulted in the privatization of culture and the emergence of a concept of intellectual property that assumes that cultural value originates from the original contributions of individual authors. In practice, of course, any act of cultural creation builds on what has come before, borrowing genre conventions and cultural archetypes, if nothing else. The ability of corporations to control their "intellectual property" has had a devastating impact upon the production and circulation of cultural materials, meaning that the general population has come to see themselves primarily as consumers of -- rather than participants within -- their culture. The mass production of culture has largely displaced the old folk culture... Fans respond to this situation of an increasingly privatized culture by applying the traditional practices of a folk culture to mass culture, treating film or television as if it offered them raw materials for telling their own stories and resources for forging their own communities. Just as the American folk songs of the nineteenth century were often related to issues of work, the American folk culture of the twentieth century speaks to issues of leisure and consumption... Fan fiction repairs some of the damage caused by the privatization of culture,.. Fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate. Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths... If Star Wars was an important ur-text for the new corporate strategy of media convergence, Star Wars has also been the focal point of an enormous quantity of grassroots media production, becoming the very embodiment of the new participatory culture.
The most thoughtful critique of Star Wars I have read has not come from a theorist of "visual culture," but instead from the science fiction author David Brin. He wrote an infamous pieces for Salon in reaction to the prequels that spawned a book call Star Wars on Trial. Brin's critique is damning and sharp, and great fun to read. I have corresponded a little with Brin - he is a hero of mine, I have read him since high school. I love that his wide eyed optimism is harnessed to a contentious and contrarian nature. Brin thinks I am bonkers for wasting any time thinking about Star Wars. Brin champions Star Trek as pro-science and democratic in opposition to the feudal mysticism of Star Wars. For what its worth I think Star Trek is self congratulatory boosterism and unexamined modernist and Utopian (but I do like me a Star Trek movie).
Again Brin's perspective is the perspective is literary, he is a writer just like Jameson, Mitchell, Hickey, and Glenn. Very much unlike Jenkins, he is a commercial author who has a very different perspective on the Star Wars universe. Very much more like Hickey, he deeply resents the shelf space that the Star Wars novels gobble up, he sees it as displacing much needed room for more original writing. I have never read a Star Wars novel, but that seems like a totally legitimate complaint. The point is all these guys write, so it is natural that they think about the world in terms of literature. That does Star Wars a disservice however, it is an object made at a particular time and a particular place.
John Powers poking away at Terminal and George Lucas poking at the Death Star.