Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Crisis in Criticism: Star Wars is not Literature, it is an Object.

Look how sad Luke is; critics need to sort out a better way to decide what lowbrow media they will consider with the precincts of highbrow scholarship.

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:

Star Wars Semiotic Square according to Joshua Glenn (plus or minus my best effort - turns out the Sith are really hard to draw)

Glenn's post is good natured and whip smart - but he's dead wrong. While he is no doubt the superior semiotician (even if his heart is not fully committed to structuralist heuristic devices, his brain is clearly able to wale away unaffected) and I can't hope to outsmart the guy, mine is the better diagram. The reason is that he is diagramming the film as literature, and I am diagramming it as an object. His is the more conventional reading of Star Wars, but mine is the more revealing and interesting of the two perspectives. Glenn's post deserves a rebuttal - and his while his critique has not made me revise my position, it has mad me aware that it needs to be clarified. But before I revisit the reasoning behind my diagram I want to address the convention approach of film as literature. What I find most interesting about the difference between Glenn's diagram and my own is how quickly the difference manifests itself. His is peopled by characters - stormtroopers, droids, and non-human aliens - mine is constructed out of places and things - ships, farms, and space terminals. This is a telling difference.
Fredric Jameson and that thingy from that part, where the stuff happens.

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 rĂ©tro - 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. 
WTJ Mitchell's penetrating gaze and the supper aggressive extramission vision of the Death Star

Likewise the theorist WTJ Mitchell. He is an original thinker and writer; someone who has an interest the broadest swath of visual culture, with at least a soft spot for good scifi (he stopped a talk at the Sculpture Center to call Children of Men as the best dystopia since Blade Runner). But Mitchell's perspective seems very close to Jameson's In his book What do Pictures Want? Mitchell observes that:
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.
Don't get me wrong, I do not mean to say anything I have quoted above is wrong, only that it is disappointing. If you accept the premise that a visual medium's visuals are mere spectacle and the only thing that really counts is the story, your probably not going to get much out of Star Wars beyond archetypal what what (not my cup of tea), But your not likely to get much out of Jaques Tati's play Time either Lucas says he was interested in the "visual filmmaking" of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film boarders on the abstract. It has almost no story, and its human characters are wooden at best. So why does 2001 attract so much first rate writing and Star Wars is so roundly dismissed? The whiz bang story that animates Star Wars, is no more or less complicated than 2001. Both films can be 'read' as Imperialist, but only 2001 functioned as a form of benevolent propagandaStar Wars is not necessarily imperialist feudal pap (seen as an object it is the story of an internal struggle) and was WAY too vulgar to be attractive to European intellectuals - which is the same reason it doesn't attract the interest of domestic literary-minded scholars of visual culture.
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. 
Dave Hickey & Jabba the Hut - they both drink, smoke, likes hot-rods, lives in the desert and I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that Dave has fed a dancing girl to a monster.

Even Dave Hickey, who is a personal favorite (the critical theory love that dare not speak its name), is dismissive of the film. In his book Air Guitar - where he sings the praises of hot-rods, the Liberace museum, and Perry Mason - he writes that, “the massive consequence of Frampton Comes Alive in the record industry and Star Wars in the movie industry have instituted a reign of consensus in the world of commercial entertainment, as well – a quest for a consensus of desire, dedicated to producing ‘blockbusters’ that please everyone, every time.” Part of the problem, which Hickey's dismissal points to, is that Star Wars was and is such enormous commercial success - it clouds the critical lens to have too many people agree with you. I don't mean that in jest, as I wrote in the Rosalind Krauss is a Jedi post, this is true for me. I work best when I am disagreeing with someone - contention is a point of cleavage that allows a thing to be taken apart. One of the reasons lowbrow fair is attractive to scholars is the chance to face the crowd and make the case for why you love what seems unlovable. That I am sure, is at least part of the attraction of Star Wars for me (and why I hesitate to write about the Matrix). So few people find Star Wars worthy of serious attention - it is a near highbrow consensus. Don't get me wrong, I don't find it inspiring to disagree with dumb ideas, the orthodox reading of Star Wars is smart - it's just shallow and incomplete. I don't think my contrarianism is at all unusual. I imagine that same impulse is what inspired Glenn's hilariously detailed stab at my diagram. What boggles my mind is how completely the popular consensus has obscured the the obvious merits of what is clearly a great film. Once you get past the action figures and lunch boxes you are confronted by the reality of what a strange and novel a film Star Wars is from beginning to end.
Hal Foster and HAL - sorry I have made the Lobot joke elsewhere.

A measure of the consensus is how different Jameson, Mitchell and Hickey are. They occupy very different ideological corners. Jameson is a Marxist. I have never met him, or heard him discuss his politics, but in his writings he comes across as pink as anyone can in this day and age. Mitchell is at University of Chicago, and while I know that doesn't mean he subscribes to the "Chicago School" of Milton Friedman, Mitchell is an independent voice. His writing have a very different quality than the dialectical theorizing of Kraus-Foster-Buchloh-et al (not that there is anything wrong with that). And Hickey - God only knows where that guy actually stands. He lives and teaches in no-mans-land of Los Vegas. He is in no way a populist, but he celebrates the buying and selling of art and grinds his teeth about the distortions of institutional spending on installation art - It's a wonder Ron Clark over at the  Whitney Independent Program hasn't put a price on his head. (Clark has his own lowbrow guilty pleasure - for years his students knew not to call him during Murder She Wrote.) 
Henry Jenkins and a graffitied AT-AT 

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.

David Brin examining, Dr. Spock doing whatever it is they do an that show - way to regimented an militarized for my taste.

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. 
I obviously write too, but I come to late in life. I am sculptor. I make things, and when I watch film it is from that position that I observe the action on screen. I am not interested in rehashing the story of Star Wars either as an updating of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or as capitalism fantasies of feudal imperialism. I am not much interested in the phenomenon of fandom, nor am I resentful of blockbusters (unless they are as malignantly amoral as Hanibal, or contemptuous and misanthropic as The Transformers). The difference between my diagram and Glenn's is not that I didn't understand how "Semiotic Squares" work - it's that he thought I was mapping a story when I was actually mapping a thing; a thing made by a particular group of people, at a particular time and place.
John Powers poking away at Terminal and George Lucas poking at the Death Star.

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