Two stories about Joseph Campbell, the influential American comparative mythologist, and outer space. The first story, relayed by an acquaintance of his in a letter to the New York Review of Books: on the occasion of the first moon landings in 1969, Campbell mentioned to a student, apropos of nothing, that the Moon would “be a good place to put the Jews.” The second story is Star Wars.
Campbell is chiefly famous as the originator of the “Monomyth,” as laid out in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. A kind of cod-structuralist, he thought that all human myth across all recorded culture had the same basic structure. Campbell argued that what all worthwhile cultures have in common is an admiration for the Great Hero, and the story of his Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is this: our protagonist starts out in an ordinary, humdrum world; he (and it’s usually a he) leaves to seek adventure, falls into a vast and strange world in which he discovers surprising new abilities, faces his father, defeats evil, fulfills his great destiny, and returns home a changed man. It’s not just that the original Star Wars films display some of this structure: George Lucas was an avid reader of Campbell’s, actively gambling on his theory, reasoning that if that narrative were as universal as he claimed, a film that cleaved tightly to its progression could only be a box office juggernaut.
This might be why everything in Star Wars is expressed in such general terms. The story of the hero and the great evil can admit no particularities; the Galactic Empire doesn’t have anything as crude as an actual name; the Rebel Alliance isn’t burdened by anything so weighty as an explicit ideology. All we are allowed to know is that one side is good and the other is villainous — we’re told, in those scrolling-text intros. (The principle of identity is strong with this one throughout — note, for instance, that every planet in the Galaxy only seems to have one immediate location; you pilot your ship to Yoda’s world and he’s immediately there to meet you.)
Star Wars tries to skim below the surface of actual politics, so that Ronald Reagan could see its Evil Empire as an image of the Soviet Union, while snarky liberals are allowed to point out the irony of vast and jealous entertainment corporations telling stories about an armed revolution against all monoliths, and then blanketing the world with tie-in tat.
But all this assumes that Campbell’s story really is universal and absolute, something that precedes culture and ideology. Which it isn’t: it’s the product of an antisemite’s ecumenicalism, the kind of syncretic cultural milkshake that Umberto Eco describes as the first condition of fascism.
Look at the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, really look at them, and try to see anything like a radically democratic revolution against tyranny. What is the class composition of these rebels? Of the ones we know, there’s one member of a hereditary royal family, one petty criminal, one former ruler of a privately owned city, and one adopted child of rural landowners (and, possibly, slaveholders) who is also the scion to an ancient religious order of aristocratic knights.
At the start of A New Hope, we hear that the Alliance has growing support within the Imperial Senate, and Imperial Senates aren’t usually very fond of proper revolutionaries. Consider the Alliance’s tactics. Every time we meet the rebels, they have built themselves a base on some deserted planet, where they’re stockpiling heavy arms.
As any good student of Mao knows, a revolutionary movement can only succeed if it wins the trust of the people; holding territory is a game played by the State, not those trying to overthrow it. We never see the rebels being sheltered from Stormtroopers by grateful peasants (while they do ally with the Ewoks, it’s with a fully colonial sense of entitlement); we never see Alliance propaganda being passed around in secret by the oppressed; we never see any indication that this armed faction has any kind of popular mandate whatsoever. It’s not just infantile bourgeois ultraleftism — Blanquism in space.
At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, we see for the first time a full Rebel Alliance fleet; vast blobby spaceships to rival the Empire’s. Aren’t warships expensive? Who’s funding these people? Consider that when we see that fleet, it’s positioned outside the Galaxy. There’s a name for groups like the Rebel Alliance. Not freedom fighters, but Contras, right-wing death squads.
The instinctive political response is perhaps too simple: neither the Galactic Empire nor the Rebel Alliance, but interplanetary socialism! This isn’t entirely illegitimate, and there are far worse places to start than a rejection of the terms of the conflict, but this line can only get us so far. Neither should we take the oppositional position that if the rebels are bad, then the Sith must therefore be good. There’s something else happening.
Campbell was wrong, but the gamble paid off anyway: Star Wars was an enormous success — the franchise is now in its third clutch; this week’s The Force Awakens looks set to break every box-office record, all over again. Some of this can only be put down to the fact that pop culture is intrinsically fascist, and nerd culture especially so. But there’s also a sense in which Star Wars really does work as a modern myth, with all of myth’s explanatory powers — not because of the fabulistic simplicity of its categories, but precisely because the world it shows is lopsided, hollow, and broken.
For instance: what, exactly, is the Galactic Empire? It’s strange: something that’s fully omnipresent, but also nowhere to be found. The Empire rules the entire galaxy, but all we see are border zones: corrupt, bandit-strewn scrubworlds; autonomous mining colonies; planets inhabited only by storms and monsters; bucolic pre-agricultural fantasies. There are warships and soldiers, thousands even, but that only proves the existence of a border, not anything on the other side. The Empire is all hollow inside, it’s nothing more than its own border. If you have shipyards, why build your weapons platform off the forest moon of Endor?
In A New Hope the heroes blast through a panel inside the clean, sleek, fascist-modernist Death Star, escape through the hole, and find themselves in a primordial horror of a waste-disposal system: the room’s full of back sludge, up to your knees, and a horribly befanged Something is making its monstrous sines beneath . . .
The essential horror of the Galactic Empire is the horror of something with form but no real being; a walking corpse, complete with worms.
But never mind the Empire — what about the Force? “It surrounds and penetrates us,” says Obi-Wan. “It binds the Galaxy together.” Something like Spinoza’s God, or the Dao, with its binary division into opposing principles of dark and light. Except that while the Dark Side of the Force is mentioned so often that many viewers of Star Wars tend to assume the existence of a corresponding Light Side, at no point in any of the movies is it ever actually mentioned.
Obi-Wan declares that he has “felt a great disturbance in the Force.” The Galactic Emperor uses this exact phrase one film later. Anakin Skywalker is the one who is prophesied to “bring balance to the Force.” Is the Force then out of balance? It can’t be anything like the Dao, the hidden harmony in which all things are suspended; it’s far more like the apeiron of Anaximander, as read by Heidegger and Derrida.
Anaximander, the first Greek philosopher to write his thoughts down, handed posterity only a single fragment:
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other dike [justice, jointure] and recompense for their adikia [injustice, disjointure]
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
The apeiron, or the infinite, is this whence and this thence: in other words, the Force. Heidegger believed that Anaximander, living a long time ago in an ontology far far away, had arrived at something that subsequent philosophy, with its mess of concepts, worked to obscure: things are always still partly absent, their fragmentary being is a modification of the wholeness of Being as such.
In Heidegger’s reading, for things to recompense for their injustice can only mean their destruction in the apeiron, the annihilation of all particularities in the indifference of the infinite. In Spectres of Marx, Derrida argues instead that justice can only be a “relation to the other” that must require “an irreducible excess of a disjointure.” Throughout the book, he returns to a phrase of Hamlet’s, one that “seems to offer a predestined hospitality.” “The time is out of joint,” says Hamlet — and this is not a bad thing.
Darth Vader was supposed to be the Chosen One, who would bring balance to the Force; instead he became a murderous tyrant. This is in no way a contradiction: the Force is its dark side, the despotic ordinance that annihilates all things in sameness. Bringing balance to the Force doesn’t mean universal peace, it means firing up the Death Star.
The Jedi and the Sith or the Empire and the Alliance are not really opposing forces; they’re all on the side of jointure. If only a Sith deals in absolutes, then the Star Wars films are a Sith. The Force is something like Adorno’s grotesque characterization of the Hegelian world-spirit: it “drips with suffering and fallibility”; to “hear its murmur” prompts the “shudder at something which is overpowering and at the same time devoid of qualities.” There was never an Empire; there was never a rebellion; there was only the Force, and it’s evil.
All this is perfectly demonstrated in the sadly underappreciated Star Wars prequels. Here we’re shown the real truth of the situation in the original trilogy. The Jedi — a rich, powerful, aristocratic military order, unaccountable to any democratic oversight and pompously decked out in peasant robes — are shown marching into battle alongside the armies of proto-Stormtroopers as they wage a war of extermination against some poorly defined separatists, whose view that the Republic is essentially evil turns out to be absolutely correct. The Yodas and Obi-Wans and Skywalkers of the world are politically aligned with a nihilistic and omnicidal power from beyond the galaxy: they always were.
Nerds hated the prequel trilogy; their great worry about the new Star Wars film is that it would be another Phantom Menace. Which misses the point: it was always going to be another Phantom Menace, from the moment of its conception. Never mind what George Lucas says. A prequel only gains its meaning from the fact that it’s viewed after and in relation to the original.
The Phantom Menace already describes what takes place immediately after the events of The Return of the Jedi. There’s no Death Star, but the evil remains, and the designated good guys are in the thick of it.
I’ve not yet seen The Force Awakens, but a few conclusions are already easy to make. Firstly, the title has a decidedly Heideggerian bent: truth, as he puts it in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, means “letting what is sleeping become wakeful.” Mass awakening, as opposed to mass consciousness, is a notion with unavoidable fascist overtones. Based on the experience of the later James Bond films, and Abrams’ previous efforts with Star Trek, it’s very likely to be a dull soup of knowing, pseudo-pomo references to the original trilogy, to keep the fans happy; where the prequels tried to extend the story, the sequels will probably only recapitulate it.
A new surrogate for the Empire, a new stand-in for the Alliance, to reinforce the pure homogeneity that is the Star Wars vision of justice, to conceal with phoney wars and fake empires the fact that our only hope is not to awaken the Force, but to smash it utterly.