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Metaphors Be With You: A Cultural Analysis of Star Wars
[The mathematical physicist] von Neumann sometimes spoke of a “complexity barrier.” This was the imaginary border separating simple systems from complex systems. A simple system can give rise to systems of less complexity only. In contrast, a sufficiently complex system can create systems more complex than itself. The offspring systems can beget more complex systems yet. In principle, any set of physical laws that permits complex systems allows an unlimited explosion of complexity.
— William Poundstone, The Recursive Universe
SAL-9000: I would like to ask a question.
Dr. Chandra: Mmmhm. What is it?
SAL-9000: Will I dream?
— 2010: Sequel to A Space Odyssey
(Dr. Chandra has just informed the SAL-9000 computer of his
intention to disconnect some of its higher associative circuits)
A Bookstore Browse
When Return of the Jedi was released in May 1983, its promoters were ready with everything from TV ads boosting the movie to wind-up toys of its main characters. In previous years model kits of tie-fighters, replicas of R2D2 and C3PO, Darth Vader helmets, E. T. dolls, and dozens of other gadgets and gimmicks based on earlier supergrossers had made millions, and so the avalanche of Jedi by-products was to be expected. But lost in this avalanche, buried beneath the more expensive and exotic novelties, was an item I do not recall from the earlier supergrossers: Return of the Jedi bookmarks, featuring cut-out pictures of the cast (Luke, Han, Leia, Chewy, Jabba, and others).
These bookmarks might be considered a nice complement to the Return of the Jedi Storybook, which was rapidly moving up the best-seller list during the summer of ‘83 (in sweet, bizarre tandem with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose). They might be considered in that way, but for the curious fact that these bookmarks became minor cult objects in their own right among the sub-teenybopper crowd — Hollywood’s effort to muscle in on the lucrative sports card market. And like those memorabilia, these Jedi cards were eagerly bought and collected by kids who weren’t interested in reading anything, even the Jedi Storybook.
For example, I observed the following scene while browsing in a Burlington, Vermont, bookstore one afternoon. This bookstore, which actually stocked a fairly serious collection, had the Jedi figures in a countertop display case beside the cash register, right up in the front of the store. A woman entered with her three children in tow, a little girl of three or four, and two boys around six and eight. They circulated among the display cases at the front of the store for a few minutes without showing much interest in anything in particular. On the point of leaving, Mom and the kids simultaneously spotted the Jedi figures. They rushed up to the box and began a lively conversation, the kids badgering Mom to buy the whole set (there were about a dozen figures at eighty-nine cents a crack) and Mom countering with the suggestion that each child pick his or her favorite. To the little girl: “I know which one you’ll pick. You’ll pick Princess Leia” (which turned out to be wishful stereotyping on Mom’s part: the morbid little tyke picked Jabba the Hutt). The little boys decided, more predictably, on Han and Chewy. Their purchases made, they exited the store without a backward glance at a book.
Where were these kids headed, with their little package of bookless bookmarks? When they left the bookstore, which cultural world did they re-enter and what future culture were they in the process of creating? To approach these questions from the perspective of cultural analysis is to address a topic that has already attracted enough attention to become an item of popular culture in itself, the topic of innumerable magazine articles and TV talk shows: the status of language and literacy in an emerging electronic age that replaces printed pages with digitized disks and reading with listening to or viewing audio/video productions and interacting with video games. I believe that a cultural analysis of the Star Wars trilogy can provide useful insights into this broad and popularized issue by concentrating on specific thematic developments within the movies and thereby avoiding the kind of conventional breast-beating and cliché-mongering that have come to characterize discussions of the “demise of literacy.”
Those whose business is the unraveling of hidden patterns in society (policy analysts, newspaper and TV commentators, literary critics, even cultural anthropologists and semioticians) are generally unwilling to confer on productions like Star Wars the dignity that serious examination bestows. Considering the little episode I witnessed in the bookstore, I find that disdain itself significant. It seems to issue from a source far deeper than the petty snobbishness of intellectuals. The dons (sadly including even anthropologists, whose charge is ostensibly the science of the people) have largely shied away from popular movies, as they have from other crazes of the modern era such as disco, football, and video games. I think they have done so because they perceive in Bond, Star Wars, and the rest a thinly veiled threat to the whole academic enterprise: the movie houses, sports arenas, and video arcades of our cities are harbingers of the death, or at least fundamental transformation, of literacy. The intelligentsia look at the crowds thronging those places and see a world made up of people walking around with bookmarks without books, trafficking in images of make-believe characters on celluloid and cardboard, slipping tokens into the insatiable maws of video games, watching a thirty-second Bud commercial during the Super Bowl that cost more than it takes to run a small university department for a year. They see all this and, quite naturally, it scares them stiff.
In a world of words and things, commentators, critics, and even anthropologists tend to emphasize the power of the former over the latter. We confer on our verbal and written accounts the authority of primary, organizing actions that make sense of the mute and often intractable things we deal with daily. In the Beginning was The Word. The supergrosser success of Star Wars flies in the face of this common understanding by focusing everyone’s attention on the myriad fateful ways our interactions with machines shape the course and substance of our lives. Luke Skywalker is an interpreter of the world, just as literary heroes are, but the world he interprets is inhabited by the post-literate moms and kids who like their bookmarks without books. This should not be construed as an indictment of the unenlightened masses, for it makes perfect sense that contemporary cultural productions should interpret our relations with the tremendously important animate-but-voiceless things in our lives. Watching Luke Skywalker team up with R2D2 to destroy the Death Star is informative and interpretive of our own, less exalted doings in today’s high-tech world, where we are often called on at a moment’s notice to enter into a complicated relationship with a machine without benefit of a prior reading of the relevant operator’s manual.
As an epic in the totemism of machines, Star Wars sketches a few contours of that complex dimensional construct, “humanity,” as our (quasi)species twists and turns in the fields of the three semiotic dimensions. How does the movie accomplish that feat? How does the maudlin character Luke Skywalker achieve a new definition of humanity? Attending to this question is obviously our first priority, but if we reach even a partially satisfying answer another major issue immediately presents itself. Unless we are content to dwell within the cinematic framework, it will be necessary to examine in detail other, non-cinematic cultural productions and phenomena that have something to do with machines and to determine precisely how these are tied to the human-machine theme developed in the Star Wars trilogy. An adequate cultural analysis of the movie(s) thus leads to insights into the current status of human-machine relations outside the movie theatre.
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