Tag Archives: Fredric Jameson

Marx, Jung & Yoda: The Dialectics of The Force

Here’s a talk about Star Wars and myth that I gave last month  at the Academy of Religious Studies conference in San Francisco. Feedback is welcome – I’m in the process of turning this into the introduction to my book, Centaur Manifesto.

I’m really thrilled to be here at the AAR conference. This is the first time I have been to a conference in religious studies, and I want to admit right off the bat that I’m not a trained scholar in religious studies. My own background is in cultural studies, new media, and critical theory. But I have found more and more that in trying to understand contemporary American culture, it’s impossible to ignore spiritual themes, and that the theoretical models of cultural studies really don’t offer a lot of space to think through questions of spirituality. There are some good and legitimate reasons for this. The Marxist and Freudian hermaneutics of suspicion have been incredibly valuable in uncovering the ideological underpinnings of religious discourses, along with all other discourses. But I’ve come to conclude that they’re not enough to tell the whole story.  I’ve come to this conference because I think a theological turn – or, in psychoanalytic terms, a Jungian turn – can help cultural studies develop a richer vocabulary to talk about the numinous. And at the same time, I do have some hope that some of the ideas that have come out of my own field might be of use to religious studies as well.

I’d like to begin by giving a little context for how I came to this topic. My first book, Electric Dreams, looked at the cultural history of personal computers, and what I argue is that cyberculture in the 1980s and 90s became what I call a utopian sphere: a space to imagine different visions of the future beyond the boundaries of late capitalist ideology. I was inspired by the work of Fredric Jameson, particularly his groundbreaking essay “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Jameson argues that for popular culture texts to capture the imaginations of large audiences, they must include at least glimpses of a better world. But capitalist ideology represses and recontains these utopian impulses, channelling them into consumerism, cynicism, and alienated individualism. For Jameson, the goal of the critic is to rescue and expand upon the utopian visions that have been buried within what he calls The Political Unconscious.

After finishing my first book a few years ago, I began to look more closely at the popular culture of this past decade, and was surprised by what I found. Electric Dreams argued that science fiction was the most influential genre of the 1980s and 1990s, helping to invent and make sense of the transmediated universe that we all live in now. But in this past decade, there’s been a cultural shift that has paralleled the growth of transmedia. These days, I’d argue that it’s the genre of fantasy that has been the most influential to our culture, producing the biggest blockbusters (Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings), the most popular gamespaces (World of Warcraft), and, to my mind, the most interesting genre authors

Fantasy works differently than science fiction. Science fiction speaks in the register of science and technology. But the central trope of fantasy is magic – a mystical force beyond the boundraries of Englightenment rationality. If science fiction celebrates logos, fantasy is the genre of mythos. As Arthur C. Clarke points out, any technology sufficiently advanced beyond our own is indistinguishable from magic. In this sense, all science fiction is part of the larger fantastical, mythological tradition. It’s just that the technological gloss of SF provides a cover of rationality over its magical, mystical core. Lately, that cover seems to be slipping. The rise of popular fantasy, I’d suggest, reflects what Christopher Partridge calls The Re-Enchantment of the West, in a play on Max Weber’s famous description of modernity as “The Dis-Enchantment of the World.” The desires underlying many fantasy texts, then, are not only the visions of a more just and egalitarian post-capitalist society that Jameson identifies, but also repressed visions of the spiritual – of mytical, gnostic experience.

Now, it may seem strange to describe spirituality as a repressed subtext in American popular culture. After all, the US remains one of the most religious societies in the world, an ongoing repudiation of the secularization thesis. But I’d suggest that the mystical, gnostic sensiblity of popular fantasy is not prominently represented in the American public sphere. This is the argument religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal makes in his fascinating new study of comic books, Mutants and Mystics. Furthermore, the core audience for these texts – the kinds of geeks and techies like myself who attend the San Diego Comic Con and play MMORPGs – are exactly those whose everyday worlds are most structured by the capitalist technocratic rationality of binary codes and spreadsheets. In this context, the mystical vision of fantasy represents what Jung would call a compensatory myth – not, as classical ideology theory would have it, because it mystifies and justifies capitalism, but rather because, like a recurring dream, it points to a psychological need that is not being met – a potential transformation of the self, and of society, that challenges the illusion of a stable, complete ego.

In other words, there is a spiritual impulse that is repressed in technocratic postmodern American culture. But that human need does not go away. The return of the repressed shows up in our shared fantasies. Jorge Louis Borges suggested that the theological is a part of the fantastical genre.  I’d like to suggest the converse: that we consider popular fantasy as a form of folk theology.

Another inspiriation for my work, and for much of transmedia studies in general, has been Donna Haraway’s hugely influential 1986 essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” Haraway turned to the figure of the cyborg to argue that it offered a way to reimagine the intersection between the human and the machine, between nature and technology. She saw the cyborg as a figure who could challenge the presumptions of many on the Left at the time who saw technology as the enemy. Instead, she suggested that films like Blade Runner offerred ways to imagine reappropriating technological tools to empower the disnenfranchised. Haraway’s ideas, controversial in their time, have become a kind of common sense today; I don’t think technophobia on the Left is nearly the problem it was when she was discussing it. Instead, just as science fiction was dismissed by most of Haraway’s peers in the 1980s as escapism, today it is fantasy that is often dismissed as reactionary nostalgia. In fact, both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies first came out in the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11, and many critics  argued that these films were so popular at this moment because they offer a safe, reassuring retreat into a fantasy world. I don’t think that’s completely wrong, but I don’t think it tells nearly the whole story. If in the 1980s what was needed was a cyborg manifesto, today what’s needed is what I call a centaur manifesto, a similar embrace of a liminal figure. The centaur is on the boundary between human and animal, between nature and culture, and even on the boundary between reality and fantasy, between the scientific world of everyday life and the fantastical world of mythology. Just as Haraway saw the cyborg as an inspiring figure to imagine how we could rework science fiction in new, more empowered ways, I think the centaur similarly can be that type of fantasy figure.

To flesh out the implications of this centaur manifesto, I’ll be turning now to a specific text. The movie I want to talk about might be a little surprising because at first glance we might presume it’s science fiction: Star Wars. Star Wars is on the precipice of science fiction and fantasy. It has spaceships and light sabers, but it’s also a story of a knight who rescues a princess. It begins like a fairy tale: “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away.” And most of all, it’s a world in which magic overcomes technology, as Luke turns off his computer and destroys the Death Star by trusting instead in the Force.

The formative religious experience of my childhood was Star Wars – certainly more so, I have to admit, than Hebrew School or my Bar Mitzvah. When Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke, “The Force . . . is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together,” I could feel The Force tingle in my own fingertips. More than once I attempted to move objects with only the power of my mind. They never moved, but I can’t say I was ever disappointed – I think something in me moved, as I recognized that my mind and the outside world in were in some ways part of an indivisible whole. Years later, I would rediscover the flavor of those experiences when I began meditating regularly.

The power of The Force, I think, has a lot to do with the endurance of the Star Wars mythos, over three decades past the release of the first film. Star Wars was one of the first transmedia blockbusters, spawning books, comics, videogames, lunchboxes, and most lucratively, toys. All of these spinoffs meant that watching the movie was only the beginning of the experience – kids like me could move on to tell our own stories, as we did for all the years between 198tk and 1999 when no new films were being made.

The Force is a fictional construction, but at the same time it is a very powerful model for thinking about the numinous in our lives. In fact, its very fictional nature may be part of what has made it so resonant and lasting. In Jungian terms, we could say that for Star Wars fans, The Force is an archetypal image rather than the archetype itself. While there are a few people who mark ‘Jedi’ under religion on their census forms, most people don’t explicitly believe in the theology of Star Wars. Rather, they find Star Wars a set of metaphors that can help them conceive of their own sense of the spiritual or the numinous without feeling constrained by the doctrines of traditional religions. In this sense, Star Wars is one example of what Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead call The Spiritual Revolution, in which more and more Westerners define themselves as spiritual rather than religious.

So, how does cultural studies theorize texts like Star Wars? In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins’ agenda-setting work on transmedia, Jenkins recognizes the influence of Joseph Campbell’s ideas about myth not only on Star Wars, but on the many other screenplays that have been inspired by Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. But Jenkins characterizes Campbell’s ideas in a very distinctive way. He writes: “Audience familiarity with this basic plot structure allows scriptwriters to skip over transitional or expository sequences, throwing us directly in the action.” In other words, Jenkins finds Campbell important as a structuralist who codified the generic expectations that make these heroic narratives easier to parse. But Jenkins passes over exactly what’s most important about myth to Campbell: the mystical. As Campbell put it: “Without the mystical, myth is just ideology.” For Campbell, as a Jungian, the hero’s journey is fundamentally about the descent into the unconscious to engage the numinous – what he calls “the mystery which is the ground of our being.”

So what would it mean to take the numinous more seriously in cultural studies? Is there a way to articulate spirituality within the set of ideas that have been so influential in cultural studies?

The circuit of culture is Paul du Gay’s very influential model of the five nodes through which every culural object passes. Where does the numinous fit in this model? Spirituality is certainly an aspect of personal identity. It’s also, as I’ve been arguing, a key theme of textual representation, even if remains as subtext. But I’d suggest the numinous – a vision of the transcendental – also informs the activities of production, consumption, and regulation. Another way to rework the circuit of culture is this:

[To come: image of a Mandala of Culture. Submissions welcome.]

Here is a Mandala of Culture, which transforms Du Gay’s two-dimentional circle into a three-dimensional sphere. It conceives of the numinous as the ground, the context in which all the circuit goes around. The numinous in itself is not directly accessible. In Jung’s terms, it is the realm of archetypes. It enters our world through the circuit of culture, where it becomes an object of representation, redefinition, and struggle. The circuit of culture is where archetype meets ideology.

I like Jung’s term “the numinous” because it locates the spiritual in the unconscious, the unrepresentable. We could also call this axis the sublime, or even Lacan’s Real – in some sense, I’d argue that all these terms are pointing to the same thing: that part of the humand experience beyond Enlightenment rationality.

[Note – this is the fuzziest, most speculative part of the talk. More to come in Centaur Manifesto.]

With this model in place, let’s turn back to Star Wars and ask how we might integrate the numinous into cultural studies. One place to start is to point out that Joseph Campbell was not George Lucas’s only guru. As I was doing research for this paper, I came across a series of fascinating talks by Alan Watts, who was a very influential popularizer of Zen Buddhism and Taoism in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. During the period that George Lucas was writing Star Wars, Watts lived in the Bay area, speaking often at places like the Esalen Institute and on his weekly public radio show. The vocal, physical, and philosphical resemblance between Watts and Alec Guinness’s portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi is so unmistakeable that many fans have concluded that Watts was “the real Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

In this context, then, we can see the Force not only as a generalized religious metaphor, but also more specifically as an example of the popular transmission of Eastern spiritual ideas to the West in the second half of the Twentieth Century. But Lucas’s Force is not quite the same thing as the Tao. In Taoism, the model of yin and yang reflects the interdependence and interpenetration of all things. Dark and light depend on and need each other. One cannot exist without the other, just as any figure depends on the negative space of its background. In George Lucas’s version of the Force, while the language of dark and light remains, it’s reincorporated into a much more Western, Manichean vision of absolute good and evil. There is the light side of Obi-Wan and Luke, and there is the dark side of Darth Vader and The Emperor. So while on the one hand George Lucas brought a Taoist vision to the United States, on the other hand, in the process he robbed it of much of what makes it distinctive, complex and resonant. For this, it’s been justly criticized for validating Ronald Reagan’s attack on the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” in the 1980s, and George W. Bush’s similar demonization of an “Axis of Evil” two decades later.

Having said that, however, if we then begin to think about Star Wars as a transmediated text, what is significant not only its original texual representation, but also its reappropriation and reworking by its audiences. If we think of the cultural studies model of an active audience negotiating and resisting dominant codes, then we can see George Lucas’s original vision of the Force as only a first step towards a more complex, collectively produced theological vision.

I work in downtown Atlanta. Just up the block once a year is the Dragon Con annual convention where science fiction and fantasy fans come from all over the world to dress up as their favorite characters. The most popular characters, by far, are the Star Wars Storm Troopers. Every year the Storm Troopers parade down Peachtree Street. This may seem surprising: why, we may wonder, would so many fans want to dress up, not as heroes like Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi, but instead as part of the forces of darkness? The answer, I think, is that for Star Wars fans, the metaphysics of Star Wars are more complex than it is in Lucas’s original formulation. The dark side represents not simply evil, but the shadow side of our own personalities – the attraction towards violence, aggression, and power that we repress in our daily lives. The play space of the Dragon Con convention and the Star Wars transmedia universe provides a safe, delineated way to engage with that shadow side. And in the process, to create a more complex moral vision: to embrace and show sympathy for the devil.

What Star Wars fans are doing is what we could call vernacular theology: challenging Lucas’s dilution of Alan Watts’s Taoist vision, returning it to a more complex model that has kept the power of the Force alive after 35 years.

PostMarxisms, Summer 2011

COMM 6160/8980, Summer 2011
Tuesdays & Thursdays, 4:45-7:30
1020 One Park Place

Course Description
Is Marxism dead? If so, what other forms of critique and imagination can help us think beyond the injustices and unsustainability of global capitalism? What can we learn from the successes and failures of the Marxist project?

The goal of the course is to take stock of the value and legacy of the Marxist critical tradition for contemporary debates about culture and politics. Over the seven weeks, we’ll alternate reading Marx himself with work by theorists engaging his legacy.

Required Texts

Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1
Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right
Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital
Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times
Giles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus
Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

In addition to the readings, you will also be required to watch or listen to David Harvey’s series of lectures, Reading Marx’s Capital. It’s available in a variety of streaming and downloadable formats at http://davidharvey.org/reading-capital.


6/7    Introduction
6/9    Capital, chapters 1-2; Harvey, classes 1-2

6/14    Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right
6/16    Capital, chapters 3-6; Harvey, classes 3-4

6/21    Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital
6/23    Capital, chapters 7-11; Harvey, classes 5-6

6/28    Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times
6/30    Capital, chapters 12-15; Harvey, classes 7-9

7/5    Giles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus
7/7    Capital, chapters 16-25; Harvey, classes 10-11

7/12    Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying
7/14    Capital, chapters 26-33; Harvey, classes 12-13

7/19    Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
7/21    Research Presentations/Party at Ted’s house

Paper due 7/28


The class assignments add up to total of 100 possible points. Your final grade for the class is determined by adding up your grades for each assignment, adjusting for attendance, then applying the final number to the following scale:

A+    100-98        B+    89-88        C+    79-78        D    69-65
A     97-93        B    87-83        C    77-70        F    64-0
A-    92-90        B-    82-80

I. Book Discussions – 6160: 20% of final grade each; 8690: 15% of final grade each
You will sign up to lead, with a group, discussions of two of the assigned books (other than Capital). To prepare for the discussion of the reading, research these questions to put the reading in a broader context:

What is the author’s background? What discipline is the author trained in? What else has s/he written? In which journals has s/he published?

What was the reception of the book? How was book reviewed? What criticisms have been made of the author’s work? How has the author responded? Whom has the author influenced?

Then, meet with your group to prepare for a class discussion. Don’t bother summarizing the work. Rather, address on these areas:

Theoretical debates: In what theoretical debates does the work intervene? Where does the author stand? Whom does the author criticize? How does this work move the debate forward?

Examples: Pick 2-3 media examples that are either directly addressed by the author, or that can be illuminated by applying the author’s ideas. Show a representative sample from the text (any clip should be no more than 5 minutes). Discuss how the author would (or does) interpret the example. What are the strengths and limitations of this interpretation? What alternate interpretations are possible?

Outline the key topics of discussion in a short (1-2 page) handout for the class. There’s no need to include more detail, or to prepare a PowerPoint presentation – the focus should be on presenting material orally and facilitating a good class discussion.

II. Contemporary Capital example – 10% of grade
For one week’s reading in Capital, bring in a relevant contemporary example so that class can assess the applicability and value of Marx’s ideas today. Choose a text to present to the class to get the discussion going, such as a video clip.

IIi. Outside reading presentation – 8690 only: 10% of grade
PhD students will read one additional book, and give a 15-20 minute presentation on the work to the class, summarizing the book’s key arguments, the critical response to the book, and how its ideas relate to the themes of the course.

III. Final Paper – 50% of final grade
Write a paper on a subject relating to the ideas of the class. 6160: 12-15 pages. 8690: 18-25 pages. Doctoral work will also be expected to meet a higher standard of theoretical sophistication.

A one-page prospectus is due July 5. I will schedule individual meetings with you to discuss the prospectus.
You will give a short (10 minute) presentation of your work in progress on July 21.
The final paper is due July 28.

IV. Attendance Adjustment
As Woody Allen put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.” It’s less than that in this formula, but the bottom line is that you can’t contribute to the class if you’re not there. You’re allowed one unexcused absence for the semester. After that, each unexcused absence subtracts one point from your grade total. Excused absences include medical and family emergencies. You will be expected to schedule any employment responsibilities around this class, or accept the consequences of missed classes for your grade. If you do need to miss a class, please contact me ahead of time, and make arrangements to catch up on missed material.


Office Hours
Office hours are by appointment. I’m usually available to meet before and after every class.

Incompletes may be given only in special hardship cases. Incompletes will not be used merely for extending the time for completion of course requirements.

Your constructive assessment of this course plays an indispensable role in shaping education at Georgia State. Upon completing the course, please take time to fill out the online course evaluation.

Students who wish to request accommodation for a disability may do so by registering with the Office of Disability Services. Students may only be accommodated upon issuance by the Office of Disability Services of a signed Accommodation Plan and are responsible for providing a copy of that plan to instructors of all classes in which accommodations are sought.

Changes to the Syllabus
This syllabus provides a general plan for the course. Deviations may be necessary.

Centaur Manifesto

I’m writing a book about centaurs and cyborgs – about trying to bring together mythos and logos, magic and science, Carl Jung and Karl Marx, Maria Von Franz and Fredric JamesonI’m podcasting the book via my lectures on Tedcast. I’m tweeting the book via the #centaur hashtag. And I’m blogging the book here.

The book expands my work on politics, myth, fantasy, and the ideas of Karl Marx and Carl Jung. Theoretically, it’s a marriage of post-Marxist critical theory with post-Jungian depth psychology. My hope is the combination will prove, if not a dialectical synthesis, perhaps an alchemical reaction – what Jung calls syzygy, the marriage of opposites.

Jung like Marx began as a Hegelian. Alchemy is Jung’s own revision of Hegel’s dialectic, just as deconstruction is for Derrida. The Buddhist version is my personal favorite: the middle way. Which leads to emptiness, no-self, nirvana. And as Jack Kornfield puts it, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

The book began as a series of essays in the media studies journals Flow and Scope in 2009 on Jungian approaches to cultural studies:

My most recent work has been on games as forms of active imagination. Here’s a short slideshow I made about the social game Farmville and active imagination. It accompanied a piece I contributed to the digital humanities journal In Media Res, “Farmville: the Garden in the Machine.”

Here’s an interview I did with David Metcalfe, who runs the wonderfulOpenMythSource.com. He also wrote a very thoughtful follow-up piece about my work, “Digital Gardening,” and republished “Myth, the Numinous & Cultural Studies.”

And here’s a talk I gave a couple of years ago about the politics of fantasy films.

A Centaur Manifesto (Updated)

I’m writing a book about centaurs and cyborgs, myth and history, magic and science, Maria Von Franz and Fredric Jameson, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I’m podcasting the book via my lectures on Tedcast. I’m tweeting the book via the #centaur hashtag. And I’m blogging the book at my new website, CentaurManifesto.com. It should be live within the next day or two. You can get a preview at centaurmanifesto.wordpress.com.

The book expands my work on politics, myth, fantasy, and the ideas of Karl Marx and Carl Jung. Theoretically, it’s a marriage of post-Marxist critical theory with post-Jungian depth psychology. My hope is the combination will prove, if not a dialectical synthesis, perhaps an alchemical reaction – what Jung calls syzygy, the marriage of opposites.

Actually, Jung like Marx began as a Hegelian – alchemy is Jung’s own revision of Hegel’s dialectic, just as deconstruction is for Derrida. The Buddhist version is my personal favorite: the middle way. Which leads to emptiness, no-self, nirvana. And as Jack Kornfield puts it, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

The book began as a series of columns in the media studies journal Flow, plus a longer essay in the film studies journal Scope. You can find links to all my recent writing here.

I’ve also been podcasting lectures from my two classes this semester, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Cultural Studies. Click here to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, or here to stream and/or download individual episodes.

You can also follow me on Twitter by clicking here.

Welcome to the new Tedlog.

Here’s the rebooted Tedlog, now subtitled Mythos and Logos on the Commons. This site will replace the old Tedlog: Culture, Politics and Technology, which I started about five years ago with the help of the incredible Nate Steiner. I’ll be blogging about my current project, A Centaur Manifesto, which is about bringing together the discourses of fantasy and science fiction in order to imagine better futures. It brings together the ideology theory of Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek and Phillip Wegner with the depth psychology of post-Jungians like Robert Johnson, James Hillman, Andrew Samuels, David Tacey, and Susan Rowland.