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.