There are just three screenings of the new Star Wars-branded movie left in my city and I'll have survived the new release with my honour intact, and the film unseen. This is a small and entirely personal victory, a test of my free will and my principles. It does not matter to me whether the new film is ‘any good’, because my concerns are not about being entertained... there was never a shortage of ways to be entertained. My concern is about the meaning we make of our megatexts (i.e. fictional worlds with many contributing works), and our relationship to the corporations that own them. I want to examine this topic as a question of faithfulness, which is to say a matter concerning the practices of authenticity (discussed two weeks ago) – and this is categorically not just about ‘being a fan’.
Surviving J.J. Abrams’ heavily promoted Star Wars film was challenging because I actively wanted to see it. I fell in love with the 1977 Star Wars as a five year old (the movie that would later be retitled A New Hope), and although I don’t consider myself a fanboy and have had a love-hate relationship with George Lucas ever since – I endured Caravan of Courage for a start – I never stopped caring about how the Star Wars megatext was being handled. Taking the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the thirties and cross-breeding them with E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman space operas, Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress, and a sprinkling of World War II aerial dogfight movies was a creative masterstroke.
Mind you, it was also extremely inventive to take the Hollywood Biblical-Historical Epics of the 60s as a template for the prequels, and to layer in a positively prescient reflection on US foreign policy – not that anyone noticed. (The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, four years before Operation Enduring Freedom). But errors in aesthetic judgement matter more to audiences than grand designs: Jar Jar was the harbinger of doom both in and out of the fictional universe of Star Wars as far as a great many fans were concerned. As a matter of custodianship, however, the prequels were unquestionably a commercial success, with returns on investment that outstrip Abrams’ movie, and challenging any of Lucas’ films on authenticity grounds seems like a losing prospect. No matter how disgruntled some fans of the original trilogy might have been in respect of the prequels, they were in no position to overthrow the House of Lucas. That particular throne had to be abdicated.
At a more personal level, I have to decide what my relationship with Disney and with Star Wars will be going forward. Working this out involves difficult questions about corporate megatexts, community, and even friendship. Fiction matters, but it can matter for good reasons and for bad ones. My rejection of the newest Star Wars-branded movie was a chance to test my own principles, but it was not just knee-jerk nostalgiarism that provoked me. Disney and LucasFilm owe me nothing as a childhood fan of Star Wars: fans ‘buy in’, they don’t and can’t ‘buy out’ like Disney can. What troubles me here is the sheer extent of my entertainment money going to one creative economy – Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, Pixar, Disney Classics... it’s a rare day I find myself in a cinema without paying the Big Mouse these days. Of course, you can say that Disney is just the money behind these productions, and that different creative forces are being funded by them. Or you could take a hard-line stance and simply refuse to pay them (although it’s worth noting that refusing to pay while still watching the movies through piracy still supports the corporate megatexts through indirect patronage and cultural participation).
The commercial power of fiction in our century lies in the megatext, and the corporate powers will always acquire the successful megatexts. There are no blockbuster movies without media corporations (nor AAA videogames and ‘event’ mini-series for that matter), so to reject Disney outright is to give up spectacle cinema cold turkey. Yet I don’t want my son to never experience this media form even if I also don’t want it to be his only experience of narrative media. And I don’t want to have to give up going to see the latest dumb superhero movie with an old friend, for whom each new release gives us an excuse to get together and reminisce about comics from our youth. What I need is a principled way of declining to participate in popular culture, one not based solely upon the mere capacity to entertain.
A few years ago, I wrote about the concept of faithful adaptation in the context of the Peter Jackson movies collectively entitled The Hobbit. Here, the question was the role of the source book in the ‘game’ being played with the movie. Faithful adaptation requires the source materials to accord authentically with the new production (in terms of make-believe theory, for the book to be a viable secondary prop in games played with the film). This concept can be extended to new works: a faithful extension of a megatext is one that offers ‘games’ to be played with any combination of earlier works that are part of the relevant canon. Thus determining faithful works depend upon the notion of canonicity, discussed last week.
Although last week’s discussion focussed on how creative people ended up in the role of ‘arbiter of canon’, it is also clear that fictional canonicity is a community practice. Sole authors wear the crown by tradition; in bigger projects, there are always multiple heirs to the throne, which can be passed down in a family but need not be. It is the ‘players’ of megatexts who determine, through agreement, or rather, alignment, who have this role. It seems as if we want a person to have a claim to Regent of Canon because then there are always answers to the ambiguous questions, as if our imaginative experiences were anchored in part upon them existing outside of us, always offering a final court of appeal. Perhaps we learned this habit from Plato’s view of reality, and if so it would be no coincidence since the nerds who sustain the practices of canonicity are also greatly into the sciences.
This means the concept of a ‘faithful work’ leads to the notion of a ‘faithful community’, and thus of faithfulness. A person displays faithfulness to any given canon when they withhold their support from works that deviate from it (the ones that are heretical, if you will). This all sounds overtly religious, and it should: prior to the twentieth century, the megatexts that nerds fought about were holy scriptures. It is no coincidence that the term ‘canon’ being applied in this context comes from the code of church laws in the Middle Ages. Contemporary usage of ‘religion’ as a derogatory term often obscures the way our religious practices are quintessentially human practices, and as such are shaped by situational factors such as tradition and ideals, whatever their ultimate meanings might be. These practices never go away, but they change – often radically – over the centuries.
So is my resistance to the new Star Wars movie an act of faithfulness? Not exactly. The faithful community of fiction I belong to that grounds my non-co-operation with Disney in this case is not Star Wars but Star Trek. In this regard, it is noteworthy that demands of custodianship could be invoked to explain why Abrams had to ditch almost every aspect of the thematic and moral background to the Star Trek megatext in order to bring it to as wide an audience as possible in the cinema. One of the things that was lost in this popularising move was the ethical role of the Prime Directive, which Roddenberry and his writers created to serve as a surrogate for Westphalian sovereignty by transposing the relationship between nations into the relationship between planets. It is noteworthy that a great many Trekkies and Trekkers do not support this concept in or out of the fictional world they love, since they favour international interventions around the world on ethical grounds that would be judged utterly unacceptable by any Starfleet captain. Here, as with the religious megatexts, there is a notable gap between faithfulness to the works in question and faithfulness to the moral practices they extol.
My own faithfulness to the Star Trek megatext is a key reason I withdrew my support for Disney’s Star Wars. It is because Abrams could not (indeed, would not) faithfully extend the Star Trek megatext (as I outlined last week) that I object to Disney handing him the keys to the Death Star just so he can blow it up. Again. Perhaps the new movie is a faithful extension of the Star Wars megatext for many of those who rejected the prequels – I have certainly heard fans of the original trilogy treating the new movie as if it were akin to the vain promise of mum and dad getting back together after an unpleasant childhood divorce. Most likely Disney’s custodianship of Star Wars is just yet another fork in the canon, creating ever more splintered communities and endlessly propagating the arguments over minutiae. This has been what communities of nerds have done for nearly two millennia, after all, and these days it is at least mostly harmless.
Corporations are not the enemy, but they cannot be our friends, for all the money they spend securing that mythos. They need us more than we need them, and they are adept at getting us to take them for granted. The challenge of twenty first century ethics increasingly entails forging and maintaining communities that are more than merely commercial, and in this regard corporations are indeed opposed to us. They are vested in the commercial communities of so-called late capitalism because this is what sustains them. It also happens to be what entertains us. In so much as faithfulness in fiction might give us reasons to break from the status quo, it could become something more than just pugnacious geeks arguing amongst themselves. My suspicion, however, is that our established loyalty to specific megatexts is a force stronger than faithfulness and authenticity. For myself, at least, I have strived to assert my humanity by resisting the inevitable pull of my childhood nostalgia. It is through nostalgia, after all, that the power of the corporate megatexts accumulates.
A new serial begins later this year.