The Event-Probability Rule
I have a rule of thumb I like to use to keep myself from self-obliteration. Let’s call it the Event-Probability Rule: if something awful happens to me once, chalk it up to bad luck. I shake it off and move on. If it keeps happening, then I need to consider the possibility that I’m the cause. It’s a simple rule really, but useful, and helps me avoid repeating mistakes that might turn this kitchen-sink comedy I call my life into a full-blown Greek tragedy.
It does require I acknowledge one key fact: I can be my own worst enemy. Counter to what the Donald Trumps of the world might believe, just because I’m living in this skin, doesn’t mean I’m always looking out for my own better interests. If that were true, then I wouldn’t eat that last donut in the fridge at night when I know it’s just going to sit like a stone at the bottom of my stomach and screw with my dreams.
Extension of the EPR
By extending the basic logic of the EPR, we can come up with something I call the “Poison Water-Well Rule.” It applies to other people. If you notice a friend bad-mouthing one person, then it’s fifty-fifty that the other person is in the wrong. If you notice a friend bad mouthing everyone, then you know it’s a personality disorder with your friend. Also, you should simply accept the fact that this friend is bad-mouthing you when you’re not around. Best to start finding new friends, because that kind of toxicity will spill into all aspects of your life in ways you won’t even be aware of.
But I digress.
Seriously. Another freaking Death Star?
What does any of this have to do with the new Star Wars film? Well, you could say the leaders of the rebellion (our original-series heroes, Luke, Han and Leia) could make use with a healthy dose of the Event-Probability Rule. For the few of you not in the know, the storyline for the latest Star Wars installment follows point for point the narrative structure of Star Wars IV: A New Hope. This means another Death Star (dubbed Starkiller Base) spreading more fear and unhappiness across the galaxy with yet another weak point to be exploited by its enemies.
It begs the question.
How many times do the rebels have to blow up Death Stars until they start acknowledging that the problem may be a little more complicated than “they’re bad, we’re good; let’s blow shit up”? Event-Probability Rule: bad things keep happening, it’s time to turn your sights on yourself.
Yes, Luke, maybe you and your friends are part of the problem.
Right right right, okay, the real reason behind the constant destruction of bigger and better Death Stars may just be the lack of imagination by writers in the Star Wars franchise. The rule seems to be if you come to realize a particular formula works, then you need to beat that dead horse until it stops bleeding money. I guess the bigger question is why do people keeping going to see these movies? Are we really so dull in our desires we are willing to give ourselves over to formulaic storylines?
Or is something else going on? Something far more sinister?
This is not to say that Star Wars VII was a bad movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went to see it on opening night. I didn’t dress up, but I definitely went with my geek-on. See, I grew up with Star Wars. It was my introduction to the science fiction genre (or science-fantasy genre, to the uber-geeks). I had the original merchandise (and wish I had held onto my X-wing fighter, AT-ST, my original action figures of Luke, Han, 3Po and Artoo; oh, the money I could’ve made on ebay…). Hell, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker for most of my formative years.
Love is not a Justification
At the heart of the EPR is the following nugget of wisdom I cling to desperately in this sugar-toothed, ad-crazed world: just because I love something, doesn’t mean it’s good for me. My desires are constantly being bent to trick me. I am the Stormtrooper in Mos Eisley in Star Wars: A New Hope, being swayed by the power of Ben Kenobi’s words.
Ben (now the new marketing guru at Disney): “You will see these films and like it.”
Me (standing in front of a life-size doll of Kylo Ren in Toys R Us): “I will see these films and like it.”
Thankfully, my EPR has helped me build up a resistance to Kenobi’s wily ways. Once I shake off my lover’s nostalgia for the films, reality sets in. I have the distance to see that this particular lover is toxic. Something strange and destructive lies under all the heavy mechanical breathing and flashing swordplay. It only requires further application of my probability rules to drag the beast into the light.
It’s Not a Republic
Let’s go back to this problem of the Wack-a-Mole Death Star. Let’s pretend the Star Wars universe is real, and the constant reappearance of the Death Star is somehow linked to a logic playing itself out within the Star Wars galaxy. What does it mean to say the rebellion is, according to our probability rules, somehow complicit in the reappearance of its own problem?
Are Luke, Leia, Han Solo and the rest of the rebellion at fault? Don’t they just want to establish a universe ruled by justice and peace? They are fighting for the Republic after all.
We hear the world “republic” and imagine a government run according to constitutional laws managed by elected officials representing the multitude of peoples living under their rule. This is the world the rebellion would establish if it weren’t for those bloody tyrants and their clone armies, their black capes and general bad temper.
The thing is, despite the verbiage about justice and freedom, there is no real republic in the Star Wars universe. At least, our heroes certainly don’t function according to the logic of equal representation, constitutional law and people’s rights. On first meeting Han Solo, we watch him murder a bounty hunter, thus marking him as that figure at the edge of law and justice, the cowboy. Luke is a religious acolyte following religious doctrine. Meanwhile, Princess Leia is, well, a princess. It’s hard to imagine her pounding the pavement on the streets of Alderaan knocking on doors to garner votes in the next election.
Our rebels represent everything but republican ideals.
To The Critics Waiting to Jump On Me
So here’s the part where the true Star Wars devotees start jumping down my throat.
“Yes, it is a republic!” they say. “If you were paying attention to the last three films, you would see how the Empire used the Senate, much in the way Hitler took advantage of the Weimar Republic, to mobilize its own totalitarian state.”
My response could be a) the Weimar Republic wasn’t really a republic if we look at the historical trajectory of its formation and dissolution. This would then dump us into a never-ending debate about WWII (like we need anymore of those) and then, b) no one cares what happened in Star Wars I, II and III. Most of us try to pretend they never happened.
Of course, most will find these responses completely unsatisfactory. Even I find these answers boring and trite. The problem is they address questions that miss the point. When we’re talking about the influence of a film, or any cultural product for that matter, it’s often pointless to argue about content. Argue content and you end up in some backwater fanblog going fifty rounds with a twelve year-old named assfracker999 over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo. Yawn.
So sure, there are resonant forms of republicanism buried under all the flash and laser fire of the films. My point is not about that. It’s about how our bodies and emotions move through the pressures and limits of the narrative structure itself. It’s about the subjects we must become in order to enjoy the film. The subjects it assumes. The form of the film, and the desires engendered by this form, has nothing to do with republicanism, rule of law or justice. The form of the entire Star Wars franchise speaks across a much older organization of our desires.
It speaks to our feudal desires, and in this I would argue that the major schism in the politics of the new Star Wars film digs into something far more fundamental than blaster fire and glowing sabres.
I would go so far as to say it is story itself that is the source of the rebellion’s political hypocrisies.
The Hero with a Thousand Films
At the heart of the Star Wars films, as any heavy-duty fan of the series will know, lies the Hero’s Journey. Any of you geeky enough to have imbibed everything Star Wars when the originals came out will already know that George Lucas professed to make use of the work of Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces to structure the Star Wars films. Good ole Joe Campbell was one of those Eurocentric academics working in the pre-Said’s Orientalism era that tried to show how the Hero’s Journey was not just some European export – but a universal narrative. Buddha, Christ, Confucius and the Samurai, all of the world’s heroes followed the same cookie cutter narrative path towards enlightenment.
Campbell divides the book into the basic stages of the Hero’s Journey. There is the “Call to Adventure” (in Star Wars IV this would be Leia projected in the middle of Luke’s bedroom saying, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”), the “Refusal of the Call” (Luke tells Ben he has to stay to help his uncle with the crops), the “Supernatural Aid” (Ben teaching the Force), “Crossing the First Threshold” (Luke’s return home to his dead parents), etc. etc. The basic idea is that there is one form to the heroic narrative arc leading towards our protagonist’s final, mystic transformation. If you follow it, you will have your readers eating out of your hand because you will be accessing some essential mythos at the heart of all human understanding.
Campbell was right about this to an extent. Star Wars went blockbuster based on this structure, and every screenwriter since then has been making use of Campbell to formulate their narratives (every single writer’s workshop I’ve ever been to about narrative form has yanked out Campbell as the Bible of narrative; one of the biggest go-to books on narrative form is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler). In fact, Disney built its Empire following this narrative structure. The Wachowski sibs used it to inform the first Matrix film. Most Young Adult novels and their filmic derivatives follow the path of the Hero’s Journey (Katniss Everdean and Tris Prior, to give the most recent examples).
Here’s the thing. The Hero’s Journey is not some mystical formula for accessing universal spirituality. It is a vehicle for establishing the legitimacy of monarchical power. It was a means to justify the power of kings and religious zealots through mystical association. It’s no coincidence that Campbell’s sources predominantly pre-exist the enlightenment and its rationality. Christ, Buddha, King Arthur – their stories come to us from before the Age of Reason gave us Cartesian doubt, radical skepticism and the calculus.
What should worry us is how easily this kind of feudal structure to individual desire is implicated in the modern market-driven world. It seems only convenient that the market does not tell us how to desire, but only demands that we should desire. It’s a skillful bit of magic, actually. In one hand we’re distracted by the shiny bauble of consumerism and spectacle, while the other slides the feudal blade into our innards. More on this later.
It’s Not about the Dark Side or the Light
The enlightenment was meant to be an intervention on the destructive nature of the feudal form and its complementary structure of desires. A republican or democratic government, in fact all the political and economic forms including a market-driven economy, that came out of the enlightenment, were built upon the fundamental understanding that a world following the dictates of desire would fall to tyrannical monsters robed in the mystic accoutrements of blind righteousness.
The world discovered it didn’t matter if the monarch was just or a tyrant. A system built on mystic pyramid schemes was inherently corrupt because it allowed no corrective to the willfulness of structural tyranny. The hero-king, no matter how wise or benign, would never understand the will of a growing multitude. A single subjectivity was governed by its blindnesses, and those blindnesses, when coupled to political structures, ended by producing violence and war. The subjectivity of the Monarch needed an outside to correct his narrow vision.
Power needed oversight.
The Rebels Really are Just Feudal Zealots
Which brings us back to Star Wars.
Who are the heroes fighting for the republic? A religious zealot, an aristocrat and a smuggler cowboy. None of them embody the values they’re meant to uphold.
The thing is, though, we love Luke, Han and Leia. How could we not? They are great characters and fun to watch. We get a thrill from watching our heroes perpetuate their eternal war with the forces of evil. It makes for great drama. War and violence always make for great drama.
Just take a look at your latest newspaper to see how much it drives our attention.
It’s here, I need to return to a previous point: just because we love a thing, doesn’t mean it’s right.
It doesn’t mean we’re right.
Polymorphous Feudal Perversity
When it comes to our desires, we must be vigilant against the destructive forces of our own biases. This is why narcissism is considered a bad thing, and why oligarchies and aristocracies are doomed to fail. They collapse inwards from the weight of their own inherent short-sightedness. They have no correctives to hold the violence of tyranny and despotism at bay. In a republic, the people and constitutional rule become the much needed exterior corrective to the tendency of power to corrupt. And power corrupts. Always.
Yet, still we desire. If Star Wars tells us anything, it tells us we love watching stories about rulers coming into their own through a God-given right determined through patrilineal lines. Think the Force and its passage via bloodlines. Think of our joy/horror in discovering Vader was Luke’s father.
It doesn’t look like Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars franchise is in any way aimed at correcting this feudal tendency. In fact, this latest installment seems to ramp up our fascination with patrilineal lines as we spend most of the movie trying to figure out who is the daughter or son of whom. This shouldn’t be surprising coming from a studio that provides the turreted demesne to all our feudal desires. (Yes, Disney, you are absolutely right, our imaginations are in fact dominated by the tyranny of feudal rule. Thank you for the constant reminder.)
Meanwhile, none of our heroes represent the interests of the people. Heck, when do you ever see Luke hanging out with some guy on the street? Or Leia sharing a smoke with one of the workers? They’re elitist snobs with sociopath killers as friends. But we’re meant to ignore these facts, because we love them. Because they are the heroes of the story.
And it’s just a movie. What is the danger of enjoying a little bit of feudal fun? Honestly, I wouldn’t care as much if I thought this was a tendency restricted to the realm of filmic entertainment. Event-Probability Rule Extension: if it occurs in a single instance – say, the Star Wars Franchise – then it’s just an aberration. If you can make record pots of money off of it, then it’s an endemic problem.
Then the problem is with us.
“Here, between you… me… the tree… the rock… everywhere!”
Take a look around you.
Feudal desires are everywhere.
They feed the justification of billion dollar payouts to CEOs. What is the justification often give for paying them so much money? They are blessed with a God-given talent for business. They are blessed with the Force.
What about love? Isn’t love fundamentally egalitarian? Not if you believe in the logic of romance flicks. Our search for love is the search for the One. There is One person out there marked by the mystic forces of love to be ours from now until the end of time. We just need to look inside ourselves and recognize the Force of their attraction.
And what about our leaders? We live in the age of the enlightenment, don’t we? Our leaders are democratically elected. Their legitimacy has nothing to do with feudal justifications of family name and mystical powers, right? RIGHT!?
Then why is our political world dominated by dynasties? The Trudeaus. The Clintons. Somehow our feudal desires have recreated a world that bases all forms of legitimacy on mystified notions of right. “He must be a good leader because his father was a good leader.”
The War that is Ourselves
We enjoy watching Star Wars, because we get more than just a thrill at watching the heroes win. We get to be those heroes for two hours or so, and are trained in darkened rooms to close our eyes and minds to the destructive nature of our feudal enjoyment. We come away believing there is evil and good, dark forces and light, but we are given no means to temper these beliefs with a corrective exterior to our inherent biases. There are Axes of Evils, and there are militaries that fight for Freedom and Democracy, and we know they are wrong because they are not us. They are not the hero to our story. We are.
This kind of trained narcissism only reinforces our belief that God, or the Universe, or some mystical force will legitimize our righteousness, even at those moments when we are desperately, violently wrong.
We are left blind to the possibility that maybe the rebels are caught in a perpetual series of star-wars with the Empire, because we, too, are trapped in that same logic.
We, too, desire another Death Star to rise. After all, it makes for great drama.
The Market Won’t Save Us
We are our own worst enemies. We need to treat ourselves as such.
So fine. Go ahead and love your feudal space operas. Enjoy your romantic comedies justified by a logic taught through the divine right of kings. But don’t go complaining about warmongers banging out their newest strategy to perpetuate global violence. You have no right to shake your head in disappointment over yet another bombing on civilians.
In the age of perpetual war, we are all complicit.
We may not be building bombs, but that’s not the point. The War Machine doesn’t even require our tacit agreement. It only requires toleration. Our politicians can go to war, so long as we refuse to stand up to them in explicit acts of defiance. If the 21st Century is the age of perpetual war, as Mark McConaghy has aptly argued in his articles this issue, then support for war only requires acceptance of the status quo.
Meanwhile, any belief that the market will save us is misguided.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: the market doesn’t care about the tenor of our desires, it only cares about its continued existence. This means a market system can be hijacked to reproduce inherently unequal and unjust forms of governance (we could argue this was always the point). One only needs to organize desire into a form that will tolerate these injustices. This reformulation of desire will not happen in the legislature. It will not happen at the voting booth or at a municipal, provincial or federal debate. It will happen where our desires are best served – in the habits of our everyday. In the joys we choose to reinforce and the fears we choose to listen to.
It will go to work on us at a cultural level, at the form of our desires, and it will do so with a smile on its face.
Star Wars and its continuing success, alongside every fairy-tale romance, action flick, fantasy or heroic epic, should be proof positive that our desires are being hijacked. Feudalism has become the form by which we narrate our coming into adulthood, our coming into subjectivity. It creates the conditions of possibility for the production of a subjectivity that is comfortable in tolerating a world plagued by perpetual war.
It does not mean, however, that this is the only form to our desires.
Why do we love the things that are counter to our own proven political and cultural interests?
Poison-Water Well Rule. Maybe it’s time to abandon these friends that have proven time and time again to be unhealthy for us, as much as we enjoy their company. Maybe we should abandon any friend that, say, uses the symbol and structure of past feudalisms to convince us we’re right in enjoying desires that fuel our prolonged disengagement with a world hell-bent on destruction.
The world is far too gorgeous in its infinities to waste time with corrupt mystics.
We need to start retraining our desires.
The problem is, as any psychoanalyst will tell you, fighting a desire is never easy. Giving up a desire is as difficult as saying goodbye to a lover who doesn’t want you to go. It will hurt for a while. It will hurt like hell.
But in that pain, we’ll find hope. The hope for a new way to live and love and hate. The hope for the people we will become rather than the nightmare of who we once were. A hope beyond our former, ancient structures of narcissism and mystified corruption.
A new hope for a world beyond the perpetual rise and fall of this Empire we call our self.
Sean Callaghan received his doctoral degree in modern Japanese literature from the University of Toronto. He is at work on short fiction and novel length prose pieces. He currently lives in Vancouver with his wife, daughter and mildly disgruntled guinea pig.