What does Star Wars – The Force Awakens Tell us about Ourselves?

Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame

©Lucasfilm 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

NOTE:  I Tried Hard Not to do it, but Potential Meta-Spoilers Contained Within!!

As I start writing this, I want to tell readers of this blog that I grew up on Star Wars.  It seems hard to believe, but for a boy in the ’60s and ’70s, even watching Star Wars‘ sci-fi predecessor, Star Trek, we were blown away by the clumsy-in-retrospect special effects, leading us to dream about life aboard a starship.  2001 — A Space Odyssey, with its peaceful depictions of deep space travel, was out in 1968, but out of reach to a six-year-old boy with modestly conservative, alienated parents.  And VHS technology hadn’t come along yet, so there was no way to play back most movies once they had left the big screen.

We had the space program — astronauts were headed to the moon! — but nothing could compare when the original Star Wars visuals were released in 1977.  It’s my personal belief that nothing hurt NASA more than Star Wars.  It took astronauts crammed in a small capsule three days just to reach the moon.  But the characters in Star Wars could explore exotic planets, taking off and landing, in the span of two hours of movie time.  In no time, the national imagination changed.  Give us Single Stage To Orbit or bust.  And damn the technological hurdles.

The original Star Wars trilogy fit neatly into a 14-17 year old’s mind.  I had an extremely difficult childhood, and the whole idea of the original six movies was really a father saved by his children — a theme that was profoundly resonant to a young man with an alcoholic father.

Now, as my own view has grown, though, the movies amuse not-so-much.  You’d think a guy into the power of empathy would be enthralled by The Force.  Yet, for the most part, the Global Holistic (or beyond!) v-Meme aspects, aside from a couple of scenes with Yoda, are profoundly neglected.  The Force is mostly used for choking people, magic green fire, or throwing things around, with a couple of nods to manipulation of the weak-minded.  Not surprisingly, it’s almost always for the ‘good’ — as believed by the egocentric perspective of whatever character happens to be doing the choking.

Why?  Because Star Wars is firmly mired in the Magical-Authoritarian v-Meme pair, with a variety of genetically pre-ordained Space Wizards using their considerable talents mostly for reasons of power and control.  We get a little Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme behavior from the Jedi in the Jedi Temple.  But there’s really not much development.  The only standard rule seems to be “don’t go over to the Dark Side.”  And the direction given for NOT going over to the Dark Side is to listen to your betters, even if it goes against your own judgment.  You don’t gain agency in the Jedi Order — remember that these are the Good Guys — until you’re at the top of their particular Authoritarian v-Meme heap.  Young Obi-Wan didn’t want to train young Anakin in the ways of the Force, but did so because Qui-Gon Jinn, his master, said he had no choice.  It was Jedi filial piety that got the whole series rolling.

From a relational perspective, Star Wars is internally consistent.  As good Authoritarians, they’re primarily concerned about blood relations, and there’s a particular gene pool that egocentrically thinks the galaxy belongs to them.  And the way you get to be a Space Wizard is through good breeding as well.  Those midi-chlorians in high concentration are a genetic anomaly.  So it’s no surprise that we end up with kings, queens, princesses and empires, regardless of species.  No real Performance-based v-Memes and personal development show up.  It’s all pre-ordained, as well as the various responsibilities one might have in the universe.

The Principle of Reinforcement, the idea that societies values and the individuals form a self-reinforcing cycle, runs deep in the Star Wars universe as well.  The battles are classically Manichaen — good vs. evil, with (not surprisingly) the good guys wearing white, and the bad guys all in black.  No surprises here.  What’s fascinating, though, is how higher v-Meme multi-solution design thinkers and negotiators, like Han Solo, are portrayed.  They’re slimy, until off-screen coupling initiates them into the space wizard blood clan.

Not surprisingly, this lack of independently generated relationships in anyone’s upbringing produces messed-up kids, that end up in various stages of rebellion.  Childhood trauma (various orphaning, slavery and such icks — bad things happen to Chosen People/Space Lizards too!) produces kids with a tendency toward empathy disorders.  Not good when you control things like planet-destroying machines.  What’s killing a couple billion people when you’ve got daddy (or mommy) issues?

For those readers of this blog, naturally, the technology defies belief.  Huge, integrated structures, like the Death Star, or in the The Force Awakens, the Death Planet (or whatever its called) are designed by Authoritarian societies — not the highly-connected Global Systemic societies that would actually be required, a la Conway’s Law, to build them.  Can you imagine the wiring errors in that thing?  At least the one thing that the v-Memes did get right is that the Empire, or in the case of The Force Awakens, The First Order (the new bad guys), does tend to concentrate power in a few large artifacts.  No different than today’s nuclear power stations or weapons. And even though this strategy has been shown to not work so well in two prior movies.  When one learns about the existence of such a tool, there’s a certain thrilling fatalism that has to appear in the audience.  We know what’s going to happen to THAT.

I don’t know if it’s particularly disappointing .  The Star Wars universe was never very open-ended, v-Meme wise.  And The Force Awakens uses all the same tools in the toolbox to construct its fable.  Or rather, a more accurate descriptor would be that The Force Awakens uses its particular set of Lego pieces to make its story.  It’s true that the Baddies are bigger, and badder, and the tech is even more powerful — no question that we’ve got Kardashev Type III leanings!  It’s like J.J. Abrams went to McDonalds, crammed everything into the back kitchen, and super-sized it all.

But in the same way that Legos are limited — fragmented blocks with limited attachment points — so goes this story.  There are only a certain set of pieces that can be used, and J.J. Abrams and the writers got to choose whether they were positioned up or down.  Like the binary, self-centered mind the Authoritarian v-Meme generates, the plot places characters constantly in conflict, where it’s always the case that the conflict is resolved through destroying the other party, getting destroyed, or running away.  Just like my empathy theory predicts.

Even the young Stormtrooper convert, Finn, isn’t given a complexity break.  We do get a My Lai massacre to start the ball rolling.  But Finn’s no battle-rattled vet.  In his very first battle, he doesn’t want to kill people. No blood on his hands — because if there were, he couldn’t follow the arc of the story laid out that the good guys are fundamentally always good, and the bad guys — well you know, they may get a chance at a deathbed epiphany.

There may be some feminists who might find succor in The Force Awakens .  The female character, Rey, is portrayed as a rugged individual, extremely tech. savvy, and relatively fearless.  Much is made out of her refusal to take Finn’s hand in one scene — multiple times.  Methinks they protest too much. And Princess Leia gets a prominent new role. But Leia’s role really isn’t that much different from the last one where she was calling the shots.  As a princess, she’s always been high up on the social order, and the fact that she’s a general should surprise no one.  There are even women commanders in The First Order’s Star Destroyers.

But I’ll bet the more evolved feminists have to be rolling their eyes.  Women are running the show, and they’re still doing this stupid ‘planet-blowing-up’ shit?  Doesn’t anyone ever want to talk anything out?  Can’t we step outside, loosen up a little, and have a cigarette?  Though there’s a couple of nods to various character’s cultural femininity, Death Star Christmas cookies are nowhere to be seen.  And there are no signs of day care on a Star Destroyer.  This is the best a hyper-advanced civilization can do? Someone needs to send Snoke, the new Super-Bad-Guy a little primer on Attachment Theorist John Bowlby.

As I mentioned above, the whole Force concept — so amenable to higher empathetic development, as well as plot development — really takes a v-Meme beating.  If there’s any proof to my various theories on how empathy deficits in Magical/Authoritarian social structures work, it’s got to be in The Force Awakens.  The embodiment of global empathy, the Force gets used on a variety of characters, by a variety of characters, to choke people, and manipulate others. As the plot evolves, it becomes a sign of spiritual development in the various characters’ abilities to prevent themselves from being choked.  Or maybe pick something up.  Never do we proceed to rational place-taking or a point of understanding.  Does that sound like your boss’s interpretation of empathy?  Run fast.

And the movie scaffolds along this line to make reconciliation on a large scale impossible.  The First Order folks pull pages from the Nazis and the Nuremberg rallies, even though they’re from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away.  It’s a oddly fawning authoritarianism, too.  The First Order is extremely well-organized and efficient, with everyone neatly arranged in rows.  No classic signs of the real, historically documented Authoritarian v-Meme –cronyism, corruption and concubines — here.  Just ruthless efficiency and a fascination with very large, concentrated weaponry — deep re-creations of nuclear weapons and the Maginot Line.  Even the name — The First Order — has mathematical linkages to the meta-linear nature inherent in the v-Meme.  How weird is that?

Critics have raved about the various plot twists in the new film.  But I’ll warn you.  There really aren’t any.  There are binary moments in all the various scenes that come out of the limited Lego pieces in the canon.  In any given scene, you get to guess if the plot is going to go right or left.  From a metacognitive standpoint, (knowing what you don’t know) I couldn’t find a more profound reinforcement that Authoritarian social structures destroy metacognitive development.  There are simply no real unknowns.  You know, in every scene where there’s a bifurcation point, which way things could go.  A selected subset of outcomes are pre-ordained.  Certainly one or the other will make you feel something different.  But there’s basically no point of ambiguity that makes you think.

As a result, the film feels trivial.  You’re not going to walk away from this one the least bit changed.  It’s not a whole lot more sophisticated than the Teletubbies.  The Teletubbies were designed for the 3 year old mind — when Tinky Winky pops up behind the flower with his handbag, the infantile mind waits until Tinky Winky does it again.  That’s what gives it satisfaction.  It’s really about the same for The Force Awakens.

And judging from the reviews, most viewers will find comfort in that.  They didn’t go into the movie looking for an epiphany.  So they don’t have to worry that they might get one.

But at some level, I find the whole spectacle extremely worrisome.  If we have any moment of national unity, in our national conflict-driven dichotomous dialectic, infused with both Ferguson and Donald Trump, it’s around the release of this film. It forces our imagination along the line that our biggest problems are some kind of structured, lawful evil a la terrorists are organized by masterminds of the Caliphate, or something.

Yet our real problems are rooted deeply in the chaos, and inherent unpredictability from responding to world events with such dichotomous, black-and-white thinking.  Our problems in the Middle East come directly from decisions based on destroying controlling authority, under the aegis and reasoning of wiping out their Death Star Equivalent — their nuclear weapons capability.  It’s no coincidence that the two countries we’ve most recently destroyed the leadership in — Iraq and Libya — were potentially seeking nuclear weapons.  And that the third country we’re seeking regime change in — Syria — has its leader, Bashir Assad, accused of using chemical weapons of mass destruction.  The chaos that’s being generated is creating its own darker form of resistance in ISIS.

The Force Awakens, like all Star Wars movies, has no refugees from wars.  Planets simply get blown up.  There’s never any show of long-term suffering.  And though the crashed Star Destroyers on the surface of Jakku allude to conflict long ago, every fight in the current moment leads to short term oblivion in the Star Wars universe.  Wars there map to wars here in our national perception — clean, instantaneous things.  There are no X-Wing fighter pilots that need extensive rehab, or treatment for PTSD.  In space, you get to hear them scream once.  And then, well, their parts are scattered across deep space — or inside a burnt-out Star Destroyer.

In writing this, I don’t want to be non-sympathetic, or non-empathetic, to the national mood.  But the Principle of Reinforcement holds for us, too.  And we could use a little more humility, messiness, and metacognition in our national parables — especially if we really want the Force to be with us.

Further thinking:  I don’t want to get into this in this piece, but that J.J. Abrams — he’s kinda wrecked Star Trek in the same way.  We might have been headed that way anyway — but at least Star Trek was calling to those higher metacognitive values — going where no one has gone before and all that.  Real higher-level empathetic development.  Now, even the bridge crew yells at each other.  Sheesh.


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