[Warning for discussions of violence and genocide]
What the hell kind of political dynamics are at work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? This kind of question normally annoys me but sometimes there is such a failure to suspend disbelief that it just can’t be ignored. Spoilers or whatever. In The Force Awakens, the First Order (the villainous organization that replaces the Empire, the villainous organization of the orig tridge) mount a gun to a planet and fire a chain of beams into several nearby(?) Republic planets, destroying them, their populations, and their capacity to resist. As Anita Sarkeesian mentions in her review, “Star Wars has previously relegated tremendous slaughter and suffering to the background” before aptly calling the destruction of an entire planet an “incomprehensible loss”.1 The word to pay special attention to is incomprehensible. The destruction of an entire planet in 1977’s Star Wars is nothing compared to the five (or whatever) planets destroyed in The Force Awakens. The ante is upped. An already incomprehensible genocide is amplified to ever incomprehensibler levels! The loss of an entire ecosystem is a travesty so great as to be beyond human understanding, so what’s another four on top? Bigger and better is what it is!
In the theatre I found myself wondering what the hell the Republic’s role was in intergalactic politics and how inept it would have to be to let an openly hostile agitator build a giant gun onto a nearby planet. Criticizing the logic within a piece of fiction’s diegesis doesn’t usually amount to much: it strips the whole experience of its real world influence/reflections and it usually ends up a futile exercise anyway since fiction will always betray its contrivances.2 But the relationship between the Republic and First Order didn’t make sense.
How come the villainous faction in each trilogy of trilogies must become more overtly tyrannical and execute greater scales of war crimes? It can’t be enough for them to be literal Nazis or to undermine the sovereignty of intelligent lives outside their group’s membership: the villains must up the ante each time, they must be ostensibly terrible to justify our relationship with the good guys. Indeed we need greater atrocities to know which guys are the good ones. Finn, one of the film’s main protagonists, actually mentions at one point that it doesn’t matter whether there’s an Empire or a First Order, there will always be some organized evil holding a gun of increasing size against the galaxy’s head. He offers this opinion just as he’s planning an escape from the battle between light side and dark; the catch is that despite his vocal resignation, Finn is actually deeply courageous, frequently running toward danger to save other people. He talks like a coward and acts like a hero. The point, then, is that evil recurs and that it needs to be fought regularly, actively, and decisively no matter how tempting it may be to escape from recurring warfare. The heroes become the underdogs in the moment that the Republic planets blow up and they must extract justice by finding the First Order’s planet and blowing it up.
Under these circumstances, life doesn’t have any meaning. Death is a bit of a motivator but life has value only insofar as it can be taken. Eradicating whole planets is a scale of violence outside the capacity of human psychology but in Star Wars it’s just a transition between the first and second acts. We are compelled to weep and gasp when a retired criminal gets stabbed by a dude with a vocal desire to stab him but exchanges of genocide are plot conveniences. This isn’t just shallow, it speaks to a failure for these films to comprehend genocide. The First Order dress, march and rally like Nazis but they don’t have any ideological drives other than a vague disdain for “chaos.” The First Order is sanitized, there is a blase inhumanity to them. Stormtroopers could be robots, they could be golems, they could be werewolves, but they certainly can’t be people. Though I think Finn is perhaps the most complex character in the series so far—and that isn’t saying much—as Sarkeesian notes, as soon as he turns coat he doesn’t hesitate to fire anti-spacecraft artillery into a group of his former co-workers on a smoke break.
Monsters, lasers and weaponized magic have a much longer history in fiction than Star Wars3 and the fictional deployment of backflips, swords and hooded cloaks can amusingly service a useful story. But the complete obliteration of human dignity honours the same logic that makes genocide possible in the first place. And this logic doesn’t just show up in obvious instances of genre fiction like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. The Revenant features Leonardo Di Caprio’s latest in a now comically long string of Oscar bait flicks as a tortured, bearded gruff man who knows nothing but pain and lives for nothing but pain. Our star plays Hugh Glass, who leads his group of early nineteenth century Yankees through native territory while an indigenous warband aggressively searches for their missing princess (or so the film just barely avoids stating outright). Glass gets separated briefly and attacked by a bear, one among his crew betrays him and leaves him for dead and then he makes his way back to camp, howling, bleeding, and drooling in the face of nature’s beautiful cruelty.
It’s well shot and Tom Hardy hasn’t received nearly enough credit for his portrayal as Leo’s nemesis: a self-serving, luckless grunt with no foresight beyond his next meal who’d be pitiable if he weren’t so dangerous. But the film’s real draw is watching the near wordless Di Caprio get sliced up, pounded down, shot at, dragged by a horse and hurled off cliffs, waterfalls, hills, rapids and tortured magic realism. Makeup effects highlight mucus-coloured fluids oozing out of back and neck wounds and fight scenes lovingly dissect human bodies. We are meant to gorge on Hugh Glass’s agony and admire how tough he is in such hostile territory while admonishing the American pioneer ideology for its reckless intrusion of the savage wilds. Meanwhile we celebrate the same physical resolve and superhuman dedication to law and order embodied in our pioneering hero.
Westerns have struggled with this tension since at least the 1960s and the best ones address it specifically even if they don’t aim to resolve it. 2005’s The Proposition, though Australian, not American, is a good example in that Guy Pearce as ex-Outlaw Charlie Burns is compelled to hunt down his still-outlaw older brother to save his now captive and not-outlaw younger brother from the death penalty. The younger Burns brother is locked in his own filth, beat up, sentenced to 100 lashings and, after the thirtieth, the whip is so drenched in is blood it must be rung out. The camera lingers on the boy’s face, on his inert body, his black and red back. The British captain who promises to “civilize this land” sternly looks on, stoically doing what’s needed to bring law and order to such hostile territory. Meanwhile the elder brother returns to town to extract justice. Charlie catches up, but too late. The film ends with Charlie shooting his brother in the stomach and then sitting down with him as the sun sets. The elder Burns asks, “well Charlie, what now?”
The consequence of “civilizing” the land is fratricide and failed redemption. Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley and Guy Pearce are tough western heroes but they are speedily humanized. They eat, they sweat, bugs buzz about their faces, Pearce spends most of the movie bedridden after he’s ambushed by a group of aborigine men. Violence here serves a purpose, it has slow, lingering consequences that emphasize the humanity of those who suffer from it (except, I suppose, the aborigine men but I’m going to leave that discussion for another time). We aren’t suppose to admire how characters endure violence. After enough violence has been suffered the only question remaining is “what now?” With nobody left to kill or suffer, what more can “civilizing” the land accomplish?
When The Revenant ends the villain is slain, our hero looks into the camera and…that’s it. Roll credits. What else could there be after a two-and-a-half-hour buffet of suffering? The protagonist has no existence outside of experiencing and distributing pain. But where The Proposition concludes with a sense of emptiness, The Revenant offers triumph. Hugh Glass has survived all the more tortured, bearded, and gruff. Like Star Wars, The Revenant offers its audience joy in pain, death and misery, albeit on a much deeper independent level than a broad genocidal level.
Without going too much into the theoretical work on pain (because I’m not very familiar with it), pain cannot be experienced empathetically. People can understand pain, they can see it and appreciate what it is, but physical pain can’t be translated in a language the way that something like laughter from a joke or sexual arousal can be conveyed from outside one’s body and transfer through language into one’s body. In “The Culture Industry” (a controversial and polemical piece but let’s bracket that), Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argue, among other things, that Hollywood entertainment stresses joy in others’ suffering to keep audiences distracted from their own immiseration in their own day-to-day lives:
The triumph over beauty is celebrated by humour – the Schadenfreude that every successful deprivation calls forth. There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh at. Laughter, whether conciliatory or terrible, always occurs when some fear passes. It indicates liberation either from physical danger or from the grip of logic. Conciliatory laughter is heard as the echo of an escape from power; the wrong kind overcomes fear by capitulating to the forces which are to be feared. It is the echo of power as something inescapable. Fun is a medicinal bath. (from The Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1944.)
The authors are curmudgeonly, sure, but I think a larger point is that human life and dignity are so frequently disregarded in the current landscape of fiction that I wonder if they even hold any power any more. Death and pain, be they vicariously experienced on a wide-scale or a deep-scale, overcome life and human being. These cultural products don’t celebrate or even affirm life. Death is made into a spectacle but at least it motivates the audience’s on-screen surrogates.
Lastly, Erik Twice’s recent piece on This War of Mine4 prompted me to think about a lot of these issues. Having finally had the opportunity to play it, Twice’s frustration with the game resonates with me. In his words:
It’s astounding how distant the themes of This War of Mine are compared to actual reality of the [Bosnian] conflict, how the priorities of the game are misplaced or even opposed to those of the people who lived it. When the Serbian Nationalist army burned down and shelled the National and University Library, the citizens of Sarajevo formed human chains to save what was left despite the fire and bombs and snipers. They tried to save their culture, their history, themselves from the forced oblivion of democide and were willing to die for that cause. For comparison, This War of Mine has burning books as fuel as one of its main mechanics.
This War Of Mine more reflects war profiteering than survival. Perhaps I haven’t been playing it right, but it most resembled XCOM in its ludic flow. Bundling up wood and materials to enhance the efficiency and capacity for “the shelter’s” means of production play (and even look) strikingly similar to XCOM‘s underground war factories. Sure, in XCOM the player constructs laser rifles and cybernetic battle-suits rather than furnaces and bedding but the logic of improving the efficiency of production is exactly the same. Finding the cheapest way to turn one resource into a different resource is the key to survival, and so long as you choose only to stick your hatchet into the cartoonish villains rather than the salt-of-the-earth neighbours just trying to get by the game remains fairly straighforward: what you build will get you by until victory.
There are bad people and good people but ultimately matters is the bottom line. Human beings are valuable as commodities that can produce other commodities; keeping their health and happiness stats topped off is important because they are your work force. There is no recognition of human dignity, agency or rights which means there is no need for the villains to work through the ethnic, colonialist or nationalistic justifications for bringing war in the first place. Emblazoned on the shelter’s doorstep is a stark white “Fuck the War” as if the conflict were a gross inconvenience that magically fell from the earth. Wars are motivated and sustained by people who make decisions. There is death everywhere because that’s what This War Of Mine demands as its setting. There are nearby shelters where ruffians kill and steal and so it is implicitly permissible to kill and steal from them.* Again, imagination concentrates on pain and death more than life and rights.
Survival is once again sanitized; it’s a politically neutral process outside the context of a political setting of agential human beings. History and power have no bearing on who is treated how by whom. Outside a few quirks that augment their economic utility one human is the same as any other. Again death takes primacy over life and even then only as an abstract motivator.
The Force Awakens, The Revenant and This War Of Mine are fine for what they are but to me they speak to a trend in fiction that disregards or decontextualizes personhood from its imagination. Again, there’s nothing about space wizards, gruff gunslingers and war-industry sims that is Problematic™ in isolation from a wider context but taken together these texts may speak to a cultural alienation from human dignity. My argument here might be essentialist but even if it is I think it’s possible for these fictions to exist without endorsing such indifference to strangers’ pain and death: especially as so many measures are taken to hide the pain in death necessary to sustain capital growth.
*To the game’s credit, in one instance, after I had killed a thug and snuck away, another NPC found the body and cried “Gregor!” So I did have such moments of self-reflection about the system of violence my survivors were participating in but, again, they happened in the context of an understood and unfortunate consequence of improving the shelter’s manufacturing ability.
1 Sarkeesian, Anita. Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Feminist Frequency. Dec 31 2015. Video.
2 Olson, Dan. “Minisode: Diegetic.” Folding Ideas. Sep 16 2015. Video.
3 Hourigan, Austin. “Do Raiders Have Souls?” Shoddycast. Jan 7 2016. Video.
4 Twice, Erik. Review: This War of Mine. Erik Twice Reviews. Jan 20 2016.
Further reading: Caldwalladr, Carol. “The Revenant is Meaningless Pain Porn.” The Guardian. Jan 17 2016.
Brice, Mattie. “Complicating Freedom of Speech and Nonviolence.” Alternate Ending. Jan 30 2015.
Rivas, Jordan. “This is a Post About SWTOR and Killing Anarchists.” sortiv. May 29 2013.
Mustrapa, Gus. “Letting Go of Star Wars.” Unwinnable. Apr 6 2012.