Sunday, July 16, 2017

over at The Imaginative Conservative, an author rues the day Star Wars ruined arts culture by celebrating distraction, skips over the monomyth and the possibility that Star Wars franchises may be the distillation of the total work of art sought by German and French avant garde ideals

I admit I tend to identify as moderately conservative about religion and politics.  By moderate I mean to say I'm a Presbyterian dour Calvinist who thinks the human condition is fraught by human frailties so stark that I find myself thinking the Frankfurt school authors were too optimistic about the human condition in modern technocratic societies.  And I've been reading arts history/art criticism books by authors who write for Thesis Eleven ... .  My commitment is more to Christian doctrine and teaching than to the left or right on the political spectrum.   My views may be an uneasy grab bag of Edmund Burke, Jacques Ellul and Roger Williams ... . Throw in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Conrad, some Bonhoeffer and Brunner and I guess that's where I'm at. 

Which is set up for the observation that when I see a title like "The Imaginative Conservative" I can't help but wonder if "The Imaginative Reactionary" might not be a synonymous title.  Take this recent Sean Fitzpatrick piece that rues the day George Lucas' franchise exploded into the Cineplex.

Forty years ago this summer—what seems to many a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—Star Wars was released, and America was sold into the slavery of pop-culture merchandising. With this era-changing movie, the American cinematic focus shifted away from sophisticated dramas—such as The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Taxi Driver—back to a pre-60s golden-age trope where exhibitionism and carnival capers in motion pictures made money. Some say that George Lucas effected a return to what the movies were meant to be, while others argue that his swashbuckling “space opera” was a backslide from which cinema has never recovered. In either case, Star Wars was the flagship film to sell itself as a franchise, driven and dominated by mass marketing, special effects, action sequences, and cornball dialogue. Gaining the status of highest-grossing film of all time, Star Wars became the epitome of the summer blockbuster, recasting movies as commercial events that cater to the lowest common denominator of the movie-going public. The effects of Star Wars run deep in the entertainment industry and have made explosive, eye-candy spectacle an idol of distraction for many whose lives are so meaningless that distraction is a crucial drug.

Popcorn flicks like Star Wars are central, even integral, to American leisure—which is arresting if Josef Pieper’s notion about the basis of culture is correct. Where would society be without its screens, its celebrities, and its space sagas? It is rare to walk into a home that does not have a television dominating, or even enshrining, its living room. It is almost a matter of principle akin to a religious obligation in the civilian temples of Americanism. The parallels between the television and the tabernacle show how deft the forces of darkness are at leading man from the truth by imitating it. Leaving aside the comparisons that exist between the local church and the local theater, entertainment has become something like a new religion, a ritual for people to fill the voids in their lives—only entertainment is fast becoming nothing more than an addiction to nothingness, a placebo against the emptiness of the times. In these ways, modern entertainment is not simply distorting the elements of religion, but actually commandeering the role of religion in human society. A new idol has risen for the idle neo-pagans, and it is the idolatry of distraction.

For an author to take this stance about Star Wars while singing the praises of Dickens or Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle invites a question as to what it is about the pulp fiction of earlier centuries that let it become part of a literary canon in our more recent era.

The Godfather was no less than Jaws founded on pulp idioms and popular fiction. 

The process by which multi-media comprehensive branded merchandising and marketing was not necessarily all done in 1977.  The process started but the deregulated industry practices that allowed for children to be exposed to films for which there were toys and comics and novelizations and cartoons more properly erupted in the Reagan years.  It's not a surprise if a contributor to The Imaginative Conservative would like to think that the beginning of the doom of pop culture enslavement happened during the Carter administration but that seems daft. 

Any accounting of Star Wars that ignores Campbell's monomyth is an accounting that isn't really worth taking seriously. 

It's like a whole bunch of people don't get what European avant garde theorists were proposing centuries ago about the role the arts could play in formulating a new mythological substitute for Christian religion.  It's not that pop culture somehow was "allowed" to commandeer the cultic elements of religions.  Entertainment figures explicitly set out to create cults around their franchises.  Even an atheist like Joss Whedon can talk about how great it was, twenty years later, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer became show with the cult following it has. Perhaps he hopes a comparable cult following can let him keep playing with Firefly stuff for a while.

Now David Roberts has written three books that can be pretty opaque but he proposed, at length, that the ideal of the total work of art as precursor of and catalyst for the ideal society moved from Germany and France to the United States.  Others have mentioned this, too, but the idea I'm mulling over is that if in the avant garde of Europe utopianism and the avant garde tended to fixate on the utopian past or the utopian future, the American innovation in the later 20th century is more inclusive.  The futurist tech of the Star Wars franchise famously took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  Ancient future.  Something Roberts discussed at length in his books is how the Germans venerated Athens and the French venerated Sparta and how theorists and philosophers imagined that the Athenian art religion was a unified celebration in art of a unified society.

Well, okay, let's suppose that the American approach to unified art or the total work of art or ... the brand ... is also a celebration of an idealized status quo.  That could mean the dreams of German philosophers and avant garde artists would have been most realized in American franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, My Little Pony, Transformers, G. I. Joe and so on.

But that can't be right.  It's supposed to be Wagner's operas and the literature of Mallarme and Schiller and Goethe and ... it's not supposed to be Optimus Prime and Twilight Sparkle or Captain Kirk and Luke Skywalker. 

Just because the religious or cultic elements of pop culture don't adhere to an old conservative nationalistic or ethnic demographic does not necessarily make them any less functionally religious.  In an era where conservatives write about morally therapeutic deism why wouldn't they spot that this is central to a Star Wars spirituality?  A religion of universal humanity, human reason and art doesn't need a deity to be functional.  Consider the cult of Star Trek these last fifty years. What middlebrow arts critics find so loathesome about mass and pop cultural franchises is that they not only make no bones about being explicitly and directly philosophical, their moralizing is front and center.  Superheroes explicitly insist upon telling us who is and isn't a hero and why.  It's not like Woody Allen films where the protagonist is an author stand-in or other kinds of films that are open to the interpretations of suitable cognoscenti--no, the Star Wars cinematic universe doesn't give you the luxury of supposing Palpatine is the hero of the story.  You're not supposed to imagine that perhaps the Empire has some worthy goals.  Maybe someone will write a funny piece at The Federalist making such a case, replete with the line "The Empire is back, baby, and they're gonna show these hippies who's boss!" 

Fans of the highbrow from the left and the right will likely never stop wringing their hands that too many people derive too much pleasure from too much pulp fiction. 

Since I'm a moderately conservative Presbyterian rather than a really conservative Catholic I suppose I may never land in the same spot as the sort of person who writes what's quoted above at The Imaginative Conservative.

The idea that a franchise like Transformers could reflect a not-even latent desire to in some sense see the world re-enchanted in a paradoxical way through technology is probably not going to be on the table.  That's probably because the kinds of folks who write for The Imaginative Conservative are going to be soooo busy attacking all ideas that even could possibly be associated with Marxists as never being able to correspond to any ideas that people with traditional or conservative Christian beliefs could agree with.   Actually ... there's a piece at Aeon I want to link to about the long history of how Christendom in the West went from saying usury was straight up evil to defending it ...


Cal of Chelcice said...

I don't know why, but I still become simultaneously amazed and disturbed when people I meet give me snippets of their personal philosophy or spiritual-not-religious theology that is basically a regurgitation of Star Wars, or a political philosophy which is Game of Thrones or House of Cards.

I think you're exactly right, and maybe that's how Eagleton's thesis ought to be edited. To people like Arnold et al., the explicit attempt to craft a new religion through veneration of art was too theoretical and highbrow and doomed to failure. It's like one of those ancient Pagan philosophers who knows that the gods are not real trying to forge a religion. There's too much technique, planning, and cynicism for it to become a reality. However, even as those Victorian snobs bumbled in trying to forge a replacement, pulp novels about lurid stories involving vampires and monster, or just plain pornography (which is just as cultic and mythological in some ways), flew off the shelves. Now, Victorian era pulp lacks the mythical potency of consumerism, mass production, and American capitalism, but its the primitive remains of a new cult perhaps.

Maybe we need a new reassessment of the 19th century, and not through the eyes of its philosophers, who judged that it was out of the halls of power that these new cults would flow. Maybe Nietzsche was wrong to pin the "death of God" on the bourgeois burghers' love of capital, decency, and mundane life. Rather they structured an edifice that allowed the flowering of something else.

I'm not grumpy about this, it's an inevitable consequence of industrialism and capitalism's corrosive effects on small, communal life. Old folk ways (if that's what we should call them) gave way to new ones. I am totally Anabaptistic (or, in punchy terms, Biblically literate) when it comes to casting off categories of "Christian civilization", and so I don't see some fall from glorious Christendom into fragmented, creeping, Paganism. Anytime the Church seek reform she tend to find whole hosts of the ignorant, the heretical, and the outright Pagan. And I share your pessimism about Human capacity to deceive and delude in this sinful age.

Maybe I should make an influences about page. I would definitely include Ellul, though I think he was a better social prognosticator than a theologian (though "Politics of Man and Politics of God" made Kings come alive to me).


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

you might have spotted what I wrote about Star Wars Episode VIII at Mockingbird where I proposed that if Star Wars has a coherent spiritual view that would be best described as a kind of Pelagian panentheism. It's interesting that with the pulp franchises like Transformers or Star Wars it's possible to have people who formulate extensive theories as to how and why the "bad guys" have plausible motives and a defensible metaphysic. While Episodes I-III were disasters as entertainment and no fun at all they opened up a path to making compelling arguments that Yoda and the Jedi were so corrupt and self-serving in their monopolistic spiritual coterie it explains the rise of a Sith reaction.

In the Transformers franchise there are a variety of stories now that show that Megatron started an insurrection to liberate the Cybertronians from a corrupt and self-serving regime. In Transformers Prime there's even a version where Megatron sought to overthrow the council of Primes for letting the slave regime exist. Orion Pax argues for a peaceful dissolution of the slave regime and is rewarded by the Primes with the Matrix of Leadership. Megatron, envious and resentful of his friend being so rewarded, begins the war between the groups known as Autobots and Decepticons in the Transformers Prime franchise. Pertinent to the comments we're trading about Adrian Toomes, it's interesting to note that Orion Pax was a Cybertronian archivist (e.g. librarian historian/scholar) whereas Megatron was a warrior who was formerly part of a grunt work contingent.

Perhaps one of the elements of these new quasi religions mediated by pop culture franchises is that, per the Google meme, you get to choose whether you sympathize with the Light or Dark Side of the Force. You can decide whether or not you collect primarily Autobots or Decepticons, G. I. Joe or Cobra.

I find Ellul helpful for the social analysis, though I think he wildly miscalculated on the question of American culture and race. His writing about propaganda, though, was immensely helpful to me not just with regard to conventional politics but even more to shedding light on the cultic dynamics that I regard as so dangerously endemic to megachurch cultures. Ellul was far more illuminating for me on the stuff I saw over ten years at Mars Hill than he was about American politics, though he had useful observations about that sort of thing, too.