Star Wars: The New Fire Ritual
George Lucas and Cultural Termination
Every 52 years, the Aztecs believed that the world reset as their calendars reset (they had two), so to assure that the sun would keep rising, the Aztecs performed ritual bloodletting and smashed their pots and pans (seriously — Aztec crockpots could not span calendars). The festivities culminated when they sautéed a guy, cut out his heart, then placed the heart in a fire. Supposedly, this flaming heart was a new fire, and, for the Aztecs, it meant the sun would return. Well, not for the guy relieved of his heart but for everyone else. Then they went shopping for new kitchenware. Of course, the sun didn’t fail to keep rising for the planet, but it eventually did fail to rise for the Aztecs. The Spanish arrived in 1519.
The 1977 release of Star Wars had all the markings of a vast cultural event, like the Aztec New Fire ritual to mark the end of one age and the beginning of the next. Star Wars was the ritual that marked the apogee of an era at which point the language and logic of a once niche culture of logic and symbols became something in which the masses were thoroughly marinated.
This niche culture of logic and symbols and its Star Wars testament is untroubled by depth or nuance. There is a princess to be saved, a bad man in black, and a hero finding his calling. The forward scroll of Star Wars rendered vestigial any effort to understand as the viewer is told that the rebels are “Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents” who have a “DEATH STAR” — the all caps are in the movie so you don’t miss the SERIOUSNESS of it all. Darth Vader enters the movie in the first five minutes. He’s preceded by a laser battle, draped in black with the curious fashion choice of cape, appears substantially taller than his minions, and is implicitly deformed through lack of face (a la Phantom of the Opera). The deep blacks, surgical whites, and somber grays of the “sinister agents” are later contrasted against the edenic symbolism of the verdant rebel base.
Of course, Stars Wars wasn’t the first to put training wheels on a moral universe, but it promoted rudimentary signaling with such potency that it would likely be the last necessary installation of indoctrination into this new narrative framework. Its rudimentary signaling was antidote to the proclamations of the New York art ghetto that asserted the non-repetitive motions of Pollock or the god-blobs of Rothko or the aggressive depthlessness of Warhol as great art. Stars Wars’ simplified narrative was antipode to the convoluted narratives of Vietnam (are we the good guys?) and Watergate (is the president the bad guy?). Reality was always complicated, but media had thrown those complications in our faces and New York creatives had jettisoned the complications of ancient and Christian narratives that had offered an interpretive framework for millennia. Star Wars proposed a universe of simplified binarisms.
As Lucas admitted, the Star Wars recipe isn’t original. He stripped an ancient narrative structure of its complications, then deployed it to channel the Victorian fetish to classify and label everything while homogenizing difference across a taxonomic label.
Ambiguity is smothered under the pillow of taxonomic warfare. You are immediately encouraged to embrace one side and detest the other. No appreciation of the other is needed or suggested. This taxonomic weaponization is a modern impulse; for the Victorians, it promised a method to quickly understand and control the universe. For those who endured Pollocks and Rothkos that depicted otherness and alienation in the absence of symbolic depth, it is antidote.
From the beginning we’re informed that the story takes place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and yet delivers a symbolic framework that you’ll instantly understand because, by implication, symbolism is the same everywhere. There are no fundamental barriers to understanding the “far away” galaxy — all your assumptions come true. In reality, such rudimentary taxonomies offered a deeply productive framework to divide and conquer, to create new tribes and new tribalism and new animosities, from Marx (proletariat/bourgeois) to Hitler (aryan/jew). The potency of such tribalism starts with a contradiction — its only contradiction: a fundamental homogenization within types, the elimination of difference, the creation of the fungible other. This contradiction enables the logic of extermination: this other tribe is the enemy, yet contains no fundamental difference that requires us to attempt to understand. They are the enemy yet with enough similarity for us to determine they are the enemy, who is wholly replaceable by us.
That homogenization is most transparent in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which Lucas had studied in writing the Star Wars script. Hero’s basic premise is that the hero narrative — gods and demons doing battle — is essentially the same across time and cultures; Campbell labels this the “monomyth.” The monomyth argues that, fundamentally, cultures are the same such that one is replaceable by the other; cultural supremacy is demonstrated through strength, will, and the destruction of a other. We can recognize the deficiencies in a culture because we recognize it in ourselves, yet such recognition of deficiency is focused entirely on the other — its coerced reformation or unsympathetic destruction.
Hero was wildly popular and appeared on numerous lists of best/most influential books of the century (e.g. Time’s 2011 list). By the 1960s, Campbell was something of a folk hero; in 1988, Bill Moyers produced a Joseph Campbell special for PBS; it was filmed in George Lucas’ home. That Hero was widely debunked and ridiculed among scholars isn’t relevant; that the monomyth only exists by proactively suppressing difference to coerce similarity to the foreground, by relegating empathy to an occasional self-congratulatory excursion instead of a daily practice, by eliminating the possibility of affirming an otherness beyond comprehension likewise isn’t relevant. The moral universe wasn’t simply made comprehensible; it was made easy.
New Tribalism; Ancient Hatreds
Art had forsaken history — a long-standing subject for art — and had deserted representation; the people and animals and gods had dripped from depictive meaning to vague sensing in Pollock and to vapidity in Warhol. While Taxi Driver and All in the Family and Vietnam and Watergate offered conflicting narratives and characters — anti-heroes and sympathetic evil and impurities in motive — Star Wars bull-dozed over all of that. It was the classic artistic implementation of Campbell’s Hero.
Oxford scholar NT Wright has argued that while Christianity fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, it did so in unexpected ways. One outcome was the elimination of tribal considerations. For the first time, tribal affiliation was of no importance to join and be in communion with the group. There was now an organizing principle that could replace the basic organizational structure of societies.
Christianity challenged a world organized by tribe within a non-epicurean framework. For Wright, epicureanism began to seep into the West over a thousand years ago, but it wasn’t until the Victorians that epicureanism became the de facto framework for interpreting reality. Epicureanism holds that there is nothing beyond the human: no progress or regress or morality. Nothing beyond the human also means that everything is within the human’s grasp: with robust identification, organization, and action, the universe is improvable and controllable and understandable. This impulse so conceived on the supposed evidence of Magellan and the unfolding empires of the west birthed Marx and Freud and many others who preached the gospel of organization and control under the thumb of human will by means of labeling. Not before long, the world becomes atomized into identities and data categories.
We’re able to understand the other so quickly because, due to the primacy of the monomyth, the other doesn’t really embody otherness, the differences aren’t relevant if they exist at all, empathy and unknowable difference has been conveniently eliminated. Then we deploy the contradiction of we thus understand and so may reject.
We can so quickly identify and label racism or sexism in the other just as we recognize the hero in the glamour shot of Luke Skywalker. The label then precludes any further attempt at sympathy or understanding; they’ve been placed in a taxonomy, fixed in the moral universe, and now may be elevated or denigrated as determined by the label.
The sheer ugliness of the new tribes, the weaponized taxonomies and rudimentary moral universe taught to us by Star Wars, is on full display on social media — tribes of simpletons wielding the force of taxonomies reduced to bludgeons. So the bloodletting ritual proceeds in the dimness of the old fire withering. And as we search the horizon for the new fire, we discover that we are our own conquistadors.
 Obi-wan later refers to Vader as the “master of evil,” which of course everyone knew in the first few minutes.
About Nathan Allen
Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). A.I. strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.