On the eve of the release of The Force Awakens, the Star Wars saga (including the “Special Editions”) has made about $2.2 billion at the box office (U. S. sales only), more than the gross domestic product of some nations. Why? What accounts for the phenomenal popularity of those movies and others that have attracted hundreds of millions of viewers, like the James Bond movies, Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Avatar? And why should a cultural anthropologist, usually thought of as a student of indigenous societies, devote serious attention to the unserious fare offered by blockbuster movies?
I have a proposal: The “reel life” one experiences in movies engages fundamentals of human existence disguised or glossed over in going about our daily routine in “real life.” Blockbuster movies are, in a sense, a form of hyper-reality in which we witness individual protagonists who confront and resolve dilemmas that are always with us. I propose we view blockbuster movies as a cultural anthropologist does the myths of indigenous societies: not as so many fairy tales, but as deeply serious narratives about what is involved in being human.
So what, taken as myth, is Star Wars about? Let’s start with a one-word answer: ambivalence. Star Wars captures our imagination because it engages and attempts to resolve our unsettling and deeply troubling thoughts about the world around us. From early in life we discover that things are not one way or the other, but both at once, sometimes switching polarities in a heartbeat. The contraries of birth and death, love and hate, our group and those others around us are fraught with disturbing uncertainty. This accounts for who we are as a species, as humanity. If humanity made sense, the human mind wouldn’t need to.
A principal ambivalence Star Wars engages is our relationship with machines (considered broadly – everything from Oldowan pebble choppers through ordinary tools, cars, planes, and on to our own electronic devices and the droids and starships of the movie). Machines have made us what we are, and we in turn have continued to refashion and extend their range. But life in the contemporary U. S. is not a rerun of that tired old documentary from the birth of television, Industry on Parade.
Consider, for example, the car – the definitive machine in American society and culture over the past century. We at once cherish and despise the car. For many of us (particularly southern Californians like myself) it is an indispensable part of life. For somewhat fewer of us, our car is emblematic of our identity; a statement of who we are, in our own eyes and those of others. Yet the car is also a tyrant and killer. Its purchase and upkeep are an albatross around the necks of all but the well-to-do. And even in these safety conscious times some thirty thousand Americans die in car accidents every year
The drama of our relationship with machines arises from an important third element in the mix: To the love-hate affair of Individual and Machine we must add the State (or its modern stand-in, the Corporation). As in another of our movie classics, you and I find ourselves allied with Indy, in the temple of the technological state. American history has a strong (I would claim dominant) component of myth, which creates a series of folk heroes who embody our changing and troubled ties with machines and the State. The characters of American folklore never simply accept or reject machines; they alternately glory in and smash them. In their mythologized lives, folk heroes exemplify the mixed feelings we mortals carry with us when we leave the theatre and return to our waking lives outside the Dreamtime temples of our cities and suburbs.
John Henry, James Bond, and Luke Skywalker represent distinct amplitudes of cultural processes that shape and situate human identity. For all their exaggerated attributes these disparate folk heroes have enough in common with our own mechanized lives to serve as dramatic tokens of the technically expert individual confronting the technological State. Taken together they chart a virtual world of possible experiences theoretically open to us all as we pursue our daily lives outside the theatre. But this virtual world is one of extremes. John Henry, that steel-drivin’ man, dies from his confrontation with the Company’s machine; James Bond drifts into a flippant accommodation with the multinational corporations and superpowers that employ him; Luke Skywalker allies himself with droids and accepts bionic parts for his own damaged human body in his David and Goliath struggle with that ultimate State machine, the Death Star. Tucked among these mythic extremes are our own virtual and realized experiences with the machines produced and often run by the technological State.
Metaphors be with you.
Lee Drummond, Director, Center for Peripheral Studies
Palm Springs, California
Note to readers: There is a lot more to this analysis. Interested readers may find a detailed discussion of the Star Wars phenomenon in the chapter, “Metaphors Be with You,” in my book, American Dreamtime (available at www.peripheralstudies.org ).