Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Star Wars got Lost

Last evening was the second-last episode of the Lost series, which began in the autumn of 2004.

A few thoughts: the programme is one of the most violent ever presented, or at least, that I have seen recently. Last night’s show, for example, featured a woman dying after having her throat cut, right before a second character is shot to death. Last week’s segment revealed more about the mysterious Jacob, and his unnamed twin brother, who were born from a shipwreck survivor who washed up on the island, was rescued by a woman already living there, who in turn murders the new mother by bashing her head in with a rock. This woman then raises the twins as her own.

I was reminded of the Norse pagan creation story, of the chief goddess giving birth to the Nordic race by having twins, one of whom is fair-haired, the other swarthy. In Lost, Jacob is shown to be fair in appearance, while his twin, if not swarthy, is much darker complected. It seems that the unnamed twin was rendered into the “smoke monster” that has harassed and murdered the plane-wrecked survivors, and many others, throughout the course of the series, when Jacob pushed him into the cave from which emanated a bright light of unknown origin. After which, the light was extinguished and the smoke monster came flying out of the cave.

The significance of this, I’m not certain. However, the producers and cast of Lost recently held a party to mark the end of the series. They were sent a revealing note by George Lucas, creator and director of the Star Wars “saga”.

It read as follows: “Congratulations on pulling off an amazing show. Don't tell anyone ... but when Star Wars first came out, I didn't know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you've planned the whole thing out in advance. Throw in some father issues and references to other stories — let's call them homages — and you've got a series.” This is what many people, including me, suspected all along about Star Wars.

The Star Wars “saga” ultimately failed, becasue there was, in fact, no story to tell. The Star Wars universe was not a place, but a device, which allowed George Lucas to meld together several genres — the western, the war movie, the medieval romance, the pirate flick, and the samurai film — to create an exciting adventure with the first installment in 1977. Though set in the distant past, the far-away galaxy possessed super-futuristic hardware, inspired in turn by Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon serials of the 1940s. This allowed the characters to seamlessly hop between genres. Thus, Luke Skywalker and company could engage in a gun (“laser”) battle in keeping with the old western; later, Skywalker could take on Darth Vader with a sword made out of light, as befits a medieval epic; afterward, our heroes could engage the forces of the evil galactic empire in World War II-style space dogfights. Courtesy faster-than-light travel, the characters could speed to any planet as befitting the genre: either a “desert” planet, or a “forest” planet, or an artificial planetoid to stand in for the villain’s castle. It was this melding of genres which made the original Star Wars so exciting, even if, as one critic put it at the time, it was really “bubble-gum for the mind.”

Be that as it may, it was certainly good-tasting bubble-gum — and relatively long-lasting, too. The premise had enough promise for two separate movies, but that’s it. The first sequel, the Empire Strikes Back, Lucas wisely handed over filmmaking duties to hired guns. Even here, however, the saga necessarily fell back onto melodrama — “I’m your father, Luke.” The third film in the original series had all the action, without the spirit. The three prequels, released around the turn of the century, and detailing the transformation of Luke Skywalker’s father into Darth Vader, the chief villain of the series, were at times just mediocre, and often, abysmal. Even a children’s programme joked about how the Phantom Menace was “half-baked.” One reviewer called it “the Phantom movie,” which is precisely what it was. Perhaps a more skilled screenwriter could have penned something more exciting and interesting. It is more so that Lucas attempted to stretch a device — sci-fi hardware subsuming multiple themes and genres — into a saga, and it didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, work.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hatfields vs McCoys / Private vs Public

In barbarian society, the public is not a space for largely anonymous contact and communication between myriad private actors. Barbarians usually exist in settled communities, but have not developed civilization, society based in towns and cities. Public space there is enfeebled not only by the basic lack of infrastructure. The endurance of clannish social patterns, serves to reinforce the basic of lack of public space, which in turn serves as an arena where social conflicts are played out. Author Malcolm Gladwell quotes an ethnographer who declares that, “Quarrels are necessarily public. They may occur in the coffee shop, village square, or most frequently on a grazing boundary...” (J.K. Campbell, “Honour and the Devil,” in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, J.G. Peristiany, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, no page number cited in Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success , New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, p. 167.)

The lack of public or political authority in barbarian society, means that individuals must depend for their security upon their own kin and clan. Each moiety, in turn, must be wiling to take to violence if, even symbolically, another group transgresses upon itself. This is, of course, wrapped up in the concept of “honour”, through which social behaviour is regulated by adherence to group norms, and where disputes are settled by violence, when these norms are offended.

It is a mistake to consider barbarism as a “phase” between savagery (nomadic hunting and gathering) and civilization (urban-based society). Barbarian society reaches stasis, precisely because the level of public violence precludes the development of infrastructure and authority which makes civilization possible.

Barbarism is usually overcome by two paradoxical routes: the conquest and literal housebreaking of barbarians by a neighbouring civilized society, or the barbarian conquest of an urban culture. This is what brought classical civilization to a protracted end, at least in western Europe, as the hordes of Germans, Goths and other barbarians overran the decayed Roman empire. However, within a few centuries, the descendants of these barbarians gathered around the remnants of the empire (notably, the Catholic church, the organization of which was patterned directly upon the administrative reforms of the anti-Christian imperator Diocletian), forming the civilization known as the Middle Ages. It was a process interrupted by the appearance in the eighth century of the Norse, or Vikings, the barbarians who laid waste to much of northern Europe and the British isles during the next several hundred years — but who also traded and explored far wide, from the eastern Mediterranean to Greenland, Newfoundland and perhaps the mainland of North America itself.

It wasn’t long, either, before the Norse were civilized as well, establishing the Danelaw and Danegeld in Britain, as well as various suzerainties in continental Europe. By the time William the Conqueror successfully invaded Britain in 1066, the duke of Normandy, a descendent of Vikings, had been part of long line of French-speaking cavaliers. Prior to their invasions, the Norse were a relatively unknown, and apparently not especially aggressive, farming and pastoral society, without much in the way of established authority or civic life, still living in tribal bands. Historian Gwyn Jones writes, “In early times Denmark was at best a loose and straining confederation; considerable tracts of inland Norway by reason of their inaccessibility were ore or less permanently divorced from the polices of the Trongelag, Rogaland, and the Vik; and large regions of Sweden, notably Vastergotland, Ostertogland, and Uppland, were held apart by dense forests. The trend to separatism was marked to the end of the Viking Age. Farmer communities, remote and inward-looking, and resistant to change, persisted throughout Harald Hardradi’s time in Norway and Onund Jacob’s in Sweden; and the old viking aristocracy, blest with estates, privileges, and ships, was slow to break up. No king in the north could survive except by force. In sounds less flattering to described Godfred the Dane, Olaf Tryggvason, Svein Forkbeard, and Eirik the Victorious as mere top-dogs in their separate domains, but it falls short of libel. Their almost-peers were a hard-jawed packed. Such was the nature of the northern realms.” (Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings. 2nd. ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984; paperback ed., 2001, pp. 66-67).

It appears that overpopulation of the European northlands forced the “surplus” — consisting mainly of young adult males — to sally forth and steal what they could not earn. It is significant that the Viking Age came to an end, in the eleventh century, coincident with the formation of three recognizable Scandinavian kingdoms — Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

The other kind of civilizing process, where a relatively developed, urban society, with established government, comes to dominate a barbarian population, occurred with the extension of royal authority in London, to the entire of the British isles during the early-modern period. At that time, Scotland especially was home to a very backward and factious population of clans of Irish derivation, the people known today as the Scots-Irish. The civilizing of the highland Scots clans occurred with the Clearances, the dispossession of thousands of peasants so to enclose land for cash farming. A significant number of the estranged emigrated, during the eighteenth century, to North America. The remainder were forced to migrate to the cities of Caledonia, where Scots Gaelic disappeared for good, along with most of the customs of the highland Irish, as these Irish were assimilated into the Scots English mainstream, which had long been situated in the country’s burghs. In Scotland, the civilizing process was quite successful, with the Scots becoming leading pioneers of the Enlightenment.

But the clannish and honour-based society of the Scots-Irish persisted amongst those who had emigrated to America, finding a home in the backhills of the southeast, the Appalachian and the Blue Ridge mountains in particular. These places were the home, of course, to the many blood feuds that erupted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, notably that among the Hatfields and McCoys. Famously, the disputes arose over no substantive injury. Instead, symbolic acts (such as the accusation of cheating at cards, in one lesser known feud) were nearly always behind the vigilante skirmishes that affected so many of the counties of Appalachia. The American southeast generally — the area known as Dixieland — was characterized until recently by the impoverishment of the public, and by the clannish “good ol’ boy” rule. It was a culture that came to encompass the African slaves and their descendants, identified in the twentieth century with the “ghetto” ethos of the American inner cities. In these places, the public has been turned into the “turfs” of various street gangs, the intramural warfare of which makes these areas as bloody as the highlands of early-modern Scotland.

How are factious barbarians, so committed to blood feud, able to achieve the unity necessary to invade and conquer civilized societies? It is frequently the advent of what Max Weber called charismatic leadership. Charisma, alike with tribal-kinship organization, is highly personal and informal. But as with “legitimate” government (based, that is, on formal laws and institutions), charisma inspires loyalty and action beyond immediate kin and patriarchal relations. Instead, the charismatic leader, who comes as often as not from the lower ranks, inspires others entirely on the basis of personal magnetism, sagacity and prowess. He may become the “father-figure” of his barbarian nation (with the rare female charismatic leaders, such as Jeanne D’Arc, becoming “mothers” of their people), but even so, his leadership serves to undermine the traditional loyalties of kin and village in favour of “something bigger.” It is this grandiosity, again based in a person, not institutions, which often paves the way for institutional or (in Weberian terms, “legitimate”) government.

But here is the truth in the saying, “men make history.” It is by no means inevitable that a charismatic leader should arise amongst the ranks of barbarians, to unite the latter in common purpose. And, even if this should occur, there is no certainty that the charismatic will take the necessary steps to institutionalize impersonal rule as a legacy. And yet, it does take the will of the charismatic to bring about civilized existence into being: civilization doesn’t just evolve “on its own.”