Posted some of my thoughts on the role of prediction in social life, through an extended baseball metaphor, over at Duck of Minerva -- the latest collaborative project between myself and Dan Nexon, plus other friends/colleagues. That, plus Progressive Commons, is where I'll be posting substantive things in the future. I want to reserve this blog for daily course diary stuff, as the name would imply, although I'll also post links here to other, more substantive things that I post elsewhere.

On and on and on the blogosphere grows…

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Since this is a "course diary" blog, I suppose that I should be better about posting course diary kinds of things on it. And I will try to do so more in the future.

On the other hand, I do teach a science fiction and world politics class, so I guess that longish reflections on Star Wars (even if I don't think it's science fiction, exactly) sort of fit the bill.

In any event, next week, I'll try to return to making this blog be about the goings-on in my courses. I have other spaces for other kinds of reflections.

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The turn of a friendly Card

I really like a lot of Orson Scott Card's books. Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead remain firmly on my list of Best Science Fiction Novels Ever Written, and Card's "Hot Sleep" stories and novellas (eventually gathered up into The Worthing Saga) were very formative for my own adolescent musings about the value of suffering, the nature of freedom, and the like. But things like this -- Card's review of the new Star Wars film -- really help to convince me that he's completely gone off the deep end, especially when read alongside of the increasingly bizarre novels he's turning out these days. It seems that Card has decided to use his popularity among science fiction aficionados to evangelize for a particular and peculiar form of Christianity, even and perhaps especially when that evangelism requires him to trash other popular works. Often on very silly grounds.

Where to begin to rebut Card's inaccuracies? Well, for one thing, he suggests that Star Wars is "manichaean…evil is simply another way of using the Force. Only not as nice." There are two problems here: first, as Dan Nexon already pointed out over on his blog, the essence of a Manichaean position is that good and evil are distinct substances with distinct essences. The orthodox Christian position that opposes this, most commonly associated with Augustine of Hippo (who, unlike any of us, actually was a follower of Mani for a portion of his life), is that evil is not a positive substance, but simply a privation or corruption of good. Hence evil beings are fallen or sinful as opposed to simply and intrinsically evil, and as such can be redeemed…which is the plot of both Star Wars and of the New Testament. Evil and good being linked, connected, interwoven such that people can be tempted by evil even when trying to do good: such things cannot happen in a Manichaean universe where good is good, evil is evil, and never the twain shall meet.

Second, if there's a Manichaean in Card's piece, it's Card himself, inasmuch as he keeps insisting on an absolute difference between good and evil, and keeps looking for the kind of clearly-defined clash that would allow him to comfortably stand on the side of Right. Such populist Manichaeanism might be thought of as the peculiar heresy of (much of) the Christian religious right, much as populist Arianism is the peculiar heresy of (much of) the Christian religious left. [Arianism was the belief that the Son, Jesus Christ, was lesser than the Father rather than being co-equal with the Father in substance; in practice, this meant that Arians held that Jesus Christ was a divinely inspired human being rather than being himself divine. Many left-leaning Christian churches these days make a similar (heretical) mistake, essentially relating to Jesus Christ as a good man with good things to say, kind of like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Regardless of the fact that this is a theological heresy, it is the common currency of many "liberal Christians," informing their daily practices in profound ways.] Manichaeanism is the popular heresy that informs many conservative Christians' daily practices, and leads to an abandonment of humility before God in favor of a rather smug sense of being In The Right and thus empowered to vanquish Evil.

In effect: there's Good, there's Evil, and we aren't the latter, which makes us the former. Oh, and God is on our side, and will eventually vanquish the servants of Evil, or at least make sure that they get what's coming to them, as their immortal souls burn in Hell. Regardless of its theological status as a Christian heresy, such popular dualism makes up the common currency of a lot of everyday conservative Christianity. As Nietzsche pointed out in The Genealogy of Morals, this idea of a war between equally-matched good and evil forces provided those who couldn't take revenge on their foes in real life to content themselves with the knowledge that they would be avenged in the afterlife. It's Christianity without forgiveness and redemption, in which the believer arrogates to her- or himself the authority to determine the final disposition of immortal souls -- something Card, not surprisingly, does when he questions Anakin's redemption and appearance with Yoda and Obi-Wan at the end of Return of the Jedi. We know the Good, this popular Manichaeanism declares, and we reject the Evil; we are pure, they are fallen, we are saved, they are damned.

This is precisely the error that the Jedi make throughout the first three Star Wars films -- the error that leads to their downfall.

Card, like a number of commentators, seems to have missed the fact that the six-part Star Wars saga is not about good Jedi vs. evil Sith, but about a decaying Jedi order that is swept away by the (admittedly, evil) Sith. Yes, some Jedi say that they are "good," but since when do we regard lines spoken by a character to be the author's point? If the author is present in the text, she or he is present in the whole course of events that make up the plot, and we have to take that into account. Regarding something that one Jedi says to be the point of the saga would be like misreading the comments of the Athenian representative during the Melian dialogue ("the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must") as though those comments represented Thucydides' whole argument, which would be a major mistake. And when that Jedi is Anakin Skywalker, who is being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force throughout many of the films, we have to take the declaration with an even bigger grain of salt.

Let's look at this a bit more closely. The Jedi order as it is portrayed in the prequel trilogy (Episodes I, II, and III) has all the characteristics of a mature, complacent bureaucracy that has virtually eliminated mystery in favor of administration. Originally established to study the Great Mystery that is the Force, the Jedi by the time we meet them in The Phantom Menace have been reduced to doing a few simple techno-magic tricks as instruments of the Chancellor of the Republic; they also have a clear internal hierarchy and a rigid Code to which adherents have to conform. Non-conformists like Qui-Gon Jinn aren't on the Council precisely because they won't conform, and it's no accident that Qui-Gon finds the boy Anakin and starts to appreciate what he represents -- unlike most of the other Jedi, Qui-Gon is still open to wonder and awe (even if that wonder is sometimes expressed in the techno-instrumentalist language of "midi-chloroian counts" and the like). The other Jedi can't place Anakin in their worldview very easily, since he doesn't fit the system (too old, too passionate, too powerful). We are not looking at a Jedi order at its height, but a Jedi order that is stultified and narrow -- and one that has virtually absented itself from the world, cloistering itself away from politics and ordinary people in a vain effort to keep itself pure from the temptations of the Dark Side.

And what are those temptations? The Sith and the Jedi differ largely in that the Sith embrace the struggle for ever greater power as a necessary component of political action, while the Jedi as portrayed in the prequels have somehow managed to delude themselves (at least organizationally, if not in every specific individual instance) into thinking that power struggles can be avoided by a monastic withdrawal from the world. Where the Sith and the Jedi do not differ is in their insistence that their actions are ultimately justified by a higher transcendental principle; the Jedi have their Code, and the Sith have their endless quest to prolong life (whether their own, or the lives of others). And it is this essential point of similarity that makes individual Jedi, like Anakin, corruptible: Palpatine is able to skillfully play on Anakin's desires and goals by promising him the power that he thinks he needs in order to achieve those goals, and once one starts down the path of acquiring more and more power the means to the goal becomes a goal in itself. [There's a very clever visual reference near the end of Revenge of the Sith before Anakin and Obi-Wan fight; the camera does a close-up on Anakin's face, but uses the extreme depth-of-field camera technique most famously used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane to keep both Anakin and Obi-Wan (who is standing in the background) in focus simultaneously; Citizen Kane is, of course, a film about precisely this kind of corruption of a young idealist who becomes so wrapped up in the process of acquiring power that he forgets his original aims.]

Card is quite mistaken when he equates Palpatine's line "Good is a point of view" with Obi-Wan's later insistence that "only a Sith deals in absolutes." Palpatine's line plays on Anakin's idealism and helps to turn him to the position that anything is justified in pursuit of Anakin's selfless, idealistic goal of saving Padmé's life -- power is required for that end, as it is for the ending of the war and the bringing of peace and security, and Palpatine is offering Anakin a means to achieve those goals which purports to be much more effective than anything that the Jedi are offering him. If Anakin didn't already deal in absolutes, then Palpatine's offer wouldn't be so tempting, as the means offered would have to be weighed on their merits instead of being ultimately justified by the goodness of the goal towards which they point and the purity of the motives with which the wielder deploys them. The Dark Side of the Force is the temptation to believe that one's means are ultimately justified, that one is ultimately good and pure and right, regardless of what one does. (Sith don't appear to believe themselves evil; Anakin believes he is advancing the causes of peace and security, and Palpatine seems mostly concerned with prolonging life -- mainly his own, but still, he's not a pulp fiction villain who appears to love evil for its own sake. This is further evidence of how little Star Wars is Manichaean, since no one really thinks of themselves as "evil.")

Obi-Wan's declaration is the last best defense against this kind of Dark Side corruption, a defense that unfortunately the Jedi order didn't and couldn't accept. After all, when the Jedi do decide to re-enter the world and try to affect political change, the best they can come up with is "kill Palpatine and take over the Republic." Which would be in many ways just as bad as the Empire, featuring the same absolutist logic and the same smug purity displayed by the Sith.

I could go on. I probably will at some later point. But for now I think I've said enough. Although Card is correct that the Jedi order as seen in the prequels is not a model worth emulating, he seems to entirely miss that the whole point of the Star Wars saga is to show that the old model of being a Jedi wasn't up to the challenge of the Sith, and that something new was required. That new thing, I think, was faith: Luke, not being constrained by the old bureaucratic manner of training and thus lacking the smug confidence of the old Jedi, is able to prevail over the Sith by paradoxically refusing to eliminate them himself and leaving the ultimate disposition of things in the hands of the Force. The message of Star Wars is not "be a Jedi according to the old model." The message is "avoid the Dark Side temptation of thinking that you are pure and holy and justified; do not place overmuch confidence in your knowledge and your ethics and your traditions; have faith, like Luke did, and let the Force work as it will."

All of which sounds intimately Christian to me. I have no idea what Card's been smoking.

[Posted with ecto]



If anything, Revenge of the Sith gets better on a second viewing. The tautness of the choreography becomes even more striking, as does the seamless CGI -- and a couple of lines that were buried in sound effects make more sense when one hears them spoken again in a nearly empty theatre.

Yes, I'm an addict. But as far as drug habits go, it could be a lot worse.

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The saga is complete


I suppose I could just leave it at that, since I don't seem to be wired in such a way as to say much critical about any of the Star Wars films; the critical capacities I deploy against just about everything else seem to fail when the subject shifts to George Lucas' epic space fantasy. [And it is a space fantasy rather than a work of science fiction, I'd posit; being set "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away" takes it out of the futural orientation that science fiction as a genre (IMHO) requires, and although there are technological differences, Lucas isn't interested in exploring their impact and implications in quite the same way as in works that I would consider more classically "science fiction"; and there's certainly no plausible connection to the/our present. Star Wars is a technologically enabled fairy tale, and should be treated as such.] The first film I ever remember seeing in a theatre -- actually, it was a drive-in -- was the original Star Wars, and in many ways I feel like I never quite left the Star Wars universe after that, since I have wrapped myself so tightly in the mythology of the thing that it is more than a comfortable second skin -- it's a constitutive part of who I am.

So I really can't bring myself to say seriously bad things about any of the six films; I'll even speak up for Jar Jar if it comes to that, which it sometimes does (especially since I have a life-sized cutout of the bumbling Gungun behind the door of my office. Really.). Yes, Lucas doesn't really have much of a feel for directing human beings, and his sense of what makes for good dialogue is quite painful at times, especially during the more intimate scenes between Anakin and Padme. And Lucas is impatient, cutting scenes (especially dialogue scenes) short to get on with the sweep of the story; in RotS I think this is most noticeable during the sequence where Obi-Wan is viewing the security holograms to determine who perpetrated the massacre at the Jedi temple, which should have been a bit longer so that we could see Obi-Wan's distress develop a little more deliberately. (Similarly, in TPM Lucas rushes through the scene between Anakin and Padme on the Queen's ship after they blast off from Tatooine, the scene where he gives her the carved jabor snippet necklace that figures rather prominently in RotS; Lucas should have let the scene unfold as it was in the original script and as it is preserved in the novelization, with Anakin crying and Padme giving him a comforting hug, cementing the "your mother's gone, but I'll look after you" transference that cements Anakin's obsession with Padme over the next two films.) Lucas is also not above cheap laughs, although he has minimized them in RotS; we still get a bit of droid humor with R2's shenanigans in the landing bay on Grevious' flagship, but I rather liked those. (Contrast the poop and fart jokes in TPM, which I felt were a bit too crass.)

But these are serious nit-picks. Overall I think that RotS was an excellent end to the cycle: visually stunning, technically impressive, driven by the story rather than by the special effects (a trap Lucas fell into a bit in TPM, which was to my mind clearly remains the weakest film of the six), and suitably epic in its decision to portray Anakin's fall not as the result of a single cataclysmic event, but instead as the unintentional consequence of pure goals (love, loyalty, duty) as they are corrupted by the process of acquiring enough power to realize them. I could defend the film against the various silly and petulant complaints that have been leveled at it by critics who don't seem to get what Lucas' cycle is about, and who criticize RotS for being "talky and abstract" (as though the other films weren't? Please. if you want subtle characterizations and deep psychological dissections of motive, look elsewhere.) This is a fairy tale, folks; what we see on screen are not people, but archetypes, and like in any good fairy tale they simply have to express the primal forces and orientations that they represent. Just because we've spent the last thirty years developing a psychological account of Luke and Han Solo and the rest of them doesn't mean that the first trilogy was a more character-driven sequence; it wasn't. That's the funny thing about myths and fairy tales: the reader/audience has the option of reading in a lot of stuff, because all that is explicitly presented are the essential components of a plot sequence and some broad-brush characterizations. Which is why there can be many different renditions of a myth, each of which develops the basic story in a slightly different way; consider the different versions of the "Superman" mythology, for example, or the various different ways that the tragedies of Faust or the Ring cycle have been cast and interpreted and concretized. Lucas is trying to present an archetype on screen, deliberately leaving openings for people to latch on in different ways, and thus retell the story to themselves and for themselves almost endlessly.

This is why in my science fiction course we don't tackle Star Wars: both because it's not sci-fi, and because getting into epic myth would take us in a very different direction. (One might envision a course on twentieth century epics, featuring The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Asimov's Foundation novels…but that would be a very different kind of semester.)

Anyway, I though the film marvelous, and well worth seeing if you have any taste for mythological allegory and amazingly cool lightsaber duels. Plus the fact that Obi-Wan's retort to Anakin's division of the universe into those that are with him and those who are his enemies -- "only the Sith deal in absolutes" -- is a priceless indictment of those who would try to convert politics into the implementation of transcendent goals rather than the (Weberian) slow boring of hard boards. Once again, Star Wars proves itself to be a myth with implications for the present.


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On the Darth Side

Pressed for time at the moment so can't really post the reflections I plan to post on the semester that just finished. But in the meantime, I want to point people to this brilliant blog written from the perspective of Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader: The Darth Side. Just the thing as we prepare for Episode III's release tomorrow.

More to come soonish, including a review of RotS after my wife and I go to see it tomorrow evening.

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