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The Creative Contradictions of Capitalism: Star Wars, Anterograde Amnesia, and the Eternal Return

Published on 9th January 2020

There is no better illustration of contemporary pop culture's anterograde amnesia than Rise of Skywalker. It is a damning testament to the reality of what Mark Fischer characterizes as our collective "postmodern impasse," which he succinctly formulates as "the inability to make new memories." We're all living Nietzche's eternal return. This is what nostalgia culture is: not merely a longing for a better past, but an inability to recall a better future. 

In fact, I don't know if I've seen anyone diagnose this cultural malaise better than Fischer. In his brilliant book Capitalist Realism, Fischer systematically deconstructs the pathologies of late capitalism. One of the primary axes upon which his analysis pivots is capitalistic modernity's "permanent structural instability," which paradoxically cultivates "stagnation and conservatism, not innovation." Everything is in flux, so nothing is. Everything evolves, so nothing does. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Late capitalistic modernity induces "fear and cynicism," affects which are antithetical to "bold thinking or entrepreneurial leaps." On the contrary, such emotions "breed conformity and the cult of the minimal variation, the turning out of products which very closely resemble those that are already successful.”

The Rise of Skywalker's imaginative bankruptcy reflects that of the broader culture which produced it, indeed which demanded it. It is, at bottom, a morbid film, one obsessed with rejecting death, with immortalizing the past. It's very first words assure us of this: "THE DEAD SPEAK!" And they literally do, as Carrie Fischer is resurrected as a monstrous CGI zombie whose every attempt to imitate life can only remind us of death.

This is ironic and strangely fitting, as the story of the franchise's most iconic character, Darth Vader, is the story of the catastrophic consequences of denying death. His inability to accept the mortality of his loved ones--first his mother, then his wife--drives him to genocide and eventually results in the spiritual mutilation of his soul and the physical mutilation of his body. In the end Palpatine refuses to grant Vader the mercy of death, essentially resurrecting him by locking him into a grotesque cage of a life-support system. Darth Vader, the man who feared death, is a zombie--the specter of a past that should have died but which has been bastardized for the sake of life. Darth Vader is life past its expiration date. 

So moreso than Vader, then, it is Palpatine who is the personification of the Eternal Return. He dies and has died and is dying and will die, his death synonymous with resurrection. His specter haunts the trilogy of trilogies. 

Star Wars is the perfect franchise for our current culture, because it is cyclical. Every Star Wars film echoes itself and every other film. It echoes itself, references itself, refers and defers to itself, regurgitates itself, eating and vomiting and eating itself again, our cultural Ouroboros. "It's like poetry," George Lucas tells us. "It rhymes."

When Palpatine appears before Rey in Rise of Skywalker, it is to beg for his death, and so it must be, for death is his lifeblood. 

Not only does Palpatine perpetually die, his death is perpetually the same: screaming, helpless to stop the lightning blasting out his hands. No matter who he faces, Palpatine allows himself to be undone by his uncontrollable lightning blasts. Like our pop culture, he has no ability to form new memories, and therefore no ability to learn.

“In conditions where realities and identities are upgraded like software, it is not surprising that memory disorders should have become the focus of cultural anxiety - see, for instance, the Bourne films, Memento, Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind.”

“The inability to make new memories: a succinct formulation of the postmodern impasse....”

“What then dawns is the realization that no society has ever been as standardized as this one, and that the stream of human, social and historical temporality has never flowed quite so homogenously.... What we now begin to feel, therefore - and what begins to emerge as some deeper and more fundamental constitution of postmodernity itself, at least in its temporal dimension - is henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, that nothing can change any longer.” An eternal present, basically. 

“The effect of permanent structural instability, the 'cancellation of the long term', is invariably stagnation and conservatism, not innovation. This is not a paradox. As Adam Curtis's remarks above make clear, the affects that predominate in late capitalism are fear and cynicism. These emotions do not inspire bold thinking or entrepreneurial leaps, they breed conformity and the cult of the minimal variation, the turning out of products which very closely resemble those that are already successful.”

“Capitalist feedback systems fail, even when they generate commodities that are immensely popular, [because] people do not know what they want. This is not only because people's desire is already present but concealed from them (although this is often the case). Rather, the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird. These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them; by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk...It is another irony that capitalism's 'society of risk' is much less likely to take this kind of risk than was the supposedly stodgy, centralized culture of the postwar social consensus.”

Star Wars represents the perfect encapsulation of these interrelated phenomena. It fundamentally transformed the American cultural and filmic landscape in 1977 not by pandering to meticulously focus-group-tested popular interests, but by giving audiences something genuinely new. Moviebob's 90-minute deep-dive into the original Star Wars persuasively argues that contrary to popular critical metanarratives, Star Wars did not simply graft a techno-futuristic, modernist aesthetic onto a classical model of archetypal storytelling. It didn't owe its financial or critical success to a cultural desire for normalcy following the horrors of the Vietnam War. On the contrary, it succeeded because it was subversive, in the true meaning of the word. 

Of course, there is truth to the idea that human beings crave the familiar. The error that corporate producers make is in pitting the familiar against the strange. Star Wars would never have succeeded had it been totally out-of-step with the zeitgeist, nor would it have connected with audiences had it given them nothing familiar to hang onto amidst the persistent weirdness. Star Wars creates something new by remixing the old. This dialectical juxtaposition permeates the film. Jedi are strange, but knights recall a familiar medieval era. The casino on Tatooine is alienating and bizarre, but it introduces us to Han Solo, the purest distillation of everything that constitutes the typical 1970s masculine cowboy figure. 

In truth, the formation of new memories demands the recollection of old ones. The old and the new, the familiar and the strange, work in tandem to constitute one another. This is why The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film of the 21st century--it invokes the original trilogy as part of a constructive, generative project rather than to merely indulge nostalgia. That so much of The Last Jedi is still so familiar despite its subversive aspirations indicates the difficulty of escaping/healing our cultural amnesia. 

Discuss the idea of the "nostalgia cycle" on the cultural level, and how the original Star Wars was itself the product of a nostalgia cycle. 

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