Star Wars and the Myth of Redemptive Violence: Continuing Thoughts

obi-chosenone

“Don’t read the comments”—that’s what people are always telling you about the internet, right? That being the case, I have to say that I’m enormously proud of the comments we get here at Eleven-ThirtyEight; even when there are disagreements, they tend to resolve amicably, and input from our audience often results in a deeper understanding and appreciation of the topic in question for all involved.

A couple weeks back, we published a guest piece from Andrew Berg called Star Wars and the Myth of Redemptive Violence, which considered, put simply, whether Star Wars as a franchise was contributing to (or in opposition to) the Western cultural obsession with violence as a just solution. As the days after the piece went on, a discussion continued between Andrew and two longtime ETE commenters—Eric Brown, an occasional guest writer himself, and John Maurer. I find this topic fascinating my own self, and so robust and interesting was their exchange that I eventually sought, and was given, their approval to republish the whole thing as a new piece in its own right.

This piece will also function as a special extension of the conversation if anyone else wants to weigh in further; due to an issue we used to have with spambots, I had to disable comments on pieces older than two weeks, meaning that the original is now closed for good. Here’s to continuing this excellent line of discourse. – Mike, EIC

Eric: I find that all too often I dislike discussions on systems and cultures because (I find) they move the focus off of personal accountability and responsibility. Instead of looking at ourselves in terms of our own individual actions, we look at ourselves in terms of how we relate to culture. We let the culture drive the narrative, rather than letting ourselves as individuals drive the narrative; while culture might determine the circumstances I find myself in, when it boils down to it, I alone am ultimately responsible for my actions; I alone am culpable. And I would argue that what is required of me is not merely to oppose cultures or systems of violence, or to try to support or make a better system, but in the moment, in the present to do discreet acts that are “good”.

This is why the “culture of violence” and “myth of redemptive violence” narratives don’t overly concern me. The Star Wars stories aren’t focused on cultural evaluation, but rather if there is a moral to the Star Wars story, it calls into the question of what you as an individual will do.

Consider the climax of the original trilogy. It’s not just a return of the true Jedi, it’s not just the inauguration of a new culture, but of one individual. “No. *I’LL* never join you.” The trials and travels have led to that point – the violence present in the universe, the opportunities presented reach their climax there – not in a culture change, not even in a system change (and the rest of the stories, Legends or Disney, likes to show what a mess of things the system change is — no systemic happily ever after here) – but rather one individual deciding to do what is right.

Of course, that’s how Luke starts, or almost doesn’t start his journey. Obi-Wan tells him, “You must do what you feel is right, of course.” It’s at the end, having gone through all that he has, with events spiraling around him, the pull of other obligations and the machinations of others, that Luke acts as the individual moral agent.

I think you could probably look at Star Wars as a tale of the individual growth of other characters – but it is focused on Luke, and it is a morality tale. How will you as an individual choose to act?

There are times then, when violence is the answer. Surgery is a violent act; chemotherapy is horrifically violent… but it’s the best answer in a lousy situation. There are times violence seems like a useful solution, but the right answer is to say no. The key is being an individual who learns what is appropriate when, regardless of what the culture around you clamors for.

Andrew: I hear you, and definitely agree in part. The focus on individual choice is part of what makes Star Wars bold in this regard, in that some of the key characters choose to reject the very acts of violence that would otherwise seem to be righteous and justified. From the Rebels’ point of view, killing Darth Vader would indeed be a discreet act of good–and yet Luke rejects that act. From the Republic’s point of view, Jedi fighting in the Clone Wars is also a discrete act of good–and yet Yoda, Padmé, Bail, and others wisely acknowledge the darkness hidden in that path.

However, I think humans are subject to being caught in systems of violence a lot more often than we may recognize (see: Stanford Prison Experiment, Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil,” Harvard’s Implicit Attitude Test, etc). Roy Scranton and others sharing his perspective would argue that the myth of redemptive violence is a particularly attractive and seductive perspective, and that it’s present in almost every aspect of American society.

Thus, rather than alleviating the focus on personal responsibility and accountability, I would hope that conversations like this one can actually heighten it: am I, Andrew Berg, somehow aiding the military-industrial complex by being a fan of Star Wars? Am I another cog in the machine, another metaphorical Stanford prison guard? (And if I am, am I willing to take steps to step out of it? I have friends who are committed pacifists who try to keep their children from watching Star Wars–would I have the courage to do that, if I thought it right?)

I’m probably getting too “meta” at this point, as now I’m on a Star Wars fansite reflecting on whether it’s good to be a fan of Star Wars–lol. Yet I think this self-conscientiousness is crucial, otherwise I risk missing those very moments to do good and avoid evil that you correctly point out are at the crux of the Star Wars saga.

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John: I know this comment is super-late, but your piece was so interesting that I feel compelled to respond.

I think it is also worth noting that the heroic violence narrative at play in Star Wars exists in dialogue with another 20th century narrative concerning violence – namely, the nihilistic tendency to treat all organized violence as an ultimately meaningless waste of human potential. Roy Scranton draws on the tropes of this genre to describe his own experiences of the Iraq War – a description that would not be out of place with the post-WWI practitioners of this genre like Hemingway, Remarque, and Sassoon, or for that matter authors like Halberstam, Karnow, and O’Brien on the Vietnam War.

I think it’s important to recognize that both the heroic narrative of violence (Tarantino) and the nihilistic narrative of violence (Sassoon) make truth claims, but at the core neither are necessarily true. Both are narrative formulations intended to help us make sense of a complex, morally and emotionally fraught issue. To frame one as a “myth” without acknowledging the constructed nature of the other strikes me as an incomplete way to consider the issue.

I think the idea of a spectrum of narratives concerning the utility of violence (rather than a single, outlying “myth”) ultimately reinforces your point about the greater complexity of Star Wars. I would consider Star Wars to be somewhere between the poles of “heroism” and “nihilism” when it comes to the question of the utility of organized violence. The movies actually have some pretty complex things to say on this subject. Anakin and Obi-Wan move from awkward strangers to “brothers” largely through their shared experience of violence; yet in the end the fruits of their violent endeavors drive them to destroy each other. Obi-Wan ultimately accepts that allowing violence to be done to himself will bring about a greater good than continuing the fight against Vader. Luke ultimately echoes Obi-Wan’s sacrifice when he throws away his lightsaber rather than continue the fight against the Sith. Of course, Vader’s ultimate redemption still comes when he murders Palpatine, though the murder saves his son. Heck, even the Ewoks introduce complexity and ambivalence – there are comic scenes of stormtroopers being killed, but there is also a surprisingly touching moment in which an Ewok stops in the middle of the battlefield to mourn his fallen comrade.

This isn’t a wholehearted embrace of heroic violence. Rather, I think it represents a worldview that violence can sometimes be justified, while still recognizing that violence itself is not the solution to all of the world’s problems. In this way, I would actually put Star Wars in the same category as the works of J.R.R. Tolkien when it comes to proposing a narrative about the utility of violence – a sort of middle ground. Violence does allow the opportunity for heroism, but other values – faith, friendship, love, mercy, hope – are ultimately redemptive.

Andrew: I really like the way you frame this issue and talk about a “spectrum of narratives” ranging from nihilistic to heroic. It actually further clarifies in my own mind what I was attempting to say, and I hope it does that for others who read your post. Very insightful!

I do think that Walter Wink, the theologian who conceived the idea of the “myth of violence,” would say that the term “myth” in his usage is not a reference to its truth value, but rather to its role in shaping human understanding and actions (in that sense, while Wink was a faithful Christian, Christianity would also count as a myth–the term “myth” almost becomes synonymous with religion). I think he would argue, with a lot of merit, that while both the heroic and nihilistic narratives of violence exist in America, far and beyond the one that is most ingrained into society is the heroic notion. I mean, it’s hard to imagine what our world would look like with a nihilistic view–would we get rid of the military? Would we be like the Amish? Wink and others would actually prefer a world like that, but it is pretty hard to imagine the public ever swinging that way.

In the meantime, I’m grateful to Star Wars for taking that middle path, and hope that the series continues to complicate the easy narrative of heroic violence.

John: I imagine this is at least in part a disciplinary jargon issue – as a historian, the term “myth” perhaps has different connotations than it does in the theological realm. From the perspective of everyday language, I think “myth” does contain some baggage for the general reader; hence my preference for narrative (or perhaps theory, when it is applied to real-world violence rather than the fictional). For my own part, though, I respect the idea that “myth” need not mean “untrue” (a major part of my man Tolkien’s work 😉).

Although I agree with the idea that the heroic conception of violence is a powerful force in American culture, I think the ways that it plays out and interacts with narratives of violence-as-nihilism are more complicated. There is, for example, a powerful subset of veterans who promote the idea that violence is meaningless. They are certainly counter-cultural in this regard, but they do also have significant influence. Nor do public attitudes about the utility of violence need to fit a coherent narrative or theoretical paradigm – the 1920s and 1930s saw a huge surge in the popularity of highly-romanticized Western films, at the same time that large portions of the American electorate looked askance at the military and the “merchants of death,” blaming them for the trauma of the First World War, and insisting on a foreign policy of military non-intervention in Spain and China. This suggests to me that it is important to keep the implicit opposites in mind when discussing the heroic myth of violence, because oftentimes different components of public opinion towards violence may reflect different aspects of the narrative spectrum.

In any event, I appreciate your piece on the subject, and your reply! Here’s to many more excellent Star Wars movies.

4 comments

  1. Eric Brown says:

    I’m going to chime in again – just to speak to the jargon issue. I have a B.A in Classics and History (Japanese) and then a Masters of Divinity. Classics, History, Theology – three separate fields, although ones that often weave and intersect.

    Each of the three uses the term “myth” in a different way.

    The Classics tends to understand myth as simply a narrative that explains a truth, normally about how our current state of affairs came to be. “Mythos” is story – and it’s a story that conveys a truth. The point in the Classics is not to evaluate the “reality” of the story, but what does it teach about “truth” and the human condition.

    In History the term “myth” tends to most often serve as a critique of a failed historical explanation. If you are opposed to a historical narrative and how it spins things, you call it a “myth”. You might come across someone decrying the “Myth of Irish Oppression in the US” or what have you. Myth isn’t something in the past – but rather is something derogatory towards what is viewed as a false explanation. However, when dealing with another culture, you do have almost the more classical approach – as in when I studied Japanese mythology.

    In theology, a myth normally gets differently in various aspects. In exegetical studies (which deal with the biblical texts), it gets used to denote a genre or style of writing, where it brings with it certain rules and standards. Yet it also will be used in systematic or practical theology with that strong negative overtone (see the above “Myth of redemptive violence” or Bultman’s attempt to “de-mythologize” the bible.

    It’s a wildly imprecise word, is myth. I like playing with it — seeing my scientist friends’ eyes bug out when I say “evolution is a myth” is fun… what? It’s a narrative that explains the current observed conditions… that’s totally how a Classicist would define myth =o)

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    I would also like to play off of something John notes: I think having a strong “heroic conception of violence” does serve to curtail violence. When violence is attached to heroism, the acceptable times to use violence become limited to heroic events. Rather than glorifying a general usage and call to violence, it sets a high standard for when violence can be engaged in — not for personal gain, not eagerly or willy-nilly, but only when it must be done. The hero doesn’t seek violence – violence isn’t the way you seek glory or fame (wars do not make one great)… but if necessary violence can be used for the good of others. The point Star Wars adds is that, sometimes, non-violence gets used as well.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      I have to say, if the implication of the heroic conception is “don’t use violence eagerly”, I don’t know if the average American is getting that message these days. :)

      Anyway, I think your Classical definition is the one that explains both Star Wars’ mass appeal and how it truly interacts with violence—it’s simultaneously illustrating the way things are (war being occasionally a necessary evil) and the individual reality that violence even for just ends can only damage the one who performs it. Like John said earlier, it’s sort of a middle ground rhetorically: it recognizes that violence is going to happen, yet cautions us not to get comfortable with that.

    • John says:

      I like the idea that Star Wars also embraces a myth of heroic non-violence.

      Further complicating our narrative of heroic violence is a long-standing recognition that rejecting violence (especially in the face of hostile attack) can also be a heroic act. In Western civilization, this is often explicitly couched in religious (often Christian) terms – everything from the early martyrs of the Church to the Reverend Martin Luther King’s contributions to the American Civil Rights Movement. Other cultural traditions also have strong histories of non-violence – I would guess that Buddhist non-violence is probably the most direct influence on the practice of non-violence in the Star Wars series, given the strong influence that Buddhism had on George Lucas’s original conception of the Jedi Knights.

      In the American imagination, at least, attitudes towards violence are shaped by a confounding series of different narratives. Most American history curricula celebrate both the violent overthrow of British governance in the Thirteen Colonies *and* the non-violence of the American Civil Rights movement.* For most American consumers of history, the righteous violence of the Founding Fathers and the righteous non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement are taken as chapters of the same rather long story – that of progress in the United States towards ever-greater human freedom. The two narratives can coexist within the same story, however uneasily.

      That said, I also agree that, if one looks solely at the state of popular speculative fiction, the representation of heroic non-violence is pretty slim. Hence my continuing hope that the new Star Wars movies can continue to provide a forum for popular exploration of the complexities of violence and non-violence.

      * (It’s worth noting that both of those characterizations are narratives/myths, rather than facts – independence from Britain was preceded by and accompanied by an extensive non-violent protest campaign; the Civil Rights Movement included a variety of different groups, some of which embraced non-violence, and some of which did not.)

  2. […] an anti-war story than a war one, but that’s a debate that we’ve had on this website very recently. Personally, I feel that although the original trilogy no doubt romanticized armed insurgency, […]

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