The Null Device

The Star Wars metaphor in modernist culture

Using Star Wars as a metaphor for the real world isn't merely for Microsoft/RIAA-hating Slashdot penguinistas; witness Star Wars Modern, an at once illuminating and slightly odd blog by Brooklyn-based sculptor John Powers. Keenly interested in art and culture and steeped in modernism (in the aesthetic and philosophical sense), Powers nonetheless uses Star Wars' good-vs.-evil dualism (which, he argues, came from the heavy mood of Nixon/Vietnam War-era America, with the new counterculture against The Man) to partition the world into Jedi and Sith.
And like Nixon, the Sith perfectly represent a particular strain of American authority: Cold Warriors. Not just the violence and paranoia of America’s anti-communist foreign policy, but their repressive and absolutist domestic policies: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?”
Even the world building efforts of the cold warriors were perfectly embodied by Lucas and his crew. The top-down Utopian art, architecture and urbanism of the Cold Warriors were elegantly re-imaged as the Deathstar.
The Sith, we learn, are those who want control and chains of authority, and fear chaos above all. They include among their ranks Richard Nixon (obviously) and Le Corbusier (which stands to reason; he was a proponent of centralised architectures of control and dedicated his 1935 book/manifesto The Radiant City "To Authority"). The Jedi, meanwhile, are the dissenters, he lists them as "Phreaks and Yippies; draft resisters and Feminists; Diggers and Black Panthers", and places Martin Luther King and Rem Koolhaas among their number. So not too far from the Penguinheads' Jedi-Sith dichotomy (RMS and Linus are Jedi, while Darth Gates, patent trolls and the forces of Big Copyright are Sith; where Steve Jobs and Ayn Rand stand is a matter for lengthy, intractable flame wars), only with a better sense of aesthetics.

(It seems that what Lucas may have contributed to culture here is a catchy two-word name for the cultural schism of the second half of the 20th century, for the collapse of the power of authoritarianism from 1945 onwards, and the Empire striking back from the 1970s onwards, and the underlying motif of order vs. chaos, authority vs. freedom (which recurs in a lot of cultural artefacts of the time—Discordianism, for one, and the plots of much of the fiction of the time). Perhaps "Sith" and "Jedi" are catchier terms than "authoritarianism" and "freedom" or less bound to a specific time and milieu than "the Man" and "the freaks"—at least, in a world where science fiction and other geeky niches have broken into the mainstream.)

Anyway, Star Wars Modern has a number of interesting (and somewhat lengthy) posts on various topics falling in the area between Modernism and Star Wars, such as the portrayals of art and artists in Hollywood films, the Hollywood serial killer archetype as studio artist, and a three-part back-and-forth debate, triggered by an apocryphal account of Goebbels having designed the original Helvetica, about (small-f) fascism and modernist typography.

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