What are the books that shape you? …that influence your beliefs> …that change your mind? …that transform you into the person you are today?
I was looking for something on the bookshelf the other day and came across a book that I hadn’t looked at in quite some time (Saul’s The Doubter’s Companion, fwiw), and saw the notes and underlining, clearly made with intent, by some other me decades ago.
So I dug deeper into the bookshelf, and came up with a list:
John Ralston Saul, The Doubter’s Companion
John Ralston Saul, On Equilibrium
Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Creativity
G.M. Peter Swann, Common Innovation
Douglass Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Raymond Williams, On Television
Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor
Dierdre McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics
Richard Lanham, Economics of Attention
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy
Eric Havelock, Origins of Western Literacy
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity
Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics
Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality
Brian Kernighan and Rob Pike, The Practice of Programming
Now, a few words. This is a foundational list. But there are several things that it’s not, so we’ll define it by that. It’s not a top ten, and it’s not in any order, save for as they came to mind. (This may reveal the associations and linkages in my mind, but no more). And looking at it, it is necessarily incomplete; it’s a start.
They may not be the most notable or celebrated work by some of these authors (though in some cases they are), but they are the ones I bought, read, experienced, and retained, and through all of them I can find echoes of my current beliefs, attitudes and outlooks, so in echo of Borges’ Quixote, I’ll note them down so the path can be retraced.
I think a book a week is a good pace for a re-read. Let’s dive into the foundations of the bookshelf…
Well, yes, obviously. Wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. But a good friend asked me a deep question about the purpose of this blog, and in a moment of reflection, I came up with 5 answers.
The question I was posed was this:
“…based on the (unfortunate) instrumentalization of content creation and social media, what do you want the blogs to do?”
So here is the multi-part answer:
A landing page for the podcast where I can post transcripts after shows air, as well as other notifications about the audio (currently working on the transcripts of the first 10 episodes.
Same for longer form video (when that gets going).
A place to house somewhat longer discussion, detail, or references, about either long or short form video posts, for whatever platforms are being used.
A place to get writing out on a regular basis, and to assist in the getting back in the habit of writing (semi-) academically.
Have a “place” that is more under my control away from the larger platforms.
I think the above covers most of the reasons, at least the ones that jumped to the top of my mind with little prompting. I believe that the reasons are valid.
Moreover, I feel like the text here captures my “voice”, that it is close to the way I talk, and close to the way I think as well. As close as any of these mediations can be, at least.
But I’m not here just to have a blog. I’m not invested in the “cultural form”. I don’t really follow many bloggers, or am invested in the idea of the identity (of “blogger”) as aspirational. If I end up repeating or replicating the elements of that form, it may be in part due to the “infrastructure” for lack of a better word, that posts look the way they do because the utilities surrounding WordPress as a platform encourage the shaping of content in a certain way. If it feels very 2016, or 2006, or 1996 in style, then that may not be by intention, but more due to just following the grooves on the track.
There’s no “final form” in mind here. That’s not to say that formless anti-content is the goal.
What’s happening to the Star Wars universe? I mean, yes, there are problems, and some of these are coming to the forefront, where the demand for increased throughput of the EFP (ie “content”) through the pipes of consumption exposes any flaws or imperfections in the infrastructure, and… to absolutely bury the metaphor… eventually the system buckles under the pressure and cracks…
Spewing stuff everywhere in full Technicolor with Dolby sound… ?
Anyhoo, this is an article on tone, mostly. Shades of grey and brown, apparently. Disney isn’t using the full color palette is what I’m getting at. But we’re starting at the end of the discussion, with burst pipes and a flooded basement. How did we get here?
It started with a re-watch of SW9:RotS on the streams a little while back. I was half interested, and hardly paying attention when the scene in the Emperor’s rejuvenation chamber came up… and it struck me.
The biomechanical rejuvenation chambers, the archaeotech, the fractured remains, the body horror.
These are not elements of a Star Wars movie.
They come from… elsewhere.
And I think this speaks to the recent disconnect [between the fans and the franchise].
As we’ve argued elsewhere on the Grimdark* , it is an essential feature of the Warhammer 40K universe.
(*check out podcast episode #… Whoops. Did I post that? One moment…)
And as we’ve argued at the outset of the Appendix W series, W40K was a hodge-podge of every science fiction trope from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, put in a blender, and with the mix pushed through the speakers turned up to 11. And early Star Wars (the original trilogy, plus some of the EU stuff available at the time, like the ongoing Marvel comic series and early novelizations) was definitely thrown in the blender like everything else.
Vader as an armored force-using, laser sword wielding transhuman cyborg super-soldier definitely counts as a proto-40K influence.
Of course, in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, there’s a couple thousand like him working for the Imperium of man alone. In W40K, the dial that goes up to 11 increases exponentially. Darth Vader would be in for a very tough fight.
The other big influence that makes the Grimdark grim and/or dark is that fallen sense of technology. The “dying earth” subgenre of sci-fi, where the 20th century may be a distant memory. Often indistinguishable from fantasy, and drawing mostly from a couple strong influences like well, Vance’s Dying Earth and the Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer series**. And Herbert’s Dune, after a fashion. All of these are in the grimdark blender too.
** Did we post that up in the Appendix W either? No? Well then, shortly.
And while there is a pretty direct line between Dune and SW4:ANH, the grim dark filter hadn’t been built yet. So the appearance of the Grimdark in the SW universe in 2019 signified a rather significant shift in tone. And it’s appeared in the Mando-verse as well over on Disney+, notably in Season 3, with the Armorer and the mass jet pack fight.
Much like the emperor’s rejuvenation chamber in SW9:RotS, the overlap of the grimdark becomes readily apparent in Mando S3. Part of this is just the material there’s only so many ways to portray a massed group of faceless space knights, and the shift in focal point characters in SW from “space monk with laser sword” to “power armor space knight” will by necessity lead in certain ways. There’s just certain kinds of stories you can tell in that framework, and GW has managed to deliver an exterminatus to the concept with over 100 novels(?) in the 40K universe.
But I digress: when we see the jetpack assault by the massed Mandalorian army in S3E8, there has been no better cinematic visualization of an Adeptus Astartes assault company incursion. And Paz’s stand with the minigun (with it’s echoes of both Jesse “the Body” Ventura’s Blain in Predator (1987) and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus in the aforementioned Rogue One (2016)) could substitute for 35 years of a Terminator Astartes armed with an Assault Cannon facing off against innumerable foes. And that last image provides us a rather helpful clue.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment of inception, when the SW universe made the Grimdark turn. While there are elements of it throughout the sequel trilogy, Rogue One (2016) feels like a reasonable candidate. It too marked a dramatic shift in visuals and tone, standing apart from the “mainline” Star Wars films the way that it does, and with the generally positive fan and critical reception it enjoyed as well. Rogue One was still recognizably Star Wars, though darker in tone and “more mature”, appealing to an older audience that had fond memories of the original (and perhaps even the prequel) trilogies, and appreciated the mature take. In a post-AGoT era for genre on the big screen, the expectations of a more mature audience were met by Rogue One‘s screen presence.
But this more mature audience isn’t necessarily the audience that the sequel trilogy was needing to court. Star Wars seems to be pointed at a mainline audience of “the eternal 12 year old”***, an archetypical audience that is seduced by tales of the hero’s journey and see themselves within it, as long as they have the merch to go with. And Disney loves getting new fans for their franchises.
***: I could be wrong; they could be as young as eight.
And this is where the tone comes back into the picture. Because the Grimdark is defined as a universe where everything sucks and there are no good guys. Star Wars is more famously a universe with a New Hope.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for darker tales within the Star Wars universe; there most definitely is. The challenge comes in crossing the streams, mixing the Duff with the Duff Dark and Duff Light. Bringing the grimdark aesthetic over from a one-off that was successful for a host of reasons (of which the aesthetic was only a small part) into the mainline film series risks turning off the fans that the mainline audience are geared toward, the ETYO that Disney craves. Star Wars is an umbrella brand, and not all components that contribute to the franchise need to be geared to every part. They recognize this with the merch (I’m sure there is some overlap between Grogu squishmallows, SW Lego builders, and Mando cosplayers, but y’know, different strokes rule the world).
So is this a problem? No, not really, not in the sense that we’re contributing to the “Problemitization of Everything”. And perhaps not in the sense of it’s connection to other ongoing issues. Just an observation, drawn from the images on screen, and the connections and linkages that exist. It’s part of a trend, perhaps, one that fits with some other things that are going on.
The shift in tone, may be a larger problem, long-term, for a multi-billion dollar corporation that is struggling with producing sustainable results while keeping the franchise afloat. But that’s a them problem, and possibly unrelated to this shift in tone.
But it might be, too. I feel like this bears looking out for over the coming years.
Star Wars images copyright Disney 2019, 2023
Warhammer 40K images copyright Games Workshop 2023
Where is the line… … when the joke stops being funny? … between cosplay and copaganda? … between parody and promotion? … between representation and reinforcement? … where the successive waves of Disneyization of the Star Wars universe have blurred the lines so much that we forgot what the original represents. That those are indeed “the baddies”. Because if we look at the subtext here, or perhaps even the literal text, it isn’t that subtle.
Then what we have here is objectively terrible:
A foot soldier of an authoritarian and fascist empire uses a war trophy taken as spoils following the extermination of a minority population and celebrates with the unboxing of a new weapon of war.
Did the above capture the essence of it?
Ah, it’s funny, it’s goofy, it’s relatable. And through this cuddlefication of brutality*, the line continues to blur.
When we look back, can we tell when the line has been crossed? Or is that only something we can tell in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight? (Do we know we’ve reached the Rubicon, or are we informed after the fact?)
Where we can say this, this is the point where we became accommodating, where we become comfortable with fascism, with the fun-loving stormtroopers and their goofy antics, where the clear delineations of the original films become blurred and muddied, cuddly and coddled.
So if this is the line, when do we step back? Can we back away? Are we already too late?
(*Perhaps I’m being dramatic? Maybe, but I don’t think so.)
The genesis for this was a cutesy stormtrooper “unboxing” video that circulated on social media, most notably the ‘Tube and the ‘Gram, with the cover that I embedded above. (There’s other similar videos up there as well.)
If you need to see the originals, you can find them on the following YouTube channel:
I had thought about directly embedding them, but decided not to based on the subject matter.
It’s possible to recognize that a lot of skill, talent, and resources went in to the production of the videos on that channel. We’re trying to address the broader impact of the spread of this content, and the underlying ideology that it supports.
This also was (one of) the reasons underlying the Not Feeling the Fourth post from a few weeks back. More on the other reason will be coming soon.
A stream of consciousness flows into a river of blood Stem this tide of violence as it rises like a flood
“What Doesn’t Die”, Anthrax, 2003
The strikethrough is because I always get the lyrics wrong in my head. 🙂 That which remains is how it sounds between my ears.
Working on the flood this morning. Realizing there is a lot of stuff sitting in drafts in various locations, and they need to be reviewed, and pushed out. This may (no, likely will) come asynchronously, and might not be related to the time of writing or publication, but we’ll try.