Star Wars: The Last Jedi Roundtable on HenryJenkins.org

Last month I participated in an online roundtable discussion of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) on ‘Confessions of an Aca-Fan’ (the official weblog of Professor Henry Jenkins). Other participants included Dr William Proctor (who convened the roundtable), Dr Rebecca Harrison, Dr Suzanne Scott, Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico, and Professor Will Brooker. The first instalment can be found here.

Professor Jenkins introduced the roundtable as follows:

Over the weekend, Warwick Davis, noted for his performances in various Lucas-directed films, weighed in on current controversies around The Last Jedi: “It’s a piece of entertainment, it’s not about making political statements. It’s just there for people to enjoy. You go in there and are supposed to lose yourself in the world the director has created. Star Wars has always been a great example of that – it’s pure escapism and you can forget the 21st century for a couple of hours. That was George Lucas’s philosophy with Star Wars– to make a fun adventure.” This is characteristic of a Hollywood move which seeks to distance itself from politics and thus absolve itself from critical discussion: “Get a life! It’s only a television series.” The reality is that Star Wars has always been about politics — if nothing else, Lucas’s choice to base the stormtroopers on, well, stormtroopers or to tap the aesthetics of Triumph of the Willfor the final moments of A New Hopemeans that he was tapping certain political narratives to give the story much of its punch.

So, the question is not whether one group or another is “politicizing” Star Warsbut whether what kind of politics seems “natural” within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise and whose politics seems intrusive, whose politics gets read as, well, “political.” The discussions around The Last Jedi allow us to take certain soundings about where our culture is at in terms of embracing an ethos of diversity and inclusion, in terms of rethinking old genre formulas to encompass people whose stories have not been told in that term before.

This is an important part of the story of The Last Jedi‘s reception, but it is ONLY one part of the story. There are also questions about how we define notions of quality in a transmedia era — and what notions of quality are appropriate when factoring in somewhat different and still emerging narrative expectations, ie. what information needs to be contained in the film, what we may legitimately access from other sources, what expectations we have about closure or plot development as the unified Hero’s Journey narrative whichStar Wars helped to popularize in Hollywood gives way to what Jeff Gomez has called “the collective journey” structure.

And there are also issues around how fandom gets represented in the media, how we break through what is often a monolithic conception of Star Wars fans in the hand of journalists, and how we deal with a legacy of gender politics which still breaks fandom down into male and female binaries despite efforts towards greater fluidity.

[…]

The resulting exchange is lively and thoughtful. I don’t necessarily agree with every perspective represented — I am personally pretty enthusiastic about The Last Jedi(not necessarily as the best of all possible Star War Movies but as a step forward for the franchise) — but I have learned something from all of the participants here.

There are moments of tension in the discussion, but the participants are able to work through their disagreements with some degree of mutual respect and with some openness to each other’s arguments. You will get four installments of this discussion. And the discussion will continue further as, coming soon, we launch a new podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, which I am developing with Colin MacClay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and which will take up The Last Jedi as our first extended case study. Watch for more soon.

Read more here.

On the Cutting Room Floor (Part Two)

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‘Untitled V’ © Jason Hopkins

The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part one here

As the monster undergoes changes in our society’s narratives, so too does our society’s way of telling and distributing those stories. When I suggested in part one of this post that the form and distribution of neo-historical monster mashups contributed to their posthuman nature as cultural objects, I was suggesting that, in twenty-first-century culture, globalisation and transmediation contribute to the fragmentation of meaning. Both the figure of the author and that of the subject are becoming decentred by our processes of cultural production and consumption. Much like an academic essay, popular culture is inherently relational, ‘always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories’.[1] Drawing on Storey’s first of six theories of popular culture, Peeren advocates the following definition:

Popular culture comprises those cultural artefacts that are seen and talked about by large audiences, whose members do not always fit neatly into a social class or any other category of social differentiation. One of the most important aspects of this definition of popular culture is that it reaches across the entire social spectrum, even if not everyone interprets its products in the same manner. […] In the end popular culture, as I regard it, is the site where the struggle between dominant culture and the cultures of marginalized social groups is most openly and indeed most democratically played out.[2]

This approach to popular culture, which emphasises its plural interpretations and relational nature, is compatible with a posthumanist framework. Like posthumanism, popular culture decentres the subject, using the language of dominant culture to ‘work through’ its influence and become something other.

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Katja Novitskova, “Approximation V Chameleon” (2013). Photo: Achim Hatzius

The first contributor to the posthumanity of popular culture is globalisation. As Herbrechter argues, globalisation ‘is inherently posthumanist because at the very moment something like “humanity” seems geographically and representationally realizable, the “referent” of this humanity disappears and dissolves into its constituent and its others’.[3] In other words, we understand the term ‘humanity’ as a concept, but whenever we try to conceptualise an example of this humanity we are forced to acknowledge that this example falls short of the concept. Our referent is always elsewhere. Over the past century the structure of the world’s population has shifted from a series of isolated local communities to a series of localised global communities. Though lack of education and access to technology still limits participation in the global community, these limits are far less pervasive than they were even ten years ago. In the capitalist world, which is also increasingly global, consumers are becoming steadily more involved with the products they consume, sometimes even dictating or appropriating their production. This complicates our understanding of the process of interpretation as taking place between an ‘author’ figure and a ‘reader’ figure.

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Likewise, transmediation and crossmediation complicate readings of texts and their audiences by splitting the same narrative across multiple media platforms. Crossmediation does this by simply transplanting a story from one medium to another – for example with both a novelisation and video game version of an upcoming film. Transmediation expands one story across multiple media, with as little overlap as possible. The Assassin’s Creed novels, for example, tell stories that are completely new, but are supplemental to the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In this case, as with many examples of transmediation, these stories reference each other, and fans are encouraged to purchase both to obtain a ‘complete’ understanding of the narrative. Both of these processes of remediation reflect the current state of the consumer market, where audiences demand both more and more content from their favourite products, as well as more niche products. If this material is not available from the product’s producer, fans will often create it themselves.[4] This is especially true outside of the Western world, where storytelling methods are developing independently of the fixed commercial structures of the west.

The general expansion of a cultural product’s distribution and the change in its distribution method are both related to the recent and ongoing shift in our modes of cultural consumption. In the twenty-first century, the consumer is increasingly a producer/consumer (or prosumer)[5] in a participatory culture that rejects the idea of passive spectatorship. As we have seen, one result of this shift is the remix or mashup. As author William Gibson describes:

Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital […] the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.

Even when audiences do not actively participate in an object’s creation, they often respond to that object in an active and social – though also highly personal – way, for example on social media or through fan fiction.

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For Henry Jenkins, rather than ‘talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands’.[7] This blurring of the border between producer and consumer is made possible by recent technological advances like the internet, and has wide-reaching implications for authorial supremacy, and for existing power structures in media production. As Bruce Sterling asserts in his digital remix ‘Death of the Author 2.0’:

The user-producer is a concept that speak [sic] to the digital experience and the freedoms that this digital culture allow [sic] for ordinary people to become artist and producer. This model fundamentally challenges the traditional assumptions of author, it moves away from the idea of the romantic notion of authorship, which saw authorship and cultural production as an isolated activity of a genius sitting and creating something out of nothing.[8]

Sterling’s title clearly references Roland Barthes’ comments in Image, Music, Text on the ‘death’ of the author. Like the humanist subject, the author ‘is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”’. Referring here to the same cultural process that brought us humanism, Barthes argues that authorial intention is ultimately useless as a hermeneutical tool, serving only to grant the figure of ‘the author’ (or ‘the artist’) an unrealistically pivotal role.

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Cover image from Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’

As with so many of the ‘deaths’ ushered in by poststructuralism, the death of the author has never quite been realised in either academia or popular culture. Even in popular music, where the success of the ‘vocal artist’ is more and more a team effort,[10] the figure and power of the author lives on.  Remix (along with other forms of participatory culture) fulfils Barthes’ description of the author in a way other texts still struggle to do: as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture […] the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’.[11] Though Barthes would not have been familiar with remix culture at the time of this description, it strongly evokes the remix ideology.

For Barthes, efforts to ‘decipher’ texts in an authorless world become meaningless.[12] Without authorial intention, there can be no inherent meaning. As Gunkel asserts in response, this means that ‘the objective of the reader, listener, or viewer is not to unearth and decode some secret meaning situated outside of and just below the surface of the text, but to engage with the material of the text itself, to disentangle and trace out its various threads, and to evaluate the resulting combinations, contradictions, and resonances’.[13] This new objective, which resonates with the aim of the critical analysis approach to texts, is increasingly popular in contemporary criticism, and vital to any analysis of remix culture.

Into this world monsters emerge, perfectly suited to play to the needs of the posthuman era’s prosumer. They symbolise the other, but also the self and the self-as-other. Their identity is mutable. Monsters are heavy with the weight of history, and rich with historical meaning. Their use in everything from folk tales to breakfast cereal marketing makes them endlessly versatile. They have come signify nothing, and thus are capable of signifying everything. They are the ideal posthuman vehicle, always elsewhere.

[1] John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5th edn (London: Pearson Longman, 2001), p. 1.

[2] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 21, 23.

[3] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 142.

[4] Consider the example of Susan Byles’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013), pp. 9–16. The network failed to spread the video widely themselves, but fans did so on their own terms, clipping parts of the broadcast and sharing them on YouTube and other social media. This represented unintended and unplanned publicity for the network. See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012).

[5] See Jenkins, Ford and Green, Spreadable Media.

[6] William Gibson, ‘God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut & Paste Artist’, WIRED Magazine, 2005, para. 11–12 <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[8] Bruce Sterling, ‘Death of the Author 2.0’, WIRED Magazine, 2007, para. 1 <http://www.wired.com/2007/09/death-of-the-au/> [accessed 27 January 2015].

[9] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 142–143.

[10] David J. Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup’, Popular Music and Society, 35 (2012), 71–91 (p. 20).

[11] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 146.

[12] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 147.

[13] Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking?’, p. 86.

Rogue One: A Fan Story?

Last week, the first teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the internet. If you somehow managed to miss it, you can watch it below. ScreenRant also has a great breakdown of the trailer here, as does io9 here, if you aren’t in a place where you can watch YouTube videos.

Scheduled for release in December, Rogue One is set just before the events of A New Hope (1977), the very first Star Wars film. Fittingly, the plot for Rogue One is taken straight from A New Hope’s opening crawl:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

As Lucasfilm company president Kathleen Kennedy puts it, ‘In the case of Rogue One, we’re essentially making a period piece’, which is set both in a galaxy far, far away and in the retro-futuristic world of 1970s Hollywood cinema. Rather than marketing it as a dreaded ‘prequel’, however, Disney is instead approaching the film as a standalone Star Wars story with ‘a different sensibility’, and a new perspective.

How exactly? Well, unlike the previous seven films, Rogue One will not follow the legacy of the Skywalker family. In fact, neither Rogue One or the other planned standalone films will cross over with the regular, episode-based saga at all. This sets them somewhat apart from the films in the Marvel universe, which tends to liberally sprinkle in the cameos. The tone of Rogue One is allegedly darker and morally grey, the genre is more ‘grand heist’ or ‘war movie’ than ‘space opera’, and the story is more personal. Basically, Rogue One is about some of the bit players in the bigger, more epic story the films in the main canon portray.

The main cast of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The main cast of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Jared Petty over at IGN prefaces his (very interesting, if brief) review of the trailer with the following words:

We’re a long way from the Mos Eisley cantina…there’s nary an alien or monster to be seen in the teaser trailer. There’s not a sign of Jedi, Sith, lightsabers, space battles, dogfights, or any of the other staples I’ve come to expect from Star Wars. Except for Mon Mothma, not a single familiar face appears, though I’ll be shocked  if we don’t see at least a glimpse of Vader in the final product.

For Petty, then, while the Rogue One might still be a Star Wars film from an aesthetic perspective, and in the sense than it is set in the same universe, it takes a new approach to the franchise’s tone, genre, and central themes. Personally, I’m not sure whether this is the case, though admittedly I come to the new Star Wars films from a different perspective than many viewers: as a long-time, and rather highly involved fan. I have seen the Star Wars universe take numerous different forms, both inside and outside of ‘canon’ (a contested term these days) and have participated in creating some of them myself.

Jared Petty may well be in the same situation (possibly minus the Earl Grey), and I’m sure he doesn’t mean to make any kind of value judgement here. Quite the opposite – he seems very positive about the possibilities Rogue One signals, precisely because of its apparent willingness to go in untested directions. Towards the end of his review, however, he makes a noteworthy statement that echoes what a lot of people, including Kathleen Kennedy, have been saying about Disney’s plans for future standalone Star Wars films:

If it works, Rogue One will open the door for other kinds of tales to be told in the Star Wars galaxy: scary stories, exploration epics, true romances, maybe even more comedic and deeper dramatic experiments.

While true, from a certain point of view, Petty’s statement is basically still predicated on the assumption that the Star Wars films are the only real Star Wars stories. While this may be a valid assumption, given that the films are all most people know of the franchise, many of the official Star Wars comics, television shows, and (before they were redacted from Star Wars canon) the material of the Expanded Universe have played with genre and tone, and have explored the world from the perspective of minor characters. These stories may not be ‘canon’, but they have made an impact on many past and current fans. One example childhood me remembers with particular fondness is Tales from Jabba’s Palace (1995), part of a series of short story anthologies that focused on minor characters from the original Star Wars trilogy.

After reading Kevin J. Anderson’s ‘A Boy and His Monster’, I could never look at this guy the same way again.

The Rogue One teaser itself already contains a number of references to obscure fan favourites from the original trilogy, like Mon Mothma or the Gonk droid. This suggests that the film, like The Force Awakens, will do its best not to alienate its hardcore fanbase. In addition to downplaying the stories told off the big screen, however, the idea that Rogue One will be a completely new type of Star Wars story ignores the ways in which the film’s entire approach to the Star Wars galaxy has actually been replicated many times over in fan culture.

By this I’m not at all trying to say that the Star Wars franchise needs to pander to the fan community’s every whim, or that it must stick to any kind of canon. I am simply intrigued by the way that now, more than ever before, the most prominent parts of Star Wars ‘canon’ are coming to resemble the fan creations it has been inspiring for many, many years.

Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso
Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso

Story from the perspective of a minor, unnamed, or practically nonexistent character in the original film trilogy? Check. Darker, more adult overtones? Check. Fills in gaps and stories hinted at by ‘canonical’ stories? Check. Wild genre shifts? Check. Strong female lead? Check. Fandom has done it all many times over. If people thought that The Force Awakens was essentially fan fiction, what will they make of Rogue One? It’s likely that most won’t even be aware of the similarities it bears to fan-led productions. Others might make the familiar move of classifying it as homage or transformative fiction, rather than fanfic.

In part, this shift into what is essentially ‘professional’ fan fiction no doubt comes simply because many of the people now working for Lucasfilm and Disney were themselves massive fans of Star Wars – both as children and as adults. They were always fans in the commonly understood sense of the word, but now they are also professionals. Hollywood, and Star Wars in particular, are getting very good at mining both fan culture and independent film for creative talent. This was also evident in the appointment of relative newcomer Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) to direct Rogue One.

Edwards, himself a massive Star Wars fan, visited the Lars homestead in Tunisia for his 30th birthday (via the Nerdist).
Edwards, himself a massive Star Wars fan, visited the Lars homestead in Tunisia for his 30th birthday (image via the Nerdist).

In general, Lucasfilm has treated its fanbase in a welcoming and encouraging way. This is of course not without ulterior motives, restrictions, and gender biases, as Henry Jenkins already pointed out many years ago. In any case, the people who once wrote the fanfic now regularly write the ‘real’ thing.

So who decides what is a ‘real’ Star Wars story, and what is not? Technically, that job falls to Pablo Hidalgo, who works as part of Lucasfilm Story Group to make sure each new story fits together coherently with the others. Hidalgo, himself a founding member of the Star Wars Fanboy Association, answers the question of what makes something canon in less than 130 characters:

I would argue that Disney most certainly needs to take the huge body of stories that already exist into account. We’ve already seen how mild fan blowback about the elimination of the Expanded Universe stories from canon has threatened to spill over into the ‘real world’. Disney seems highly sensitive to the fact that fan opinion matters, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to cater to this group however they are able. What’s more, I think that is exactly what they are doing as they construct these spinoff stories, though perhaps not in the way we expected. I am incredibly interested in the extent to which Rogue One will come to resemble a piece of fan art, and there may well be follow-up posts to this effect. It is an exiting time to be a fan, and an especially exciting time to be a Star Wars fan.

Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso
Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso

I will also be closely following the ways in which Disney capitalises on the fan community to inspire, create, and market both this and future spinoff films. Things are off to an intriguing start, as it was recently announced that Gareth Edwards, Rogue One co-producer John Swartz, and executive producer John Knoll will be judges for this year’s Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Who knows – a winner of this year’s award may even, in a few years’ time, see his name (the winners are almost always male) in the credits of a canonical Star Wars film. In the wake of the Rogue One trailer, several professional artists (some working for various Star Wars properties) also tweeted fan renditions of the film to fellow fans – but also, inevitably, to customers.

The line between ‘profic’ and fanfic is becoming increasingly blurred.

What do you think? Is this an accurate reading of Rogue One, or do you see something different going on? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.