Capitalist culture is a battleground of signification.* Considering such, what can be revealed by reckoning with the fact that the latest installment of Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker, was utter film garbage?
In our episode with guest AK Thompson he discussed how capitalism, in order to maintain itself, requires increased rates of consumption to continue cycles of capturing profit. "But," he says, "in order to maintain ever increasing consumption you need to be perpetually stimulating desire." For capitalism to live it must persuade the masses that desire is satisfied through consumption. A key component of capitalist political economy, then, is the cyclical movement of cultural production and consumption.
At times capitalist culture can be quite subversive against the prevailing logics needed to maintain the very system upon which it relies. I do not want to overstate the significance of this, however, because it is more often the case that capitalism's need to implant itself as ultimate desire results in cultural products where a capitalist imaginary is presented as a default or the only possible world- not even the best world just the only one available. Even among the majority of mainstream fantasy, children's, and sci-fi films the political imagination is constrained to a matter of right-wing villains and doggedly centrist protagonists seeking to maintain the prevailing social order. I mean, what is Batman other than just an uber-wealthy cop? The left is hardly ever represented.
The late Mark Fisher described the above as "capitalist realism," writing that "capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population [and it] is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment." Quite bleak, and while I might protest the extent to which Fisher posits an all-consuming totality his point is well-taken.
In the uncommon instances where capitalist culture does produce something subversive, or even pays a bit of lip service to themes of social justice and representation, the consequent backlash is extraordinary. Ghostbusters with an all-female leading cast gets panned on film aggregate reviews before it's released; a scene in Avengers: Endgame featuring a panel (probably 10 seconds long) of all women characters is derided as "SJW propaganda,"** and, bringing it back to my original intention, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which barely registers as "liberal" in my view, creates mass outrage.***
Consistent reprisals such as these suggest to me that the right-wing is fully aware of the need to narrow political horizons within capitalist culture. In her book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein exposed how climate denialism is motivated by a reactionary allegiance to maintaining capitalism, and I think we should understand that the right-wing views the implications of the so-called "culture wars" in a similar way. As noted earlier, capitalist political economy requires the ongoing stimulation of desire to complete its cycle, and this reveals why it is so important for the right-wing to delimit desire.
So we get as a follow-up for The Last Jedi an offering of non-offensive, and painfully mediocre, Rise of Skywalker. As my comrade, Andrea Haverkamp, pointed out to me the film begins with a retcon to appease right-wing detractors of The Last Jedi. Didn't like that Rey was just an ordinary person from a working-class background and still capable of heroism? Okay, how about we just bring the Emperor back from the fucking dead to make you happy? Rose being an Asian-American woman bothered you? We'll just give her two sentences of dialogue and claim it was the deceased Carrie Fisher's fault! Fans want Poe and Finn to act on the amorous undertones of their relationship? Here's a scene with two women characters you've never seen before sharing a celebratory kiss after zombie-Palpatine is defeated (for the second time).
In their pure profit-driven motivation to generate content that is inoffensive to any, Disney has managed to serve up the movie equivalent of a banal Lean Cuisine dinner. As I wrote earlier, capitalist culture is a battleground of signification. When the right-wing is so prepared to narrow the already constricted parameters of capitalist culture it is so much more crucial that we on the left make every possible effort to actually conceive of alternative political imaginaries and construct these images in our critiques of mainstream film and media. Otherwise, as I've argued elsewhere, we will continue to be defeated by the colonized imaginaries of an oppressive social system.
Framed in this way my annoyingly long-winded critique of The Rise of Skywalker is obligated to end with possibilities over fatalism. Rather than just offer script tweaks and adjustments, I'll take a step back and state the obvious: we would have been guaranteed a better film offering if the Star Wars universe belonged to us all instead of the mega-corporate octopus of Disney. The franchise of Stars Wars has been in the public lore for more than forty years, how dare any corporate entity claim ownership over it! Moreover, Disney should have all its cultural materials expropriated, and allow fan-fiction and creative projects to fill the gap in its wake. Damn, just imagine what grand visions of cultural creativity would be accomplished when all the materials for life are shared and exchanged in reciprocal ecosystems? In that world, at the very least, I couldn't imagine the types of concessions made to a toxic minority where corporate overlords decide to conjure up a dead Emperor that no one asked for or wanted to see. Making this statement is, of course, easy while bringing it into the material realities we live in is a much more difficult task. But I've become increasingly dissatisfied amid the saturation of reviews and critiques that rarely mention the possibility of another world, and concede too readily to remaining colonized even in our dreaming lives.
*I imagine myself in the spirit of Cornelius Castoriadis as I write this sentence.
**After drafting this I rewatched the scene and clocked it at a total of 50 seconds- not the single frame where it's only women in the scene, the entire scene where the women come together and launch a collective attack against the army of villains. That whole scene takes 50 seconds from a 2 and a half-hour movie before the woman formation is broken.
***I think there's a particularly acute level of misogyny happening in these examples, and the cultural industry surrounding sci-fi and fantasy, along with video games and comic books, is rife with toxic reactionary men aggressively policing the boundaries of what they perceive to be "their" niche. This article from Polygon provides an excellent aggregate of interviews discussing this in more depth: Gaming's toxic men, explained.