twitter
facebook twitter tumblr newsletter
blog-zungu-174
Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
rss feed

Choose, in the imperative (Carlos Labbé’s Loquela)

You are reading the Chilean novelist Carlos Labbé.

According to the blurb on the front of Navidad and Matanza—his first book translated into English—he “begins to fuck with your head from the first page.” On the cover of Loquela, his second, you will read that Labbé “wreaks havoc on narrative rules from the start and keeps doing it.”

How will you proceed?

You must choose.

One way to navigate these novels would be to think of this novel as part of the European avant-garde tradition. According to some of the blurbs, Labbé is “a literary descendent of Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman” and also “a hybrid of Julio Cortázar and Paul Auster.” And sure, why not? But blurb writers love using these kinds of genealogies to create a sense of coherence for writers whose work leaves us grasping at straws, whose work is—exactly in this way—to leave us grasping with empty hands. Does it help to frame Labbé as the descendent of two Latin American writers who lived most of their lives in Spain, a relative of the Argentine author whose most famous novel was set and written in France, and of the author of a New York trilogy who became a writer in Paris.

To these names, we could also add the OuLiPo movement—writers like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Queneau—and we must not forget Roland Barthes, the author of the “death of the author,” and of The Lover’s Discourse, from which Labbé’s title can be derived. And perhaps the fact that he “begins to fuck with your head” expresses very crudely what Barthes called the “emphatic form of the lover’s discourse,” Loquela, “the flux of language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound or the consequences of an action.”

You can choose to link him to the European avant garde, then. And it doesn’t hurt that Loquela also rhymes with Cortázar’s Rayuela (in English, Hopscotch), or that, like Cortázar, Labbé wants to chart a new path through literature. We might note that Labbé’s first novel was a hypertext-fiction, Pentagonal: incluidos tú y yo (2001).

Click that link, if you choose to.

It’s the sort of book Cortázar might have written, had he the generational opportunity. And even if you don’t read Spanish, you may still be reminded of the Choose Your Own Adventure genre of children’s gamebook, or a book like Goosebumps. Children read these books, of course, without knowing that Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1964) and Raymond Queneau’s “A story as you like it” (1967) first opened the door to turning stories into games in the 1970’s; to enjoy those books, you don’t need to know how the OuLiPo sought to widen and broaden the potential for literature. You can just play, without thinking about how, at the same time that books were became games in the 1970’s, computers were making games into stories: before 1973, or so, computer games were mostly non-textual, play rather than narrative; after 1973, the distinction was moot.

Click that link, if you like; I’ll wait.

When you read Carlos Labbé, you have to choose (Something his next novel, Piezas secretas contra el mundo, makes even more explicit). Like video games, you cannot sit passively; you must play.

Are you interested in his “experiments” in literary form? Are you interested in the long tradition of writers who break the realist novel down into its component parts and then reconstruct the house of fiction from new foundations? If this is what interests you, then Labbé offers a garden of forking paths. His novels are experimental fiction, striving to do things with narrative that have never been done before. New game require that you learn how to play; his novels force you learn, anew, how to read.

On the other hand, other things happened in 1973, rather important things. And as you read Navidad & Matanza (or “Christmas and Killing”), the phrase “Chile as laboratory for neoliberalism” may drift across your mind; as you read this story-within-a-story of writers writing under the influence of a hate-drug—concocted, perhaps, by economists from the University of Chicago—you might start to think about the kinds of paranoia that get produced by out-in-the-open economic conspiracies. You might see Labbé’s project as having less in common with a European avant-garde, and instead place him next to a writer like the Argentine Ricardo Piglia, whose newest novel, Target in the Night, describes “a new kind of detective novel,” a paranoid fiction, in which “Everyone is a suspect, everyone feels persecuted.” In these paranoid fictions from the southern cone, “The criminal is no longer an isolated individual, but rather a member of a group who has absolute power.”

You could even compare Labbé to another post-dictatorial Chilean writer: in Alejandra Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, for example, there’s a slow reveal of what might be at the root of middle-class Chilean family comfort, a discovery of complicity wrapped in the warmth of family. Of course, Labbé and Zambra are superficially very different writers; Zambra’s transparent realism translates with an ease that recalls Haruki Murakami, metafiction so gentle you almost don’t notice that it is; Labbé just fucks with you. But you must be paranoid enough to read beneath the surface of the prose: both search for a lost child in the aftershocks of neoliberal authoritarianism, writing the traumas of cyclical narratives in the cyclical narratives of trauma.

You could also just read Loquela.

At the start, a writer named Carlos decides that he does not want to write a detective novel: instead, he declares, he wants to write a mystery. And so, as with Navidad and Matanza, you find yourself reading a detective story wrapped in a metafiction about a writer trying to write about a detective, and the real mystery turns out to be whether the writer is inventing the story or if the story is what makes him write. In both novels, Carlos Labbé makes an appearance; in both, you may find the novel difficult going, and may get lost between what is happening in the novel and what is supposed to be happening in the novel; you may find yourself wondering what you’re missing or how you’re supposed to be reading towards finding those missing things (or if you are). When you realize the narrator’s obsession with Juan Carlos Onetti, you will wonder if that means you need to familiarize yourself with his work.

How charmed are you by narrative recursions and tautology? What was novel for Cortázar in 1967 might have become a dead-end; as choices branch out, perhaps they hem you in. Indeed, while Barthes invoked the “death of the author” as the “birth of the reader,” Michel Foucault retort was that the author’s death also makes him more powerful: after all, is there room for the reader in a novel whose protagonist is the author himself? Sometimes choice is not freedom, as the 1970’s spurred a variety of thinkers to reflect. And if OuLiPo explored the freedoms made possible by constraint, then perhaps Labbé’s work discovers some the constraint of freedom: to liberate the reader to read the story as you like it—to choose your own adventure—leaves you all the more dependent on the whims of the author, accumulating reading lists of his favorite books. You must choose:

Do you read this novel? Or do you read Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse instead?

Do you read this novel? Or do you read the complete works of Juan Carlos Onetti, first?

Do you read this novel? Or do you read an interview with Labbé, in which he describes his philosophy of writing:

“for me it’s about reflecting on the political, emotional and metaphysical implications of choosing, describing and narrating worlds from an orderly or maybe chaotic perspective, or through a hidden system that would give meaning to the constant crisis of daily life in our time. When we read, are we looking for reassurance, a reaffirmation of conventional and harmless life, or are we looking for a new experience, a meaning?

You must choose. You must choose. You must choose.

Or maybe you don’t need to. Maybe it isn’t about choice at all, and maybe this is the point: no matter what you choose, you’re still in the same novel. Maybe choice is the trap.

In a reading and discussion at Diesel Books in Oakland a few months ago, Labbé explained that he began writing the novel that would become Loquela when he was still at university, in 1995: he was trying to become a writer by writing his favorite genre of fiction, a detective story.

It wasn’t a very good novel—he wasn’t yet a very good writer—and that novel still isn’t. The fossil of that novel is still to be found in this one, in fact. Much of it—I suspect—is unchanged.

But it wasn’t a mystery, he realized, because it was a detective story, because the genre told you the ending. So, he added a second voice, the voice of the frustrated writer struggling to write the novel, struggling to find mystery in a detective novel. He gives away the ending on page one—in the first paragraph—to make it clear that everyone but the writer knows where the story is going. He makes the writer the last to know that he, himself, was the killer.

But in the illusion of choice, are the writer and reader still complicit in the murder?

And so, he added one more voice: the victim. Her voice completes the novel, if only by tearing it apart; her voice is the wound that keeps the novel bleeding; her voice is the second-person address—to “you”—that makes you complicit in the dead words of a dead person written in a dead letter; hers is the voice that, as it turns out, cannot choose. And this, the novel gives you no choice but to read, is the consequence of your choice.

Subscribe

An Arbitrary Number of Theses on Donald’s Trump

  1. Violence is “the trump card of the stupid, since it is that form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response.”
  2. Violence is not subtle. And this is not subtle:trumpsteaks
  3. It is easy to ignore subtlety. It is not easy to ignore violence.
  4. It is hard not to talk about Trump’s meat (according to his butler, he likes his steaks cooked so well-done “it would rock on the plate.”)
  5. You can’t ignore phallic symbols. Silence is not an intelligent response to being told to be silent.
  6. Phallic symbols work when everyone sees It, but nobody says what they saw, when we carry the weight of the knowledge but we don’t speak it.
  7. Unspeakable knowledge is another way to talk about trauma. (Obedience is what the powerful call trauma.)
  8. When people say what they see, we laugh, to pretend we don’t see It.
  9. The word lol looks a little like if you turned a penis inside-out
  10. Laughter is a potent form of gas-lighting. (“Trump insists tweet that Obama would’ve attended Scalia’s funeral “if it were held in a Mosque” was just a joke”)
  11. Everyone knows what Trump meant by “schlonged.” Trump was not speaking Yiddish. (In 2006, Dick Morris said that President Bush was “going to get schlonged” in the midterms.)
  12. Jacqueline Rose: “psychoanalysis starts from the premise that we are freighted with a form of knowledge we cannot bear.”
  13. The “emperor’s new clothes” parable: the naked emperor struts and nobody says anything because power has trained them to be silent.
  14. The Emperor’s subjects see but are silent, are not heard.
  15. The little boy in the story speaks up (“But the emperor has no clothes!”) because he is a little boy: He doesn’t understand the threat.
  16. (He disobeys accidentally. It’s a little boy because he can be forgiven for not knowing. A girl or woman could not be forgiven for seeing It and speaking out.)
  17. When everyone is not talking about the same thing, at the same time, constantly, that’s power.
  18. If you see something, say something. Saying makes it something.
  19. If you didn’t say something, if you were silent, then there must not have been anything. If you saw it, you must be crazy.
  20. Hegemony is when the threat of violence remains implicit. Hegemony is when the empire silences itself into obedience.
  21. (They’ll think I’m crazy if I say something; they’ll laugh at me.)washmon
  22. The Washington monument is a masonic symbol, and the Freemasons were men who had a variety of signs and symbols that everyone saw, but no one was supposed to talk about. Metaphorically speaking, masons erect buildings.
  23. Beyond the more obvious examples of the priapic Washington Monument, one finds a slew of nicknames attached to US presidents whose phallic nature is difficult to dispute. Aside from the relatively subtle nicknames attached to Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Franklin Pierce – all of which involve the term Hickory, which is not just a tree, but one known for its exceptional hardness – one finds the somewhat more overt Abraham ‘The Rail Splitter’ Lincoln, not to mention Tricky Dick Nixon and Slick Willie.”
  24. Lots of American presidents have belonged to secret groups, but a larger percentage of American presidents have been men.
  25. “in the course of an interview with a journalist, Johnson was asked why he was in Vietnam. By way of a reply, he removed his penis, proffered it, and rejoined, “This is why.”
  26. But the first rule of empire club is that you don’t talk about empire club. You keep the club in your pants.
  27. Theodore Roosevelt was famous for saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
  28. Hegemony is to have a big cannon but to keep it in your pocket.
  29. To speak so quietly that everyone silences themselves, straining to hear.
  30. You can speak softly, because no one is fucking with you. Because you could, you don’t have to.
  31. “Big Stick Diplomacy” is an extremely Victorian sense of power. It’s all about sex, and sex as power, and the powerful sexual body as violence that silences.
  32. Officially, it has nothing to do with sex. It’s saturated with sexuality.
  33. Theodore Roosevelt liked to shoot animals and eat them. When he left the presidency, the first thing he did was go to Africa where he shot everything and anything that moved. TRAF
  34. Officially, Roosevelt only shot animals to eat them, or for some other necessary use (This is obviously not true, but no one pointed this out.)
  35. Just before he left the presidency—having worked hard to modernize the United States’ navy and make it equivalent to the imperial British navy—he sent “The Great White Fleet” on a world cruise, a soft-spoken demonstration of America’s big stick.
  36. The Great White Fleet, consisting of 14,000 sailors on 16 battleships and accompanying vessels, was sent around the world for fourteen months by President Roosevelt…The Great White Fleet was an important show of America’s naval power to the rest of the world.”
  37. Officially, the word “white” is a simple description: “Called the Great White Fleet because the ships were painted white instead of modern gray.”
  38. Why were they painted white, I wonder, instead of modern gray?
  39. Theodore Roosevelt spent a lot of time worrying about the white race’s virility. He called it “race suicide” when white women chose not to have babies, and it really worried him.
  40. If manhood is all about babies and softness, that makes men nervous.
  41. To be soft is to have a latent erection, an erection that has not manifested itself.
  42. To have an erection is funny, because it betrays desire and need. An erection is a reaction to someone else’s erotic power.
  43. If you have an erection in public, you try to hide it. You don’t have control over it.
  44. Men are afraid of sex when they don’t know how to talk about it.
  45. Sex is about border crossings, liquids, and becoming someone else’s object. Trump always knows what to say about everything: we must secure the borders (but not to the immigrant women he has made a habit of marrying).
  46. Men prefer games.
  47. “Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.”
  48. To have an erection is to be reminded that most of the time, you don’t. Virility is intermittent, short-lived. It comes and goes.
  49. “The ‘true body of the fascist is the phallic body, existing a state of preparedness for war”
  50. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. Fascism is all about form (sex is about deformation).
  51. A gun is much more phallic than a penis.
  52. You see the big stick and know what it is, and because you know what it is, you shut your mouth about it. You act like it’s just a stick. But of course it isn’t.
  53. We all know it and because we know it, we don’t say it.
  54. This is not subtleTFAF2
  55. Historical note: Roosevelt once attributed the big stick saying to “a West African proverb” and later to an old Irish saying. Seems most likely he just made it up.
  56. It is not, however, a coincidence that he linked that phallic expression of power to non-white/“savage” bodies.
  57. Phallic symbols are always real, and they are never a coincidence.
  58. The famously foul-mouthed Donald Trump often complains about protesters who use “nasty” language.
  59. Donald Trump also likes to call his opponents and critics “babies.”
  60. “In the uncensored version, Trump is adorned with a micro-penis, also known in slang terms as a “baby dick.”
  61. The painting of Trump’s micro-penis has been censored, boosting its sales.
  62. Trump has always hated being called a “short-fingered vulgarian.”
  63. The “vulgarian” part doesn’t seem to bother him very much. But he talks endlessly about how there is nothing to say about his hands.
  64. Trump is good at twitter, because he thrives in the short form.
  65. “A hand with little fingers coming out of a stem. Like, little. Look at my hands. They’re fine. My hands are normal hands. I was on line shaking hands with supporters, and one of supporters got up and he said, “Mr. Trump, you have strong hands. You have good-sized hands.” And then another one would say, “You have great hands, Mr. Trump, I had no idea.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I thought you were like deformed, and I thought you had small hands.” I had fifty people … Is that a correct statement? I mean people were writing, “How are Mr. Trump’s hands?” My hands are fine. You know, my hands are normal. Slightly large, actually. In fact, I buy a slightly smaller than large glove, okay? Everybody was saying to me, “Oh, your hands are very nice. They are normal.” I don’t want people to go around thinking that I have a problem. I’m telling you, Ruth, I had so many people. I would say 25, 30 people would tell me … every time I’d shake people’s hand, “Oh, you have nice hands.” Why shouldn’t I? And, by the way, by saying that I solved the problem. Nobody questions … I even held up my hands, and said, “Look, take a look at that hand.” And by saying that, I solved the problem. Nobody questions. Everyone held my hand. I said look. Take a look at that hand.”
  66. Trump hates when people give him the finger, which he uses almost charmingly euphemistic language to describe: “From what I understand, he was sticking a certain finger up in the air. And that is a terrible thing to do.”
  67. When it comes to penises and hegemony, it’s always “you know what they say, don’t you?” They say it; you don’t. You obey the injunction to silence.
  68. When it comes to phallic symbols, everything is a phallic symbol. You can’t unsee them.
  69. Why does the USA have such a gigantic military? It doesn’t do anything (at least when it works). Why will Trump make it bigger? The same reason.
  70. Fantasies about big dicks are often adjacent to fantasies about hurting women.
  71. In fact, penises are small. Every positive penis-analogy compares a penis to something larger than a penis, because penises are small. (A big penis is a penis that’s larger than a penis).
  72. This is a good metaphor for what capitalism is supposed to be: it grows and magically becomes bigger than itself.
  73. But whether it actually does, of course, is beside the point. Big dicks don’t care if they’re big enough. Showers don’t need to be growers.
  74. Successful capitalists are good at exploiting other people’s labor, and then erasing it.
  75. A big dick shuts everyone up. “The phallus is the penis that takes one’s breath away.”
  76. If you see it, and speak, you might say: “well that’s a funny looking organ, and not really a very impressive thing.”
  77. You use your breath for many different things.
  78. Numbers are arbitrary and power is arbitrary.
  79. Size is relative, and so is love and labor.
  80. A vagina conforms to the size of the penis.
  81. Being fucked by a cruel partner is hard work, because violence turns bodies into meat.
  82. When Theodore Roosevelt’s mother and wife died – on the same day – he went to North Dakota and shot hundreds of animals.
  83. “Since Alice’s death his diaries had become a monotonous record of things slain.”
  84. When he left office in 1909, the first thing he did was go to Africa and shoot an astounding number of animals. The headline at the NY Times reads: “Average of 40 Vertebrates a Day for a Year Killed.”
  85. The foundation of Trump’s run for president was his demand for Obama’s birth certificate: submit the intimate, naked facts of your origin to my scrutiny! Show us that you are African!
  86. The accusation was that Obama was hiding something, something shameful. (The accuser has power; the person who obeys, not so much.)
  87. There is a picture of Barack Obama pointing at the micro-penis painting of Donald Trump, supposedly in Cuba, supposedly “peak no fucks given.” The picture is photoshopped: people want it to have happened, but it didn’t.
  88. Power is to whip it out and no one says anything.
  89. “The way an event feels on the ground, and the way media—including new media— depict an event can diverge a lot…To Trump supporters in the room: an energized rally, many lighthearted moments. Next day media: protester punched. There: you don’t see it.”
  90. The size of Donald Trump’s seventy-year old penis is possibly the most unimportant, most offensively irrelevant facts in the world.
  91. There is nothing you can say about it that stops it from being the subject, including silence.
  92. Making us care about something of such tiny, tiny importance: that is power.
  93. We have to talk about Donald Trump’s meat, because silence ratifies the phallic.
  94. (So does talking about it.)
  95. Is this a protest?
  96. “Remember when Bernie Sanders, they took the mic away from him? That’s not going to happen with us. He watched these two young girls talking to the audience… he was standing in the back as two women took the mic away… That doesn’t happen here.”
  97. Donald Trump needs you to be silent.
  98. Donald Trump needs you to talk about him.
  99. Donald Trump needs.
  100. Round numbers satisfy.
  101. lol

 

Subscribe

Our Star Wars Holiday Special

junk

To criticize The Force Awakens for “recycling” the first three Star Wars movies—to complain that it’s “un-original” compared to that original work of genius—misses the point of the franchise so thoroughly and dramatically that this critical impulse seems more interesting to me than the movie itself. The one thing the original trilogy wasn’t was original. Similarly, The Force Awakens is great, but it isn’t interesting. The jokes are good, the action is organic and compelling, the characters are well inhabited by competent actors, and the cinematography and music is excellent and consistently inventive. But everything that puts you in the moment, when you’re watching it, falls apart as soon as you turn your brain back on. As experience, as ritualistic performance, as society-wide holiday, and as entertainment-industrial-complex, Star Wars is a strange and magnificent and disgusting enterprise. As original story, it’s total crap.

But of course it is. The more interesting question is why we would expect otherwise? Why would anyone act surprised when the new Star Wars turns out to be precisely as predictable and coherent as the story of Christmas itself, or as nakedly designed to sell toys to children? No one complains that this year’s Christmas only re-packages and recycles the stories of Christmases past, and to pretend to be scandalized by how commercial Christmas is “getting” is, itself, a clichéd-to-death joke. The same is true of Star Wars. You can be cynical or you can enjoy it; you can turn your brain on or leave it off. But you can’t have it both ways. Star Wars is what it is, and you can participate, or not. But there’s nothing else it should be.

For starters, it’s hard to think of a movie franchise that so revels in its own tautological premises. After all, what is “the force” except a means of embedding narrative convenience directly into the story itself? The force of heroic protagonism is strong with this one, declares Obi-Wan; may the camera be with you. Because if the camera is with you, you can defy odds, physics, and logic, in an even more blatant way than on-screen heroes usually can. But the force is not interested in people that we haven’t seen in close-up; if you don’t have a John Williams-composed theme to mark the fact that you matter, you can and will live or die unnoticed. The “force” is just the diagetic trace of an extradiegetic will, an expression of the screenwriter’s desire as it gets projected onto the blank screen of the audience’s appetite. The force is strong with Luke because he is a stand-in for Lucas’s own wish-fulfilments, and so, the universe obeys his commands. It’s not subtle, and like Luke for Lucas or Darth Vader for Dark Father, it’s not clever. But it is compelling.

It’s easy and fair to complain that the original trilogy had precisely one woman in it, and that she played sister, love interest, and mother all at once. This is how infantile (male) fantasies work, and Star Wars is nothing if not an infantile fantasy. Lucas liked to claim that he learned to think about myth from Joseph Campbell, but he only started saying that later, after he had decided to pretend that he had done something other than magnificently re-create Flash Gordon with better special effects. But Star Wars is just Flash Gordon with better special effects, and for the sort of story Flash Gordon is—an infantile masculinity expressing by narcissistic phallic desire—you only need one woman, and you don’t really want more than one. A movie that can pass the Bechdel test is the last thing you want: if two women have a conversation—and if it’s not about you—it might turn out that your boy-hero character is not at the center of the universe. If you let society into your movie, it might tell you to stop being a child.

This is why, as Lili has observed, Star Wars likes to show us entire worlds being destroyed—genocides on a literally unimaginable scale—and then fades the horrors of those holocausts into the background, the better for us to obsess over the Skywalker family soap opera. Will Vader turn good or will Luke turn evil or will Kylo Ren come back home to his parents? Such narcissism is par for the course, even if Star Wars offers a more intensified version of it; the force is with the Skywalkers, and to hell with everyone else. But at the same time, this monstrous ethical myopia is striking because of how a mastery of visual scale has always been one of the franchise’s trademarks; remember Darth Vader’s star destroyer filling the screen as it dwarfed and pursued Princess Leia’s tiny diplomatic ship, or all the great set-pieces of small ships flying inside big ships. At the level of cinematography, the franchise’s mastery of visual perspective is sublime; why, then, is its lack of moral proportion so flagrant? What are we to do with figures like the pacifist Storm Trooper who reclaims his humanity because he refuses to kill, and who then goes on to kill dozens (or hundreds) of nameless Storm Troopers because, as Storm Troopers, they aren’t human? No camera, no force, no face, no matter? It’s the same problem we face when Luke refuses to kill his father at the climax of Return of the Jedi, because he knows there is good in him still: when Darth Vader proves Luke right, and turns good, he does it by killing the emperor, his own father-figure. It makes no sense when you stop and think about it.

The real question, then, is whether you should stop and think about it. Lots of people have done so, laboriously struggling to work out how it all does makes sense, adding stories and details and characters to turn a radically simplistic and mythically shallow set of stories into something that resembles the logic of the real world. For decades, the “expanded universe” was the umbrella term for this enterprise of filling in the gaps, the novelizations and video games and other archives of canon, less canon, and sub-canon material that made a set of flickering films into a universe. That’s all gone now; Disney destroyed it all with as little ceremony as it blew up the Hosnian system, the necessary blank space in which to build its own empire. Millions of voices cried out and were silenced, but now, a new revenue stream flows through the galaxy.

I wouldn’t overthink it. Take Finn the good Stormtrooper: what a great character! But his psychology makes no sense at all if you think even a little bit about the life he has lived, the world he knows, and the things he has experienced. The movie plays his fish-out-of-water bluffing for comedy—and it is funny and charming—but there’s something extremely unsettling about how easily he shrugs off a lifetime of indoctrination into a fascist death-cult, how quickly and painlessly he becomes one of the guys, just basically a good dude. This is a nice fantasy, and you shouldn’t think too carefully about a fantasy: how can he know he’ll never know his birth family, but somehow feel and mourn the absence of something he’s never known? Where is the ideological indoctrination (and psychological scar tissue) that would have accompanied being crassly made into biopower and canon-fodder? Where is his ambivalence about leaving the only life he’s ever had behind (and about killing those who stayed)? We don’t see a trace of esprit de corps within The First Order, because if we did—or if Finn still identified even a little with his fascist family—then it might have been difficult for him to kill dozens or hundreds or millions of them, and our pleasure in the spectacle might have been interrupted. Finn has never even had a name: he should be damaged and tortured, deeply traumatized and unstable. Instead, he has comic mommy issues with the absurd figure of the Annoying Mother Stormtrooper, who is easily overcome, humiliated, and then shunted off-screen to the trash compactor, with a wink to the audience (remember the trash compactor in the first movie? Get it?!). These are not problems with solutions. These are flaws so fundamental that the only thing you can do is let go your conscious self and act on instinct. As Obi Wan taught Luke, so long ago: Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings!

If you stop and think about how actual human beings act and think and behave, however, even a little bit, there’s nothing to be salvaged here. None of these people should be doing any of the things that they do. So don’t stop and think. If you fixate on details like the fact that Leia should hug and mourn with Chewbacca instead of Rey, those details will draw your attention away from the very well-made cartoon you’re watching. And what’s the point of watching Star Wars if you’re going to look away? It’s not a criticism to call Star Wars infantile fantasy; that’s simple description. None of these characters existed before they walked onscreen, and they fall apart if you think too much about their paper-thin backgrounds. But that’s how action figures work: they are meant to be picked up and played with; they are not meant to be ruthlessly interrogated for their psychological coherence.

It’s the implication that there’s something terrible about cartoons and action figures that we need to think about. Like the Star Wars Holiday Special, Star Wars is ridiculous and ill-conceived, with moments of true grace. But you can’t have the childish wonder if you don’t embrace the puerility of it all; they’re baked into the same Christmas cake. The Force Awakens is a great movie while you’re watching it, because while you’re staring up at that gigantic projection on the wall, you’ll be watching it with your belly and your throat and your heart and your gut, as you should be. (Not your genitals, of course; this is Disney). But none of it makes sense if you try to watch it with your brain. So either do or do not.

hair

Like his cartoonishly great hair, George Lucas’s great weakness might have been his desire to be respected and taken seriously; after the first trilogy, he spent decades pretending to be a great auteur who had planned it all out after reading Joseph Campbell, his key to all mythologies. But this is like pretending you believe Santa Claus is real. You don’t. Even kids don’t really believe Santa is real; how can they believe in something they’ve never seen? They’re just happy to live in the world created by that belief. To “believe” in Santa Clause is not to care if he’s real or not, but to count the hours down until you can open your presents. And if there is one thing sillier than Star Wars, it’s taking Star Wars so seriously that you criticize it for being Star Wars, for not being original, for having failed to be something different than it is. Because here’s the thing: I don’t know if George Lucas’ hair is real, but I love that he’s rocking it like that. And Star Wars works when it is exactly as shameless as that crazy lock of hair that sweeps majestically across George Lucas’ forehead. Who cares if it’s real?

Every beat in The Force Awakens reminds you that you are watching fan service. It recycles the original Star Wars with the same shameless and joyous abandon that the original trilogy “recycled” chanbara samurai movies, WWII movies, pulp sci-fi, and anything else that George Lucas happened to come across and devour. And this point is worth underscoring: Lucas gobbled up and digested so many different pop cultural predecessors, and did it so directly and shamelessly, that to subject any of the resulting crap to standards of originality is to fundamentally misunderstand how it works, or why. The man literally cut together footage from WWII fighter pilot films and then re-shot it as space battles; his first treatment actually plagiarizes Donald Richie’s description of The Hidden Fortress. But to accuse him of “plagiarism” is like accusing him of making a movie. If it felt good, he released it, and that’s Star Wars: sensation and feeling without thought or coherence. Star Wars is the indescribable goodness of the images and sounds, and the way that goodness overwhelms and digests the rest of it. Star Wars misses the target if it aims. Just let go, Luke. Trust yourself.

The best thing about The Force Awakens is that it reminds us how to watch Star Wars without overthinking it, everything from the howlingly cheesy opening titles to all the little winks to the audience that Abrams is in on the joke of this thing (“That’s not how the Force works!” or “So it’s another Death Star?”). Naming the new Mega-Ultra-Death Star the “Starkiller” base is a reference to Luke Skywalker’s original name in an early script; it’s a loose thread left loose so that, if you want to pull on it, you can unravel the whole sweater and see how hackish the “original” inspiration for these movies was. George Lucas literally tried to buy the rights to the Flash Gordon series, and couldn’t, so he just wrote his own version of it, and it’s exactly the innocent and dumb bit of fun that it was supposed to be.

This is also why the prequels were so terrible. They were marred by horrific writing and joyless characters, of course, but those superficial failings pale in comparison (or resulted from) the more fundamental underlying problem: they tried so hard to explain that they killed the joy of the thing itself. The expanded universe is a really sad place. Action figures aren’t fun if you know the entire story, and have a script to perform; the point of action figures is all the space left behind to explore and screw around with. How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? How did the republic fall? Where did the emperor come from? How did Luke and Leia end up separated, who is Obi Wan Kenobi, and where are all the mothers in this universe?

These are not plot holes; these are the dark matter that holds the galaxy together. Trying to fill them in, therefore, was a huge mistake. “The trick in art is not telling the truth”—as Mike Thomsen put it after watching The Phantom Menace on acid, which is the only way—“but convincing the audience you believe something that is self-evidently untrue.” The prequels failed on every level, then, because they tried to explain away what was self-evidently ludicrous. They tried to restore order to the galaxy by placing past, present, and future into a coherent cause-and-effect relationship: Instead of placing their faith in the force—the way an open-mouthed child lets the storyteller carry them off—the prequels tried to explain what the force really was (MIDICHLORIANS!) and worked so hard at it that they made the entire thing tedious and boring. They turned their targeting computer back on.

In finding the Luke who was lost, The Force Awakens also finds the George Lucas who was lost with him. For the prequels, Lucas went over to the dark side: instead of an infantile dreamer, he became a dad. But as it turns out, there was still good in him: having brought a deadening order to the force, he had the sense to hand off the lightsaber to J.J. Abrams, who can empty his mind and release the torpedoes with the very best of them, as his joyful desecration of the Star Trek franchise demonstrated. Indeed, the worst thing about the prequels was that they had become Star Trek, filled with nonsense about diplomacy, trade negotiations, and crypto-obvious political allegory. I love Star Trek, but as Abrams’ unholy violation of that franchise demonstrates, they are very, very different things: Star Trek was a projection of Roddenberry’s faith in human perfectibility—his mid-century liberal belief that the arc of history bends towards justice and that utopia was just a matter of time—so the Star Wars that Abrams made out of it is horribly perverse. Roddenberry looked to the stars and saw progress towards the final frontier; Lucas’ dreamed of regression to childhood. Star Wars is what happened to 1960’s idealism when it ran aground on the despairing hedonism of the 70’s and became the nihilistic narcissism of the 1980’s. Star Trek dreamed of a bright future, because Roddenberry believed that our present would be Star Trek’s past (the nightmare from which they would struggle to awake); Star Wars just stays in bed, dreaming, wrapped tighter and tighter in Jedi sheets.

The prequels were what happens to a dream once you’ve woken up from them, once you’ve showered and put on clothes and organized what you remember—by forgetting a lot of the truly weird parts—all so that you can convince yourself that you understand what it meant. Calling the lightsaber a “phallus,” for example, explains what and why and how, in ways that reassure you that you understand. But, as such, that understanding has nothing to do with the feeling of the thing itself, and even does a disservice to the energy that stupidly animates it. Giving “the force” a pseudo-scientific explanation only obscures the way “the force” just expresses narrative convenience, things that can happen once the reality principle has been relaxed. But to state the obliviously obvious: if dreams are anything, they are not their analysis. Dreams are what your brain does when you don’t demand that it make sense. You can subject them to rigorous analysis—and, perhaps, the rigor of that analysis might help you understand something about the conditions that created those night-terrors, or the work that dreams do to provide relief from the pressures of daily life. And you let dreams go, once you’re awake and moving around and doing daily life things. But dreams are also the literal opposite of work, the unspooling of your mind when your body rests, when the filters and safeguards and adult self-surveillance is all turned off for the night. You might need to rest so that you can work again, but this doesn’t mean that rest is work. And neither are dreams, or Star Wars: they are play.

Abrams’s version of Star Trek is a bad Star Wars: instead of the next Next Generation, he froze and fetishized a young and fresh and glossy and fun and breathtakingly stupid version. As a child, he had preferred Lucas’ creation, so he saw and re-interpreted Star Trek through Lucas’s eyes, evacuating it of everything that had made it what it was. When he took over the Star Wars—that had become a bad version of Star Trek—he did the same thing. But while making Star Trek regressive kills it, returning Star Wars to its origins brings it back to life. It’s precisely because The Force Awakens so thoroughly makes its own incoherence into a virtue—trying so little to make sense—that it’s able to have its cake and eat it too, and also to make great, organic, nourishing crap out of it. This franchise is nothing if not joyous relief and the infantile exhilaration of evacuation. Which is why, once you recognize that it’s crap, you can see why it’s wrong to talk about how the Force Awakens “recycles” Star Wars. It doesn’t: it composts it.

Subscribe