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The Aura Will Be With You, Always: George Lucas, His Fans and the “Authenticity” of Star Wars

Insightful cultural criticism can be hard to come by, but it’s hard to miss it when it does. It may not entirely reconfigure the way we think about cultural production, but the frameworks and perspectives provided by such well-modulated analysis infiltrate our considerations, colouring them with new (and, ideally, deeper) shades of thought.

Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax, which I’m currently working my way through, is just this type of criticism. The book extends and broadens the argument that Potter made with co-author Joseph Heath in The Rebel Sell, shoring it up with reinforced philosophical foundations and many more object lessons from contemporary culture.

For those who haven’t gotten around to The Rebel Sell (for shame!), the argument is, basically, that the cultural, ideology, and socioeconomic predilection towards seeking out and embracing “alternative” or counter-cultural antidotes to the corporate-controlled, alienating mass consumption of modern urbanized life is not resisting or undermining the capitalist superstructure but is actually feeding into its unprecedented, meteoric growth.

The Canadian edition of The Rebel Sell features the familiar visage of Che Guevara staring out not from a t-shirt but from a Starbucks-esque coffee container, and the image succinctly sums up its message: those products, practices, ideas that are usually thought to make you feel like a defiant individual rebelling against an unfeeling and greedy system, be they indie rock albums or organic produce or living in the downtown core and biking to work, are in fact the engine of constant, status-seeking conspicuous consumption. In other words, your imagined resistance is ensuring your enslavement (ie. daily life in the modern world, which the authors don’t find to be all that much of a burden at all).

The Authenticity Hoax makes many similar arguments on the basis of many related cultural examples, but with the concept of the “authentic” as an entry point rather than the concept of the “alternative”. This is a much more powerful starting point for Potter, as conceptions of authenticity underscore practically every important social and cultural value in the democratic West and are not limited to a particular end of the political or cultural spectrum, whereas the counter-cultural focus of The Rebel Sell sometimes came across as one-sided hippie-punching. Misconceptions of the authentic, however, are as endemic to fashionable, knee-jerk-progressive urban hipsters as they are to resentful, anti-government rural Tea Partiers. It’s a discussion that delves deep into all of the myriad values of modernityThe Authenticity Hoax.

The potency of Potter’s dialogue on authenticity was brought home to me recently. I registered the way that “The Creative Self”, his chapter in The Authenticity Hoax on “provenance” and authenticity in the world of art, dovetailed compellingly with the latest skirmish in a long war over one of our modern corporate culture’s most beloved and influential entertainment institutions, the Star Wars saga.

George Lucas’ latest edits to his space fantasy saga for its forthcoming Blu-Ray release were confirmed on August 31st, to predictable fanboy lamentations. Lucas’ new round of tinkering with his cinematic legacy doesn’t simply add superfluous CGI detail or subtly emasculate his antihero, mind you. This time, Lucas is aiming right for the climactic moment of his six-movie saga: the Blu-Ray of Return of the Jedi will evidently feature Darth Vader yelling “Noooooooo!” as he grabs the lightning-flinging Emperor Palpatine and hurls him over a precipice on the Death Star, thus saving the life of his son, Luke Skywalker. No doubt Lucas means to connect this moment with Vader’s other “Noooooooo!” moment in Revenge of the Sith, when the recently black-suited Anakin let loose with just that cornball howling upon learning of his lover Amidala’s death. Whatever his intentions, it’s yet another instance of the figure once memorably and serendipitously dubbed “the Lucas of George” (in a Google-translated script of his first Star Wars film) changing his established work and, in the view of much of his nerdy, quibbling, never-satisfied fanbase, deteriorating the integrity and the authenticity of Star Wars even further.

I find our lack of salt… disturbing.

The conflict between George Lucas and the legions of fans of his greatest creation (mostly of the original trilogy generation or the one just after) goes way back, at least to Return of the Jedi’s cuddly Ewoks and subsequent merchandising bonanza, although the animosity was most inflamed in the late ‘90s with Lucas’ “Special Edition” modifications (including the infamous, afore-referenced “Greedo shoots first” fiasco) and the brand diminishment that was The Phantom Menace. This ongoing quarrel is even covered in a full-length independent documentary film, so I won’t get into too much more detail about it and just encourage everyone with a deeper interest in its contours to seek that out instead.

Star Wars fandom’s widespread criticism of Lucas’ latter-day excesses is balanced by the dedication and creativity inspired by the tales from Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. For every angry blog post from a betrayed basement Jedi or comedy song about George Lucas “raping our childhood”, there are clever viral videos like “Troops” or “Star Wars Gangsta Rap”, to say nothing of Lucasfilm-approved entertainment-industry homages from the likes of Seth McFarlane (with his Family Guy parody ­trilogy Laugh It Up, Fuzzball), Seth Green (Robot Chicken), Genndy Tartakovsky (the Clone Wars cartoons), or J.J. Abrams (whose Star Trek film might as well have been subtitled A New Hope).

In a certain male-geek-dominated subculture, Star Wars is the main reference point for the continual construction of what Potter (après Rousseau) calls “the creative self”: that constantly updated process of identity self-definition that drives the modern world’s search for innate meaning. This is surely a major part of the reason why passionate fans of Lucas’ films get so irate at him when he monkeys with aspects of what are, after all, his own works. Those films, and that entire universe, have become an irreducible part of their own individual identities, their inner “true” selves. When Lucas changes the films, he changes them as well.

Why is this art? Fuck you, that’s why.

Potter gives us other frameworks to further understand this controversy, not only from the fans’ point of view but from Lucas’ as well. Using the example of British artist Damien Hirst’s notorious preserved-shark-in-a-tank work of contemporary “art”, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Potter ruminates on whether a specific work of art remains “authentic” if its traceable, material history, its “provenance” to use an art world term, involves significant edits from the artist or from otherwise well-meaning (or not-well-meaning) curators, preservationists, or restorers. Due to the unanticipated physical deterioration of the poorly-preserved tiger shark at the center of the work, Hirst and his patron Charles Saatchi were forced to alter Physical Impossibility in considerable ways, first by stretching the original shark skin over a fibreglass mould and then replacing it altogether with a new and more professionally-preserved shark. If it’s not the same shark, asks Potter, is it the same work? Or are such concerns purely technical, the purported artistic integrity of the artwork residing not in its corporeal make-up but in the persistence of its concept? Further to the point, is any conception of its “authentic” nature a pointless and deluded conceit anyway?

This same dilemma is acted out by Star Wars fans outraged at Lucas’ edits and his lacklustre prequels. Although many have made the point that the insertion of digital imagery into decades-old films and the privileging of such imagery in a companion trilogy have a purely aesthetic downside (ie. they “look fake”, a visual appeal to the authenticity hoax), it’s the distortion of ideas that really seems get their goat. Add all of the cutesy CGI effects you want and we’ll grumble, they seem to say, but mess with the soul and the aura of the story and the characters, those things that we really love, and there will be hell to pay. If George Lucas changes the content rather than just the appearance of these movies, our movies, then they aren’t the same movies; they aren’t the real deal that meant so much to us. Not anymore. In their minds, he’s stripped them of their inherent authenticity, an authenticity that fans feel that they have granted them with their obsessive commitment, imaginative collaboration, and recurring consumption.

What makes this such an odd reaction, and allows us to understand where Lucas is coming from in his insistence on repeatedly renovating what is, ultimately and legally, his own property, is that these are films we’re talking about. In relation to a similar line of thought, Potter cites Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which, upon its publication in 1936, wondered if artistic production had been made more ephemeral by cheaply reproduced mass-market media forms like photography and film. But here we are, some 70-plus years later, and a massively mass-market film franchise (a well-applied term that always already invokes commerce), one that has been watched and experienced by millions of people worldwide in pretty much the same way (although the many cultural products that have arisen in response to and in dialogue with it might suggest otherwise), is claimed to have some spirit of essential authenticity that is threatened, if not entirely overturned, when rather small adjustments are made to it.

That thing must have one hell of a carbon footprint…

Unlike Hirst, however, Lucas is not replacing the whole shark here. He may be injecting fresh formaldehyde, adding new fins, replacing eyeballs, maybe insinuating a grin on its treacherous, toothy mouth. But the shark is still the same shark, and, also unlike that of Hirst, there’s not only one of them in existence, either. There are millions upon millions of sharks, on DVD discs and VHS tapes and film spools and peer-to-peer servers and Sunday afternoon cable TV and in the active imaginations of children and adults alike, and some of these sharks are even the “original”, unretouched ones, to satisfy the purists. There is not merely one Star Wars, sitting in a wealthy art collector’s parlour or in a privileged place in an art gallery, possessed of an eternal quality to be forever preserved and gazed upon in reverence. There are as many Star Wars as there are fans of Star Wars.

This is what Benjamin, approaching things with his Marxist perspective of an oppressed proletarian class, did not anticipate in his critique of mass reproduction and consumption: the way that those who consume a mass commodity lend that commodity new value – a new aura, to adapt Benjamin’s own term – through their patronage of it and engagement with it. Star Wars fans use the films to craft their own “authentic” selves, and craft the films into something new in the process. They are all following Lucas, this universe’s creation figure, in that. The difference is that the films inform the fans’ creation of themselves, while Lucas’ self informs the actual creation of the films, rather than the re-interpretation of them. In this, he is forever apart and alone, even as he is simultaneously revered and reviled for his initializing and controlling part in this influential and lucrative narrative saga. And every time he moves his creation further from the selves of those who revere it, he moves himself closer to it.

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