‘Stars Wars’ and the End of Culture

Two noteworthy events happened in 2015: the premier of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the publication of Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Seemingly different, the two works actually have a lot to do with each other. Notes on the Death of Culture is a brilliant and challenging work that argues for the vital importance of culture in human flourishing and the health of societies. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a piece of junk that serves as a prime example of the cultural collapse that Llosa describes in his written autopsy. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

Notes on the Death of Culture is one of those books, like The Culture of Narcissism or The Closing of the American Mind, which comes along once a generation. With staggering lucidity, Llosa drives to the heart of a devastating problem in the culture of the West: the erosion of culture. While culture can certainly be comic books, movies, and pop songs, we have increasingly lost sight of, and appreciation for, the more complex and challenging works of art that can more deeply change us. LLosa cites books by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Homer, and Nietzsche; works of art by Picasso, Rembrandt, and Seurat; and plays by Chekhov, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Brecht as examples of things that “enriched to an extraordinary degree my imagination, my desires and my sensibility.”

One thing all of these works have in common is the great effort it took to create them and the effort it takes to consume them, at least if we are to truly understand them. Great works of culture should change who we are. They should also attempt to engage with complex cultural and spiritual issues.

But with the democratization of culture, the digital revolution, and the elimination of middle and highbrow culture in favor of pop culture, this is no longer necessary. Llosa argues: “Now we are all cultured in some way, even if we have never read a book, visited an art exhibition, listened to a concert or acquired any basic idea of the humanistic, scientific or technological knowledge in the world in which we live.” Culture becomes not something that you have to actively work at—even as that work is intensely rewarding and joyful—but something you passively consume. “Of course, culture can indeed be a pleasing pastime, but if it is just this, then the very concept becomes distorted and debased: everything included under the term becomes equal and uniform; a Verdi opera, the philosophy of Kant, a concert by the Rolling Stones and a performance by the Cirque du Soleil have equal value.”

And Star Wars becomes War and Peace. There have always been pop culture entertainments that have captured a society’s attention, from the circus to The Untouchables to Marvel’s string of hit superhero movies. I myself love pop culture, finding deep metaphors in the music of Taylor Swift or an epic like The Dark Knight Returns. (Llosa is also no snob, admitting he loves movies and goes to them twice a week.) Yet what has been lost in the last few decades is a willingness by cultural consumers to do some heavy lifting and take on more challenging works of art: The Brothers Karamazov, Beethoven’s symphonies, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Without such anchoring and altering works, Llosa argues, a culture becomes adrift, feckless, and childish. Even George Lucas based the first Star Wars movie on a substantive work, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been greeted as a realty-shifting cultural phenomenon. At heart it is simply a mediocre movie. Harrison Ford looks tired and silly reprising the role of Han Solo. There is no exposition or backstory to explain the characters’ motivations. The action is relentless yet somehow boring. The destruction of yet another Death Star is particularly lazy. Our cultural muscles have atrophied, allowing works of marginal value to be praised as high art; it’s all become one big pop culture Death Star, sucking everything into its mindless orbit.

But we can resist. We can say no. We can learn to flex highbrow cultural muscles again and to take on challenging works of art. We can say: Nicki Minaj is junk, James Patterson is a hack, and Lady Gaga produces lazy provocations, not art. We can even say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is cotton candy that is forgotten seconds after you leave the theater.

Perhaps then we can get back to what Llosa sees as the truest, noblest calling of culture—nourishing our souls while examining the big questions. Despite our vast scientific and technical knowledge, Llosa argues, “We have never been so confused about certain basic questions such as what are we doing on this lightless planet of ours, if mere survival is the sole aim that justifies life, if concepts such as spirit, ideals, pleasure, love, solidarity, art, creation, beauty, soul, transcendence still have meaning and, if so, what these meanings might be?”

Llosa’s critique offers a challenge and a warning: “The raison d’être of culture was to give an answer to these questions. Today it is exonerated from such a responsibility, since we have turned it into something much more superficial and voluble: a form of entertainment or an esoteric and obscurantist game for self-regarding academics and intellectuals who turn their backs on society.” In other words, culture should not merely be passive entertainment, but an active (and often edifying) journey toward a better understanding of what it means to be human.

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37 responses to “‘Stars Wars’ and the End of Culture

  1. The wellsprings of culture are religious. Always were, always will be. What we have now is mass entertainment, not culture. It is a new thing in the world: man without culture. But Romano Guardini and Josef Pieper were already suggesting as much, shortly after the last world catastrophe. I liked the first round of Star Wars movies, but I was never going to confuse them with Homer — or even with, say, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, or a good folk song like “Juanita.”

  2. Llosa articulates so well what I have felt for many years now, being a musician, composer, and writer having tried to straddle the divide between serious culture and pop culture. Oswald Spengler predicted all this back at the beginning of the 20th century in his magnum opus, “The Decline of the West.” But who reads stuff like this anymore? And who cares to ponder the inner emptiness of Man? It is easier to surround ourselves with every manner of superficial titillation to dull, avoid, hide, and even bury completely the inner ache for something more meaningful.

    In a culture that celebrates personality, we have lost touch with our innermost essence… our soul or spirit.

    1. Who reads stuff like this anymore? I think that’s part of the question this article asks. We DON’T go any deeper anymore than scratching a Wiki definition, if even that. Some of us grew up being treated to what was then referred to as “the classics.” Funny, now there are people today to tell us this is politically incorrect and insensitve to other “cultures” Well what have those other “cultures” given us? College is where one explores outside one’s comfort level and parochial perspectives. But even an expectation, today, of opposing viewpoints is subject to censorship and ideological fascism.

    2. Has any intellectual ever been served by feeding at the trough of popularity? Was there ever more than a tiny slice of humanity that cared about Brecht or Joyce or Nietzsche?
      Complaints about what the world values is a major theme of the work of each of those authors, by the way. So, none of this is new (even if modern mass media reaches deeper into our lives than ever).

  3. Ha… what a windbag. It’d be a better article if it could acknowledge the strengths the film does possess and the issues it does grapple with and acknowledge its entertainment value. Calling the film “junk” is frankly stupid. Complaining about a lack of backstory in a film supported by six prior films and anticipating two more is ridiculous. Lack of exposition is generally a strength.

    Weaknesses — too repetitive of ep. 4. The Death Planet subplot felt like a McGuffin. Carrie Fisher’s performance fits the description here of Harrison Ford’s, but Ford’s does not.
    Strengths — inspiring heroine, massively fun to watch, very likeable, maybe a little too perfect. Villain has the potential to develop in complexity. Ford’s performance was much better than this tone deaf review would imply. Finn’s character as a dark side defector creates a new kind of character in the myth.

    The six film storyline preceding this film was largely melodrama. But most opera is melodrama too, and that is generally considered high culture: bad dialog, simplistic characters and plot. Star Wars is space opera without the singing. It still has great music. The ep. 1-6 story arc was about Anakin with a political background reflective of the fall of Rome or of the Weimar Republic from a republic to a dictatorship, exploring the psychological forces behind these changes in its central characters.

    But this took six films to really develop. Ep. 7 reasonably relies upon the prior six for character development and establishes the terms of the new world. We get some backstory via moments of dialog, and we expect more in the next two films.

    There’s no problem here. Move along. This isn’t the sign of cultural decay you’re looking for.

    1. Nailed it. This article was written by Windy McBag, the mayor of Windbag Town. More pretentious than a Radiohead concert. “Lack of exposition is generally a strength” should be a bumpersticker.

      1. I honestly don’t know how to respond to someone who not only gets what I’m saying but agrees with me. It’s like the ground is dropping away from me.

        My online life must be built upon the backs of trolls.

        Um… thanks! I think that’s what you’re supposed to say? I really don’t know.

    2. Oh please. This article wasn’t about Star Wars and you can go back to your Marvel Comics new movie reviews, too. We don’t need a thesis on Star Wars. I like the movies, all of them. Nice entertainment value. Nice way to teach kids that standing up for something is important and that evil doesn’t go away on it’s own; it has to be put away. Those are morality lessons.

      1. Right… the words “Star Wars” wasn’t in the title, it wasn’t used as a sign of cultural decay, it’s not mentioned at least four times directly in the article, and it had nothing to do with the author’s point.

        The author has no point without his thesis about Star Wars (which he had — it is a kind of review too), because the point is that if this is the biggest thing we have going we have no culture at all. His point about culture is dependent upon his thesis about Star Wars.

        But then you go on to agree with me more than with the author. Did you read the essay before responding to me?

  4. It is no coincidence that both ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Stinks’ both begin with the letters ‘s’ and ‘t’, which, and this I believe is only coincidentally, follow one after the other in the alphabet suggesting, I do not think it a stretch to imagine, the movement of lemmings over a cliff (though in reality their mass suicides are a myth, I will use the example in order to more easily illustrate a point) toward the very end which, at least in the alphabet, is represented by the letter ‘Z’ about which there can be (as you may very well have been witness to yourself) some very heated arguments concerning its proper pronunciation.

  5. What a narrow understanding! He calls Harrison Ford as Han silly….I see Han as aging in the only way he knows how…still learning, still trying, still caring…but understanding that caring may not be enough, and that no matter how hard we try, our children might not become the people we might wish. IV Han is silly, then so am I as I, in my 60s, continue to be who I always have been. Just because we age does Nig mean we want to cease doing the things that have been so much a part of us. StarcWars is very complex, was difficult to create,and if one takes the time to thinks challenge to our thoughts. If one simply views it as an adventure, as escapism, it still has value.but one has missed the levels of meaning that make it so much more. But…seeing below the surface does take energy, and effort

    1. Han Solo’s return is thrilling — especially for us Gen Xers who actually saw the original trilogy when we were kids — and what happens to him is *very* emotional.
      The author really needs to read Chesterton’s “Ethics of Elfland.” Maybe then he could reconnect with his own childhood and thereby, his soul.

  6. Nope, the raison d’être of culture isn’t to give an answer to big questions. It’s to have fun. Discussing big questions is only important if it’s a fun discussion. Today’s culture is funner than ever. Hooray! Don’t be a tight-ass snob.

  7. Sorry but (dominant) Culture is never passive, it is always in service of the current world Order

  8. “Despite our vast scientific and technical knowledge, Llosa argues, “We have
    never been so confused about certain basic questions such as what are we doing on this lightless planet of ours, if mere survival is the sole aim that justifies life, if concepts such as spirit, ideals, pleasure, love, solidarity, art, creation, beauty, soul, transcendence still have meaning and, if so, what these meanings might be?””

    No, many of us are not confused. Llosa refuses to apply our best scientific and technical knowledge to everyday life. He probably refuses to accept aesthetic nonrealism and reflect on just what kind of creatures we are, and what exactly art is doing. Many of his lost meanings are lost because they were empty.

    Spirt, soul, and transcendence are gone.

    Love, beauty, and art merely get swallowed up in idiosyncratic human pleasures, thus losing a great deal of their connotation. We humans do care about our pleasures, but in the end that is all they are. Shakespeare no more transcends pleasure than sex. If knowledge is to be had in Shakespeare, it will not be because of its artistic qualities, but merely because of its reflective properties, which could of course be relayed more easily.

    Solidarity gets set aside alongside the likes of nationalism. We humans (eventually) will come together to build better societies and selves, but it will not be because we latch onto a concept like solidarity.

  9. If the author is going to refer to Mario Vargas Llosa by his last name, then he should use Vargas-Llosa instead of Llosa. I cannot believe that well into our globalized multicultural XXI century there are still cultured gringos who don’t know Latin Americans use both paternal and maternal last names.

    1. (sigh) As my mother used to say, “You buy ’em books and buy ’em books, and all they do is chew the covers.” That’s you, dude.

      1. I call out the author for naming the Nobel Prize winner by his maternal last name and now you bring up the mother card!?

  10. Thanks for this article and mentioning this book. The basic premise reflects my own opinion. For example, the city where I live is really, really big on “the arts.” Public art, in particular, which I guess is the most democratic kind of art, “is the new black”. It commands millions of dollars in my city from various funding sources. Evidently decorated downtown trash containers is how we all get “cultured.” Every blank exterior wall of every building in town is a target for another mural annotating one more slice of “culture,” usually someone’s, anyone’s, other than an American’s. These murals only add more visual litter to the already-littered neighborhoods they are supposed to “culturally celebrate.”

    Every green space, historically revered as psychologically soothing and peaceful environments, now is cluttered by someone’s ugly rusty iron sculptures that don’t ask us to do anything except avert our eyes, and turn away. All the green spaces are now the personal playground of the “culturally exceptionally chosen ones” and they don’t have enough time to clutter them with something. Nothing can “just be.” The trees, the flowers, the shrubs, the few animals that remain – that’s not enough “enrichment” anymore.

    Celebration of “diversity, at the expense of shared values, is also how we are to get “cultured.” There’s never anything below the surface of that all diversity celebrating – just costumes, face painting, and stilt walkers, – oh, and that sponsorship money that the same people profit from, year after year.

    Culture today is yet another business, a racket, a way to shift the funding stream to a niche group of people to define for us what is important and what is not. Culture is where they make the big bucks. We don’t even have to think about it and you certainly cannot complain about it without being suspect.

    1. Isn’t it at least xenophobic — and probably racist too — to assume the ethnic artists producing public art in your city aren’t “American”? — “Every blank exterior wall of every building in town is a target for another mural annotating one more slice of “culture,” usually someone’s, anyone’s, other than an American’s.”

      Yeah, I shouldn’t phrase this as a question. It is.

      Mexican Americans are Americans and their art is American art.

      African-Americans are Americans and their art is American art.

      White Americans have often and consistently co-opted ethnic art as their own. Most popular music can be defined this way — certainly any of it influenced by jazz or blues — but quite a bit of the avant-garde in many fields of art can be defined this way. Modernists like Pound studied Chinese poetry and a number of ethnic forms are popular among “white” artists.

      “White” isn’t a culture. It’s a skin color. Germany provides one cultural background, England another, and Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Italy, etc., all contribute their own, and they are all different. All of these constitute “whiteness” for Americans, most of whom are Euro-mutts with some African and Arab mixed in.

      You can have German or Italian opera and English or French painting but you can’t have “white” opera or painting.

      All opera, painting, poetry, literature, etc. by people living in the United States but are of German, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, African, English, Irish, Italian, etc. descent is all equally “American” art.

      To think otherwise is to have a fundamentally racist view of the world.

  11. One should always check one’s poseur-early-warning system after seeing T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Homer, Nietzsche, Picasso, Rembrandt, Seurat, Chekhov, O’Neill, Ibsen, and Brecht all mentioned in a single sentence. Some posturing just *might* be going on.

  12. I wasn’t aware that The Force had dozed off. Maybe it was Forced to sit through the “prequels.”

  13. I agree that works of culture should ask the tough questions, and The Force Awakens does, in some ways even better than the original trilogy. In Return of the Jedi, Luke offers the opportunity for redemption, and it results in the defeat of the Empire. Han’s offer fails. So, should we offer love and peace when it might be violently rejected? I think the movie gives multiple reasons why we should: http://asyourpoetshavesaid.com/when-love-doesnt-work/

  14. The problem is not Star Wars; popular entertainment and high culture have existed side by side for centuries. The problem is that the people who should be producing the high culture are instead creating “works of art” indistinguishable from garbage or in many cases literally garbage, musicians who should be creating beautiful symphonies produce atonal dreck and noise that no one actually likes and writers and poets produce…dreck that does nothing but howl and screech.

  15. fuck off faggot slave…wished your mo0ther dropped you…looks like i have to kill you and your whole family and your friends

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