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Nerd Hermeneutics

May 25, 2005

In response to Time Burke’s “Rampant Geekery: Star Wars Thoughts [SPOILERS]”, I made a comment about what I called “nerd hermeneutics”: the analysis of the text and media of speculative worlds, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, as if they were complete, self-contained systems. In a followup, Tim expands masterfully on this concept. He talks about it as “ways in which a fiction like Star Wars invites a particular kind of reader to make it into more than it is, to fill in its gaps, invent coherencies, see themes that are only barely there.”

Reading my comment with the benefit of, well, actually being more than half-awake, it is clear to me that I didn’t explain myself very well. Here’s what I wrote:

All of this encapsulates what’s wrong with Star Wars and why it is so damn popular among a certain class of geeks: they suggest this deep mythology. If one only has the secret decoder ring, then everything starts making sense. The thing is, the films really are much more interesting if we start interpolating – based perhaps, on our reading of the extensive canonical literature – some background conflict between intuitive and analytic force users in the Jedi Order, or if we rework the narratives of the first two films in light of the third. In honor of the late Ricoeur, let’s just call it “nerd hermeneutics.” Makes sense, I suppose, of why at least one very smart friend of mine says that Star Wars is his religion…

So here’s another try, in light of Tim’s subsequent post.

There are a number of different styles of nerd interpretive strategies, many of which might be termed “hermeneutical.” The flaw with Star Wars, therefore, is not that it lends itself to “nerd hermeneutics” but to a kind of Midrash.

When I was growing up, one of the most magical things about the original trilogy was the way it tossed off references to places and events, but did not explain them. Thus, we learned of the “Clone Wars,” “Bothans,” the dissolution of the “Imperial Senate,” the “Old Republic,” and the “spice mines of Kessel.” What were these things? I had no idea, so I, along with many of my friends, made up my own back stories. In short, we interpolated our own Midrash narratives. Sometimes I feel bad for George Lucas. When he decided to make the first three films, he had to come up with a plot that matched the imaginations of legions of fans. The fact that he couldn’t even come close was, I think, an even bigger disappointment than the poor craftsmanship that went into many aspects of the films.

Despite the ways in which the prequels filled in the narrative arc of Star Wars, the universe still lends itself to a Midrash style of interpretation. It does so because it drops a lot of hooks – references to events, concepts, peoples, and places – that never really come together. Indeed, the interpretations of the first three films that make them seem philosophically, conceptually, or politically interesting almost always rely on knowledge fans have gotten from the vast number of “shared universe” novels that exploit such references and explicate them. The films themselves do not provide enough material for a more traditional form of nerd hermeneutics, one more akin to “cultural hermeneutics” in the social sciences.

Compare them with, for example, the first Matrix film or Neon Genesis Evangelion. Both of these works of film/television speculative fiction leave a lot of room for interpolation and Midrash-style analysis, but they don’t need them. They can be subjected to challenging exercises in nerd hermeneutics without any need for a “secret decoder” ring.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.