The Duck of Minerva

The Lost Jedi Art of Reading Closely

17 February 2013

I thought, mistakenly, that the Hoth symposium had run its course: Ackerman point, a bunch of us counterpoint both at Danger Room and elsewhere (here at Duck, and, if it’s not up yet it will be soon, over at Grand Blog Tarkin), and my tossing a little more fuel on the fire by arguing what I generally take to be a pretty obvious and I thought uncontroversial point: that Star Wars is a story about the struggle between Jedi and Sith about the nature of the Force, with other people and organizations (like the Rebel Alliance, and the Empire itself) getting caught up in the middle of what is, basically, a theological dispute. I thought that was pretty obvious because, well, the Star Wars universe is presented to us as one in which the Force exists and is efficacious, in which some people have Force-sensitivity and others do not, and in which the greatest of galactic events derive their importance from their connection to the Jedi-Sith struggle, whether we are talking about Palpatine’s election as Chancellor or Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine with Ben Kenobi.

Then I chanced (or maybe it was the will of the Force?) to glance at twitter as I was waiting to board a plane, and found this gem from Robert Farley: “The real story in the Star Wars universe is about whatever we find theoretically interesting and relevant.” What then ensued was a flurry of thrust-and-parry twitter jabs, a kind of miniature lightsaber duel carried out mainly through 140-character quips (although as Rob pointed out I did break that rule by producing several linked tweets that continued a thought past that limit; whether this is deserving of a penalty or not I leave for the general audience to decide). It was temporarily halted, not as in Episode I by a series of functionally-opaque force fields that impose a break in the action, but by the announcement that we had to turn off electronic devices in preparation for takeoff. Taking the time in fight to gather my thoughts and prepare a reply for posting, here is my contribution to a possible next round.

The Farley position on using Star Wars or any other fictional text to make points about strategy — which I will restate: to make theoretical points in general, in this specific case to make points using and about theories of military strategy — seems to be that a fictional product is a set of neutral points of data that can be picked up and operated with just the way we pick up and operate with data about events in our world. Because there is no overarching story in our history, we can examine isolated events and apply theory to them in order to maximize our understanding of those events, and not have to worry about any broader context because there isn’t one: the strategic situation of the German or Roman or U.S. military is simply the strategic situation, and can be evaluated as such. Similarly, the strategic situation of the Imperial Navy at Hoth is just that, a military-strategic situation, and can be evaluated as such.

I think this is wrong, both about Star Wars and about our world, because in neither case do we have any such thing as “neutral points of data” to which we can apply theory with abandon. Or, better: we are equally free in both situations to ignore the broader story, and to focus on that part of an event that comes clearly through the lenses of our theory, but we would be equally misled in both cases because we would have missed something critical. Facts, whether historical or fictional-worldly, are necessarily and inextricably embedded in a broader narrative context that gives them meaning and significance, and we ignore that context at our peril.

Let me be more schematic about this. Compare three reading strategies:

1) reconstructing the plot of a text by examining the ways that the parts of the text suggest a greater whole and that greater whole shapes the parts.

2) concentrating on the ways that the text undermines itself, producing tension with its manifest plot and content through its techniques of representation and simulation.

3) taking a part of the text, reconstructing it according to one’s own presuppositions, and ignoring the remainder.

Reading strategy 1 is “close reading,” the kind of thing that is taught in the Jedi Academy, I mean, in liberal arts schools/programs and especially in small seminars in which a group of students and a professor gather around the text and try to figure out what it means. This kind of reading is becoming-attuned, both to the text itself and to our own broader cultural and personal presuppositions that we bring to it; done properly the result is a defensible interpretation of the text, never completely exhaustive, but grounded in the whole of the text as presented and as it is disclosed through the act of immersing oneself in conversation with and around it about what it says and what means. Reading strategy 2, which presumes reading strategy 1 as a foil or a backdrop, is “deconstructive reading,” in which things like the operation of the language of the text are interrogated so as to disclose those moments where the text doesn’t “work” in its own terms. The grand Jedi Master of this kind of reading was Derrida; within IR, think of the kind of thing that RBJ Walker does in his reading of the classic IR canon, isolating those places where the arbitrary exercise of power escapes from the rational frameworks within which theorists try to contain it. Done properly, this kind of reading produces an awareness of the text’s incompleteness, a foregone conclusion because as text it cannot possibly actually be the thing it represents even though it pretends to be and we read it (in reading strategy 1) as though it were…

Reading strategy 3, on the other hand, is very different, since it neither starts nor finishes with any attempt to remain faithful to the plot of the text as a whole. Instead, it starts — much like those denizens of the Star Wars universe who don’t believe in the Force — with a denial, albeit rarely explicitly voiced, that there is any meaningful whole animating the piece that has caught the reader’s attention. Here’s a piece of the text, or the film, or the historical record, that appeals…so let’s look at that one. This is how we get ridiculous readings of texts that rely on isolated, decontextualized quotations and citations, such as the all-too-common tendency in IR to regard anyone as a “realist” who makes reference to the importance of military force in world politics. Applied to the current controversy, reading 3 would produce isolated looks at the strategic situation of the Battle of Hoth, or discussions of whether the clone troopers in the Clone Wars were most effectively opposing the Separatists, without factoring in the basic, provided-to-us-by-the-structure-of-the-plot-itself fact that the entire Clone Wars and the struggle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire is being manipulated and in a very tangible sense controlled by a different set of actors with much different set of goals than the local combatants themselves. This is not one interpretation among others; this is what the text as a whole presents to the reader, and as such does not enjoy the same status as, say, the narratives of these local struggles by the individuals involved. Regardless of what the rebels or the Imperial officers and troops think they are doing, we the viewers/readers know better, or ought to, because the text as a whole has presented more of the story. Just as in a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy the dramatic irony is produced by the discrepancy between what the characters think and what is revealed to the audience, the meaning of what we see on the screen (or read in a novel, depending on how nerdy we are and what level of canon we’re comfortable with) of the Star Wars universe is not the same as what the characters think — and our view of the whole is what matters, since we’re looking at the whole from the outside. The Star Wars universe is centrally organized around issues involving the proper use of the Force, and to ignore this is to get the story wrong and to produce a reading that is, ultimately, indefensible.

What of our world, which is not occurring on a movie screen or in a novel? True, but it is indeed presented to us narratively, precisely because the “bloomin buzzin confusion” of raw experience is never self-sufficient for anything, so we organize it into more or less coherent plots. A fact, as David Easton famously put it (and I am about to slightly misquote, partially because I can’t look it up while on an airplane, and partially because it’s more fun to conflate it with Obi-Wan’s infamous reply to Luke about the nature of truth during their argument in Episode VI), is an ordering of reality from a certain theoretical point of view; in this way, theory forms the plot, the larger whole, that gives meaning to the specific facts and makes them more than mere neutral data or information. Historians, who are seeped in historiographical debates and think we’re all very silly in the social sciences when we take the story or some event as related by some historian as though it were neutral data we could use in evaluating a theory, know better; “story” is, after all, part of the name of their very discipline. Not so us in IR, at least not necessarily. We think that we can just pick up bits of data and ignore the larger context, the meaningful context, the theory, that animated their very production as facts in the first place…we don’t know how to read closely, we don’t value reading, and in consequence we get the story wrong all the time.

Now, let me be clear that I am not saying that the only valid kind of social science is that which tries to disclose some kind of overarching Meaning Of History As A Whole. Reading our world differs from reading Star Wars inasmuch as our world is composed of and constituted by multiple incompatible stories, and lacks a clear central theme around which everything else revolves. Sure, we have ideologies and theories that claim this kind of centrality — “class struggle” and “the balance of power” spring to mind as tropes that some have claimed as master keys that unlock all of human social existence — but the point is that we have more than one of them, and hence we have at the very least to make a choice between broader narratives. Or we could say, a pox on all your grand narratives, and be content with more case-specific and experience-near explanations of specific constellations and configurations and outcomes. All of these are viable options for us, and we select any of them without a specific problem — unless, of course, we are somehow convinced that there really is a grand overarching plot of which we must be aware. Religious believers often think so: human affairs are the progressive unveiling of God’s redemptive role in the world, or the continuing tale of human perversity in resisting what God wants us to do (and perhaps suffering the consequences). Assorted techno-determinists think so: human affairs are epiphenomenal consequences of some machine machination or another. Fill in your favorite ideology here, although your favorite probably doesn’t seem like “ideology” to you; it seems like the self-evident Truth Of Things. (Other people have beliefs and ideologies and opinions; we ourselves have clear, modest accounts of How Things Really Are. Right?) Even — and here it gets even more pernicious — when our overarching story is that there is no overarching story, and as such we are free to do what we will with the various disconnected bits of data and information that the chaos of life tosses up. Because that too is a master narrative, a grand unifying theme, a central plot line.

So when it comes to reading our world, we have two basic choices: we can adhere to one or another master narrative, including the master narrative that there are no master narratives, or we can acknowledge the plurality of narratives and go from there. For philosophical-ontological dualists, going on from there means developing some way to competitively evaluate narratives; for philosophical-ontological monists, that means finding some way to evaluate the utility or explanatory value of narratives that doesn’t require testing them against an external reality that monists doubt the sensibility of references to. If the first response is the classically theological one (pick a truth and stick with it, which is called “persisting in your belief”), the second might be thought of as a scientific one in the broad sense, and the important thing is that it doesn’t require adherence to any particular grand narrative of the meaning of the world. But these two options are only options when we’re talking about reading our world, and don’t apply to a fictional world precisely inasmuch as the fictional world is presented to us through narrative…and that narrative functions, in an important respects, as a non-theological stand-in for how the theological way of reading our world functions: as a central plot line on which to hang other events, observations, and facts. The difference is that I don’t have to “believe” that the Force is the central thread in the Star Wars universe, because I can show pretty easily that readings of what goes on in that universe that don’t place the Force at the center miss substantial portions of the point. You want to argue that taking over the galaxy is actually an integral, not an accidental, part of the Sith plan for eliminating the Jedi Order? Hit me. But you can’t argue that the Force, and the associated Jedi-Sith struggle, is incidental to the Star Wars universe, any more than you can argue that the One Ring is incidental to The Lord of the Rings trilogy (for example, if one were to try to just look at the strategic situation of Rohan and figure out whether it made sense to ride to Gondor’s aid, without acknowledging that, you know, Sauron the embodiment of EVIL is threatening all of Middle-Earth with domination in a spiritual as well as in a political and military sense) or that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is incidental to Christianity. All three of these are narratives that have their own logic and order to them, and you can’t just take parts of them out of context. “What if the real story of Star Wars weren’t about the Jedi-Sith struggle” isn’t a viable counterfactual, because change that and you change the entire story. Unlike our world, but like particular theologies and ideologies and theoretical perspectives in our world, a fictional world is presented in a narrative order and has a meaning to it that we can’t reasonably ignore. Sure, there can be ambiguity (although I defy ANYONE to present me with a viable reading of Star Wars asa whole that doesn’t put the Jedi-Sith struggle at the center), more in some texts and theologies (e.g.: Christianity) then in others, but my point is that a reading of the whole is both possible and necessary in such cases. Our world as a whole, not so much.

And this in turn means the what we largely learn from reading fictional texts and debating events in fictional worlds is, ultimately, less about our world per se and more about the theories, theologies, and narratives that we use to make sense of our world. Indeed, seeing our narratives on display in a fictional setting might help us recognize them as narratives the next time we encounter them, on the street or in the news or online, self-presenting as neutral bits of data or information without a broader context. You can’t learn about our world by studying fictional worlds; that’s silly. But you can learn about the way we world by looking at fictional worlds and how they are worlded. The proper parallel, then, is not our world :: fictional world, but our theories/theologies/narratives :: fictional world as narrated. Which is why, to restate what I have stated twice before, it does not make any sense to examine the Battle of Hoth as an isolated engagement between a dominant state and a ragtag group of insurgents, because it’s not. Instead, we have to examine such a treatment of it as an object lesson in what happens when we lose sight of the big narrative picture and get seduced by the apparently decontextualized details of the material-strategic situation, and perhaps draw some insight from that which we can apply to our study of things in our world. And there’s also an object lesson here about our own tendency to ennoble struggles that might, in the end, turn out to be mere set pieces in a broader and more sinister campaign. But we are going to miss all of that if we refuse to read closely, and remain content with the unfortunate tendency to take things out of context even when the context is provided for us in a relatively clear way.

Or, as a poster of Yoda that I fondly remember as hanging on the wall of my local library when I was much younger put it, “Read, and the Force is with you.”