“Good. Use your aggressive feelings, boy! Let the hate flow through you.”

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What’s in a Name?

Canon is pretty funny to discuss.

For example, what’s that lady in white’s name?

It’s Mon Mothma, obviously, and she’s about to tell us about how many bothans died to get the plans for the second Death Star.

But her name isn’t actually used in Return of the Jedi. It is mentioned once in Revenge of the Sith, and she’s in the Clone Wars cartoon, but those came out over 20 years later. We all learned it somewhere, through osmosis, through fan transmission, through the strange ways that we communicate knowledge to one another on the playground, on the internet, in the letter pages of fanzines…

But, during that interregnum, what counted as good enough evidence that her name was Mon Mothma? What counts as “canon”?

The ending credits, which aren’t a part of the narrative?

Jedi Credits

The shooting script, which isn’t part of the film at all?

jedi script

The novelization?

jedi novel

Trading cards?

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Action figures?

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Signed photos from the actress herself?

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I would submit that, rather than worrying if we have to accept that Art Carney is a member of the Rebel Alliance if we also want Chewbacca to have a family, it doesn’t actually matter where the information comes from, provided it makes for a better and more interesting story, and a more rewarding experience interacting with the film. Sometimes it’s trivia, sometimes it makes a big difference, and sometimes it’s meaningless.

More, of course, on this topic to come…

Intellectual Laziness

Something that has existed since, well, probably forever (even though this paragraph originally started ‘Something that’s become more and more of a problem…’, it’s almost certainly been an forever), is the problem of intellectual laziness.

If you’ve only glanced at a complicated topic, something that people have doctorates in, have written long books about, have done extensive research in, etc. etc., you probably don’t understand it very well, and any criticism you’re going to make of it is going to be rather surface level and will merely question a few of the basic assumptions made by the field of study, as though said baseis have never been questioned before.

For example:

  • Why do people think God exists when something would have had to make God, and also Evil exists?
  • Math has no use in the real world, so why am I bothering to learn this?
  • We should get the government out of things, because all those regulations do it make it harder for people.
  • That’s not art, it’s just a bunch of crap thrown on a canvas. My kid could do that.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of gibberish.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of really simple ideas dressed up in fancy terminology.
  • Science has been wrong before, so why should I trust it now?

I could go on, but you get the idea. It seems to go in three stages:

  1. A negative gut reaction to whatever is being presented.
  2. A refusal to actually engage with the material, which might provide evidence counter to the gut reaction.
  3. Repetitions of the same tired criticisms that everyone else makes, especially dismissal of anyone who cares enough to really be invested in “that crap”.

Odds are, if your criticisms can be found in the first two links of a google search for Anti-[whatever], and those aren’t from .edu sites, or are being shouted on YouTube by a man with an ill-chosen pseudonym, you haven’t engaged deeply enough.

(A parable: a fellow was writing a story about a leprechaun, and doing some research into the origins of the mythical figure — what they represented, why they endured as symbols of Irish culture and heritage, how their depictions had changed over time, how the stories told about them gave differing moral lessons. While out drinking one night, a friend of his, one of those folks prone to outbursts and moods, yelled “Your work is shit. You believe in nothing. Leprechaun’s don’t exist. I don’t need a degree in leprehuanology to know that!” Obviously, thought the fellow, but didn’t bother saying anything out loud, because you know how those types can be once they’re in their cups.)

A better method, albeit one that requires effort and opens one up to actual criticism, is Dennett’s “Steelmanning”. Described in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the Steelman is the opposite of a Strawman. You attempt to present the other person’s argument in the strongest terms possible, giving them the most charitable interpretations, making an actual case for them being correct, and demonstrating that you understand them completely. Then, and only then, do you begin any criticism.

Now this, of course, requires more than skimming the Wikipedia article on a given subject, and then making up what you think someone (some idiot?) might think about this (stupid) topic. Books are involved. Knowledge of the different schools of thought within a discipline. Replying to actual assertions, rather than the simply the existence of what you assume the thing is.

An short example contrasting the two:

“John Searle is stupid. His stupid Chinese Room doesn’t prove anything about learning or AI, because a person isn’t a computer. Some guy with a bunch of books wouldn’t be able to translate Chinese as well as a super computer, and therefore the other person would notice, and the Turing test would fail. What an idiot.”

vs.

“Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, in which it is asserted that there is no difference between a computer interpreting commands and a person executing commands in a language they do not understand, is an interesting thought problem. The basic conclusion is that no artificial intelligence will be capable of contemplating itself, or understanding it’s own actions, just as the person manually executing the ‘program’ will not understand the language they are working in. There will be no ‘Strong AI’, to use Searle’s term. However, many objections have been raised to this analogy, and the one which I find the most compelling is that Searle’s conclusion (“Therefore there is no Strong AI”) does not follow from his premises. He assumes a dualism between Strong and Weak AI, and, because his experiment seems to demonstrate that there is not a Strong AI, he assumes it must be Weak. This does not follow. It merely proves that, in this particular instance, thought is not just computation. It does nothing to positively identify criteria for thought, nor to establish that computers are incapable of it. It does not prove that, simply because computational processes and their output can occur in the absence of a cognitive state, that thought is not occurring in this instance. Is there any way for Searle to prove to me that he himself is thinking, and not simply interpreting and executing external commands which his unconscious interior does not actually understand? Even more generally, is there a difference between the real thing and a perfect simulacrum? That is a question far too broad for discussion here. Needless to say, despite its numerous flaws, the Chinese Room is an interesting thought project that has entertained philosophers and AI researchers for years.”

As much as I might disagree with John Searle, and find many of his ideas based on incorrect premises, I would never call him a stupid person, or think that he should stop writing. It is chiefly because he is such an intelligent person that he is capable of producing such brilliant (if wrong) things as the Chinese Room. And I assume he’s writing in good faith, because he’s a doctor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Try it out next time you feel tempted to, say, claim that Islam is horrible because of the actions of a tiny minority of Wahhabists, or that Feminism is a cancerous political movement because of Andrea Dworkin rather than a multifaceted approach to cultural theory through which any number of subjects can be interpreted, or if you’re about to type “That’s Economics 101!” while not realizing that there is a 102, a 301, a 505, and other much more complicated classes that expand on and systematize the dumbed down and simplified explanations given in 101 classes so that students aren’t overwhelmed and can basic concepts (By analogy, they don’t cover friction when calculating motion in Physics 101. Does friction exist?).

Update: There will be further discussion of John Searle, rest assured.I have a lot more to say about Chinese Rooms, Limited INC., and, well… A lot. We’ll get there.

Star Wars, Far Far Away, and a Long Time Ahead

There’s a wonderful and terrifying play by Anne Washburn entitled Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play, which envisions a world after the apocalypse. You know the one, The Apocalypse. The one that wipes out most, but not all of us, and allows for just enough of everything for the remainder of humanity to scrape on, somehow. A group of survivors huddle together in the cold, and, to starve off fear and cold and unhappiness, they retell an old Simpson‘s episode: Cape Feare. Without giving too much away (because, really, if you have the opportunity to see the show, you ought to), The Simpsons ends up a major force in the new world that emerges from the ashes, and by the end, the idea that it was once simply a cartoon for people to relax and laugh at the end of the week with would be blasphemous.

Lawrence Miles, author of numerous Doctor Who novels and creator of the Faction Paradox series, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t watching Who. One of his earliest memories was watching a Sontaran on screen, and his uncle making a joke, and thinking that he needed to correct his uncle, because that wasn’t Humpty Dumpty at all, it was a terrifying warrior going to kill the Doctor. It’s a memory he recognizes as ridiculous, because how could it have happened? And yet, it’s a formative one. I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen Star Wars, when I didn’t have a copy in the house, when I didn’t know all the characters and the story by heart. There must have been a first. My father, probably, showed it to me. He was a devotee of old Sci Fi, loved Star Trek and Doctor Who and all the others like them. We had a copy on Betamax, taped from television. I got a proper VHS set for my birthday one year. My “devotion” has waxed and waned, but I always come back to it, and I always find something new to appreciate.

The tale we call The Epic of Gilgamesh (or, He Who Saw The Darkness, or Surpassing All Kings; it has numerous titles), isn’t actually a single comprehensive story, in the mold of its most regular comparisons, The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s a compilation of numerous fragments composed over more than two thousand years, and pieced together painstakingly by Assyriologists and others over the past hundred or so years. And even then, the version that comes down to us non-specialists is incomplete, full of lacunae, missing lines, paraphrases where we’ve guessed at roughly what ought to have gone there given the context. And this was not an unpopular story — rare among the writings of Babylon, this is one of the few tales committed to tablet. It was translated into numerous languages, and told and retold again and again, until it was lost for about two thousand and then rediscovered again. We mostly use the “standard” version from c.1200 BCE, written and edited by Sin-liqe-unninni, found in the Library of Ashurbanipal. And even now, we have numerous translations, each of which takes a different tack, from the utterly exhaustive and authoritative Andrew George two volume set, to the colloquial, reordered, and rather modernized version by Stephen Mitchell.

Which actually tells the story? George’s, which opens:

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!

Or Mitchell’s, which opens:

He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood.

George’s is, without a doubt, the most accurate of any Gilgamesh available. It is impossible to understate the degree of scholarship he has done on the story. He has literally examined and translated every existent fragment that has ever been found, ever. Ever. There is no greater authority on the story than he. But Stephen’s version has a poetry of its own, even if it is not “accurate” in the sense of fidelity to the text, and conveys the story beautifully. (For reading pleasure, I personally prefer the translation by John Gardner and John Maier, but that didn’t provide as stark a contrast.)

In the otherwise forgettable post-apocalyptic dragonfest Reign of Fire, Christian Bale and Gerard Butler reenact a scene from The Empire Strikes Back for the amusement of a group of children.

The broad strokes of the story are all there, even if the details are missing, and the context is lost. How much of the rest of the story do they know? do they perform other scenes? other movies? have bits from other stories been mixed in? Perhaps at the end, the starship Enterprise is blown up by the White Knight after his duel with the evil Emperor Feyd Harkonen, and saved from dying himself by the Doctor? Is that bad fanfiction, or simply syncretism, like when Herakles rescued Theseus from the underworld, or Jason assembled all the greatest heroes of the land to fetch the Golden Fleece?

We now remake movies all the time. New versions, homages, updated editions. We retell stories in different setting, with different details, different costumes and different characters. But this, too, is nothing new. Opera has a strong tradition of using classical plots — it is the music which is important. Faerie tales, too, change their details as quick as their location and our social mores, though the story itself lives on (Does Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf after being ordered to strip off her clothes and toss them into the fire, regardless of the cat’s warnings? Does she recognize the Wolf for what he is and pray for deliverance? Does a heroic Woodsman save her, cut her Grandmother out of the Wolf’s belly, fill it with stones, and then drown the wolf? Does she instead shoot with Wolf with a gun hidden in her basket, because girls these days are wise to men like that? Or does she happily consent to lay with the Wolf, because, really, werewolves are her thing, and the two remain lovers happily ever after?)

What will our stories look like in a thousand years? Two thousand? Three? Which versions will make it through the wars, natural disasters, forgetfulness, censorship, religious confusion…? Which versions will be rediscovered, tucked away in some footlocket buried in a subbasement, or hidden in a library thought lost to time, or burned to a DVD that our descendants have only just now discovered how to decode?

And if they find it, what will Star Wars look like? How much will survive?

Star Wars — Super 8, B&W

The shortest of all the truncations, this version by Kenner Films was released shortly after the film was in theaters, in late 1977. Peter Cushing is credited, though he does not appear in the film, as is the music of John Williams, though this is a silent film.

It consists of two scenes: Ben and Luke discussing Anakin Skywalker, and the escape from the Death Star, where the Millennium Falcon battles the TIE Fighters.

Let us consider the story presented, as though we knew nothing about Star Wars, as if this were the only version of the tale we had: the mysterious old man, Ben, gives the young man, Luke, his father’s light saber, and tells him about his father, the Jedi Knight. The young man turns it on, and waves the magical blade about for a long time, marveling at the glow. Ben then explains the true story of Luke’s father’s death — he was betrayed and killed by another knight, Darth Vader. Ben’s expression is one of sadness and regret. Ben then explains the force, a mysterious energy field that binds the world together, as Luke looks on bewildered, trying to understand. There are robots present, even though nothing else about the setting suggests that this is a science fiction story, and Luke is fixing one that looks like a human. The cylindrical one, R2D2, produces the image of a woman, Princess Leia, who begs Ben for assistance in saving the rebellion from the evil Empire. Ben and Luke look at one another for a long beat, and then Ben tells Luke that he must go save the Princess. Luke is apprehensive, doubtful, as he paces about, not wanting to met Ben’s gaze. Luke has responsibilities here, at his home, but he also feels a need to join the rebellion. The choice is literally out of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

We cut to a triangular ship, flying through space, as the subtitles finish “…and fulfill his destiny.” It is clear what Luke’s choice has been. Is this his ship? One he has smuggled himself upon?

The ship flies towards a large, metallic planet, with a huge crater in the side, like a baleful eye. Cut to a large, hairy man running down a corridor, followed by a roguish fellow in a vest with a rifle. Fighters for the rebellion, perhaps? They observe a group of soldiers in white armor guarding a space ship. Luke and Leia arrive moments later. We are inside the Death Star, and Leia has been rescued. Han Solo and Chewbacca, the other two, had aided Luke in the quest Ben sent him on. The soldiers move on, perhaps because they are changing shift, and our heroes see their chance. R2D2 and the robot Luke was repairing make their way towards Han’s ship as well. But they have moved too quickly, and the soldiers turn to fire on them. A gun battle ensues, and, if we look closely, a helmeted figure in a dark cloak, wielding a sword similar to that which Ben gave Luke, is seen walking away in the background. Is this the Darth Vader that Ben spoke of? Is that why Luke fires in such anger and distress, staying far longer than his companions to kill the soldiers? But a metallic door slides shut, protecting the dark man from Luke’s shots, even though he kills two of the soldiers, and Luke retreats to the safety of Han’s ship.

Han and Chewbacca pilot their ship away from the Death Star, while Luke sits forlorn. Leia attempts to comfort him, as the robots look on helplessly. Was this the only chance Luke had to avenge his father’s death? But there is no time for such thing — Han’s ship is being pursued by Imperial ships, and they must man the turrets and defend themselves. An exciting space battle ensues, with the small Imperial Ships flying about as Luke and Han (or is it Chewbacca? Their names aren’t distinguished) fire away. R2D2 puts out a fire inside. Luke’s spirits rise as the fight goes on. Ship after ship is destroyed, until our heroes are safe… for now! The End.

I’m certain that most of you have noticed that there are many very important things absent from the story: the Death Star Plans, Obi-Wan’s Death, the Destruction of the Death Star, the Death of Luke’s aunt and uncle… And yet, for all that, it does tell a more or less complete story, with an emotional arc for Luke. It also brings up one of the important questions that we will be asking ourselves throughout this discussion:

Is Star Wars about rescuing a princess, or about delivering secret plans?

In this version, they obviously chose the former, which leads to some strange choices. The scene with Ben and Luke is one of the most dialogue heavy in the entire series, and thus is an odd one to pick for a silent adaptation. The rescue of the princess occurs off screen, as a lacunae to be filled in by the viewer. It demands questions and invites further stories to be written about it. And yet, for all that, cutting the story down to just those base elements is to be admired. It was surely no easy task to turn the entire film into a comprehensible story, rather than a sort of Tumblr-esque “greatest hits” gif repository. It is fascinating to see how much of a story can disappear without affecting the other parts. We already know about the subplot of Biggs Darklighter that was excised from the original film, leaving only some incongruous dialogue in the Death Star trench battle to suggest that Luke is fighting alongside his best friend and someone’s he never thought he’d see again. How much more of the movie could be removed? What is the point of Star Wars? How much can we lose without it becoming a different story?

This version was, of course, intended for those who had already seen the film in theaters, and knew the answers to these questions. The visual designs of Chewbacca and Death Vader, the choice to display as many of the starship models as they could, spending as long as they can with light sabres and 3d messages projected on tables — it is clear that despite the black and white silence, they still want to convey the spectacle and effects wizardly that made the movie so memorable. Were our ur-text lost, this version would be an odd one to try and recover the full version from. It could lead to conflicts over the nature of the Force, the identity of Darth Vader, what, precisely, the Death Star is… But the tantalizing hints provided are nonetheless appealing.

Would it endure? Who can say. Could it endure? Certainly. It begs for expansion. It demands filling in. Though it says The End, this is not an ending.

More to come.