The Four Cultures of Star Wars

Star Wars - Original ScriptAs I write this on the train home, my neighbour  is watching Star Wars: A New Hope on his portable DVD player. The bleeps and moans of R2D2 and Chewbacca come through clearly on his earphones. Thirty two years after its release, the movie and its myth-making are evidently still going strong. But what is it that gives this particular story its staying power?

I think it works partly because it recognises the existence of the Four Cultures and the endless conflicts and settlements between them.

Here’s how it works:

The Hierarchist Perspective
The Empire is the ultimate hierarchist organisation, ruled over nominally by the Emperor, and practically by ‘Lord’ Darth Vader. The social structure is secured by means of superior technical expertise, epitomised by the hyper-efficient Death Star. It’s so important that when the first one gets destroyed, they go right ahead and build another one. If it looks like they have nothing more important to do, that’s bcause they don’t.  The challenge for the Hierarchists is how to create order in the galaxy without losing one’s soul in the process.
Hierarchists succeed by creating order. They fail by losing compassion.

The Individualist Perspective
Han Solo is the archetypal individualist – to be sure, in case we didn’t catch it there’s a big clue in his name! He doesn’t care about interstellar politics, the good versus the evil, just as long as he can pursue his own interests (and profit) free of interference. His alliances are purely voluntary and contractual. He can be bought, but only if he wants to be. Han Solo’s sphere of control is small but well defined. His craft, the Millennium Falcon may not be much to look at, but it does the job, and it’s his to command. The challenge for the Individualist is how to look after number one without making a choice between good and evil.
Individualists succeed by creating opportunity. They fail by losing their moral sense.

The Egalitarian Perspective
The Jedi are the egalitarians of the piece. They form a closely-knit in-group of gifted equals. They exist for mutual support and for the benefit of the community. They promote and serve a power that is available to all, if only they can feel it. They are therefore the natural allies of the Rebel Alliance, which is seeking to restore a galactic republic.  To turn to the dark side is to turn away from mutual aid in favour of personal aggrandizement. The challenge for Egalitarians is how to save the universe without succumbing (as Obi Wan Kenobi does) to utter self-sacrifice.
Egalitarians succeed by enabling mutuality. They fail by giving themselves away.

The Fatalist Perspective
R2D2 and C3PO are the comedic fatalists of the movie: ‘Nobody ever listens to us.’ Repeatedly disassembled and reassembled by others, they are more done to than doing. They struggle to avoid danger but have limited means of knowing where the next problem will come from. It’s hardly a secret that Star Wars is a remake of the Kurosawa movie, The Hidden Fortress. This uses a pair of luckless peasant farmers to express something timeless about the human condition – and this is the model for the robotic odd couple of Star Wars.  The challenge for Fatalists is to find a way of surviving without abandoning their nearest and dearest.
Fatalists succeed by getting lucky. They fail by abandoning loyalty.

Structure and Agency

The long-time argument in social studies between structure and agency can clearly be seen here. I’ve presented the Four Cultures of Star Wars as though it was all a matter of personal motivation. That’s the ‘agency’ side of the argument: social arrangements can be explained with reference to the motivations (or brain patterns) of the people who comprise them.

But there’s another side to the argument, the structure side, and that’s what will be dealt with in Structure and Agency in Star Wars.

See also:

Part 1: The Four Cultures of Science Fiction

Part 3: Structure and Agency in Star Wars

But if you’ve had enough words about Star Wars for now, here are some rather good pictures.

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