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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Film Theory Theory: MatPat's Star Wars Theories Are Nazi Garbage

"Save the Death Star!" shouts MatPat, "because destroying it would make the money sad!" How does someone argue himself into supporting Space Nazis? Why do fandoms eat it up? And might Star Wars itself have something to say about the way that the culture we live in clouds our vision, preventing us from seeing the stories in front of us?









Looking at bad Star Wars theories is kind of like examining the site of a horrible crash, or a particularly stupid, masculinity-addled, bungled military operation. I find myself constantly just sort of staring in rage and horror at the wreckage, asking where exactly it all went wrong. Sometimes these bad theories of course are just garden variety terrible analysis, common all over online. But sometimes these bad readings become something more coiled and poisonous, ideologies that are outright toxic.

The weird thing about Star Wars is the way it, like a choice few other fandoms, seems to breed these basilisks like nothing else. They come in every shape and size, from every imaginable ideology. Ever wanted to see a leftist or postcolonialist defend Space Nazis? Well you're in the right place! It just takes misreading the Rebellion simplistically as a stand-in for America and suddenly you're doing things like claiming the First Order is a symbol of queer resistance to colonialism or the Empire is comparable to the Zapatistas. Really. No, really. Apparently all the red white and black color schemes and marching stormtroopers didn't clue people into the fact that, while the Empire can represent a lot of things, it first and foremost represents fascism in space.

A huge number of these really bad takes ultimately back to whether or not you're clearly understanding what the Empire and Rebellion (or Republic) represent. If the Dark Side is corruption and subversion, then it should be no surprise that the Dark Side is always waiting and lurking for a way to deceive and confuse. Both in-text and out, it seems pretty important to perceive it clearly, if only because it tends to result in such disastrous misreadings.

In this sense, the Dark Side is itself a kind of Basilisk, at least as that concept is used in Phil Sandifer's Neoreaction A Basilisk. To recap my understanding at least of that dense text, the basilisk is a thing lurking potentially in any first-principles ideology (or perhaps any ideology at all). You can take any framework and push it further and further and without really realizing it step directly into howling madness. Now, I should disclaim here that NRxaB is a very literary piece of literary criticism. It's horror philosophy, a book designed to go mad. This makes it somewhat difficult to summarize, naturally, so take my reading with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the suggestion seems to be that it's difficult, when you're operating within a logical system, to see the kind of....

phantom menace

...that's lurking at the end of your analytical train of thought, waiting to devour you.

This is what's really going on with the prequel trilogy. It's a series kind of about the way the systems and assumptions you depend on leading you to a path of total devastation. I think a lot of stumbling over Star Wars parallels these failstates. People are seduced (or seduce themselves) into following particular lines of logic or pseudo-logic until the point where they reach these totally terrible ideological positions and end up defending Space Nazis. Not that some of these people aren't actually just into Nazis generally. Certainly our prime subject today seems quick to defend the antisemitism of fellow youtubers... but all in good time, all in good time.

The Jedi Council is a great example of this kind of failure. They're consistently incapable of jumping out of their ideological framework. They are blinded to the phantom menace, to the lurking basilisk, because they don't want to give up their position of authority as the galaxy's peacekeepers. Mace Windu and Yoda even discuss the fact that their inability to see the Sith threat suggests that their own powers are remarkably limited. Their response to this revelation, though, is not to share this information--they'll lose face with the Galactic Republic if they do! This decision leads inevitably to the massacre of the entire Jedi order. As their own teachings say, people who have power tend to cling to it. They cannot apply that truth, however, to their own actions.

Palpatine on the other hand fully embraces that reality. He doesn't disagree with Jedi ideology, notably: he simply sees no problem with clinging desperately to "power, unlimited power! Aagh.

Now let me confess to something here: I love that scene. I love Palps in that moment, Ian McDiarmid's whole delivery, the fact that he's for basically no reason screaming about "POWER!" while tossing someone out a window with lighting bolts (and I mean, in fairness, why NOT scream about "POWER!" while shooting lightning at someone?)... it's fantastic stuff.

I don't want to say, basically, that liking evil characters and finding them fascinating or even empathetic makes you inherently a Bad Person. That's just character analysis, or aesthetic interest, or a kind of visceral pleasure at supervillainy. When I'm dragging Empire supporters it's not because someone bought a t-shirt or wrote a fic about Kylo Ren and Hux fucking.

No, it's specifically because of that failstate, that point where the basilisk rears its head and people start sincerely rationalizing the Empire as The Good Guys. It's the point where tip over the edge of fandom into Pure Nerd Wank.

You can look the video up yourself if you want but I'll be fucked if I give him a single click.
MatPat, of Game Theory and Film Theory infamy on Youtube is an apex, paragon example of the kind of nerd garbage wankery that bloats the net. He is famous for giving the mother fucking Pope a copy of Undertale, and for advertising himself as "the smartest show in gaming" despite the fact that watching any of his videos reveals him to be an idiot. MatPat recently argued that "Luke SHOULDN'T Destroy The Death Star"--his wretched clickbait emphasis, not mine. The actual argument, if you can believe it, is somehow even dumber than what this title suggests, and it's this argument that I really want to rip into this week.

See, MatPat argues that the Death Star shouldn't be destroyed because destroying it would represent a waste expenditure for the Empire and that presumably would make the money sad. I am not fucking with you. His argument is that the Rebels can't blow up the Death Star because the destruction of a large military base would cause a recession, making the Rebels into The Real Villains.

Yes, blowing up planets and committing genocide? Nothing comparable to the villainy of risking a recession.

AND SOMEHOW IT GETS WORSE.

After spending over half his video babbling about numbers--the endless obsession of wanky pseudointellectual nerds--and having concluded that the numbers "prove" that there's going to be a recession and the "normal people" of the empire--which I guess naturally excludes as "abnormal" the people who are canonically being ethnically cleansed--will suffer far more if there's a recession. This brings him to his actual thesis, which is that, and I quote, "ultimately there's a big differnce bettween a political revolution and a violent revolution."

See, Palps, the dude shouting "POWER UNLIMITED POWER" while throwing someone off a building using lightning bolts made of pure evil, had a political revolution, not a violent one. Somehow. He therefore didn't make the FUCKING MONEY SAD, which makes him, eh, maybe not the nicest guy but certainly better than those filthy degenerates in the Rebellion.

The rebels, according to MatPat literally this is his actual stated belief should have worked within the system (currently being run by an evil immortal sith lord, recall) to improve conditions.

Really think about this. Like really run this through your head if you can. They should've found backend political solutions that incrementally solve the problem... of an evil immortal sith lord with a planet-shattering superweapon.

There's several words for people like MatPat. "Quisling" and "collaborator" both come to mind. Apologist comes to mind as well.

But he's also just a fucking idiot. MatPat apparently spends so much time crying himself to sleep longing for a time before the terrible evil bad Midichlorians desecrated his childhood that he's missed the fact that the prequels are a narrative about a violent takeover of a (sort of) democratic system by Space Nazis. I mean, hey, in fairness, I missed this too when I was, you know, eleven years old. But MatPat positions himself as the smartest show about games in the world. So smart he gave Undertale to the FUCKING POPE. So presumably he can be expected to recognize that this is a narrative about fascism. So either he's too stupid to recognize Nazism when it's staring him in the face, or he just doesn't fucking care.

It's clear, regardless, that he hasn't paid any real attention to these films. Like, he makes so many basic errors. He characterizes Palpatine's rise to power as fundamentally peaceful, despite, you know the massacre of an entire religious order, starting the Clone Wars as a means to grab power in the Senate ("wars" is literally in the name, you dunce), and wiping out or trying to wipe out multiple entire alien races. Some of this is extratextual to the films themselves of course--the fate of the Genosians (all dead), the Mon Calamari (slated for ethnic cleansing and considered "natural slaves") and so on aren't directly on screen--but a lot of it can be inferred, and the third film's revelation that Palps is cool with having children murdered isn't exactly subtle, ambiguous, and artful. Certainly once Rogue One rolls around the narrative of resistance to a casually genocidal order is undeniable. Yet MatPat argues that Palpatine's murderous reign is a relatively peaceful and therefore more acceptable transition of power because it results in greater economic stability.

I need to stress here that I am not fucking with you because I honestly can barely believe it myself, that someone could make an argument this abjectly sociopathic, all the while couching it in terms of pearl-clutching empathetic concern for Normal People in the Empire.

MatPat is literally arguing here, this mother fucker is literally arguing that at least the Emperor made the trains on Coruscant run on time.

Every argument he makes here is an argument in favor of massive authoritarian genocidal regimes. That's just what it is. It's a justification, from the standpoint of smug nerd centrism, for fascism, as a reasonable alternative to any interruption of the status quo!

I think that's part of the allure of this kind of shitty theory, if we're trying to reconstruct the point of the explosive disaster's start, the point where the basilisk pops from its hole. It emerges out of a pervasive centrism that cannot distinguish between disruptive acts. These centrists see all disruption as equally outrageous and unacceptable. If a status quo has steadily transformed into an authoritarian regime that blows up entire planets, well, that's ok because it happened in relatively stable ways. The Death of Democracy comes with thunderous applause and MatPat is right there applauding with the rest of the collaborators.

If it wasn't abundantly clear, I think this is important because it does, in fact, parallel real world issues pretty damn closely. If you're against opposing even fictional genocidal regimes because you don't want a fictional economy disrupted (for "normal" people anyway) are you going to have the balls to stand up to Trumpists when they come marching on the local mosque or synagogue or Planned Parenthood? I have grave fucking doubts, and they haven't been allayed at all by watching countless centrists sigh with relief as soon as Trump started bombing the Middle East. Palpatine, one can imagine them bleating, is finally acting like a true leader now that he's blown up those radicalized insurgents on Jedha. (And, of course, that's exactly what we see in Rogue One as the Rebellion threatens to crumble in the face of the Death Star's power--another reason why Rogue One is the best Star Wars film.)

Not that this is all political, though. Remember that even progressives can get caught up in Empire Fever, and I think we have to look more broadly at fandom in order to understand why that's the case. A huge force driving this, I think, is the way the attention economy functions in fandom spaces, and the way it's reinforced by, bluntly, ignorance about how to actually do analysis.

People suck at identifying correctly what is a flaw in a text and what isn't. It's much easier to moan on and on about midichlorians and plot holes than deeper tier stuff, because for the most part nerds and even fans more broadly have little knowledge of criticism beyond high school English (and even that should be viewed with suspicion, because, well, TV Tropes said so). The end result is that not only are people very bad at identifying what parts of Star Wars aren't working, they're also very bad at making sense of what the film is actually doing right.

This is partly the fault, in fairness, of Star Wars as a franchise. There's enough that's interesting in Star Wars that people want the films to secretly be brilliant and--above all--coherent. Unfortunately, Star Wars isn't a coherent or even particularly good franchise a lot of the time. You don't have to take it from me, though--take it from the Star Wars story team, who apparently are constantly bewildered by their own incoherent continuity! Star Wars is where good theories go to die in anguish and basilisks breed in the shadows in part because navigating the logic of the films, in particular the prequels, is deeply treacherous. So, I think it's both easy to get caught up in the process of converting Star Wars into a text that does work, while also convincing yourself that you're just uncovering the deep structure brilliance of the text, rather than, you know, inventing it yourself.

One of the ways people do this is they come up with these radical readings against the text, like the "oh the Empire is actually good" reading that we're pulling apart today. I think this might be in part a response to the incoherency of the films. People can see, for example, that the Jedi Council are extremely morally suspect. Their stated ideology as per Yoda sounds more like IngSoc propaganda ("love is hate" after all) than what we might expect from the Jedi, and if we assume the Republic isn't all it's cracked up to be, the Jedi as the supercops of the Republic start to look dodgy.

What people don't recognize, because the films aren't particularly clear on this, is that textually the films ALSO do seem recognize on some level that the Jedi are extremely suspect. I mean it's all there if you're willing to dig... it's just not really actualized coherently, outside of a few scenes (the "let's not tell anyone we can't detect the Sith" scene stands out) where the irony gets thick enough even a lightsaber would have trouble cutting it.

As a result people look at the clearly flawed and self-defeating nature of the Council's teachings, and go, well, ok, that must mean the Sith are right!

But it doesn't work that way! That's the breaking point, the moment when your chain of logic pitches you straight into the basilisk den because you weren't looking carefully where you were going.

It's all the more egregious because the prequels in particular do actually make an effort to convey the fact that you can't just reverse the terms and get something positive. The series just fails to go far enough in suggesting the really progressive solution that's needed to the conflicts tearing the galaxy apart and enabling the rise of Palpatine and his fascist order. The films can't present an alternative to the Republic and Jedi Order, because that would be too radical, so we get only a binary between people directly responsible for the rise of the Empire and the Sith... and the Empire itself. Even if Luke is absolutely right to say that "it's time for the Jedi to end" the films are almost certainly not going to ever do more than tease the idea because A. such a radical alteration of power structures and morality risks alienating right wing movie goers and B. such a radical alteration of Star Wars risks losing that sweet sweet dependable nerd cash.

This excuse only goes so far of course. The films are, ultimately, unambiguous about the fact that the Empire is evil, that they're space nazis. So there's not that much excuse for not being able to figure out that the empire is bad. It takes a certain level of mulish stupidity and sociopathy to not see people who blow up entire planets of civilians as evil.

But MatPat's shitty video does offer some things that are very very appealing not just to fans generally but to nerds in particular. Let's start with broader fandom first though and see how MatPat builds popularity through compounded jackassery. Like coma theories, this is low effort high impact. It takes little effort to be like, yo brah, maybe the bad guys are actually the good guys, in the same way that saying, yo brah, maybe they're all ghosts is a trivial operation. Unfortunately, it doesn't actually result in an interesting theory, just juvenile wank. So, like a coma theory, it's not something someone with anything interesting to say, someone who's The Smartest Show In Gaming, would do. God damn Pope god DAMN Undertale.

Or, well, I suppose that's not entirely fair, because we CAN do reparative readings that transform villain into hero with excellent effect. Jack Graham and Josh Marsfelder did a great job with this earlier in the week with the film Species, reorienting the narrative to turn the Terrifyingly Feminine And Sexual Alien Menace into the hero of the film through the clever device of realizing that all the male scientists are fucking idiots.

But here's the thing though. You'll notice that it took them nearly three hours to do it. This kind of maneuver takes time and care, and it takes real clarity, real insistence on perceiving the text correctly as it is. I mean Movies with Mikey just barely pulls this off in 16 minutes with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and he manages it because he constantly and forcefully focuses on the text itself and what is in fact on screen, because he hedges constantly by pointing out the barbarism of the Joker's actions even as he points out their relative success compared to Batman and Harvey, and because he can ride on the good reputation that comes with not pulling dumbass stunts like giving Untertale to the fUCKING POPE MY GOD.

I cannot stress enough how core the act of seeing a text clearly is to a critical move like this. You need to be able to point to shit in the text line for line to make your case because that's the kind of rigor you need when you're turning a story completely upside down. It's a kind of rigor, too, that doesn't come naturally to us. There's nothing innate about seeing what is in front of you clearly--trust me, I've had enough students bomb an assignment that literally required them to just describe a painting in front of them to know that seeing clearly is tough.

Exacerbating our basic tendency to pull some Allegory of the Cave shit on whatever's in front of us is the culture we're all swimming in. Erin Horáková's recent brilliant, searing deconstruction of the popular imagination's version of Captain Kirk makes this point. "Culture conditions the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a given reading," she notes, "in ways that have a lot to do with the needs and prejudices of the moment, and only a limited amount to do with either the actual work done by the text or with its conditions of production." For Horáková, this means a whole bunch of things but in that particular context means the transformation of the (textually supported) queer reading of Kirk into a hysterical fantasy and the (textually totally unsupported) "womanizer" reading of Kirk into plain common sense.

I think it's not hard to draw parallels to other examples I've mentioned, but to drag this back to the dragging of MatPat I think we can apply it to something I've seen argued by right wing geeks since I was a teenager: the notion that really the Empire was great for the galaxy.

This reading, so apparently trivially obvious to MatPat that he doesn't even need to argue it, taking as given that Palpatine's "political" revolution was great for "normal" people economically, is absolutely on par with my students describing brown things as blue, paired with the dynamics of coma theories where someone who knows very little seems impressive to those who know nothing at all. Not only does this reading not require real knowledge of theory OR text, real knowledge is actually a huge barrier to this sort of theory!


This is one difference from the coma theory, which can explain incoherencies or breakingpoints in the reading with dream logic. (If they're in a coma, after all, maybe things DON'T have to make sense. Did you ever think of THAT??) Here, you need to ostentatiously ignore the fact that Palpatine's rise to power was extremely violent, and play Alderaan's destruction off as a fucking joke, because these are otherwise basic glaring problems with your slack-jawed idiot morality tale about why political revolutions in ANY direction are INHERENTLY better than "violent" revolutions. 

Rather than seeing the film's actual content, people like MatPat project onto it their love of empire, their basic affection for jack-booted thuggery, and then hallucinate wildly until they've arrived at some totally nonexistent film that actually conforms to their existing beliefs. Which is wild given the film has one or two things to say about, like, characters, who get deceived by, like, the Dark Side or whatever into supporting Space Nazis? It's almost like the series has an interest in the way people delude themselves into siding with evil! Hm!

"Deluded" might be the best word of all for MatPat. Sure, his argument here is literally that a fascist who rises to power through democratic means can't be opposed actively even when he commits genocide, because "violent revolution" is Teh Evilz, but I honestly don't know that he's even aware of the implications of his own argument. MatPat is demonstrably incapable of stringing together a coherent reading of much of anything, as demonstrated by his hilarious, ludicrous theories about The Force Awakens and Rogue One. In The Force Awakens, MatPat predicted confidently, Luke would turn out to be evil, because Yoda said so and "when has Yoda ever been wrong?!" Really. And Rogue One? Well, obviously all the main characters are going to become the Knights of Ren! 

Because, you know, a Star Wars movie would NEVER kill off its entire cast.

Would it?

It's a great consolation in all of this that we can measure MatPat's analytical abilities objectively through his predictions. (Which, incidentally, is why I hardly ever do predictions: sometimes they end up like my Homestuck Is Gnostic prediction and see an ending coming that much of the fandom missed. Other times I claim My Little Pony will revolutionize feminism. Yeah.) And his prediction rate for Star Wars sucks, and even a casual viewing of his videos reveals why:

Even if MatPat's been in the same room as a Star Wars movie, he clearly hasn't actually watched it. He hasn't seen what's in front of him. Blinded by the Dark Side, he is, mmm.

One of the most pervasive ideologies we're swimming in right now, drowning in even, is the idea that any kind of resistance to violence is just as bad as inciting violence. A whole lot of people apparently learned in elementary school that fighting back against bullies was the same as being a bully, and have never once reexamined that belief since. It should come as no surprise, then, that someone like MatPat, incapable of reading irony or subtext in a narrative (when is Yoda ever wrong?) would be just as incapable of examining these deep seated beliefs that put the powerful and the powerless in the same moral category, that in fact see blowing up a military base as worse than blowing up a civilian population center, because the military base is of greater economic value

This is, of course, just one of the ways in which MatPat's argument and analysis is absolutely wretched, and you'll have to wait till next time to hear the other ways in which this whole mode of criticism fails, but his failure to see the text clearly, his replacement of the text with a totally hallucinated version, is almost assuredly where MatPat's own journey to the Dark Side begins.

But hey.

That's just a theory.



3 comments:

  1. Thank you for giving me justifications for my knee-jerk initial reaction to MatPat as a complete tool. He's a science man, he has no business in literary analysis.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well weirdly he doesn't seem to be a much of anything man. I mean he has a Neuroscience and Theater degree which is interesting but also fundamentally inapplicable to most of the arguments that he actually makes? Like he doesn't even rely on neuroscience from what I've seen, or theater, so what the heck

      Delete
  2. I've been subscribed to MatPat's channels for a while, and I have to say... you actually made a lot of good points? And now I'm reconsidering my Youtube choices.

    All in all, a solid criticism. The only problem I have with your article is that he didn't meet with the pope just to give him Undertale. At their meeting he reportedly talked about cyberbullying in schools.

    ReplyDelete

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