Disney as Mass Psychosis: Spectacle and Necropower in The Force Awakens

[A shameless copy of my flatmate’s much better article, but with Foucault’s shit-grinning face plastered over Marx’s shrivelled body.]

Let’s face it, Finn is psychotic. One of the first scenes in The Force Awakens is the death of a stormtrooper. As Finn cradle them, their blank helmets gaze dolefully at one another. Twenty minutes later, Finn fires into a hanger bay full of stormtroopers. This is supposedly “the right thing to do.” His subsequent exclamations are along the lines of “Got one!” “Yeah!” “Did you see that!” “Woo!” Unable to reconcile with the traumatic real, Finn regresses back into an infantile state, where the dualistic framework inculcated into him by the First Order can be redeployed with minimal alteration. He goes back to what he’s been trained to do since birth—kill without a thought. Like all the previous films in the Star Wars franchise, one is either dark or light. Though one can turn to the other side, one can never escape signification into the metaphysical dualism of the Force. Ironically, its balance has always involved genocide of the other half, destruction of what gives it form in the first place. The Force Awakens is no different. Though one hears little of bringing balance, there is much talk of saving the galaxy, despite the film never showing us what this galaxy is. We never move far beyond the scope of the Rebels and the First Order. The galaxy may as well have no political systems, social organisations or citizens. Though we see Rey’s home planet Jakku, everyone dismisses it as inconsequential—of no importance to the rest of the galaxy. What then, is being fought for?

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In one of the more contrived scenes of the film, we see the First Order fire a giant red laser into space. Before impact, the camera cuts to the ground. Blurry-faced aristocrats squint as their atmosphere fills with red light and sad music. At the end of the film, the Rebels blow up Starkiller Base. Everyone whoops loudly to triumphant music as innumerable stormtroopers, stolen from their parents at birth, are incinerated in a spectacular explosion. Star Wars is biopolitical. It has always been biopolitical, for security has always been enforced through the decimation of life (1, 2). In The Force Awakens, the galaxy exists as a floating signifier, a nothingness cited to legitimise this necropower. Because there is no referent, the galaxy is fluid in meaning, existing only in relation to either the First Order or the Rebels. Multiple spectacles of violence present the First Order as a threat to this social body (which does not exist)—the killing of innocents, the attack on Jakku, the destruction of Maz’ Bar—set pieces without context or connection to any wider world (3). Furthermore, despite the fact that a large portion of the film takes place on Starkiller Base, no Stormtrooper (except Finn) appears out of uniform. They are inscribed inhuman—a faceless, homogeneous mass, incomprehensible (but lethal) in intent (3). The Rebels, on the other hand, display exuberant individualism—a diversity that spans species, ethnicity and gender. Though both operate under similar hierarchies of command, their aesthetic differences stereotype them, respectively, as fascists and liberals.

The security of the galaxy, then, is connected with freedom (3). It is not a place, but an ideal—an abstract universal to be imposed as a concrete particular. Though the Rebels and First Order are positioned as binary opposites, both utilise necropower to secure their populations from the threat of the Other (1, 2). This conflict is not simply militaristic or political, but discursive (1, 2). In popular discourse, liberalism is often touted as progressive, while fascism is portrayed as regressive. For the Rebels, it is conformity that must be destroyed. For the First Order, it is disorder. In both cases, the Other appears as an abnormality that taints the purity and health of the respective population (1). Disorder, after all, connotes irregularity and uncleanliness, while conformity connotes indoctrination and fanaticism. If the galaxy cannot be actualised while the Other remains, then the Other must be destroyed. While both factions kill without remorse, the film consistently portrays the Rebels as heroes through the utilisation of celebratory music, bright visuals and humanised characters. The First Order do partake in additional forms of violence (such as torture and slavery), however, the film offers only further violence as mitigation.

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It is not Finn that is psychotic, then, but Star Wars. Trapped between the biopolitics of the Rebels and the First Order, Finn cannot appear anything but psychotic. His only discursive possibility is to repeat his original trauma—to kill his fellow slaves. Within the diegetic logic of Star Wars, Finn is normal. There is something terrifying about this depiction of morality. Spectacles, after all, are used to unite individuals into an imagined community—to make us identify with a certain position whether fictional or not (4; 5). Spectacles of terror have historically been used to construct simplified narratives of complex geopolitical situations; to mobilise support for militaristic ventures, reactionary reforms and state surveillance (3). The Force Awakens continues this legacy through its depiction of the First Order as always-already evil and the Republic as always-already good (3). Lived reality is effaced by a monologue that suggests difference, for the purpose of promoting sameness (4).

This liberal/fascist divide not only evokes World War II (the definitive good versus evil scenario), but also alludes to the political tensions of our time. It is easy to imagine Trump and Clinton filling their respective roles as Snoke and Leia. ‘Make the Empire Great Again.’ ‘Light Trumps Dark.’ Rather than take place in one nation, however, Star Wars divides the conflict across the entire galaxy. The fascists are depicted as not among, but beyond us—as outside of liberal society. Ironically, the only political clash that occurs is between Kylo and Hux of the First Order. The Rebels correspond completely, despite their diversity. In the context of western media, this is not surprising. Multiculturalism, after all, subsumes local ethnicities into a global cosmopolitan order (6). Resituated into a new matrix of possibility, the subject is transformed through both disciplinary and regulatory technologies—the re-articulation of body and population into normative modes of becoming (1). All irregularities are displaced onto the Other, to which the Self must articulate as not. The Other becomes ambiguous, and therefore, potentially anything (3). The contradiction inherent in biopolitics is that the destruction of alterity can never be fulfilled, for normality can only be defined through abnormality; and because there is no end point of biopolitics, violence can be deployed for any goal. Sameness in diversity marks one as secure.

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United States representations of the Middle-East after 9/11 explored not the motivations behind the attack, but rather the spectacle of the attack (3). Star Wars similarly does the same, employing affect within an absolutist framework to normalise genocide (3). The success of both The Force Awakens and previous Star Wars productions is telling of how popular such a discourse is, or at least, how uncritically it is consumed. A cursory glance on Rotten Tomatoes places The Force Awakens on par with the Empire Strikes Back, while box office revenues for the film nearly reached that of the prequel trilogy. Though The Force Awakens presents a fictional narrative, it still draws on and offers real political positions to issues not so black and white. Its critique of imperialism is unintentionally ironic, considering the neocolonial history of the United States. This is not surprising when one realises that Disney is, and always has been, a proud supporter of the United States military. They have historically produced war propaganda featuring beloved characters dropping bombs, manning Gatling guns and piloting war planes, and they currently offer military personnel discounts into Disney World. The production of The Force Awakens, then, cannot be severed from Disney’s political ties; its absolutist moral framework becomes an ideological necessity towards the generation of further profit.

The psychosis of The Force Awakens, then, extends beyond the screen. Its narrative attempts to inculcate the necessity of necropower—the idea that one’s continued existence can only come about through the destruction of another’s (1, 2). Enlightenment humanism spoke of a similar need—that freedom and humanity had to be imposed on those not yet free or human. It was, however, a facade over the true desires of western empires—markets, resources and labourers (7). Because capitalism requires the indefinite expansion of the economy, economic crises are inevitable (8). War becomes a means towards stabilising one’s own territory through the destruction of foreign production and the expansion of one’s own. I am not saying that Disney consciously follows this line of thought, but rather, that it is so ingrained in our discursive landscape we reproduce it without understanding its implications—that while the imaginary virtual presents liberalism as liberty, the real virtual, in its uncanny actuality, reveals it utterly destructive (9). The Force Awakens is simply the latest in a long line of texts to recuperate diversity for barbaric ends.

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1 Foucault, M. (2003) “Society Must be Defended.” Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76. New York, Picador, 239-264.
2 Osuri, G. (2006) Media Necropower: Australian media reception and the somatechnics of Mamdouh Habib. Borderlands 5 (1), 12.
3 Kellner, D. (2004) 9/11, Spectacles of Terror, and Media Manipulation: a critique of Jihadist and Bush media politics. Critical Discourse Studies 1 (1), 41-64.
4 Debord, G. (1994) The Society of the Spectacle. 3rd ed. New York, Zone Books, 1-34.
5 Sarup, M. (1996) National Identity:’Englishness’ and Education in Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 130-146.
6 Hall, S. (1991) The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity in A. King (ed.) Culture, Globalization and the World-System. Basingstoke, Macmillan Education Ltd, 19-39.
7 Lenin, V.I. (2008) Division of the World Among the Great Powers in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Marxists Internet Archive. Available here.
8 D’Amato, P. (2014) The Meaning of Marxism. 2nd ed. Chicago, Haymarket Books.
9 The Reality of the Virtual. (2004) Directed by: Ben Wright. Written by: Slavoj Žižek. [Film] United Kingdom, Ben Wright Film Productions.


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