A Red Light Sabre to Go, and Other Histories of the Present

Tara Brabazon

How to Cite

Brabazon, T. (1999). A Red Light Sabre to Go, and Other Histories of the Present: Tara Brabazon. M/C Journal, 2(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1761
Vol. 2 No. 4 (1999): Pop
Published 1999-06-01

If I find out that you have bought a $90 red light sabre, Tara, well there's going to be trouble. -- Kevin Brabazon

A few Saturdays ago, my 71-year old father tried to convince me of imminent responsibilities. As I am considering the purchase of a house, there are mortgages, bank fees and years of misery to endure. Unfortunately, I am not an effective Big Picture Person. The lure of the light sabre is almost too great. For 30 year old Generation Xers like myself, it is more than a cultural object. It is a textual anchor, and a necessary component to any future history of the present.

Revelling in the aura of the Australian release for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, this paper investigates popular memory, an undertheorised affiliation between popular culture and cultural studies.1 The excitement encircling the Star Wars prequel has been justified in terms of 'hype' or marketing. Such judgements frame the men and women cuing for tickets, talking Yodas and light sabres as fools or duped souls who need to get out more. My analysis explores why Star Wars has generated this enthusiasm, and how cultural studies can mobilise this passionate commitment to consider notions of popularity, preservation and ephemerality.

We'll always have Tattooine.

Star Wars has been a primary popular cultural social formation for a generation. The stories of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Yoda, C-3PO and R2D2 offer an alternative narrative for the late 1970s and 1980s. It was a comfort to have the Royal Shakespearian tones of Alec Guinness confirming that the Force would be with us, through economic rationalism, unemployment, Pauline Hanson and Madonna discovering yoga. The Star Wars Trilogy, encompassing A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was released between 1977 and 1983. These films have rarely slipped from public attention, being periodically 'brought back' through new cinematic and video releases.

The currency of Star Wars is matched with the other great popular cultural formations of the post-war period: the James Bond series and Star Trek. One reason for the continued success of these programmes is that other writers, film makers and producers cannot leave these texts alone. Bond survives not only through Pierce Brosnan's good looks, but the 'Hey Baby' antics of Austin Powers. Star Trek, through four distinct series, has become an industry that will last longer than Voyager's passage back from the Delta Quadrant. Star Wars, perhaps even more effectively than the other popular cultural heavyweights, has enmeshed itself into other filmic and televisual programming. Films like Spaceballs and television quizzes on Good News Week keep the knowledge system and language current and pertinent.2 Like Umberto Eco realised of Casablanca, Star Wars is "a living example of living textuality" (199). Both films are popular because of imperfections and intertextual archetypes, forming a filmic quilt of sensations and affectivities. Viewers are aware that "the cliches are talking among themselves" (Eco 209). As these cinematic texts move through time, the depth and commitment of these (con)textual dialogues are repeated and reinscribed.

To hold on to a memory is to isolate a moment or an image and encircle it with meaning. Each day we experience millions of texts: some are remembered, but most are lost. Some popular cultural texts move from ephemera to popular memory to history. In moving beyond individual reminiscences -- the personal experiences of our lifetime -- we enter the sphere of popular culture. Collective or popular memory is a group or community experience of a textualised reality. For example, during the Second World War, there were many private experiences, but certain moments arch beyond the individual. Songs by Vera Lynn are fully textualised experiences that become the fodder for collective memory. Similarly, Star Wars provides a sense-making mechanism for the 1980s. Like all popular culture, these texts allow myriad readership strategies, but there is collective recognition of relevance and importance. Popular memory is such an important site because it provides us, as cultural critics, with a map of emotionally resonant sites of the past, moments that are linked with specific subjectivities and a commonality of expression.

While Star Wars, like all popular cultural formations, has a wide audience, there are specific readings that are pertinent for particular groups. To unify a generation around cultural texts is an act of collective memory. As Harris has suggested, "sometimes, youth does interesting things with its legacy and creatively adapts its problematic into seemingly autonomous cultural forms" (79). Generation X refers to an age cohort born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s. Finally cultural studies theorists have found a Grail subculture. Being depthless, ambivalent, sexually repressed and social failures, Xers are a cultural studies dream come true. They were the children of the media revolution. Star Wars is integral to this textualised database. A fan on the night of the first screening corrected a journalist: "we aren't Generation X, we are the Star Wars generation" (Brendon, in Miller 9). An infatuation and reflexivity with the media is the single framework of knowledge in which Xers operate. This shared understanding is the basis for comedy, and particularly revealed (in Australia) in programmes like The Panel and Good News Week. Television themes, lines of film dialogue and contemporary news broadcasts are the basis of the game show. The aesthetics of life transforms television into a real. Or, put another way, "individual lives may be fragmented and confused but McDonald's is universal" (Hopkins 17). A group of textual readers share a literacy, a new way of reading the word and world of texts.

Nostalgia is a weapon.

The 1990s has been a decade of revivals: from Abba to skateboards, an era of retro reinscription has challenged linear theories of history and popular culture. As Timothy Carter reveals, "we all loved the Star Wars movies when we were younger, and so we naturally look forward to a continuation of those films" (9). The 1980s has often been portrayed as a bad time, of Thatcher and Reagan, cold war brinkmanship, youth unemployment and HIV. For those who were children and (amorphously phrased) 'young adults' of this era, the popular memory is of fluorescent fingerless gloves, Ray Bans, 'Choose Life' t-shirts and bubble skirts. It was an era of styling mousse, big hair, the Wham tan, Kylie and Jason and Rick Astley's dancing. Star Wars action figures gave the films a tangibility, holding the future of the rebellion in our hands (literally). These memories clumsily slop into the cup of the present. The problem with 'youth' is that it is semiotically too rich: the expression is understood, but not explained, by discourses as varied as the educational system, family structures, leisure industries and legal, medical and psychological institutions. It is a term of saturation, where normality is taught, and deviance is monitored. All cultural studies theorists carry the baggage of the Birmingham Centre into any history of youth culture. The taken-for-granted 'youth as resistance' mantra, embodied in Resistance through Rituals and Subculture: The Meaning of Style, transformed young people into the ventriloquist's puppet of cultural studies.

The strings of the dancing, smoking, swearing and drinking puppet took many years to cut. The feminist blade of Angela McRobbie did some damage to the fraying filaments, as did Dick Hebdige's reflexive corrections in Hiding in the Light. However, the publications, promotion and pedagogy of Gen X ended the theoretical charade. Gen X, the media sophisticates, played with popular culture, rather than 'proper politics.' In Coupland's Generation X, Claire, one of the main characters believed that

"Either our lives become stories, or there's just no way to get through them." ... We know that this is why the three of us left our lives behind us and came to the desert -- to tell stories and to make our own lives worthwhile tales in the process. (8)

Television and film are part of this story telling process. This intense connection generated an ironic and reflexive literacy in the media. Television became the basis for personal pleasures and local resistances, resulting in a disciplined mobilisation of popular cultural surfaces.

Even better than the real thing.

As the youngest of Generation Xers are now in their late twenties, they have moved from McJobs to careers. Robert Kizlik, a teacher trainer at an American community college expressed horror as the lack of 'commonsensical knowledge' from his new students. He conducted a survey for teachers training in the social sciences, assessing their grasp of history.

There was one hundred percent recognition of such names as Madonna, Mike Tyson, and Sharon Stone, but they hardly qualify as important social studies content ... . I wondered silently just what it is that these students are going to teach when they become employed ... . The deeper question is not that we have so many high school graduates and third and fourth year college students who are devoid of basic information about American history and culture, but rather, how, in the first place, these students came to have the expectations that they could become teachers. (n. pag.)

Kizlik's fear is that the students, regardless of their enthusiasm, had poor recognition of knowledge he deemed significant and worthy. His teaching task, to convince students of the need for non-popular cultural knowledges, has resulted in his course being termed 'boring' or 'hard'. He has been unable to reconcile the convoluted connections between personal stories and televisual narratives. I am reminded (perhaps unhelpfully) of one of the most famous filmic teachers, Mr Holland. Upon being attacked by his superiors for using rock and roll in his classes, he replied that he would use anything to instil in his students a love of music. Working with, rather than against, popular culture is an obvious pedagogical imperative.

George Lucas has, for example, confirmed the Oprahfied spirituality of the current age. Obviously Star Wars utilises fables, myths3 and fairy tales to summon the beautiful Princess, the gallant hero and the evil Empire, but has become something more. Star Wars slots cleanly into an era of Body Shop Feminism, John Gray's gender politics and Rikki Lake's relationship management. Brian Johnson and Susan Oh argued that the film is actually a new religion.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away -- late 1970s California -- the known universe of George Lucas came into being. In the beginning, George created Star Wars. And the screen was without form, and void. And George said, 'Let there be light', and there was Industrial Light and Magic. And George divided the light from the darkness, with light sabres, and called the darkness the Evil Empire.... And George saw that it was good. (14)

The writers underestimate the profound emotional investment placed in the trilogy by millions of people. Genesis narratives describe the Star Wars phenomenon, but do not analyse it. The reason why the films are important is not only because they are a replacement for religion. Instead, they are an integrated component of popular memory. Johnson and Oh have underestimated the influence of pop culture as "the new religion" (14). It is not a form of cheap grace. The history of ideas is neither linear nor traceable. There is no clear path from Plato to Prozac or Moses to Mogadon. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not a personal trainer for the ailing spirituality of our age.

It was Ewan McGregor who fulfilled the Xer dream to be the young Obi Wan. As he has stated, "there is nothing cooler than being a Jedi knight" (qtd. in Grant 15). Having survived feet sawing in Shallow Grave and a painfully large enema in Trainspotting, there are few actors who are better prepared to carry the iconographic burden of a Star Wars prequel. Born in 1971, he is the Molly Ringwall of the 1990s. There is something delicious about the new Obi Wan, that hails what Hicks described as "a sense of awareness and self- awareness, of detached observation, of not taking things seriously, and a use of subtle dry humour" (79). The metaphoric light sabre was passed to McGregor.

The pull of the dark side.

When fans attend The Phantom Menace, they tend to the past, as to a loved garden. Whether this memory is a monument or a ruin depends on the preservation of the analogue world in the digital realm. The most significant theoretical and discursive task in the present is to disrupt the dual ideologies punctuating the contemporary era: inevitable technological change and progress.4 Only then may theorists ponder the future of a digitised past. Disempowered groups, who were denied a voice and role in the analogue history of the twentieth century, will have inequalities reified and reinforced through the digital archiving of contemporary life.

The Web has been pivotal to the new Star Wars film. Lucasfilm has an Internet division and an official Website. Between mid November and May, this site has been accessed twenty million times (Gallott 15). Other sites, such as TheForce.net and Countdown to Star Wars, are a record of the enthusiasm and passion of fans. As Daniel Fallon and Matthew Buchanan have realised, "these sites represent the ultimate in film fandom -- virtual communities where like-minded enthusiasts can bathe in the aura generated by their favourite masterpiece" (27). Screensavers, games, desktop wallpaper, interviews and photo galleries have been downloaded and customised. Some ephemeral responses to The Phantom Menace have been digitally recorded. Yet this moment of audience affectivity will be lost without a consideration of digital memory.

The potentials and problems of the digital and analogue environments need to be oriented into critical theories of information, knowledge, entertainment and pleasure. The binary language of computer-mediated communication allows a smooth transference of data. Knowledge and meaning systems are not exchanged as easily. Classifying, organising and preserving information make it useful. Archival procedures have been both late and irregular in their application.5 Bocher and Ihlenfeldt assert that 2500 new web sites are coming on-line every day ("A Higher Signal-to-Noise Ratio"). The difficulties and problems confronting librarians and archivists who wish to preserve digital information is revealed in the Australian government's PADI (Preserving Access to Digital Information) Site.

Compared with an object in a museum which may lie undisturbed for years in a storeroom, or a book on a shelf, or even Egyptian hieroglyd on the wall of a tomb, digital information requires much more active maintenance. If we want access to digital information in the future, we must plan and act now. (PADI, "Why Preserve Access to Digital Information?") phics carve

The speed of digitisation means that responsibility for preserving cultural texts, and the skills necessary to enact this process, is increasing the pressure facing information professionals. An even greater difficulty when preserving digital information is what to keep, and what to release to the ephemeral winds of cyberspace. 'Qualitative criteria' construct an historical record that restates the ideologies of the powerful. Concerns with quality undermine the voices of the disempowered, displaced and decentred. The media's instability through technological obsolescence adds a time imperative that is absent from other archival discussions.6

While these problems have always taken place in the analogue world, there was a myriad of alternative sites where ephemeral material was stored, such as the family home. Popular cultural information will suffer most from the 'blind spots' of digital archivists. While libraries rarely preserve the ephemera of a time, many homes (including mine) preserve the 'trash' of a culture. A red light sabre, toy dalek, Duran Duran posters and a talking Undertaker are all traces of past obsessions and fandoms. Passion evaporates, and interests morph into new trends. These objects remain in attics, under beds, in boxes and sheds throughout the world. Digital documents necessitate a larger project of preservation, with great financial (and spatial) commitments of technology, software and maintenance. Libraries rarely preserve the ephemera -- the texture and light -- of the analogue world. The digital era reduces the number of fan-based archivists. Subsequently forfeited is the spectrum of interests and ideologies that construct the popular memory of a culture.

Once bits replace atoms, the recorded world becomes structured by digital codes. Only particular texts will be significant enough to store digitally. Samuel Florman stated that "in the digital age nothing need be lost; do we face the prospect of drowning in trivia as the generations succeed each other?" (n. pag.) The trivia of academics may be the fodder (and pleasures) of everyday life. Digitised preservation, like analogue preservation, can never 'represent' plural paths through the past. There is always a limit and boundary to what is acceptable obsolescence. The Star Wars films suggests that "the whole palette of digital technology is much more subtle and supple; if you can dream it, you can see it" (Corliss 65). This film will also record how many of the dreams survive and are archived.

Films, throughout the century, have changed the way in which we construct and remember the past. They convey an expressive memory, rather than an accurate history. Certainly, Star Wars is only a movie. Yet, as Rushkoff has suggested, "we have developed a new language of references and self-references that identify media as a real thing and media history as an actual social history" (32). The build up in Australia to The Phantom Menace has been wilfully joyful. This is a history of the present, a time which I know will, in retrospect, be remembered with great fondness. It is a collective event for a generation, but it speaks to us all in different ways. At ten, it is easy to be amazed and enthralled at popular culture. By thirty, it is more difficult. When we see Star Wars, we go back to visit our memories. With red light sabre in hand, we splice through time, as much as space.


The United States release of the film occurred on 19 May 1999. In Australia, the film's first screenings were on 3 June. Many cinemas showed The Phantom Menace at 12:01 am, (very) early Thursday morning.

The three main players of the GNW team, Paul McDermott, Mikey Robbins and Julie McCrossin, were featured on the cover of Australia's Juice magazine in costumes from The Phantom Menace, being Obi-Wan, Yoda and Queen Amidala respectively.

Actually, the National Air and Space Museum had a Star Wars exhibition in 1997, titled "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth".

For example, Janet Collins, Michael Hammond and Jerry Wellington, in Teaching and Learning with the Media, stated that "the message is simple: we now have the technology to inform, entertain and educate. Miss it and you, your family and your school will be left behind" (3).

Herb Brody described the Net as "an overstuffed, underorganised attic full of pictures and documents that vary wildly in value", in "Wired Science". The interesting question is, whose values will predominate when the attic is being cleared and sorted?

This problem is extended because the statutory provision of legal deposit, which obliges publishers to place copies of publications in the national library of the country in which the item is published, does not include CD-ROMs or software.

Author Biography

Tara Brabazon