Solo (2018)

The old Star Wars movies were masterpieces of world building. Mostly because they never stopped to explain what everything is – they just casually mentions things and move on, leaving the viewers to fill in the gaps. It begins early in A New Hope with a casual mention of the clone wars, which is never elaborated upon or made an object of exposition. It then continues as the protagonists go from place to place, with a similar lack of explanatory pretense. What is Mos Eisley? Don’t know, but it’s bad and that’s where the space ships are, so we have to go there. What’s on Alderaan? Don’t know, but it blew up. What is the Force? Who knows, but apparently it gives you the ability to choke people and somehow confers military rank within the Empire. What is the Empire? Who can tell, but they blew up Alderaan, so they are probably evil.

This goes on all the way to the Ewoks, at the end of Return of the Jedi. Things are introduced, and the gaps between these new things and what is already known allow for creative efforts to try to explain how it all fits together. A non-trivial part of the original movies consist of people standing around in costumes without being either acknowledged or explained; they are just there, a fait accompli which must be taken into account for the narrative universe to make sense.

The fact that most of these movies take place on a connotative level makes them extremely goofy if you watch them with a denotative sensibility. Darth Vader, menacing presence par excellence, becomes a figure who shows up every now and then to proclaim things with supreme confidence. This confidence is not based on any particular reason available to intersubjective scrutiny, but is simply present because. Seen in this light, he becomes a smug muppet more than anything else.

The newer cinematic entries into the Star Wars universe follow the same dynamic, albeit with less dramatic results. The new Solo movie aims to make explicit what has so far been implicit, with the result that the movie becomes less interesting for it. The events depicted have mostly been deduced from information already provided (with the particulars differing across individual interpretations), and putting them on screen adds little to the narrative copia already in place. In fact, it has the paradoxical effect of subtracting from the space of possible interpretations; knowing just how the card game wherein the Millennium Falcon came into Solo’s possession came down isn’t conducive to generating more stories. It just means we got this one on screen.

To be sure, this dynamic extends to the prequels as well (e.g. midichlorians), but it is exacerbated with these new movies that pertain to particular events at particular times. A Boba Fett movie (rumored to be in the works) would have to take into account that for most of his screen presence, he is one of the aforementioned suits who is simply there to provide ambient world building. What he did on screen pales in comparison to what he would have had to do off screen in order for things to make sense. Any particular instantiation of these implied stories would, by necessity, be lesser than the potential range of stories afforded by not telling them. The new movies are, in many ways, a self-defeating proposition.

When seen in this light, the reactions to Solo can be understood in context. On the one hand, it goes through the motions of being a movie, and does it with adequate alacrity. On the other hand, it closes down avenues of potential stories, without an equal opening up of new ones. Those who enjoy the movie in the first sense are happy to have seen a nice flick, with all the bells and whistles. Those who worry about the implied trajectory of the franchise, in the second sense, can’t help but feel a more or less explicit sense of dread with regards to the movie. Despite the production value, if this is where things are headed, there is reason to sense a disturbance in the force indeed.

Somewhere in here, we glimpse the difference between content and culture. It would be an easy (albeit work-intensive) process to simply tick off boxes of potential new movies. The backstories of Boba Fett, Leia, Yoda; there is an endless series of Solo-style movies just waiting to happen. It would, in a long enough run to warrant massive financial investments, be a sure bet; the potential to unleash the forces of cinematic mass production is there. But as we saw from the Hobbit, more is not always better. More content will certainly bring asses to seats, but it would also define and close down the narrative universe. Rather than being a space to project what-if on, it becomes a long list of movies to watch to even be a part of the conversation. It becomes a chore to keep up, with enough granularity inherent to the material to enable a non-trivial number of smug muppets to appear.

But then again. That might have been Star Wars culture all along.

Solo (2018)

Astrology

Astrology has a long and interesting history. To say that it began with the ancient Greeks would be traditional, but also inaccurate, seeing that they learnt it from venerable civilizations who were ancient even back then. This fact alone adds to the length and interest, and a far more research-intensive blog post would go into the intricate developments that took place over the last half a dozen millennia. Alas, this is a post about the intricate present state of astrology, and different approaches towards it.

Astrology has a long and interesting present. Not only is it informed by its history, but also by the very modern trends and forces that so ruthlessly inform everything around us. Newspapers make sure to include horoscopes in tiny secluded corners, knowing its inclusion will cause readers to stick around. Publishers make sure to keep at least one astrologer around to write books on the subject, whose sales numbers are as predictable as you would expect. In every profitable nook and cranny of contemporary life, astrology finds a niche. It would be downright strange if it did not, given capitalism.

Those wanting to take a scientific approach to this phenomenon have to come to terms with what it is. That is what scientists do – they come to terms. They also define and analyze. Which is a statement so close to a tautology that you would think it’d go without saying. However, over the course of the next three paragraphs, I am going to show you that it does not. Buckle up.

When the words ‘science’ and ‘astrology’ are used in proximity to each other, it is usually in the context of sceptics wanting to debunk the latter in favor of the former. A common theme is to bring up the predictive powers of astrology, or rather the lack of it. The movements of the celestial bodies do not, it is said, affect the outcomes of happenings relevant in the lives of individual people, and can thus not be used to predict anything at all. There is no causation to be found, and those correlations that can be found are in fact the kind of statistical random noise expected given a sufficiently large data sample. Thus, it does not matter how rigorously an astrological method (there is more than one) is applied; given the lack of causal mechanism, any prediction made is by definition unscientific. Thus having proved the unscientific nature of astrology, sceptics consider themselves finished and the topic exhausted. Nothing more to see here, move along.

This is a rather narrow view of scientific inquiry, though. Merely showing that a method is scientific or not does not exhaust the scientific method. Indeed, we already alluded to another use of this method in the very first sentence of this post: the long and interesting history. Scholars and historians can apply rigorous methodology in their efforts to establish a timeline, and in establishing a systematic understanding of the contemporary uses of astrology during different historical periods. To be sure, one of the key facts of history is that we can not go back into it and perform experiments. It is, however, possible to science the living daylight out of the remains and fragments that have survived to this day. There is a history of astrology, and we can study it scientifically.

Moreover, there is a present of astrology. Social scientists can look at how it is used in contemporary everyday settings, and how it offers different affordances when applied in various ways. Someone saying that someone else is such a Sagittarius is not an ontological claim that because this person was born at a particular time, they are predestined to have certain personality traits. Rather, this statement efficiently mobilizes an implicit understanding of a particular kind of person, which allows the conversation to move forward with a shared mutual understanding of who’s who. Similarly, describing oneself as a Scorpio is not a resignation of agency in the face of the compelling deterministic power of the cosmos. Rather, it is a modest acceptance that the speaker is a particular kind of person, and thus when faced with a particular situation it had predictable outcomes – which again is an efficient communicative strategy to engender sympathy or formulate alternate courses of action for future situations of a similar nature. Social scientists, when allowed to listen in on these conversations, can apply the rigors of their trade to understand these social dynamics. The presence of astrology does not define the totality of the situation, but rather constitutes an important analytical aspect that can be leveraged to generate useful information and insight.

When I said that scientists come to term, and that this does not go without saying in the context of astrology, this is what I meant. When sceptics dismiss astrology as nonsense out of hand, they do not apply the scientific method they hold in such high esteem. Rather, they make a quick reference to a particular piece of dogma, and then move on without second thought. Which, to be sure, is an efficient way to mobilize a shared understanding of a situation so as to move a conversation along, but it is neither scientific nor methodological.

Sometimes, you have to choose whether you are scientific or sceptical. And that, dear reader, is a very anomalous state of things indeed.

Astrology