Cyrus R. K. Patell



June 20, 2021


Welcome to the US Father's Day issue of my newsletter about the Star Wars shared universe! To all the dads who are marking the day in the US and elsewhere, may the Force be with you today and every day (the Maker knows we all need it). 


I feel lucky that my two sons, Liam and Caleb, are also Star Wars fans. (Well, okay, maybe there's been a little bit of indoctrination as well as luck along the way.) They both fell in love with the prequel trilogy and the lore of the Jedi when they were little. It’s been deeply rewarding to share Star Wars with them in a variety of ways: building Lego sets, inventing our own expanded universe of Star Wars stories on the way to school, watching the films and the television series, and now discussing the ideas that I investigate in Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe





From the moment that Darth Vader reveals the unthinkable to Luke Skywalker at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back, the saga has been a powerful exploration of the often vexed relations between fathers and sons. With Return of the Jedi, “sons” became “children,” and in the prequel trilogy mothers were added to the dramatic circle of relations. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Lucas claimed that Star Wars was all about family, that it was much more “soap opera” than “space opera.” 


I think that a productive way of understanding the way in which Star Wars dramatizes the vexed family history of the Skywalkers is through the lens of classical Greek tragedy. As I argue at length in the Lucasfilm book, the twist that comes in the climactic confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Empire  is a marvelous example of the combination of reversal and recognition that Aristotle described as the high point of tragedy in his treatise the Poetics.


When I first saw The Empire Strikes Back on the day of its premiere, which happened to be the day after my first-year college exams were finished, I suddenly understood, in a visceral way, the feeling that Aristotle was trying to describe when he used the terms “pity and fear” to describe the idea of katharsis. I’d studied the Poetics and puzzled over the descriptions of katharsis in both high school and college, but it was only while watching The Empire Strikes Back that I truly experienced the emotion. I’d come close one summer some years before during a staged version of Oedipus Rex on the steps in front of Columbia University’s Low Library. When the actor playing the tragic king came back on stage with red ribbons billowing from the eye-holes of the white tragic mask he was wearing, I’d felt a frisson of dread, but the experience of watching Vader’s revelation was far more powerful for me because I was invested in Luke and Vader in a way that I hadn’t been for Sophocles’ characters.


My two sons never had that moment of reversal and recognition. For the older, it was because of Lego. For the younger, it was because of the older. Let me explain.  


We were visiting friends in New Haven one afternoon in the summer of 2003 when my older son, Liam, was not quite three years old, and we were cycling through television channels looking for a baseball game. “Who is that black man?” my son asked, as an image of Darth Vader filled the screen. I decided on the spot that Vader would be too scary for him, so I said, “Nobody important,” and changed the channel. He wasn’t happy, but he went back to playing with his friend’s Lego set—his first encounter with the plastic bricks. 


A few days later, my wife bought him his own little Lego set—Knights of Morcia, I believe—and thus began the Lego era in our household, which eventuated in our possessing literally tens of thousands of pieces. Liam soon became interested in the Lego website, and I would look at it with him. He learned how to use the trackpad, and one afternoon, he saw a picture of Darth Vader on the site with a caption that read “The Story of Anakin Skywalker.” (You can find it here on YouTube.) Before I could stop him, he had clicked through, and four minutes later he’d basically been exposed to the key scenes in the Star Wars saga from A New Hope through Attack of the Clones. There was no dialogue, and the story, which was told in three parts with flashbacks and other temporal jump-cuts, was enigmatic, but I was pretty sure he came away with one key piece of information: that the “black man” was Anakin Skywalker. 


Which meant, of course, that he would always know that Vader was Luke’s father. When it came time to watch The Empire Strikes Back, there’d be no reversal and no recognition. His brother was born the next year and of course became privy to his older sibling’s Star Wars knowledge. It was a point of some bitterness for Liam that I made him wait until he was seven to watch Revenge of the Sith, but his younger brother, Caleb, (who saw it soon after) was only three.  


I later realized, however, that it didn’t matter about the reversal and recognition. That was an experience that relatively few people would ever have, and in fact it was Lucas’s contention that fans should eventually watch the movie in narrative order. Watching the films in that way means that the moment of reversal and recognition is still a moment of reversal and recognition for the characters, but no longer for the audience. In fact, that viewing order transforms the viewer’s experience not only of The Empire Strikes Back, but also of the entire original trilogy: the audience that has seen Revenge of the Sith first meets Luke and Leia with a sense of dramatic irony, because that audience knows that Vader is their father and that they are brother and sister. It’s still the logic that drives Oedipus insofar as Sophocles’ original audiences were familiar with Oedipus’ back story and spent the play waiting for him to discover it as well. 


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Among the virtues of Cass R. Sunstein's The World According to Star Wars (2016) are its meditations on what the films have meant for the author's relationship to his son, Declan, to whom the book is dedicated. The title of its fifth chapter, “Episode V: Fathers and Sons: You Can Be Redeemed, Especially if Your Kid Really Likes You,” gives you a sense of the breezy, affable style that Sunstein adopts throughout the book. Highly recommended!


Also recommended is this talk that Sunstein gave after the publication of the book in 2016 as part of the “Talks at Google” series.





An important milestone on the road to book publication is the appearance of a forthcoming work in its publisher's catalog. I was particularly gratified to receive an email from the Bloomsbury Philosophy listerv recently, announcing the July–September 2021 catalog and including my book among its highlights.


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You can download a PDF copy of the catalog here. Lucasfilm appears on page next, next to a book that I'm definitely going to pre-order: The New Aesthetics of Deculturation: Neoliberalism, Fundamentalism and Kitsch by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, who teaches at Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. According to the catalogue, the book “argues that deculturation, embodied by the conspicuous vulgarity of kitsch, is the overriding visual language of our times. Drawing on the work of Islam scholar Olivier Roy, who argued that religious fundamentalism arises when religion is separated from the indigenous cultural values, Botz- Bornstein shows that the production of ‘absolute’ truths through deculturation also exists in contemporary education.”






Star Wars may strike many people as a slick sci-fi franchise, with state-of-the-art astromech droids, sleek Star Destroyers, and shiny lightsabers. While Star Wars is committed to glossy photorealism in terms of its special effects, its story-universe revolves around dirt and discard. Within the opening of A New Hope, C-3PO and R2-D2 are jettisoned from the clean white corridors of the Tantive IV and salvaged by the Jawas in their rusty Sandcrawler on Tatooine. The saga essentially begins and ends on Tatooine, a desert wasteland home to the Skywalker family. Furthermore, our heroes throughout the three trilogies–Anakin, Luke, and Rey—each start their journeys as lowlifes eking out meager existences in barren environments; Anakin as a slave, Luke as a moisture farmer, and Rey as a scavenger. The original leaders of the Rebellion—Leia, Luke, and Han—first band together in, of all places, the squalid waters of the Imperial trash compactor. Even the iconic Millennium Falcon is fondly referred to as the "fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy." More contemporary Star Wars stories continue this exploration of trash, from Jedi-fugitive Cal Kestis working for the Scrapper Guild in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, to the ramshackle Razor Crest in The Mandalorian, and Clone Force 99's mission to infiltrate a battle droid decommissioning facility in The Bad Batch Episode 6. All of these moments show how Star Wars uses themes of waste to naturalistically represent a grimy, lived-in future.


In my undergraduate thesis, “Star Wars and the Eco-Politics of Survival,” I argue that the persistence and recycling of junk, trash, and waste motifs in Star Wars force us to re-examine the series as a ecocritical commentary on survival. So-called "dead" matter or "lesser" lifeforms in Star Wars, from the droids to the Sand People/Tusken Raiders and kyber crystals, turn out to be connected to the Force, the cosmic energy flowing through the intergalactic ecosystem, in surprising ways. Drawing on the work of material ecocritics like Jane Bennett, I conclude that the speculative imaginary in Star Wars allows us to recognize the vitality of metals, minerals, and the nonhuman. My hope is that by re-narrating the diversity of geologic life through stories, we can critique the narrow definitions of who/what is "human" and thus worth "saving" in the climate crisis.

In part inspired by my research on trash and thingness in the Star Wars universe, I am curating the July 2021 film program at Labocine, an art/science streaming platform, entitled “Trash/Treasure.” You can read about the series when it goes live on July 1 here and sign up for a free one-month trial to watch the issue's selections here. (New York University-affiliated users have access to the institutional Labocine PRO account—just sign up with your NYU email.)


Next Issue: Fourth of July!

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I'd love to hear your ideas and questions about Star Wars, as well as film, philosophy,  literature, and cultural studies!

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