:: Article

Death Stars

By Jeff Wood.

Hyperobject, 2017 (Cooper Wood)

“Death Stars” is the first part of a two-part essay culled from a new work of Wood’s, Spider’s Remorse. Part two will be published in this magazine in the weeks ahead.

I

 Last year was wrenching by any measure—so much so that 2016 began to take on the qualities of an object, some monstrous living entity. A total greater than the sum of its parts and something greater even than that. A thing that may only be added to, but not subject to withdrawals. The year seemed to devour every event that momentarily emerged from it. Like a black-hole: it is what it devours. In the black-logic of memorial spectacle the consuming and the generating are one and the same, like the ouroboros, the cosmic snake eating its own tail. 2016 devoured the novel events to which it gave rise; and it ultimately devoured itself and everything within its range. As a time-entity there is nowhere that was not within its range. From inside its range of light, there is nothing that it cannot envelope. Like the pivotal non-event of Y2K, and the super-Event of 9/11, the gorgon-like temporal entity 2016 obliterates and repositions everything within its reach, on its own terms, through the lens it now applies as the shift in our own perspectives because of it.

Contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton has a name for such an entity: a hyperobject. Jonathan Lethem explained Morton’s hyperobject in a conversation with iconoclastic BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis as “a problem so vast in time and space that you are unable to apprehend it… Global warming is a classic example of a hyperobject: it’s everywhere and nowhere, too encompassing to think about. Global markets, too.” Morton himself, in conversation with critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, elaborates:

You can think them but you can’t see them, you can’t touch them, and these are the hyperobjects. And one of them of course is the biosphere. You can see bunnies, you can see Hans Ulrich, but you can’t see the biosphere. Nevertheless it’s real and it has some kind of downward causality on bunnies and Hans Ulrich. So you can think it, but you can’t see or touch it, it lasts for a very long time, it’s massively bigger than you in space time terms, it out-scales you, and this is what I’m calling a hyperobject.

The year 2016 became a hyperobject—a thing capable of inducing a sea change among us and within us by our own proximity to it. The shockwaves of its landing will emanate indefinitely, and the material effects will arrive, but the transformation in the litmus has already occurred and the acid-red dye has set. Although the year itself may have lasted only 365 days, as a temporal phenomenon, it lasted much longer than seems possible for a single year. The inside of the hyperobject is immeasurable, for it is networked infinitely with respect to the infinite number of internal connections possible. Our hands were held to the stove as the inside of 2016 went on for a seeming eternity. Only from the outside can we account for it, for the loss. In this sense the year bears resemblance with other super-events: only in memory can they be properly objectified. 2016 as hyperobject. 2016 as super-memorial. Either way, the loss was striking, stinging, and clarifying. The loss of luminaries, like shooting stars:

David Bowie Prince Leonard Cohen Gene Wilder Kenny Baker (a.k.a. R2D2)

Alvin Toeffler  Umberto Eco Bobby Hutcherson

Ellie Weisel! John Glenn! Muhammad Ali! Fidel Castro!

The year felt like nothing less than a continuous meteor shower. And it seems synchronous that the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan last year as well, an uncanny aligning of the upheavals and invocations of the anti-establishment in the western world. The New York Times commented that his selection “is perhaps the most radical choice in a history stretching back to 1901.” A modernist, surrealist, Dadaist, and perhaps most importantly—to the unorthodoxy of the Nobel selection—a vocalist, whose literature was his incantation of it, its delivery. A category-annihilating artist who, by being awarded literature’s highest accolade, somehow annihilated it as well. Unlike so many other pioneers who gave up the ghost this past year, Dylan has yet to, nor will he ever really. He was the ghost all along. Despite its polarizing effect, as with all events of 2016 the selection of Dylan signals the exact positioning of communication now—a literature of shamanic, tribal origins. The contradictory deployment of a shambolic precision. A communication of disorientation. A clarity of disorientation, even. Communication itself as compass-scrambling weapon. There’s a dark synchronicity in the high-cultural establishment’s recognition of Bob Dylan’s “literary achievement” and the public impact of the vernacular of Donald Trump: the willful obfuscation of a literature of reality, and a working knowledge of the plastic, interchangeable relationship between language and matter, between map and territory. The grand difference: one of these poets of reality invented fire; the other seems to have stumbled upon it, fallen it into, and now wields it as wounded canine. One of them works in the service of the language itself, the other in the service of himself and the reality that language may manipulate toward that end.

The comparison of infamous public figures notwithstanding, in a matter of months if not weeks we were witness and accomplice to a Dylanesque flourish of alchemical transubstantiation: the total, spectacular conflation of truth, information, news, facts, opinion, fake news, intelligence, propaganda, and now (finally?) … alternative facts. The effect has been neuron-blazing and socially incinerating. Seemingly overnight, the terms gas-lighting, signaling, dog whistling, and trolling came to encapsulate and specify the toxicity of the consensual climate—watchwords of authoritarian paranoia and terror as the actual temperature readings of our public and shared psychology. A changing climate haunted by alternate readings of the past and projected potential futures became a weaponized climate: combustible. All symptoms presented. What has been weaponized is the very temperature of the waters. Waters, it seems, which must be adapted to. What we must somehow live with now.

At the beginning of 2016, keeping up with all the emerging symptoms of the fevered year to follow—what we recognized then as news—quickly came to approximate trying to keep track of an invasive army of sugar ants. By the end of the primaries and going into the election itself, those sugar ants became a swarm of bald-faced hornets. Now even attempting to keep track of relevant information feels like trying to account for all the grains in a pit of quicksand sucking down a flailing horse. Now everything is relevant to everything. Indra’s cosmic net as simultaneous tragedy and farce. Such is one narrative structure of the year, one in which “nature bats last”—a resolution of last resort, the machine behind the deus ex machina, when all other resolutions have failed. Narrative, as Dylan seems to say, inevitably fails us, and yet it is all we have.

 

 

II

It seemed uncanny and synchronistic, then, that another cultural super-narrative would come sweeping in toward the end of the year, like one last battle in the virtual arena. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened in theatres as an intensive (if not escapist) shock-absorbent vehicle for the fever of the year, a multi-generational emblem of allegiances and betrayals that played out online as a convenient crucible for the polarities of opposition. #BanStarWars vs. #Resist. And the year was bookended, one year earlier, just on the other side of the campaign season, by Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Both of the Star Wars reboots display multicultural resistances to the approaching Martial Identity Agenda. A quick online search of “Star Wars and politics” over the past year produces dozens and dozens of pieces on the subject from just about every publication and outlet available, including the excellent critical reflection Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence. Choose your fake news or choose your fiction—the resistance myths and the narratives of entitlement are activated and interplaying like mantras, guiding us though this collective possession. A trans-generational, trans-global resistance myth, packaged inside a global marketing franchise, packaged inside a war fantasy… The Star Wars saga carries all the contradictions of our cultural moment. At its heart, The Force—a believable fiction—becomes a functioning hyper-object itself, a necessary archetypal counterbalance to the unbelievability and weaponization of the world. And archetypes are neither real nor unreal. They are fictions. They are alive.

I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.

I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.

I am one with the Force. The Force is with me.

So it was improbable—implausible!—and a remarkable intertwining of archetype and timing, that the superlative heroine of Star Wars, both onscreen and off, would also be taken from us in the closing moments of the year. Princess Leia. It was as if 2016 had lunged up from its own final gasps in the quicksand, raging against our futile anthropomorphic narratives to say: You can’t write this stuff. As if to try to narrate it is to only add to the distortion-compounding kaleidoscope that is indicative of our moment. It’s just not accurate to call anything Reality TV anymore when the opposites have flooded into each other. An exchange has occurred. In the cave of unending daylight, the painting usurps the ineffable and the evanescent flux; the map commandeers the territory. All TV becomes Reality TV as Reality itself is lensed and curated as tele-vision by its spectators, who are also its collective participants. In the optics of participation, the hall of mirrors poly-furcates and is amplified. Words fall away. The libretto and the mise-en-scène unspool in parallel symphonic reverie. An epic Dylan ballad as real-time surrealist manifesto, or a toddler conducting mayhem with a roll of toilet paper. And we are left to marvel, to try to put it all back together, or to throw it all away and collect whatever dignity we can scrape together with our pants down. To construct memorials, bursts of narrative in hindsight, paper nests from the pulp, it is that metabolism of memorial that renders the totality of the Event apprehensible, digestible, livable—a thing. No moment is too grand. If the moment is too immediate in duration to be memorialized, and contained, then it must metastasize into trauma, or hysteria. Hysteria: the ecstatic unity of trauma and its expression. Hysteria: disco memorial as terrifying thrill-ride; the sleepwalk toxically shocked into the hyper-awake. The beauty of being paranoid is that everything is connected. Which is, in fact, true. Isn’t it? Sleepwalking, hyper-awake. Mourning, hysterical. The year as funeral. The year as memorial to itself, to the moment we have suffered, and authored. In the theatre of the memorial moment we are bound to it, imprinted with its maternity.

 

                                                                                    Rest in Peace

                                                                                    Carrie Fisher.

 

The cave painting is all we have. To extend the analogy further, the shared specter of 2017 will compliment itself with two resurgent parallel narratives—two sequels (in addition to the reliably endless procession of Star Wars installments)—sequels not only to the original stories themselves, but two sequels to 2016. One from the master oracle of American dystopia, Philip K. Dick, in Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Blade Runner. The other from the reigning master of the American Id, David Lynch, in the highly-anticipated sequel to Twin Peaks. Both of them speculating along the twin strands of fraudulent Americana and global corporatism. Both of them mining beneath the veneer of engineered memories and false narratives. Both of them right on time. The fictional counterpoint to our own engineered and narrative moment could not be more harmonic as a means of comprehending and tolerating a new reality: a means of memorializing the present so that we may inhabit it.

 

O Passageiro #4, 2011 (Nuno Cera) / Courtesy of the Artist and Collection Figueiredo Ribeiro, Lisbon, PT

 

III

Someone else recently passed away from the galaxy. He was murdered, in fact. And in fiction. In a dramatic preamble to 2016, his highly public death somehow presaged the year-long funeral to come, its condition as media, and its function as sacrificial proxy for the parallel political calamity. As we were to realize, there was no getting in or out of 2016 without leaving some significant symbolic carnage on the doormat. In late 2015, Han Solo was murdered.

I raise the murder of Han Solo not to diminish the real world urgency of actual murders that in 2015 specifically did a great deal to frame our current social and political context, but to draw attention to the power of mythology, or networked fiction, that is as fully operational as the Death Star once was; as fully operational as nativistic and xenophobic campaigns; as fully operational as the convergent streams of fact, fiction and opinionating that are blasting daily through the gray matter of our bodies and our body politic.

When Han Solo was murdered, I mourned him for days. It would be easy, on the face of it, to dismiss this sort of ‘mourning’ as counterfeit, as simply nostalgic, or as some other sort of immature projection. But I think that would be a mistake. This was a viscerally real mourning, one I nursed privately to save myself from further precariousness, or embarrassment—shame that might undermine my mourning. I knew the man for 38 years. I knew him as well as anyone did, after all; as well as everyone did. For many of us of a generation—bombarded by the first new waves of media, bombarded by divorce, bombarded by the future shock of the approaching global—Han Solo was the hero, swashbuckling across frontiers with that perfect balance of charm, machismo, and an earthy trustworthiness that betrayed his contradictory, jaded selfishness. Harrison Ford played the trans-planetary everyman as an apolitical opportunist with a working class mouth. His inherently anti-authoritarian disposition may have been self-serving, but his selfishness was honest somehow. His anti-corporate position was part and parcel of the smuggler’s trade but also naturally aligned to resist against Empire. His latent capacity for empathy and loyalty seemed optional, but also worth weighing against the futility of partisan politics. As someone who might have fallen to either side, or remained passively neutral and self-preserving, his convictions were relieving. He chose them.

In the boldest but most natural of brushstrokes, he was believable. I trusted him. I wanted him around. I needed him around. From Han Solo to Rick Deckard to Indian Jones… Harrison Ford, in the right place at the right time, became something of a mythic, fictional father figure. To a child, and in the best of fictional circumstances, there is no difference between the actor and the character. And now that Han Solo was gone, I would have to account for the loss of that figure. Regardless of his immateriality, my brain and my psychology would have to account for his absence now. Counterfeit or real, some pearl is welded into the void.

When my son, Cooper, was born, my own perceived distance from things was transformed. Distances that I had perceived as being immaterial, that had been contracted into a map that I could fold and rearrange to my own purposes now suddenly uncoiled into the actual. My time and my space, my space-time as I imagined it, was no longer boundless and unlimited. I was thousands of miles from my own family and thousands of miles from the place of my origin, the place I considered home. And the birth of my son registered the human cost of that distance in cruel and glaring terms: I had abandoned my parents. In those moments, in those first magical days with Cooper, that realization was an unbearable undercurrent. My own parents were far, far away. No hug was possible, no banal conversation, no cup of coffee. Even if my parents desperately wanted or needed to see their child, they could not. And I had engineered that distance, if only unwittingly. I had broken a cardinal law. Of course that law, as a parent, is this: do not abandon your child. But triangulated against the realization that I had imposed that condition upon my own parents, I was set upon by panic and an irredeemable remorse. I had abandoned my parents just as Cooper would one day abandon me, just as I will ultimately abandon him.

When Han Solo was murdered, it registered as something greater than the loss of a character, or even a childhood hero. There was something more potent in the context of his death. It was real, or psychologically real. Han wasn’t killed in a firefight with stormtroopers, or in a collision with an asteroid, or by friendly fire, or because of a bounty on his head, or even by an unheroic decline into old age. In keeping with the elementary and mythical components of the narrative franchise, Solo was murdered by his son, his only child. That gave me pause. As a new father I could not imagine anything sadder than being murdered by your only child. It seemed an unbearable sadness, and for days I couldn’t shake it. On the page, to write about it now, it almost seems comedic: it is too tragic, too Shakespearean, to Greek. And yet there it is. Something in the machinations of the fiction reached beyond the epic structure, beyond the kitschy dialogue and hammy semi-comedic performances, beyond the absurdly commercial global platform, beyond the nostalgia that one could easily chalk it up to, even beyond the vast artistry and sometimes genius that has constituted the Star Wars saga. In submitting to his own annihilating fate at the hands of his tormented and misguided son, Han Solo somehow became real: a real psychological zone of concentration and possibility. A real archetype. And in the transference, I was the tormented, misguided son who must now become a father.

The truth of the paternal tragedy and the sadness it triggered in me was surprising and powerful, but the realization of the hologram—the living network of story, media, psychology and death—was genuinely breathtaking. The death of Han Solo collapsed the map—as the year 2016 to follow would collapse all proximity and intimacy into the emergency of itself—by collapsing the distance between fiction and the actual. The murder of Han by his only child was the first in the year of long knives to come. Fiction interchanged with biography. Geography exchanged for the tabula rasa of fiction and Space. Space finally exchanged for real estate. Real estate exchanged for total possession. Total possession ultimately exchanged for an empty shell, the scarecrow, the undead. The question that I ask by it and the question that must be confronted is: Do we live in the Real? And the answer is no. We live in the Art of the Real. Perhaps ironically, the death of a fictional character demonstrates that this predicament—the predicament of our hallucinations and our hysteria—is not new. It’s as old as cave paintings. But the consequences are world-building.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio, currently living in Berlin. He is a founding member of the experimental art/film group Rufus Corporation. His cinematic novel The Glacier is out from Two Dollar Radio. He is an editor of the Berlin Quarterly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017.