The medieval mysteries of ‘Attack of the Clones’

‘Impossible to see, the future is,’ notes Yoda in political discussions with the Chancellor of the Republic, reasoning, ‘the dark side clouds everything’ — an ironic admission in front of the secret Sith lord who had already seized the reigns of democratic power. The Chancellor’s next steps involved translating political power into military might — as well as economic hegemony to underpin military strength. Playing the trade-based Separatists off the democratic republic led republican commerce to give way to violence, and ultimately, war. Rather than changing the course of history, Palpatine merely observed trends in the sands of time and rode the wave to absolute power. Hence it is said by early-modern Christian Machiavellian raison d’état theorist Giovanni Botero, ‘how true that saying of the Lord that the children of darkness show more prudence in their affairs than do the children of light’. Attack of the Clones and its follow-up Revenge of the Sith are artistic proof of this claim of substantive political philosophy, by way of symbolic political economy. But art conceals as much as it reveals, and Attack of the Clones is full to the brim with the distracting mysteries and confusing intrigue that precede the coming of war. The movie depicts a twilight zone where anything seems possible, as everything is unknown to the protagonists, even though the waters of spacetime ultimately flow in one direction: onwards, to whatever the fates have in store for a sleepwalking political cosmos.

From the foreboding opening sequence to the chilling middle episode in George Lucas’ Prequel trilogy.

To start with, there is Obi-Wan Kenobi, who notes to his old friend Dex, who distinguished ordinary ‘knowledge’ from extraordinary ‘wisdom’: ‘Well, if droids could think, there’d be none of us here — would there?’ This premise, of the impossibility of full automation, bypasses the dilemma in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune of robots jeopardising human excellence and identity. What is distinctively human is not manual but mental work. Intelligence comes in two forms: banal, or calculating, and divine, or perceiving. The humanoid species of Star Wars have a distinctive access to the spiritual realm of the Force in a way droids do not. This conceptual prowess gives the Jedi special physical powers, the Force being a mediation between matter and thought.

The Jedi, like the guardians of Plato’s Republic, keep the peace, but do not rule. Their compulsion to wage war to contain insurgent separatism is a paradox, leading the Jedi to plot to suspend democracy to overthrow the wannabe Caesar figure of the Chancellor. But it is too little, too late. The Jedi are right to be wary of political deception: they are potentially excellent at it, as shown by the skills of the Sith, a power-hungry offshoot from the Order. But the possession of power, like the bearing of the One Ring in Tolkien’s Lord Of the Rings, is intrinsically corrupting. Hence the separation of powers between economic politicians and military philosophers. A fusion of powers tends towards unbridled absolutism, while separation tends towards anarchy. The Republic and the Jedi never strike this balance.

Historically, the riddle of Attack of the Clones is even more intriguing. Despite the focus on the inadequacy of droids, leading to the creation of a clone army based on the bounty hunter Jango Fett to contain the droid-armed separatists, the politics of the Republic follow a distinctively premodern pattern. What goes under the guise of democracy is, in fact, a modern system plastered over a medieval society. Class distinctions are rigid and trade is monopolised by guilds and the Trade Federation, a state unto itself. Representatives to the Senate are frequently appointed by local lords and monarchs. If the Holy Roman Empire was a democracy, then the Star Wars Republic certainly counts.

The Holy Roman Empire comprised various dukedoms and principalities competing for power and influence over the imperial thrown, which exercised only weak and nebulous control over the periphery. In the Thirty Years’ War, the Empire was divided between trading Protestant states and the old Catholic allies of the Emperor and the Papacy, which had separated long before. The politicisation of religion undermined its philosophical power and social acceptability. The only way of safeguarding a system of knowledge/power is to apply knowledge to power, by empowering the wise as ‘philosopher-kings’ or educating the powerful in the light of knowledge. But this instrumentalises knowledge as a mere tool, while increasing the ambition of power to expand without conceptual, and by implication physical, limit.

Thus, after the Thirty Years’ War, the modern state formed around a union of modern philosophy and the germinating market economy. The philosophy of the Enlightenment defended individualism as a way of recognising the socially atomic character of market society — which liberal philosopher Immanuel Kant termed ‘asocial sociability’. As soon as philosophy becomes political, it risks becoming consumed by the society in which it is embedded. Even when philosophy avoids politics, it cannot help but reflect the concrete tendencies of society in the abstractions of philosophy, as in René Descartes modern thesis: ‘I am, I exist’. As the public realm burns under threat from private power, we are compelled to seek refuge in an exclusively private morality.

The character of Anakin Skywalker faces precisely this quandary as even the secluded Jedi Order presents itself as an alien force to Anakin’s youthful ambition, passion, and sorrow. Imprisoned in his own mental matrix, Anakin finds the only escape to be the increase of his own power — while sacrificing his own autonomy along the way. For it is impossible to depend on oneself without also depending on others to sustain the fantasy of autonomy. No society can be ruled by one thing — be that the balance of philosophy, the disunity of money, or the unity of polity. Omnity, the wholeness of trade, war, and their institutional configurations, requires taking a step back from the mysteries of a declining world in order to recognise our position in a long cycle of history, before and after modernity.

Art can help us grasp the inevitability of tragedy and the contingency of reality, but it cannot free us from the fantasy of lost unity. As with medieval Europe’s dream of Rome, the Republic’s dream of its thousand year-long past prevents it from confronting the future possibilities growing in the womb of present reality. The necessity of contingency is masked by the avoidance of reality as it is. If we cannot see the present clearly, how can we hope to see the future? That, in the end, is the remedy to medieval mysteries and modern fantasies: a return to the ancient wisdom that balances the philosophy of eternity with the flow of the moment. In that balance lies our only hope of redemption in a fallen world, where tragedy seems to linger and grow simultaneously. Paradise lost can only become paradise regained once the present is embraced for what it is: an empty abyss, without clear hope or paths of emancipation from the webs of exploitation. Once we recognise loss for what it is, we can realise what it is not, and what it makes possible, if only we can accept what is present. As Qui-Gon Jinn suggests to the confused Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace, after his apprentice cites Yoda’s demand to be ‘mindful of the future’: ‘Be mindful of the living force,’ that is, ‘keep your attention on the here and now’. Let it be so.

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