The Individual Strikes Back

While the tropes of the discourse and context determines a great deal of what can be said about the Orient, the individual still plays a HUGE role in the discourse of Orientalism!

Individual scholars, artists and texts can alter general perceptions of the Orient, reorienting the focus of the discourse. As Said writes, “I do believe in the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collection body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism” and therefore Said seeks to reveal the dialectic, or interchange, between the “individual text or writer” and the whole discourse to which the work is a contribution 1. This dialectic is the way the discourse influences the way each text portrays the Orient (the jedi mind trick steering the representations), but also the way that the text then becomes absorbed into the discourse and changes it.
what are you talking about

Another way of looking at it would be the way a film, or director can radically alter the way films are made…

now if only there was a film that could serve as an example…

Oh yeah, Star Wars has been credited with doing just that!

Cover of American Cinematographer for the 1977 release of Star Wars. Articles focus heavily on the gains in special effects

By radically improving special effects, cementing “the Summer blockbuster,”invigorating interest in space films, and capitalizing on the merchandizing (which was viewed as a simple throwaway cut prior to George Lucas’s ingenious move with toys) Star Wars changed the way movies were made, and consumed!

A few books have been recently published looking at the ways in which Star Wars has permanently altered popular culture. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor systematically goes through production of the original films, their influence on culture, through the disappointment in the Prequel Trilogy, and plans for Episode VII-Episode IX. Star Wars FAQ: Everything Left to Know about the Trilogy That Changed the Movies, by Mark Clark, is similar in many ways, though he focuses mainly on the Original Trilogy and is able to then focus on minutiae and “under-reported stories.” A Galaxy Not So Far Away, is a collection of writings by artists and writers on 25 years of Star Wars (okay, this one is obviously not so recent… if you’re doing math, the correct answer is that it was published in 2002 [1977 + 25 = 2002]). This book focuses on personal experiences with the films, including one personal essay by Jonathan Lethem where he discusses viewing the original film 21 times when it was released.

The point of this is that all of these books place Star Wars within a tradition (be it the blockbuster, Westerns, sci-fi) and try to show how George Lucas radically altered their forms with in a unique, individual way. A good example of the dialectic Said is trying to  explain in the above quote could understood as how older science fiction informs the Star Wars movies, and how Star Wars ended up influencing this tradition. A perfect example of this relationship (which happens to be engaged by all those books above) is the influence of the old Flash Gordon serial.

Not that Flash Gordon… (that’s from 1980, and arguably was revived because of the success of Star Wars in 1977)

This Flash Gordon

Originally, George Lucas had wanted to make a good Flash Gordon movie, but was not able to get the rights. So he decided to write his own! While he took a lot of elements from the series (originally the emperor is written as Ming the Merciless, the opening scroll is totally taken from the series), George Lucas’s personal touch made Star Wars what it is. One of the things constantly pointed to as “George Lucasy” (my term… obviously) is the “used universe” (George Lucas’s term). This is the George Lucas aesthetic; everything isn’t supposed to be new and fancy; living for years on a space ship would make it very un-spotless and un-shiny. Having the technology and settings appear used adds a realistic character to the films.


The dusty Millenium Falcon doing it’s thing… sort of… sometimes

It seems that George Lucas had a hugely determining imprint on his text, being referred to as an auteur, and Star Wars had a huge impact on film as a whole. Accordingly, George Lucas has been credited with this influential change created by the “text” of Star Wars.

Similar way to the way George Lucas forever changed movies, changes are made to the discourse of Orientalism. The metaphor Edward Said uses is that of a compass being added to a table of 20 compasses, with the addition of the twenty first, the shift in the magnetic field causes all compasses to shake slightly before coming to a new and different alignment 2. So the addition of a text (which bears the fingerprint of the author) to the archive of the discourse thus changes the discourse. This is similar to how George Lucas has altered how sci-fi movies are made.

Some of these texts, and their authors can have profound impacts on the discourse, changing approaches tremendously. This can result in changes to how the Orient is imagined and represented. A couple examples Edward Said explores in academic Orientalism are Silvestre de Sacy, with his didactic presentations and use of chrestomathy, and the effect of Ernest Renan and his “philological laboratory”!


child darth vader

But that’s not Star Wars

So let’s see how this plays out in a galaxy far, far away…

As we have seen through “The Heritage of Star Wars,” the discourse certainly had some pretty large implications for how George Lucas represented Tatooine, and how the planet of Jakku is represented in Episode VII. With that said, Lucas’s representation of the near Orient differs from the representations of the past, and even similar representations from the time it was made. His influence would go on to alter the popular perception of the Orient in radical ways, much like de Sacy and Renan.

I think one of the big changes is having the near Orient as a planet in SPACE, which would forever alter the popular imagination of the Orient. This has become a trope in speculative fiction and a clear mode for preserving, and popularizing Western views of the near Orient.

lucas filming
Lucas filming Episode IV source

One objection to Lucas originating this idea would be Frank Herbert’s Dune. However, I think this comparison is a good way of looking at the individual fingerprint of George Lucas. At first glance, there are profound similarities between the Planet Arrakis, Herbert’s famed spice planet, and Lucas’s Tatooine, famous for its nothing (it’s been said that Herbert actually influenced Lucas, and that the first few drafts of Tatooine had it as a spice planet… but that’s a rabbit hole we don’t wanna go down). In George Lucas’s hand, the presentation, story writing, and even the role played by the near Orient planet is super different. Instead of being the planet which is the complete focus of the story like Dune, where Paul Atriedes goes to Arrakis to fulfill his destiny as Paul Muad’dib (becoming an almost Lawrence of Arabia space fantasy), Tatooine is the home planet in Star Wars, the place where nothing happens, and rebellion is hard to find. Luke must leave Tatooine to answer the “hero’s call” and become a Jedi. Again, as far as influence goes, while the movie Dune  had been in the works for years before it was finally released in 1984, it’s possible that the success of Star Wars fueled its release (David Lynch was brought in as late as 1981, after 3 different directors floundered, one of which was trippy-as-hell Alejandro Jodorowsky). This could be seen as the “compass quiver” metaphor Said uses (within the film industry as opposed to the discourse) with Star Wars adjusting the production of films and kindling interest in the idea of sci-fi blockbusters. Just to speculate here, the shift from someone INTENSE like Jodorowsky (famous for his midnight grindhouse-y art films) to David Lynch (no less artsy but far more restrained and less fantastic) could have something to do with the desire to reach a wider audience based on the  success  of Star Wars, and subsequent sci-fi revival.

Jodorowsky giving me Holy Mountain nightmares

Furthermore, Star Wars visual representation of Tatooine, and its appropriation of Tunisian architecture (much of the Tatooine footage from the original Star Wars was filmed in Tunisia, and simply adopted the architecture there) forever altered how Star Wars fans, and the public at large view Tunisia, and its local architecture.

image of ksour
Ksar Ouled Soltane, used as slave quarters in Episode I

The perfect example of this is, well, the word Tatooine… taken from the village, now city, Tataouine. For the foreseeable future, this real place and its very real architecture will be tied to a Western fantasy. This is a perfect example of how the “real” Orient gets supplanted by our imagination of it… but lets not get ahead of ourselves.

WHAT?han solo shrug

Just check out these article (later corrected for inaccuracies) “Tunisian town near ‘Star Wars’ backdrop now features in battle against ISIS” and “Tunisian Town That Inspired Star Wars’ Tatooine Being Used By ISIS: Report” and “ISIS invades Tatooine– Yes, That One”. Later it turned out that ISIS was actually no where near filming sites, (see an aptly named correction here “Nevermind, ISIS Hasn’t taken over Tatooine”). However, because of Lucas’s influence, it seems that whenever Tunisia is discussed, or Tataouine is mentioned there is a need to use Star Wars as a touchstone. Instead of being able to simply discuss the place, we need to filter it through the influence of Star Wars. One of my favorite examples of this nonsense is from DEADLINE, and the title reads “How George Lucas Discovered Tatooine & Helped Tunisia win the Nobel Peace Prize.” For some reason, the article ties the filming of Star Wars in Tunisia with the country’s belief in dialogue and peace. The connections are as unclear as they sound…
Just to explore how the discourse changed, lets look at a sound collage from Tozeur (one of the actual filming sites of Star Wars) in 1974, approximately 2 years before Star Wars was filmed there. This is a very traditional representation of the Orient, focused on the atmosphere, the simple life of the locals, and there are like 50 pictures of camels. Kind of boring, and very French, but I would say that it encapsulates how the near Orient was viewed.

Now check out this video from 2014, only 40 years later, also filmed in Tozeur. Umm… yeah, I think it speaks for its Star Wars-y self. But if you’re too busy to watch, its a bunch of people cosplaying as Star Wars characters and dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy.”

gif from above
Just a snippet of the weirdness

It seems that George Lucas has radically altered how we talk about Tunisia. Enough so that when ISIS may be using a town in Tunisia, we get in an uproar about the possible damage to filming sites, and locals of Tozeur draw tourists by being “Happy to live on Tatooine.” [You should definitely follow that link] This represents a radical shift in the discourse; from originally embodying a lazy vacation spot, Tunisia has come to represent the planet Tatooine wholesale for fans. This is just a single example of a single text and author altering the discourse. While the context and discourse determined much of the representation, Lucas’s unique touch made Star Wars the unique phenomenon it is.

But what about when George Lucas and his crew first went to Tunisia to film? What about the appropriation of architecture? And what happens when people visit Tunisia for themselves and it isn’t the Jawa-laden planet they know it to be? Well, that sounds like a different page…
life day creepface


1. [Said, Edward. Orientalism. (New York: Random House, 1994 ). 23-24]
2. [Ibid. 273.]

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