Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi and Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Shattering the Limits of Possibility
by Lucas Fink
Central to Mark Fisher’s theorizations of late capitalism is his emphasis on cultural stagnation and the resultant increase in reliance upon resurrected cultural forms. Nowhere is such a dearth of genuine novelty more apparent than in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film that strays a bit too close to being little more than a beat-by-beat retelling of A New Hope. A force-sensitive teenager on a desert planet is uprooted when she meets a droid carrying sensitive information and is swept up into a galactic civil war, meeting a surrogate father who dies at the end and aiding in the destruction of a massive spherical space station which is blown up after a trench run. I love this movie, but not for its originality. I also really love The Last Jedi, which respectfully and thoroughly inverts the predictability of its predecessor, unabashedly exploding convention and leaving in its wake new vistas of possibility I never thought I’d see in the Star Wars universe. Once every blue moon, the system will glitch and release something so self-aware and subversive that its very existence is one of schizophrenic tension. Why in the hell did Disney produce a movie whose fundamental themes call into question the system on which Disney subsists? I don’t know, but when these glitches in the matrix happen, I get happy.
Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi is disillusioned and curmudgeonly, denouncing the elitism and bourgeois hubris of the old Jedi Order as a result of which Emperor Palpatine came to power. Poe Dameron learns it’s okay to defer to a female authority figure and that his self-worth and identity should not be predicated on a toxic conception of masculinity that consists of reckless, selfish, fame-starved individuality. Finn learns from Rose that there is an overclass of absurdly rich war-profiteering assholes who supply weapons to both the bad and good guys and presumably have been doing so for a while, thus helping to produce and perpetuate the cycle of conflict to which the Star Wars galaxy has been condemned for thousands of years. And then Kylo Ren fucking kills Supreme Leader Snoke (also known as Walmart Palpatine) and for three of the most exhilerating minutes in all of cinema we get to witness a fight scene - so well shot and choreographed it’s unfair - between the new Rey-Kylo alliance and Snoke’s Praetorian Guard during which we, while admiring the spectacle, contemplate astonishedly and frantically what in the fuck is going to happen next. Will Kylo turn good? Will Rey turn bad? What do the terms good and bad even mean anymore in this new realm of moral blurriness in which we suddenly find ourselves? Watching that moment in theatres, I felt something I never thought I would feel while watching a winter blockbuster produced by Disney that’s the eighth installment in a franchise: the promise of something genuinely new. Something interesting and thematically rich and shockingly subversive that all the while manages to enhance my appreciation for and enrich my understanding of the characters I’m already familiar with. I felt giddy and surprised and incredibly happy.
Mark Fisher was a brilliant anticapitalist philosopher, cultural critic, and continental theorist. He took his life in 2017. Before his abrupt and deeply tragic death, Mark gifted us with some of the most lucidly and passionately articulated theorizations of life in modernity, of life in late digital capitalism. His writings are honest, personal, sad, scathing, funny, and often pessimistic, and yet are subtly - but unmistakably - underlined with optimism, a hope that Mark found harder and harder to sustain. For Mark, life in modernity is characterized by a nebulous malaise, in part engendered by the inability of culture to produce anything actually new. Because capitalism presents itself as the last form of social and economic organization, as the end of history, it evacuates the future. There is no future, because capitalism is eternal and inevitable; it is the way things have always been and the way things always will be. In such conditions, art becomes starved of novelty and as such is forced to become parasitic, leeching off of the trends of the past. If a time-traveller played Arctic Monkeys or The Drums or The Strokes at a party in the 1980s, no one would notice. Nirvana and Joy Division t-shirts are easier to find and purchase than any merchandise from a contemporary artist. Only 4 out of every 10 movies released between 2005 and 2014 had wholly original scripts.
The Last Jedi did not have an original script; it was the eighth movie in a franchise now owned by a megacorporation. And yet, somehow, the movie constitutes a rupture in the fabric of the possible. It constitutes the exact thing Mark calls for at the end of his seminal work Capitalist Realism:
“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
The Last Jedi is that glimmer, that tiny event which shatters the imposed limits of capitalist realism and thus renders anything possible. I wish Mark could have seen it.