By Danielle Sanchez, Assistant Professor, Colorado College
Featured image by Lydia Hussain
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains references to suicide which may be upsetting to some people.
During the first iteration of my Star Wars course in fall 2020, I assigned an excerpt of Ben Brower’s A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of France’s Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844-1902 (Columbia University Press, 2011) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith because I wanted students to think about the uses, justifications, and implications of violence in history and popular culture. Ben Zoomed into my class session that day and I began our conversation with a simple question: if you could be any Star Wars character, who would you be? While most people stick with the predictable choices (Han Solo, Boba Fett, Obi Wan, et. al), Ben said that he would probably be a Jawa because of their sustainable practices. At that point, I knew that I needed to sit down with Ben so we could geek out about pop culture in unconventional ways. When we finally sat down for our Star Wars summit last fall, we did not spend much time talking about Star Wars; rather, we dove into American television in the 1970s, Star Trek, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, and much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Danielle Sanchez: When most people think of Ben Brower, the winner of the Society for French Historical Studies’ David H. Pinkney Prize and MESA’s Albert Hourani Book Award, they don’t typically associate your name with pop culture. What are your pop culture interests?
Ben Brower: I grew up in a small farming town before the invention of the internet. People listened to the radio and watched television. My parents didn’t subscribe to The New Yorker or The New York Times, and I probably wouldn’t have been interested in reading them because that was so far from the social world that I grew up in. Apart from French and Russian novels that sold at Waldenbooks, I only had access to commercialized pop culture. Star Trek was one of my favorites. I was part of the latchkey generation of the 1970s. My brother and I would come home from school and have to entertain ourselves. We turned on the television and these old reruns of Star Trek were on. They opened up the TV pop culture horizon for us, which was otherwise bland stuff like Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, and Brady Bunch. Star Trek was a gateway towards some of the heavier themes of science fiction for me and my brother.
The critique that I always had of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was how it took the Enlightenment (using none other than a French captain) and imposed it as the normative model for the universe. Well before I laid eyes on Frantz Fanon, it was pretty obvious that that was a problem. I did an MA at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the early 1990s when TNG was at its height, and by that time, my brother and I were starting conversations that tied theory and history to pop culture. When I was reading post-structuralist texts for the first time, I was making ties to Star Trek. When I first saw TNG, I thought: “This is a fine project: we are going to civilize the galaxy and so forth.” But very quickly you see how this civilizing mission comes up short, and you start deconstructing Captain Picard for fun!
More seriously though, science fiction offers some great ways to analyze the past. It provides opportunities for intellectual heavy lifting through more speculative modalities of thought. It invites us to think critically about what the future could be but also about the past.
DS: Off the top of my head, Octavia Butler’s work immediately comes to mind. During the Trump presidency, it seemed like everybody was reading Parable of the Sower.
BB: I read Butler for the first time during the pandemic. I picked up Dawn of the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, which engages interesting issues of colonial relationships and how humanity constructs both itself and the Other. Butler’s approach is very different from that of Star Trek. Lilith is a human who is colonized by aliens, not vice versa. She’s imprisoned by them, even as they have saved her from some sort of apocalypse on Earth. As the book progresses, the reader learns that the aliens, the Oankali, need human DNA to rejuvenate themselves. This is why they’re interested in Lilith, but she finds them repulsive. Over time, the Oankali and Lilith have to acclimate themselves to each other. That’s a major task in the book, i.e. negotiating otherness in this highly unequal power situation. Colonization happens at the genetic level, and at the end of Dawn it’s not clear that this is a bad thing for the humans.
DS: As you were talking about the subordination of humans, I started to think about Foucault and biopower. Do you think Butler was intentionally engaging with Foucault?
BB: I’m not an Octavia Butler expert, but for my part, at least, I see some of Foucault’s own intellectual DNA in Dawn. Biopower seems to be a fruitful way into her writings. One of the things that struck me as a reader was the style of writing. Butler doesn’t give the reader many references and points of stability to fix a sense of meaning in the story. I was initially worried for Lilith in the early pages of the book, particularly because she’s trapped in this room. One of the things that reassured me is that her captors, these completely inscrutable alien beings, had family relationships and structures. If the aliens are in family relationships, then this is a sort of point of commensurability where I can begin to think about what is going on in their world and the way it operates. For me, the existence of families in this context meant that there was less danger for Lilith. She would find her place among the Oankali within their kin, not as a chattel slave or some sort of homo sacer whose DNA would be cruelly harvested. Look, I haven’t read the rest of the books in the trilogy yet, but if the Oankali are practicing biopolitics, then the ruthless capitalist exploitation of life that you see in Blade Runner and the enslaved replicants does not seem to be at the center of their version. Biopolitics feels much less dangerous when it is within a family mode of production, than a capitalist system that focuses on extraction and maximizing profit.
DS: The ways historians have talked about ideas of humans, humanness, and humanity have obviously changed over time. Do you think that’s also the case with sci-fi? Are there particular franchises or films that have these conversations in interesting ways?
BB: Yes, I think that Star Trek obviously does this. I also think it would be fun to look at the Dracula film from 1931 with Bela Lugosi to look at the human/non-human question. The climax of the film focuses on Mina, the beautiful young woman in London who was contaminated by Dracula. Dracula very clearly seduced her. She lost her virginity to this non-human, and she was on her way to becoming a non-human vampire herself. Mina’s fiancé’s response to this situation is a bit surprising. He’s like, “She’s had a fling with a vampire, she’s becoming a vampire herself but that’s okay with me. I love her and she’s still Mina to me.” At night, Mina becomes more dynamic and outgoing, and as a result, her fiancé enjoys being around the new version of her. On the other hand, Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire slayer and hero of the film, is uncompromising: all vampires must be eliminated. In this case, it is so dangerous for Mina, a hybrid non-human/human to exist and turn others to the vampire way that Van Helsing actually believes that they must all be eradicated. Annihilation of the Other is presented as biological self-defense. This gets us back to Foucault.
Another sci-fi novel that I’ve read in the last year or two that speaks to the limits of the human question is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. A group of scientists establish a base station on Solaris, a planet made up of an amorphous yet conscious sea. Solaris thinks and it communicates with the scientists. They have learned enough about it to know that it is thinking and responding, and so forth. That’s as far as they can get. It’s otherwise completely inscrutable, and they spend generations trying to understand it, which makes up a subfield of academic research that Lem calls “Solaris studies.” Solaris, which can read the scientists’ minds, starts sending characters out of their past as beings to go and live with them on the station. The hero of the book, Kris Kelvin, who happens to be a psychologist, gets sent to Solaris to evaluate the crew. He shows up and within a few days, he is visited by his wife, Rheya, from Earth. This is a jarring moment for Kelvin because his real wife committed suicide years earlier. His first response was that the being on Solaris was neither human nor his wife and that he needed to kill her. This scene is actually better in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film version of Solaris because of the way it handles emotion and trauma. Kelvin tricks Rheya into going into a space capsule and shoots her off into space. The audience hears the panic and terror that this woman is going through inside the capsule when she figures out what is happening. She’s like the vampire Van Helsing kills in Dracula: there’s this moment of absolute terror that the non-human feels as they face their death. They are not human and people respond to them with an immediate urge to destroy them. It’s as if the automatic response of the human is to eradicate the non-human. Rheya eventually reappears on the base, and it turns out that she is a very complex individual who’s struggling with the realization that she is not a real human being, although she clearly feels and has emotions. She’s a very complex character and at this point Kelvin the psychologist becomes more like Mina’s fiancé in Dracula, someone who is ready to make a place for the non-human he loves. He wants to redeem himself because he felt like he pushed his original wife to suicide. He tries to make things better with Rheya, but she wants to move on. She conspires with one of the other scientists to commit suicide and is successful. She leaves a suicide note to the psychologist, signs it with her own name, Rheya, and then strikes out this signature. It is a deeply symbolic gesture. On one hand, she is a projection of memories that planet Solaris extracted from the psychologist’s memory. At the same time, she also really exists in her name and body. When she killed herself, she destroyed both her body and her name.
DS: In the two examples that you discuss there is this urge to exterminate the “Other.”
BB: The thing about the annihilation of the “Other” is that it is actually really nihilistic. Subjectivity emerges intersubjectively, or our sense of self comes from the Other or what we think the Other thinks of us. This is how we establish ourselves. This is the great insight of people running from Hegel to Lacan, and it is also found in postcolonial thinkers like Fanon and Said. In this context, destroying the “Other,” even the non-human, is actually self-destruction. In colonialism, Europeans have this idea of bringing civilization, but there are these hurdles in the way… and those hurdles are fellow humans. A long time ago I came across a man named Eugène Bodichon in the archives. He was a French doctor in Algeria in early decades of the occupation and was clearly an idealogue of genocide. He took some prevalent ideas of race and society coming out of the 18th century, revisited earlier colonial models and ideas of “disappearing” races, and articulated all of this as a project for Algeria. And yet he understood himself as a progressive and felt that the only way that progress could happen in Algeria was if there were no more Arabs and Berbers in the country. He was serious about that. This isn’t science fiction. Some people within the government listened to him, but most people recognized the larger issue of labor: French colonialism in Algeria could not work without Berber and Arab labor. In my earlier thinking on Bodichon, I think I missed that. I looked at the official policy of the French state and saw Bodichon as a character who was off at the margins of this story. However, I found some other sources which pushed me to think about it in another way. What Bodichon was really discussing was what the French state was already doing on the ground in Algeria with its military. He was not inventing it; he was crafting an intellectual and scientific rationale for what the French army was already doing, which was committing genocide.
DS: Your new book focuses on names. How do names in pop culture connect to what you are doing in your new project?
BB: Lem’s Solaris pushed me to think of the power of names and naming in an archival source that I’ve actually had for a long time. The document is from an Algerian man who was important in the first decade of French occupation in Algeria. He was not only fluent in French but spent a lot of time living in France and had a French wife. They had a child together. He had a pretty deep investment in France, although he was what today we might call an Algerian patriot. He loved his country and fought for its people and future. His ability to move between the two cultures is very important. He had his Arabic name and a French version of his name, which was sort of sounded out version in French letters, which was the way that most of these names were converted at the time. He typically signed his letters to various officials in France by writing his French name, but at certain moments, I noticed that he was writing out his name and adding flourishes to it. Within the flourishes, he wrote his Arabic name in Arabic script. I started digging around and found out that it was a fairly common practice for people who were moving back and forth to have different names in different languages. It was a way to make themselves understandable and less othered. In my new book, I look at naming, and where agency resides in language, especially in colonial contexts where language and even one’s own name is that of the Other.
Along with Lem’s Solaris, another sci-fi novel that helped me think about language, names, and colonialism was Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 whose main character, Rydra is a linguist and code breaker. It shows how language becomes a weapon in intergalactic conquests. At one point, there is a discussion about conferring names as a way to exercise power over the named. But Delany is most interested in ontology, subjectivity, and the split subject. So the weaponized language, which is called Babel-17, does not have a word for “I.” So that is pretty interesting and can be paired with some of the things that Fanon writes about language in Black Skins, White Masks.
Anyway, all of this can be good material to think with, especially to think about history. Delany also writes, “There is no key you can plug into to unlock the exact meaning.” Rydra says this when she is talking to the military people trying to recruit her for her code breaking skills. There are a lot of unresolvable things out there in history, and as historians it’s a good warning to us when we’re called upon for definitive but pithy solutions.
Ben Brower is an Associate Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin. He specializes in the history of northwestern Africa and modern France, and his research centers on the problem of violence in history. He’s a fan of all types of film, with a newfound love for noir. His most recently read novel is Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (brilliant!), and he’s now 250 pages into Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, with Jordan Harper’s Everybody Knows queued up next. He’s also a minor enthusiast of old time radio dramas, and he’s got his tickets for Dune 2.
Danielle Sanchez (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in wartime central Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Novels. Her nerdy obsessions: knitting, Star Wars, contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez