it’s all a new mythology … for our time … some sort of heroic … and it has created new mythologies and you better take them seriously. Yes they are out there and don’t ignore them— Werner Herzog
Disney’s Star Wars spin-off series The Mandalorian is a model twenty-first century enterprise—an elaborate extraction machine comprised of giant 360-degree LED arrays, remarkably expensive puppets, server farms, undersea cables, warehouses of merchandise, banks of computer processors required for visual FX and the devices of millions of consumers.1 Internet usage has surged during the pandemic, and streaming services are part of the equation. As the pandemic redefined socially necessary labour, techno-feudal platforms such as Disney Plus, Netflix and Amazon Prime found ever more profitable ways to convert affective life into surplus value. The Mandalorian is perhaps the most prescient example of the streaming economy as best-practice pandemic capitalism.
Despite apprehending The Mandalorian as the elaborate extractive apparatus it is, the two of us spent a large portion of our time during Naarm/Melbourne’s lockdown obsessing over the series. Having both grown up with Star Wars fixations and daddy issues, the appeal of a spinoff centred on an unflappable father figure willing to repeatedly risk his life for ‘the child’ is unsurprising. However, as we continued to watch the series, our identification with The Mandalorian became less a fantasy of replacing our estranged fathers, and more an allegory for our own arts communities and the performance of labour within them; a parable with the potential to illuminate the inherent contradictions of our chosen careers.
Lost in what Linda Stone refers to as ‘continuous partial attention’,2 our engagement with the seemingly endless feed of online content produced by arts organisations throughout the pandemic became indistinguishable from other forms of media. As one tab streamed a Zoom reading group, The Mandalorian quietly downloaded in the background. For us, watching The Mandalorian while simultaneously engaging in the online arts space initiated a shift in what it means to maintain a critical art practice. Increasingly, institutional attempts to adapt to the social context of the pandemic took on the appearance of crisis management. Stuart Hall and Bill Schwarz define crises as occurring when ‘the existing social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations’.3 It would be remiss to believe the already flawed conditions of art practice and production can be ‘managed’ by simply transferring them online. What, then, might be learnt by applying our critical practice to the popular media that infiltrates the everyday experience of crisis? To ‘take them seriously’ in the manner of Werner Herzog?
Set in a lawless power vacuum after the fall of the Empire, the diegesis of The Mandalorian is a hopeless one: bandits, pirates and warlords proliferate as everyday citizens suffer. The ailing Empire, represented initially (and somewhat bafflingly) by Werner Herzog as The Client, attempts to obtain The Child (a fledgling Jedi in need of training) with the intention of weaponising his blood in the pursuit of tyranny. Enter the Mandalorian, aka Din Djarin, a stoic bounty hunter belonging to a particular sect of Mandalorians who must never remove their beskar helmets in front of another living being. Initially, Djarin agrees to capture and deliver The Child to The Client. However, after witnessing The Child’s nascent Jedi powers and his irrefutable cuteness, a consensus forms between Djarin and the audience: The Child’s survival and wellbeing is an outcome worth dying for. Djarin embarks on a quest against all odds. He must deliver The Child back to the Jedi for protection and training so The Child can re-enter the struggle against the evil Empire.
From this point, the series depicts Djarin hard at work, his relentless productivity and sense of duty forever dictated by the Mandalorian creed,4 a narrative which, for us, became analogous to our own contradictory and complex belief in our careers as artists, or more specifically, our own precarious labour and attachment to art as virtue. Each episode circulates around three key plot devices: Djarin maintaining his ship the Razor Crest, for us comparable to meeting basic necessities like paying rent; the accruement of beskar, a rare metal sacred to the Mandalorians, which we came to associate with the accumulation of ‘cultural capital’ or maintaining one’s CV; and a vaguely drawn attachment to hope as symbolised by The Child, or, something akin to the faith we place in art.
Access to life:
the Mandalorian as independent artist
Djarin is not in a financial position to take on his quest. As such, his commitment is constantly tested amidst underpaid labour, a litany of favours and debts, the trials of maintaining a home and the difficulty of sourcing adequate care for The Child. In order to realise his goal, he must engage in all manner of precarious and dangerous freelance labour. Like any freelancer, he is forced to complete jobs and interactions that, while not quite essential, become necessary in the pursuit of loftier goals. For Djarin this kind of labour consists of dangerous missions completed largely for the benefit of others: stealing eggs from a murderous Rhino, infiltrating various imperial facilities and defeating a deadly Sand Dragon. The tasks provide him with modest amounts of cash, which he usually spends on repairing his ship, acquiring information to protect The Child or on beskar.
Djarin is repeatedly approached by administrators and creative directors pitching various high-risk schemes and proposals; he is literally aloft in a galaxy of gigs and deals. Like all freelancers, Djarin is adaptable: he is proficient in the administrative, psychological and logistical portions of combat, as well as its execution. He is at once project manager, mentor, contractor, collaborator and more often than not, he is exploited. He is particularly vulnerable to coercion on account of his absolute belief in the value of The Child and the income required to maintain its life.
Djarin’s labour is not performed in the hope of cashing out or indulging in occasional hedonistic binges, but driven by a combination of hope and obligation. Once bound up with The Child, Djarin’s self-image becomes dependent upon his indefinite pursuit of a better future, something good that is always just out of reach, a mirage-like image that must be constantly renewed through virtuous labour. In this respect Djarin reminds us of Bifo Berardi’s figure of the semio-capitalist labourer; much like a struggling artist or creative who must love their work and make it central to their identity if they are to succeed, Djarin’s ‘desiring energy is trapped in the trick of self-enterprise’ while his libidinal investments are regulated by economic forces.5
As theorists of digital or ‘free labour’ such as Tiziana Terranova have argued, digital forms of capitalism have a unique ability to exploit certain pleasures and desires: clicking, watching, sharing, downloading, streaming, listening, communicating, lurking and stalking; everyday and often banal activities performed by users in pursuit of their own grand narratives.6 This activity is the laborious portion of a mode of production that creates surplus value for some of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations. Djarin seems to perfectly encapsulate this contradiction between, or co-constituency of, enjoyment and exploitation. His quest comprises a series of dangerous tasks and exploitative engagements but there is no other way for him to realise his personal narrative other than through the system of exploitation that gives him some semblance of agency. As such, Djarin indicates the ways in which basic human desires are so seamlessly exploited by a voracious socio-technical apparatus.
The razor crest:
a domestic concern
The constant hustle of maintaining one’s body and health, tending to one’s shelter and feeding dependents requires more effort than a discrete artistic practice. The labour of social reproduction is not something to be done every other day; it is a never-ending and all-consuming activity that makes the pretence of a ‘practice’ possible. This is the most difficult portion of the precarious, unattached and independent life; one must be versatile and possess many skills and competencies that together amount to subsistence.
However, Djarin’s experience of social reproduction is the inverse of banal, unrecognised labour. He routinely risks his life to maintain his place of shelter and continue the quest. To witness his glorified version of everyday labour is to witness a strange form of ‘success’, or what musicologist Robin James calls, after Foucault, ‘access to life’.7 Foucault argues that neoliberal economies function according to the biopolitical management of risk and chance — rather than labouring towards the production of objects and commodities, subjects work on themselves with a view to optimising their quality of life.8 The subject is obliged to stockpile ‘life’ in the form of access to privileges such as mental health, fitness, recreation, virility, property, social life and other markers of success. To this list of privileges, James adds a certain intensity of experience, or access to a mode of living defined by maximal engagement with one’s own pursuit of success. In other words, ‘privileged people get to lead the most intense lives’; they are constantly doing exciting things in their highly controlled experience of risk. James argues that EDM music, with its maximal palette of ‘soars’ and ‘drops’, appeals to listeners as a consumable version of this type of intensity. Djarin’s death-defying exploits appeal to viewers for much the same reason: ‘This is why people like it: It mimics the feeling of winning.’9 Much like a nightclub attendee experiencing ‘the drop’, Djarin’s violent form of subsistence-oriented labour is experienced as ‘winning’, or a kind of existential privilege, by over six million streamers.
The Mandalorian was most popular during the pandemic when an extraordinary amount of people were (and continue to be) out of work or only intermittently employed — surplus humans streaming the performance of everyday labour in the form of spectacular violence. What Djarin lacks in security, he makes up for in the sheer rapidity of his extreme experiences. He’s always being reminded of his existence through imminent death. Although his goals are similar to those of Earth-bound precarious labourers performing mind numbing and repetitive tasks in order to secure their livelihood, his exploits are recorded as a series of epic victories. This is the trick of The Mandalorian and other similar enterprises: to reinforce the illusion that the labour of simply existing is akin to virtue.
Beskar, or, the CV
The Mandalorians covet beskar, a rare metal that is light, super strong and resistant to blaster fire. It is spiritually important to the Mandalorians, who worship their own armour. However, because of its exchange value, beskar is desired by everyone. Beskar is the source of the Mandalorians’ power, but also of their woes. It enables their militarism and their inflexible ideology, but also makes them targets for other freelance labourers hoping for a quick payday. Beskar is similar to other military technologies in that it always precipitates an escalation or an arms race; it does not merely incur advantage, it also attracts attention and makes one an object of envy and suspicion. If beskar is the substance, method and existential crutch of the Mandalorians, it also prevents them from living a more peaceful life.
Djarin is wrapped in beskar (the substance that makes up his armour and weaponry), which both protects him and makes him a target. When given the option of living in a picturesque village with a beautiful wife he instead opts to continue the hunt, further the quest and deepen his love affair with beskar. Much like the precarious labourer who cannot imagine a life without considering where their next paycheckmight be coming from, Djarin is unable to imagine a life without the pursuit of beskar. Djarin’s relationship with beskar resembles what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’: one cannot adhere to the creed of the Mandalorians without it, but it is also a curse.10 For Berlant, ‘cruel optimism’ refers to an investment in the concept, or specifically the unachievable possibility, of ‘the good life’. The lifeworld of neoliberalism is experienced cruelly because while it is the medium through which the good life must be realised, it also paradoxically prevents its acquisition. Djarin’s adherence to his creed (as symbolised by beskar and the Mandalorian creed) mirrors this cruel optimism because of his ‘attachment to compromised conditions of possibility’.11 No matter how much beskar he acquires he is never fulfilled, because he cannot step outside the conditions that necessitate its acquisition. Once you start wearing and desiring beskar you can only think according to the brutal logic it symbolises. Beskar as substance and the CV as document function according to a similar logic — they are both essential to a profession, a way of life and a subjective orientation. They both necessitate an endless search that proceeds according to an impoverished ideology of acquisition, fulfilment and capacity.
Just as Djarin seeks to expand his collection of beskar implements and body armour, the precarious labourer collects achievements in preparation for an appearance before the other— as opportunity, competitor or victim. The beskar suit and the CV are both records of a personal history that memorialises value. For the Mandalorians, one’s beskar is quite literally a curriculum vitae.
The artistic subject’s raison d’être, while less violent, is no less competitive; the CV inaugurates the artist as the embodiment of an ideology of creativity, self-management and ‘practice’ as evidenced by a list of concrete outcomes.
The child: an old hope
Those familiar with Star Wars will know all about ‘The Force’, a panpsychic energy that flows through everything in the universe and that is harnessed by certain individuals such as The Child, who — as Djarin tells us — can ‘move things with his mind.’ The Child represents hope for a better future, or at least for the indefinite continuation of the Manichaean struggle between the Jedi (who are mostly good) and The Dark Side (which is mostly bad).
In this respect, The Child’s symbolic function is reminiscent of ‘art’, taken broadly; the power he wields is mysterious, virtuous and future-oriented; his mere existence promises change. The Child must accordingly be fed, funded, nurtured, protected and attended to in the manner of a delicate arts ecology, with its similarly vague claims to a better future. For some, the experience of brushing up against art is thought to make society better, more equal, more human and more cultured. Just by making, looking, listening or perhaps even withholding under the auspices of art, one might speak to power and effect all kinds of radical change: a state-funded gallery might choose a less compromised security contractor, a corrupt board member might be removed, an artwork might educate an audience on a pressing issue and inspire material action, and so on. It is hoped that one day The Child, like the artwork legitimated in the absence of aura,12 will be able to do these kinds of things in the Star Wars universe, to change it for the better.
A direct comparison of The Child’s on-screen and off-screen functions reveal him, like art, to be an ambiguous figure. In the diegesis he is a powerful tool with the potential to alternately effect either great good or great evil, and as such must be protected and nourished by those on the good side. When viewed as an ‘asset’ in the service of Disney’s extractive apparatus, The Child is central to a mode of production, literally and metaphorically a very expensive puppet (specifically, an animatronic doll that cost US $4 million to produce).
The Child’s cuteness is central to his function. The characters in the series are as entranced by how adorable The Child is as they are by his Jedi powers. Disney, as a best practice affective enterprise, is not naïve to the power of this charm. In fact, Disney exploits The Child’s cuteness in much the same way as The Client, who wants to instrumentalise his blood. Attraction to the series largely revolves around The Child’s image, which has acted as a blueprint for an infinite stream of memes and merchandise. Even those who haven’t seen the series are likely familiar with an image of ‘baby yoda’, his cute reproducible blood acting as the lifeforce of our consumption.
In Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2015), Sianne Ngai focuses on the minor aesthetic categories that infiltrate our everyday experience, arguing that an analysis of these categories reveals important details about economic processes under late capitalism. ‘Cute’, which Ngai links to consumption, is fused by its inherent paradoxes. As an aesthetic judgment, ‘cute’ is an enigmatic term — to deem something cute is at once to diminish and to adore it. It is to feel both endearment and disgust, revealing not just a desire to defend, but also to disempower.
Crucially, the cute is often associated with the domestic and as such solicits a sense of care and protection. As argued by Lori Merish via Ngai, ‘the cute “always in some sense designates a commodity in search of its mother”’.13 This is literally the case for Djarin, who is quickly assigned the role of de facto father to The Child, both in spite of and because of his economic value. Throughout the series, characters who otherwise act with apathy are enchanted by The Child. His large eyes and baby-like coos compel a parental instinct, one which is often in direct tension with economic concerns.
As viewers, we also absorb some of this parental instinct. In Season 2 of the series, The Child’s name is revealed to be Grogu by fellow Jedi Ahsoka Tano (who communicates with him telepathically). Following the episode’s release, the revelation of the name sparked a wave of controversy online. It might be argued that this had little to do with the name itself, but rather with viewers’ desires to name and claim him as their own offspring. It’s telling that throughout this essay we too still refer to Grogu as The Child, rather than by his given name. When Grogu’s name is announced, it is one of the few times he actually speaks, albeit silently and translated by another party. Ngai argues that a lack of speech or a kind of sleepy speech is central to cuteness. The speech of the cute object is ‘speech that calls attention to its negative status as barely speech at all’.14 The silence that shrouds The Child reiterates his malleability. Without speech he requires others, like Ahsoka Tano, to speak for him, and in her absence he is a blank canvas on which we project our own hopes, dreams and wishes.
In keeping with its paradoxical nature, cuteness can easily embody its opposite: cute objects are to be protected and/or diminished, set free and/or possessed.15 In the case of The Child, competing desires for power are reflected in a direct struggle between good and evil; his cuteness is to be either captured and exploited or protected and nurtured. The Child and art in general can both be read as objects or forms that activate this vacillating experience of power and powerlessness; they are both utterly helpless and simultaneously imbued with almost limitless power by viewers. Indeed, the figure of the self-identifying artist, bound by the relationship between power and ineptitude, seems to epitomise cuteness. Ngai, paraphrasing Theodor Adorno, makes an argument for this ambiguity as the very source of art’s aesthetic charge and the hope we invest in it; ‘art’s powerlessness in a society of total exchange’ is co- constitutive with its efficacy.16
Removing the helmet
There are cracks in Djarin’s ideology — cracks that resemble our own wavering faith in the institutions that dictate our roles as artists. In Episode 7 of Season 2, ‘The Believer’, former imperial sharpshooter Migs Mayfeld delivers a series of stinging truths to Djarin. In order to infiltrate an imperial mining base, Djarin breaks his oath to never remove his helmet by exchanging his usual beskar helmet for an imperial one. Mayfeld is irritated by Djarin’s righteousness and the selective nature of his moral code. He schools Djarin in the absurdity of adhering to any of the competing moral systems that structure the Star Wars universe. For Mayfeld, a kind of Hayekian realist, all human behaviour is motivated by self-interest and survival; he is unable to entertain one moral code over another.
In the finale of Season 1, ‘Redemption’, we see Djarin’s face for the first time. Until this point, Djarin has maintained a hatred of droids, refusing to work with them on various missions or even allowing them to fix his ship. In the previous episode we are introduced to a reprogrammed IG11, a hunter droid that has been salvaged by Kuill (a mechanically gifted acquaintance of Djarin’s) and rewired to ‘nurse and protect’. After Djarin is injured attempting to hold off an army of stormtroopers, IG11 encourages Djarin to remove his helmet so he can save his life. The Mandalorian creed forbids Djarin from removing his helmet in front of fellow humans, and he only complies once IG11 reminds him that droids are not, strictly speaking, alive. This loophole indicates the true genesis of Djarin’s suspicion of droids; he loathes them not only for their association with the Empire, but also because their inherent lack of free will mirrors his own. Overcoming his hostility towards droids is a moment of self-awareness for Djarin; his new affinity with IG11 teaches him something about the contradictions inherent to his own programmatic mode of living. Djarin realises that, much like IG11, he is hardwired, robotic and unrelenting; by the same token, he is also available for hacking.
Perhaps we should ask: is the committed artist also a believer in the mode of a Mandalorian extremist or a droid? Or, are they opportunistic intellectual labourers taking advantage of the new economy in the manner of Mayfeld? They are of course a synthesis of both positions, reflections of neoliberal governmentality furnished with an armour of critical aesthetic acumen. As David Harvey has written, neoliberalism is in part constituted by a ‘left’ that mirrors and reinforces a logic of networking, criticality, autonomy and decentralisation.17 But of course the question remains: is there a rejoinder here? Is there a way to dismantle this mirror image and extract criticality from imbrication with its own subsumptive apparatus? Is art the appropriate vehicle for criticality or would it be more efficacious to return to debased popular forms such as The Mandalorian?
Our argument is both a return to and a break from Adorno’s ideas on criticality and autonomy. For us, unlike Adorno, the potential for the art object to exceed its necessary reflection of prevailing conditions and become radical or potentially revolutionary is not a function of its autonomy; there is no essence of art autonomous from capital. The Mandalorian is no more or less vulgar than a triennial or any other blockbuster art event. By comparing our own ideology of artistic production as virtue with the nonsensical Mandalorian creed we return to what is, for us, the most useful aspect of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970) — that criticality mediated through art is a means of making use of powerlessness, a powerlessness that defines neoliberal experience.18
The show and its cast of vexed characters provides a fully functioning allegory for our contradictory attachments to artistic labour; in exploring and clarifying this allegory we attempt to make use of our powerlessness by articulating and understanding our relation to this labour as it is reflected back to us in popular media. If Adorno provides us with a description of this critical mode, what might the specific contents of this critique be? ‘Art’ (or more simply, media that speaks to and through us) is not demarcated by notions of autonomy, prestige or purity. Art, and aesthetics, is about judgement; it is not a latent quality that exists in an object. It is, at most, about creating a shared sense of our own perception and experience, about the attribution of our impressions as a common critical approach.
For us, art is an all-encompassing primordial ooze of content (popular culture), a soup of ideological projections subjectifying and interpellating us as labourers. But if popular culture is ‘art’, it is also the raw materials of non-essential labour; we are at work whenever we engage with it, both in terms of surveillance capitalism’s stealthy mode of extraction and through the glorification of the mundane that ensures continued investments in our labour. In moving away from Adorno’s devotion to high modernism and towards an examination of popular culture, we argue for a critique that is concerned not only with content and hermeneutics but also with form, with the apparatus itself and with the database culture we inhabit for better or worse.
The Mandalorian is, materially speaking, a series of files on a server that are the literal contents of contemporary popular culture. To access these files via streaming apparatuses is to participate in Herzog’s ‘new mythology’. However, participation in this mythology, as opposed to merely being subjected to it, requires mindful study; to ‘take them seriously’ is to maintain awareness of the ways in which our own labour is valourised and sold back to us at profit. Our devices are not screens but mirrors designed to make the process of capitalist reification enjoyable and comforting. In recognising them as such we encourage an awareness of our position as exploitable beings holding contradictory desires. We argue that we must read shows like The Mandalorian as demonstrative of our own attachments to labour and the relationships to power they elicit. However, recognition does not mean that we exit the stream. In recognising The Mandalorian as art, we argue that art is not just a hope, it is also ‘a sham’.19
It is worth asking why we call ourselves artists, why we continue to participate in the sham. In reading The Mandalorian as an allegory for our attachment to artistic labour, we have interrogated the ways in which the exploitative labour practices of late capitalism are also a feature of artistic production, and recognised that an experience of art as a virtuous encounter outside of capital is impossible. However, we feel it is important to also acknowledge that this impossibility is only one layer of art’s experiential orbit. Art is subsumed, yes, but it is not only subsumed. For us, participation in the sham of art is also a means of stepping outside a paranoid relation to reality that foregrounds imbrication with capital above all else. Experiencing art’s sham-like portion is, paradoxically, what enables an experience of its alternate registers, ensuring that art remains a space of tension. This tension is vital to the constitution of art as such, and enables a mode of ‘making sense’, of interrogating the mess of neoliberal life through relentless consideration of the contingencies it presents. This interrogation doesn’t necessitate solutions to the mess, but rather supposes something that is shared. To make ‘art’ or to take up the critical mode we have occupied here is to participate in something inherently communal, be that through making, looking, writing, listening or other forms of direct collaboration. For us, this act of communing, this act of interrogating together is the space in which art becomes enjoyable, useful and potentially good. This act, we believe, should not be limited to the white cube, but is rather a conscious mode spilling over into the otherwise passive acts that infiltrate our everyday experience, including but not limited to watching The Mandalorian.