A long time ago in a movie studio far, far away, a man named George Lucas assembled a giant cake called Star Wars—a rickety thing, looking as though at any moment its three tiers would collapse upon themselves. Tasty, though: You had to give him that. And maybe sturdier than it originally looked, since the foundation survived, more or less intact, Lucas’s attempts to stack three more layers on top, 20 years later.
While the Star Wars movies were making their long, $30 billion run at the top of popular American entertainment, a man named Cass Sunstein was off at the University of Chicago and Harvard, teaching and gathering wisdom in a kind of law professor’s version of Yoda in the distant Dagobah system. Except, of course, that young Luke Skywalker never came to him to learn how to use the Force.
But Sunstein seems to have as his personal motto Yoda’s dictum "Do, or do not. There is no try." And so, a few years ago, he decided he must go in search of the deeper meaning of Star Wars. He began noodling out little notes on legal puzzles for which he would use as metaphors various elements of the movies’ events and mythology. Addressing college students at commencement, he explained how the good life is best understood in terms of Star Wars. Eventually, he dropped the pretense that his interest in Star Wars needed the excuse of being framed within his legal and academic specialties. He took up in magazine and journal essays the direct question of George Lucas’s theatrical vision, and now—timed to a 2016 in which Disney has revived the franchise with a new movie—Sunstein has issued an entire book on the topic, called The World According to Star Wars.
It’s a small book, only around 200 pages of actual text, and it’s a sad book, too, unless Sunstein’s enthusiastic praise for the movies is actually meant to injure the stories he loves. Can the Dark Side masquerade as the Light Side? Evidently so, according to the movies. And maybe Sunstein is a Sith Lord pretending to be a Jedi Knight. He turns his brilliant mind toward George Lucas’s movies, and under the stress of his regard Star Wars melts like MacArthur Park in the rain, all the sweet green icing flowing down.
Of Sunstein’s intelligence there’s little doubt, even among those who disagree with his politics and legal views. His years of scholarship saw him become by a wide margin the most-cited law professor in America—influential enough that President Obama appointed him to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In 2008 he (along with Richard Thaler) wrote Nudge, a bestselling tome arguing that judges and lawmakers should understood how small changes in law and organizational practice can nudge the populace into better political and moral decisions though the economics of self-interest.
Academics have a long history of indulging the knowing comedy of overwrought analysis. The joke may reach all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, but we can date it at least to J.B. Mencken’s comic 1715 volume, The Charlatanry of the Learned. And the genre reaches its peak perhaps with Ronald Knox’s 1928 essay "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" (which applies the historicist techniques of German biblical analysis to Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts) and certainly with the sociologist Robert K. Merton’s wonderful 1965 volume On the Shoulders of Giants (which loses itself in endless erudition in the attempt to find the origin of a minor aphorism).
It’s a difficult trick to pull off, when an artistic object won’t hold the amount of critical analysis brought to bear on it. Merton succeeds by a kind of perfect irony, refusing to tip his hand to show that he is aware of the problem, even as the weight of the analysis grows more and more absurd. Cass Sunstein can’t avail himself of that technique, mostly, I think, because he doesn’t entirely believe that the Star Wars movies are less intellectually profound than the analytic mind he applies to them. So in The World According to Star Wars he tries instead to dodge the question by a bubbly tone of wonder about it all. "The most characteristic feature" of the films, George Lucas once remarked, is "effervescent giddiness," and Sunstein constantly seeks to mirror that characteristic of the movies in his text.
His prose was serviceable and good—serious when required, light when needed—in such works as his 2006 Infotopia, 2004 The Second Bill of Rights, and 2001 Republic.com. But he’s just not a good enough writer to pull off the difficult combination of cuteness, irony, and erudition needed for The World According to Star Wars.
That doesn’t make it a bad book, necessarily. Sunstein knows the Star Wars canon well, but, unlike his legal work, he’s not really a deep scholar of the material, and there’s little in the book that will come as a surprise to those immersed in Star Wars trivia. As University of Chicago law professor William Baude points out, Sunstein generally ignores the "Extended Universe" of authorized Star Wars novels and stories, even when it would have helped one of his theses. (The reason, I think, is that Disney’s Star Wars reboot deliberately dismisses the canon of Extended Universe, and Sunstein cannot bring himself to criticize any of the Star Wars films he takes as defining the mythology and action of the fictional universe.)
As far as his theses go, Sunstein asks us to see deep things in the movies. "In his wild fever-dream Auguries of Innocence," he notes, "William Blake wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand.’ Star Wars is a grain of sand; it contains a whole world." In particular he thinks the theme of choice deserves recognition as the center around which Star Wars turns. The parallels between the (mostly) right choices of Luke Skywalker in the earlier trilogy and the (mostly) wrong choices of his father Anakin in the second trilogy show both that choices have consequences and that Lucas intended us to notice the centrality of choice.
More, according to Sunstein, Lucas intends us to notice the much-commented-upon theme of fathers and sons as a particular instance of the journey-based myth-making that Joseph Campbell pointed out in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Then, too, Sunstein spots Buddhist undertones in the movies' constant warnings of the dangers of attachment and the threat of fear transitioning into anger. Relying on his legal studies, Sunstein notes the constitutional problems that allowed the emperor to dissolve the Imperial Senate. His theories of the place of behavioral economics in legal and moral culture—all that old Nudge stuff that once fascinated President Obama and many other politicians—finds a place in The World According to Star Wars, as well.
It’s all too much, or not enough. Sunstein’s attempts at effervescent giddiness are neither ironic enough to be interesting nor serious enough to be profound. The genre of overwrought interpretation in On the Shoulders of Giants is a delight to read. But one finishes The World According to Star Wars thinking that Cass R. Sunstein wishes that he were not Robert K. Merton but George Lucas. Isn’t that kind of a sad ambition, for a Harvard law professor?