Sorry, Nerds, But Obama Was Right About The Jedi Meld (And Metaphysics)
Chris Peterson is an admissions officer, teaching assistant, and researcher at MIT. He works at the intersection of digital strategy, new media, and social change.
In addition to his research affiliation with Civic, he is on the Board of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a Fellow at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and the founder, owner, and sole-proprietor of BurgerMap.org.
He earned his B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he completed his thesis on Facebook privacy and/as contextual integrity advised by Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He earned his S.M. in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he completed his thesis on user-generated censorship advised by Ian Condry, Ethan Zuckerman, and Nancy Baym.
Sorry, Nerds, But Obama Was Right About The Jedi Meld (And Metaphysics)
"I'm presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow, you know, do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right."
Various commentators immediately criticized the President for, as they say, crossing the streams. Jim Kuhnhenn of the Associated Press wrote that Obama "…mixed his sci-fi metaphors…The Jedi reference comes from Star Wars, and the mind meld from Star Trek." Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing wrote that the President "tried to drop a gratuitous nerd culture reference…and blew it." #ObamaSciFiQuotes began trending on Twitter, mocking Obama for his apparent misstep.
Out of a nascent sense of patriotism, and animated by the spirit of my friend Matt Stempeck's LazyTruth, I now reluctantly but firmly step forward in defense of my President against these reckless and ill-founded accusations. Obama did not, as Jardin claimed, "blow" his reference: he was more correct than any of his critics could possibly imagine.
First, as a friend pointed out, there is a Jedi Meld well established within the admittedly capacious but nonetheless official contours of the Star Wars: Expanded Universe. In Outbound Flight, a novel written by the prolific Timothy Zahn, the Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth instructs a young Anakin Skywalker that the Jedi Meld "permits a group of Jedi to connect their minds so closely as to act as a single person." (emphasis added)
According to Wookieepedia, the Jedi Meld was deployed by dozens of Jedi, including (but not limited to) Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade Skywalker, and Anakin, Jacen, and Jaina Solo, across dozens officially-licensed books. Indeed, its recovery and redevelopment, principally by the Solo children, was an important turning point in the Yuuzhan Vong War as chronicled exhaustively in the New Jedi Order series.
But not only is the Jedi Meld, through general acceptance and uncontroversial use, authoritatively established within the official Star Wars universe: it was the right reference for Obama to make.
Jedi Mind Tricks, according to Wookieepedia, "refer to a spectrum of Force powers which influenced the thoughts of sentient creatures"; the Vulcan Mind-meld, according to Wikipedia, "is a technique for sharing thoughts, experiences, memories, and knowledge with another individual."
Both are powerful methods of influence, to be sure, but neither fully captures what Obama was suggesting when he said he could not "do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right." (emphasis added) Rather, the most appropriate method for Obama would be a Jedi Meld. For it is the Jedi Meld, rather than its more familiar cousins, which would allow Obama to be as effective as he suggested he would like to be, and arguably the only one which allows him to be effective in the particular way he describes.
This argument is best understood through the framework of actor-network theory as developed by Bruno Latour. ANT is a huge box to unpack in a blog post, so for now let me simply say this: for Latour - and apparently Obama - the world is composed of actors. Progress towards a particular goal is made by convincing ("enrolling") other actors to be "allies" which, once linked to and by you, bend their collective will towards your goal. As Clay Spinuzzi writes, "An actor-network is composed of many entities or actants that enter into an alliance to satisfy their diverse aims. Each actant enrolls the others, that is, finds ways to convince the others to support its own aims."
Now, consider the following passages excerpted from Walter Jon Williams' Ylesia:
Some have commented that these passages suggest that the Jedi Meld is used for communication, not convincing. But through the lens of Latour we see that the convincing comes before and during the communication. A Jedi Meld cannot take place before/until other Jedi have been convinced to enter into it, and thereafter it serves as a continuing site of contestation and cooptation. As I wrote in the comments below, it is C'baoth's description of the Jedi Meld - "allows them to act as if they were a single person" - which implies, indeed necessitates influence: an assembled actor-network only holds together if all have been convinced to act as one. The linkages are made through not only the mind-meld but the other ontological actors which keep the linkages active from moment to moment.
When Obama writes that he "can't do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right," then, what we should understand him to be saying is that he cannot simply enroll these actively hostile allies at a distance and convince them to move towards his goal any more easily than a scientist can straightforwardly enroll gravity to make him fly. Like obstinately hot coals beneath the feet of a soothsayer, the Republicans are, viz Obama, black boxes which remain unopenable and unenrollable. The Jedi Meld method fails, and with it the network of possibility, not only for lack of midi-chlorians, but for a lack of available allies.
Far from being a mistake, mixed metaphor, or slip-of-the-tongue, Obama's extemporaneous invocation of "Jedi Meld" was precisely on point, simultaneously displaying his nuanced and considerable command of the finer details of both actor-network theory and the Star Wars: Expanded Universe. Instead of mocking him from the comfort of our replica X-wing armchairs, as nerds and citizens we should be honored and awed by a commander-in-chief who offhandedly deploys such concepts in the public discourse.
Edit 3/2/2013, 10AM ET: At the request of some in the comments I have tried (perhaps successfully) to further articulate the Latour connection and its significance. My apologies if it was (and/or remains) obscure: I've been distracted writing my thesis. In any case, if you're interested in learning more about actor-network theory, you should read Latour and his interlocuters. If you are looking for a good place to start, I would personally recommend beginning with (at least) the first two chapters of Graham Harman's Prince of Networks before moving on to Latour's Reassembling the Social. Careful, though: once you see ANT, you can't unsee it.