Let the Past Die (or Not): Erin Bartram and Contingent Magazine’s Star Wars Issue

During the world premiere of The Rise of Skywalker, Oscar Isaac described his appreciation for Star Wars comes from how the saga allows fans to expand on their favorite stories beyond the movies and official source material. This should come as no surprise, because for the last forty or so years fans have taken that exact leap in the form of songs, fan fiction, and even deep considerations regarding the role of Star Wars in the real world.

How many of you wondered what happened to the Ewok’s after Endor? Or how women in the Saga serve as the holders of history and archival knowledge in the Star Wars Universe? Or wondered about the line between appropriation and homage in it’s world building?

A few months ago, I was tagged in a number of tweets regarding a digital history magazine called Contingent. As part of the lead up to the premiere of Episode IX, the magazine editors were sourcing a series of pitches focusing on the Star Wars Universe, specifically pitches that looked at the story from the perspective of history practitioners. Earlier this month they began releasing the articles in the issue with incredible illustrations by Audrey Estok– and for every Star Wars aficionado out there, you will not be disappointed.

Before you jump into the series, keep in mind is that this is not your typical history publication. As editor Erin Bartram stated in our interview, “We’re a non-profit history magazine rooted in three principles: history is for everyone, every way of doing history is worthwhile, and historians should be paid for their work.” Specifically that “in addition, all of our pieces engage with what it means to do history itself. This means talking about the differences between the past, the way people talk about, remember, and use ideas about the past, and the discipline of history, which is a specific set of analytical tools.”

To share some insights behind this issue I asked Erin a few questions about the conception and execution of this issue. A Star Was fan who also runs in some of the same historical circles as I do, it is unsurprising that she came to this world much in the same way I did – through VHS tapes. Read on to learn more about Erin, the magazine, and this special issue, then check out Contingent magazine for more on the galaxy far, far, away.

PC: What was the impetus behind doing a Star Wars focused issue?

EB: In July, we’d run a series of pieces for the 25th anniversary of Forrest Gump that people had really enjoyed and engaged with, so when we were planning out (and budgeting for) the fall issues at the end of the summer, I pitched a Star Wars issue, and my co-editors Bill and Marc were on board. Since we knew we wouldn’t be able to use screenshots without running afoul of Lucasfilm, we decided pretty early on that we wanted to pay an illustrator as well, one drawn from fandom if possible. We thought this would be a great way to engage with the broader fan community

As for why I suggested it in the first place? Because I love Star Wars! But also, it has always played with history, memory, perspective, and who gets to shape dominant narratives, and I think the sequel trilogy has really made that explicit in a new way. The prospect of using historical methods and framings to help people think about Star Wars in new ways was really exciting to us.

PC: When selecting articles for this issue, what were some of the things you were looking for?

EB: We were looking for topics and approaches we hadn’t seen before, and we were looking for people who were willing to engage with Star Wars on its own terms, to a certain extent. To talk about what it is, even if to critique it, rather than talking about how it should have been something else. And we were looking for pitches that would fit with our approach as a magazine, not only talking about history but also about how history is done: how we see and read texts, how we store and recall information, how we remember and forget, how we ask questions about the past–and who asks them.

PC: What I really loved about William Proctor’s introductory piece was how it centered the conversation around the people who consume Star Wars. Particularly as it looked beyond the present tension in the Star Wars fandom to the places where Star Wars has become a — vehicle for good — while acknowledging the shifts in the franchise to include actors of different races and backgrounds.  Why did you choose to start the issue of the magazine this way?

EB: Proctor’s piece was such a happy accident. It is unique in that it’s the first piece we’ve published by a tenure-track faculty member (or at least the equivalent in the UK). Given that fan culture is his area of specialty, he pitched us a whole bunch of ideas, and I asked him if he’d be willing to write an introductory essay that incorporated a lot of those themes, especially the one you noted. We knew that we were going to be running pieces about the shifts you pointed out, and felt it would be really good to have some analysis to start the conversation. To be honest, one reason was particularly interested in beginning with this framing was that I wanted to make clear from the start that critical analysis of Star Wars didn’t inherently mean hating Star Wars. It’s just as compelling to me to think critically about things that I like.

PC: You’ve stated that some of the essays are a combination of in universe analysis and the cultural analysis. How can historical analysis of the in-universe perspective contribute to the understanding and appreciating of the Star Wars universe? 

EB: One reason I think in-universe historical analysis is important is that so much of the franchise explicitly depends on and plays with narratives about history: “for a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic”; “this is how liberty dies”; “from a certain point of view”; “let the past die.”  We see family histories, personal histories, the histories of empires and republics and religious orders and ideas. And in our attempt to be historians of this universe, we face many of the challenges that real-world historians do. When we look at Star Wars, what evidence do we have to work with? Whose viewpoints and choices do we know the most about? What questions do we want answered that we simply won’t be able to given what we know of this world? When we think about change, continuity, and causation, how do we appropriately weight the perspectives–the points of view–that the franchise offers us?

PC: What do you want readers to take away from the month of content?

EB: Too often, history is understood as a thing you know, not a thing you can study or do, let alone an analytical lens, but it is. It’s a way of thinking that is distinct from film studies, or even the literary analysis that’s brought us so many good metas. For historians, literally everything can be a source for asking and answering questions about the past, but because the discipline is about the past (duh!), historians have very little control over what sources they have to work with. What sources we have, how they’re stored and transmitted, and what questions we ask of those sources are all things historians think a lot about. And it can be really challenging when you’re working on the histories of people and movements that dominant record-keeping systems weren’t interested in. For instance, my own research is on women and Catholicism in the United States, and so one challenge I always faced was tracking women through multiple name changes if I didn’t have the source that told me “Mary X” became “Mary Y” when she married and then became “Sister Mary Z” later in life. I think we’re all still a little unclear about what the galaxy knows about the familial relationships of the Skywalkers, but imagine being a historian on Coruscant trying to write a history of the downfall of the Empire and you don’t know Darth Vader’s pre-Sith name. Even if you find that out, and you figure out his connection to Luke, how are you going to figure out he had another child if her last name’s Organa? That sort of thing is actually what historians struggle with all the time.

PC: How does this issue of the magazine reflect broader trends in historical analysis? I noticed that we have articles about freedom, liberty, and enslavement, genocide, memory and nostalgia – what can readers (who aren’t historians) learn about the practice of history form these pieces?

EB: At its most basic level, everything Contingent publishes is meant to show people that history is about everything, and that it’s so much more than names and dates. I hope that these pieces make that clear. I also hope that they show how history is a thing you do, not just a set of facts that exists to be recovered and written down. To that end, our Star Wars pieces–and our content more broadly–reflect the way history is practiced today, with emphasis on the history of culture and ideas, with attention to perspectives that may have been previously ignored, and with a consciousness that we’re engaged in an ongoing process of asking questions about the past and then revising those questions as we do more research and dialogue with other people.

PC: What’s your Star Wars story? How did you fall in love with the franchise? Can you give me a teaser about your piece?

EB: I think I was 10 when I saw the original movies. We got the black box VHS set around then and I watched them all with my parents and younger sister. Through high school, I consumed a lot of EU material. The prequels came out when I was in high school and college, and they never really did it for me, but I remained a fan of the OT. The sequel trilogy, especially TLJ, reignited my love for the franchise, but with a new layer–I guess you could say going to grad school in history gave me an expanded set of tools I could use to dig in and analyze texts, and I have turned them on the saga films.

As for my piece, which will sort of close out the series by coming out on TROS’ opening day, I’m going to be thinking about the importance of representation in fandom and the practice of history. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about on-screen representation, and it sort of parallels a longer-term trend in the practice of history as well–the idea that we need to be telling all kinds of stories and centering the experiences of all kinds of people. But that also means that, in both arenas, there needs to be an opportunity for all kinds of people to do the work of analysis and have that analysis taken seriously. The same impulses that have made the Star Wars fandom so hostile to many fans operate in academic spaces as well, from the casual dismissal of certain analysis as silly or unimportant, to active bullying and harassment. I’m going to be writing a bit about why representation matters off-screen as well, in the trenches of analysis.

Want to read more from Contingent magazine? Here are a few other things Erin suggested that might pique your interest. We’ve published articles on the history of dinosaur hunting in Central Africa, embroidery, a Parsi cookbook, women’s wrestling gear, and a couple of pieces on the history of transphobia in philosophy. We published a review of an exhibit on the women who worked as photographers for Life, a piece on working at the Nixon library, and a piece on what it’s like when the college you work at closes.  The editors also write pieces we call “mailbags,” explaining how history is done. I wrote on on the idea of revisionist history, and my co-editor Marc talked about why historians still have to go to archives in the digital age.


 

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is a historian who loves the written word. When she’s not reading anything she can get her hands on she is writing about the past and its intersection in our daily lives on her personal blog …this is what comes next.
Follow me

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is a historian who loves the written word. When she’s not reading anything she can get her hands on she is writing about the past and its intersection in our daily lives on her personal blog …this is what comes next.