Firefly and Western Literature
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Firefly as Postwestern

From Neil Campbell:

In so many ways the postings and comments generated around the points made about Fireflyhelp me to further explore what I mean when I refer to the show as an example of the postwestern. People watching it cannot help but refer to the intertextual fabric of Whedon’s work – the manner through which he opens up the field of the text to possible readings and sources. Thus comments see within it the Westerns and Western references (as well as Sci-Fi and CSI and whatever) – not because the show is an example of ‘exhausted’ popular culture — on the contrary — precisely because Whedon understands he is making TV for generations schooled on TV and Film, who see the world through a special prism, a reservoir of cultural images (OUR FIELD IMAGINARY). Thus the depth of the references adds to our pleasure and allows the maker of the show to enhance the experience without necessarily compromising the effect. The studio might have wanted to avoid the Western in Firefly, but Whedon could have it there constantly through utilising what his audiences already knew – their ‘textual unconscious’ of Western iconographies.

This is part of what postwestern can mean – that which comes AFTER and goes BEYOND the Western (in its Classic form), creating dialogues with what we know in order to generate something new and different, something (perhaps) critical and playful — as I put it in an earlier entry on Firefly and genre (borrowing from Derrida), it can ‘participate without belonging’. It is a haunted form for me because within it are the spectres of other forms, shadows and glimpses that engage and annoy, titillate and challenge, surprise and mystify …

Firefly is postwestern and rhizomatic – it shifts, grows, breaks from genre and yet sprouts anew as something different or the same elsewhere … from sci-fi to western to crime story to romance to humour to parodic mystery ….

Although I don’t discuss Firefly there, many of these ideas are developed in my book The Rhizomatic West (University of Nebraska Press 2008).

Key to this argument on the postwestern as rhizomatic and mutating is the concept of ‘recyclability’ of past texts within new ones, for as Jim Collins states, it works as an ‘inheritance’ of imagery and narrative that can be re-used and re-valued in ways that challenge the nature of genre from its earlier three-stage definition: emergence, establishment, and decline. Developing Collins’ argument, it is as if the visual ghosts of cinematic memory, the DVD store, TV, or on-line download allow the experience to alter, bringing back the ‘old’ and the ‘familiar’ from the genre’s past actively into the present. This uncannily alters the development of specific genres and the ‘function of genre films’ because they now exist ‘in reference to, and through the array that constitutes the landscape’ from which they have emerged, flourished and declined. The resulting ‘sophisticated hyperconsciousness’, as Collins calls it, permeates any consideration of genre, such as his excellent use of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future III, set in the West of the 1880s.

Importantly, ‘post’ in post-Western always signifies, as Stuart Hall writes in a discussion of post-colonialism, ‘not only “after” but “going beyond” … as post-modernism is both “going beyond” and “after” modernism, and post-structuralism both follows chronologically and achieves its theoretical gains “on the back of” structuralism.’ Crucially the post-Western as I am defining it functions in just such a manner whereby any strict linearity or progression is broken by the inter-relationship between forms — ‘a shift or transition conceptualised as the reconfiguration of the field, rather than as the movement of linear transcendence between two mutually exclusive states’ — and hence the classical Western and its ‘post-Western’ forms ‘never operated in a purely binary way’ but interact, overlap and inter-relate in complex dialogical ways dramatised centrally in these films. As Derrida has put it, to re-invoke terms I used earlier, ‘there is no contemporaneity, and the posthumous is already here … [and so] we would have to transform the problematic and take into account the fact that from the very beginning, posthumousness inhabits the work’.

My point is that Firefly is a posthumous and postwestern text in this sense, bringing back to life what others (the Studio for Whedon) see as ‘dead’ forms (the Western), finding new ways to regenerate, reanimate the genre.

[Jim Collins’ ‘Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity’ in J. Collins, H. Radner, A. Preacher Collins, Film Theory Goes to the Movies: Cultural Analysis of Contemporary Film (AFI Film Readers) 1993), 244.
Stuart Hall, ‘When was the postcolonial: Thinking at the limit’, in Iain Chambers, Lidia Curti (eds), The Post-colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (London: Routledge, 1996), 253]

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2 Responses to “Firefly as Postwestern”

  1. Joss Whedon made a bold move when he made an explicit connection between Space Opera and Westerns in Firefly, but how does the post-Western play out in earlier works? Didn’t works like Star Wars, Star Trek — and even going as far back as Buck Rogers — “take up the gun” and continue in much the same tradition as the Western? Wouldn’t Joss Whedon’s contribution be, not so much that he did created a post-Western, but that he exposed the inherent Western iconographies in Space Opera that we often ignore because we’re distracted by the aliens and rockets and rayguns? It’s not so much that these forms (the Western) are dead, but they’re in different “dress” (the same aliens and rockets and rayguns).

  2. The point about the influence of the western on earlier sci-fi works is a good one, and we could go even before the development of the western to the captivity narrative as a ghost that continues to haunt a wide variety of contemporary genres. Star Wars and The X-Files, just to name two examples, are stories of captivity, told not from the point of view of the captive (as was most often the case in the earliest American versions of the form, dating back at least to the 17th century) but from the point of view of the “searchers.”

    I recently watched Flash Gordon: Spaceship to the Unknown, which is a captivity narrative in serial form. Dale Arden is captured by Ming the Merciless, and Flash must rescue her; Flash himself is captured and held prisoner, and is essentially enslaved. Over the course of the serial, we see the experience of captivity from the point of view of both the searcher and the captive (in both cases, Flash).

    Postwestern is Neil Campbell’s coinage, and as I understand the idea, it applies particularly to works such as Firefly that indicate a self-awareness and self-reflexiveness about the use of western tropes. Additionally, these works both assume a “knowing” audience that will recognize the use of western conventions and sometimes explicitly draw our attention to that usage. The difference I see between science fiction (like the Flash Gordon serial from the 1930s mentioned above) that adapts western tropes and what Neil has called the postwestern is that the postwestern is more aware and more intent on making us as viewers aware of its borrowings than are earlier western-influenced science fiction works. Of course, there may be exceptions in the earlier science fiction [one, the television series The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr., also explicitly mixed science fiction and western (and other) genres, with the emphasis more on the western than science fiction.] Also, perhaps the concept of postwestern can be more broadly applied than I’m doing, but the self-reflexive element is the reason I would apply the term to Firefly but not, say, Star Wars, although I would certainly agree that Star Wars, Flash Gordon, etc., are haunted by the western (but the ghosts in Firefly are more insistent on rattling their chains, breaking the crockery, and otherwise drawing attention to themselves).


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