On Star Wars and “Common Knowledge”

I recently submitted a manuscript for a chapter to be published in an upcoming MLA anthology to be titled, Approaches to Teaching Writing in Prison. My article includes this description of what I call “the Great White Wall” surrounding Attica CF:

Those who come into contact with it cast their own emotional, moral, and political selves onto its face, and, like Ahab, “burst their hot heart’s shell upon it.”

One of the few requested changes I received was to add a citation. Now, I have read Moby Dick often enough that a lot of it is just swimming around in my brain, including that half sentence, and I silently yelled, “IT’S MOBY FREAKING DICK! FROM HELL’S HEART I STAB AT THEE!” But fine. I scanned the book shelves in two rooms of my house. Luckily, my years of bookstore service left me with a fine-tuned ability to find those particular needles, and I speedily located the copy of the book that I had in college. The quote is on p186 of the 1955 Penguin Classic Edition. Happy now?

I had a similar experience last semester, when reviewing a student paper that analyzed a certain scene from The Empire Strikes Back. I told the student to cite their source–primarily to encourage practice in citation, I suppose–but couldn’t help feeling that it was just another Moby Dick thing. I mean, IT’S FREAKING STAR WARS!

Of course, the student had no idea of the first time they had seen a movie that was released a quarter century before they were born, and the come-back I received is one of the greatest lines I ever heard in class:

“I don’t know. My head is just full of stuff that other people put there.”

To quote Charles Dickens, in The Pickwick Papers, “Volumes could not have said more.”

It’s common knowledge that George Lucas largely based Star Wars on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, and that Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns in, e.g., The Seven Samurai. It’s also the case that Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” is Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” i.e., another take on a classic blues riff known to have been invented by…whom, exactly? And that Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” is the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” which is Gerry & The Pacemakers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which is basically Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”

There are, after all, only so many notes on the staff. And there are only seven basic plots, one being the Redemption Story, which means that Spider-Man: No Way Home is a Christmas film. (But that’s a post for another day…)

What is this thing called “common knowledge”? (See what I did there?) And when–if ever–does a cultural artifact achieve a status at once so vaunted and so lowly? Should it? I mean, if Star Wars isn’t common knowledge by now, what on earth is?

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