This is a text I just wrote off-the-cuff in response to an essay in the New Inquiry about Game of Thrones. It was a Facebook comment that got a bit out of hand, so excuse any major compositional errors. It is less a response or critique of that essay, although it starts off that way, and more a critique of a general moralistic approach to the show. I speculate that GoT has more to do with making contact with a therapeutic violence. Right at the end I make an initial approach to suggesting that GoT is a future-oriented phenomena about our psychoaffective relationships to technology, complexity, and the possibility of collapse.
1. Many unsympathetic characters also die. The idea that there is a correlation in the show between well liked characters and characters who suffer is one that overlooks the fact that plenty of villans also suffer- the primary human antagonists all suffer to some degree and we do not come to see them as any the less antagonistic. The author asks how Cerci could become a protagonist again, and this is asked in the light of her being now subject to incarceration and her children being ripped away from her one by one.
This betrays a logic that suffering necessarily equates to the suffering of the good, as if the bad in the world never suffered (a kind of inverse just-world theory?), as well as a logic in which the bad guy must be cartoonish or comic book: if the anatagonists of the piece are too humanised how will we know they are bad guys? This is probably related to the complexity of our own situation in which the circulation of power and capital defers the possibility to finally point out and name individual enemies in the last instance with whom responsibility for how shit the world is ultimately lies. In fact far from the tragic reading the author goes on to develop (GoT as a Stark based tragedy that has overstayed its own plot) I see GoT as a story about the impossibility of such neat resolutions.
This doesn’t make GoT a postmodern parable of relativism and infinitely distributed power networks. It is classical in the sense of showing how interests, desires, and the need for alliance formation collude to produce a world of complexity that exceeds the graps of any one character or set of characters. If GoT has a realism this is it.
2. Suffering breeds sympathy. Other than the fact that we see a great many arseholes and innocuous nobodies suffer and die, we do see an awful lot of virtuous or sympathetic characters suffer. That it should be shocking that this happens is a bit dumb. GoTs follows the character-arc conventions of very ancient stories (a particular favourite of the show is the outcast’s journey to nobility- which will probably reach its apotheosis in Tyrion making a “noble sacrifice”). Is it so shocking to think that a writer or a production team would make the good suffer so that we should empathise with them? It is pretty difficult to empathise with characters who are not undergoing any difficulty, and this is precisely the kind of structure we find ourselves with today.
The erosion of empathy that finds it political expression in negative solidarity, or else in the rather weak calls for solidarity that come to nothing more than a banner being held up or a hashtag being retweeted endlessly, is rekindled in fictional forms like GoT. I’m not suggesting no solidarity takes place anymore but rather that outside of the sphere of the left it is in very short supply.
GoT is written and produced for a general audience and not specifically to satisfy leftists desires. It has been established that reading fiction makes us more empathetic, and with the literary-cinematic turn in television production I wonder if this isn’t precisely what is being generated, even if not consciously designed to be so generated.
We live in a world where rape and physical violence are rampant but in which most of us are inoculated against it most of the time; images of terrible violence have become a mainstay of our media environment, whether this is videos of ISIS executions uploaded to the internet and replayed on MSM, or the self-immolations of monks, the scenes of devastation from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, wherever else, and that routinely include images of dead children, the mangled corpses of men and women…these aren’t people to us though, no matter how terrible the crimes might be, and it is true that we cry or get angry but it is also true that most of the time, for very good reasons, we are able to close our eyes, look away, or otherwise integrate these images into the common flow of life. Shows like GoT allow us to connect to that violence, to the survivors and the victims of that violence, and to empathise with them as more fully realised and more real beings than the actual human lives that are presented to us on the news.
The suffering of Sansa Stark comes to stand in for the suffering of people for whom we cannot feel.
3. Violence. The author of this article touches on a connected aspect of this but only to dismiss it. They write that “Maybe there’s a purging of the emotions, so we can continue: we watch our greatest fears played out on television, so that we can go on ignoring them in our everyday life”. Well, yes, absolutely and, I think, obviously. I think there is some great cognitive work being done so that this statement can even come as a surprise, and its also odd that we have to treat it as though its of profound importance.
Aesthetic objects are the vehicles or media of sublimation. They allow for the contemplation of horrible and terrible things. But they also allow us to shift positions: yes, it allows us to go on, seeing all this pain on the screen is cathartic…but what is this position of masochism that is implied (we enjoy the suffering because it is our suffering). The author declares that this isn’t good enough- as if morality had anything to do with explaining why we like something- that GoT’s violence has gone from catharsis to pornography.
Ah! All those criticisms of the contemporary left as moralistic are coming into focus…it’s as if after that criticism a certain collective exhalation could occur and the position of moralism could be admitted out in the open. What is this weird criticism of the show as pornography? Suddenly we’re back in territory where pornography is bad, is corrupting, is exploitative, and we have a whole series of concerns about the genre being smuggled back in, a constellation of positions that define the objects on the screen as passive and abject and probably mystified and slightly stupid. It’s a very English moralism too. Are we moving back to the point of saying let’s ban Bataille, let’s lock up Sade, let’s deny and close off the darker aspects of our psychologies because they are far too unpleasant to look at or consider.
We want a sanitized image of human beings; we want light and fluffly and delicate escapist fictions purged of any of the exploratory or therapeutic functions of confronting that which we are capable of doing, wanting and may be forced into enacting. The author wants the show to end with the White Walkers killing everyone and the peasants hanging the aristoes- a Good or Virtuous violence as opposed to a sadistic violence. Even our fantasies of violence are to be sanitized.
This is remarkably dangerous. There is no better way to ensure the development of the psychopathological symptom than through its denial.
Apparently “Pornography is titillation without a purpose, defined by the fact that it isn’t necessary”. This is a bizarre definition of pornography. As long as human beings have existed so to have pornographic images. If they are unnecessary how do we explain their transhistorical success? If the audio and visual representations and explorations of erotic possibility that pornography envisions are not necessary and serve no purpose- a puritanical functionalism is hidden in this way of speaking- then why does it compel us so much?
Is the libidinous imagination, the imagination of different modes of affective coupling between bodies, the imagination that produces resonances in people so that they can say “yes, this is what I’ve desired without ever knowing it”, really going to be written off as “titillation without purpose”? What is this new Victorian morality? It assumes that pornography cannot be art and thereby reestablishes a reactive separation dependent upon a nostalgic reactivation of an outmoded bourgeois sensibility: it’s a question of taste. It assumes that titillation is “without a purpose”.
What is titillation? It is the psychological quickening, that frisson of excitement, when one comes into contact with some material that is transgressive in some way. To be titillated is to be touched, caressed, aroused in a wholly pleasurable way. Yeh- well get rid of it. We don’t want to be touched or excited, apparently. At least not unless that pleasure (which admittedly is dubious when related to violence) also marshals some minimal utilitarian value. What do we call it, this utilitarianism of sexuality? I suspect that it is precisely the hetero-normative reproductive paradigm that has always accompanied the stereotypical pre-Foucaultian image of Victorian England.
That this violence and this pornography does serve something like a purposeless purpose is missed by the author. A deep psychological need or constellation of such needs are being met by watching shows like GoT, True Detective, The Leftovers and so on. I don’t think the explanation of masochism is enough here, or I think that the masochism comment is left underdeveloped such that it seems to be identified with a certain self-hating strain in the contemporary Western psyche.
In her book ‘In Defense of Masochism‘ Anita Phillips makes the point that
‘in their everyday lives, people who enjoy sexual masochism are likely to be the assertive, risk- taking kind, living up to the ideal that is deflated and turned inside out in the bedroom’.
This seems tome to be an image that has become fairly conventional and yet one that is also rejected as if it were intolerable. Yet of course the people who enjoy GoT are precisely those that I have said are inoculated from violence in their everyday lives. Think of the business man who likes to be infantilised and dress up in adult diapers and be spanked, or the strong woman who prefers to be humiliated in the bedroom: there is an aspect of role-play, of a melting away of everyday invulnerabilities, the eroticisation of our awareness of just how vulnerable we are, and the shedding of the roles we take up in our social existence. If there is a masochism in enjoying GoT it has nothing to do with self-loathing and everything to do with reconnecting to our denied vulnerabilities and an animality that includes a continuous propensity for violence.
I said above that we live surrounded by images of violence with which we have a dysempahic relationship. I was shown a throat being slit by an ISIS member while on night shift not long ago: a real man with his real throat really being slit. He was killed in front of me. Being pre-recorded I could not take up an ethical position to this death: I was a passive participant whose only response was to leave the room, unable to take the images any further. So what, am I contradicting myself? I clearly had a visceral reaction to the murder, and left largely because I saw the 6-7 other men on their knees waiting to be killed by the same knife. I imagined what it would be like to be the last man in that row, waiting for the knife, knowing nothing could be done to save me. ISIS are masters of this: they have reinvigorated the spectacle of terror to really make it mean something. They know how to horrify us.
If I said that we were inoculated how can I also say that we are exposed? Simply because it is perfectly possible to be numbed and hypersensitized at the same time. We have been desensitized to violence and ISIS have responded to this by amping up that violence. They have made it intimate.
So how does GoT relate to all this? On the one hand it is a way in which to safely experience and process all that violence. At the same time it allows us to connect to the violences that we cannot allow ourselves to feel. Even more than that I suspect it allows us to connect with our own disavowed violences. Every single one of us in the Western world knows that simply by going about our everyday life we are caught up in mechanisms of violence- whether it be exploitation, racism, the perpetuation of armed conflicts, resource wars, ecological catastrophe, whatever else. We know this but we do not really feel it. The violences we participate in are abstract. Perhaps this is more true of white men than anyone else, but it doesn’t much matter. Most of us, most of the time, are neither directly victims or perpetrators of violence.
My suspicion then is that shows like GoT in their sexual and physical violent imagery are a means by which we can connect and take up a position in relation to this abstract violence. It can make it possible for us to feel the violence that we participate in, and it can do so in a way that allows us to situate ourselves within the shifting triadic structure of victim-perpetrator-judge.
In all of these discussions we focus on the content of the show and how we are positioned in relation to it. What is the effect of violence, the sexual image? We rarely focus on the question of the critic asking these questions. In all of the responses that say GoT is too much, too far, too horrific we rarely look at this judicial role. It is the judge that occupies the normative dimension that is cleansed of any implication by exposure to the material in question. It is possible for the author to make the hyperbolic claim that GoT is ‘snuff porn’ because snuff is something only deviants and weirdos would watch and it is obviously bad stuff. Here I’m less interested in the moral dimension (I’m not about to defend snuff pornography, if it exists) but in the psychoaffectivity implied by this distancing. As Foucault put it in Discipline and Punish:
‘The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements’…and we can add to this his imagination.
The normativity that is implied by the entire discussion of GoT up to this point is that of an occluded injunction that one must not enjoy violence. Perhaps it is simply that one must not enjoy anything beyond a particularly sanctioned variety of violence. I hesitsate to ask the question as I think I already know the answer, but why is it that the rape of Sansa Stark can provoke incredible discussion but the physical torture, castration and total subjective destruction of Theon Greyjoy and his transformation into the servile Reek seems fine?
4. Dragons and White Walkers. The author of the article that I am using as a jump point points out that in amongst all this we get dragons and white walkers…as bit of spectacle. This is to misunderstand the role and popularity of fantasy in the present. I would suggest that those critics who say that fantasy is about technology are correct. I’ve read several essays that connect contemporary technology to magic going via the Aurthur C Clarke quote that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. Most of us don’t really understand how our machines work, especially not those at the dramatic cutting edge. And it is dramatic.
We standion the threshold of immense technological changes that will easily match if not out-do those of the past. JG Ballard used to reflect on the 1950s as a time when the media and communication world that most of us inhabit, and that a new generation of “digital natives” will never have been outside of, was laid down. He talks of the great sense of promise, excitementand disorientation that came with it. Alvin Toffler called it ‘future shock’ and Marshall McLuhan talked about the creation of the ‘electonic man’. Developments in automation, AGI, space exploration, energy production, neurostimulation, gene-therapy, cloning, artificial reproduction, regenerative medicine, chronobiology, synthetic biology, (quantum?) computing power, the machinery of warfare, human enhancement, mapping the “connectome” of the brain, longevity, nurtigenetics, as well as in as yet less obviously applied scientific fields, are going to fundamentally reorient the human and its experience and place in the world.
Whether or not this comes to pass, whether or not much of these developments are science fictional fantasies themselves, they nonetheless inhabit and grow inside the popular and expert imaginations. They are beyond most of our understanding, being fields that require intense and prolonged study. Even the technologies that are here and now before us strike us as somehow uncanny. Fantasy is one of the perfect genres in which to explore this strange magical aura of technological complexity, arguably even more so than a science fiction that has become domesticated and obvious.
So here are Daenerys’s dragons: creatures that she inexplicably births, controls for a while, loses control over, has to hide away and place on a leesh for fear of their turning against her, and finally that she is/will able to stop loving and start using as weapons in the field of supernatural war. The dragons could hardly any more perfectly stand in for anxieties around technologies such as nuclear weapons.
And the White Walkers? I think there role is obvious. I won’t spend much time elaborating on it. They come from a north beyond the north, and form an elemental kind of being- ice zombies, ice creatures, they are of the earth- that come and invade the world of human beings. They are a force of unstoppable and terrible destructive power in light of which all the jostling for the Iron Throne will appear as childish idiocy- as all too human. I submit that as a personified supernatural force of the Earth itself the White Walkers enact our fears of climate change whilst also pointing at the terror of a posthuman future: they are asdestructive and inscrutible as the natural forces that threaten to make all our day-to-day political concerns seem dreadfully myopic, and they also take the place an almost hive-minded being that was once human but has left all that behind.
I don’t intend to flesh these thought any further here. All I have hoped to do is to introduce enough discussion of the dragons and White Walkers to dismiss the idea that they are anything like mere spectacle. Of course they are also spectacle: they are exciting and chilling to finally witness. I don’t think we should forget that one of the strengths of GoT has been the ‘naturalistic’ way that it has introduced magical elements into the show. We came to accept the world first of all, had hints and gestures at all this supernaturalism, and then have watched it slowly get built up.
Why do this? Why not through them into the mix from the off as many other fantasy shows have. Obviously because GoT wanted to be seen as something other than just another fantasy; but I would also say that i was because GoT is itself primarily about these technological fantasies and nightmares. The Game itself is irrelevant, and all the suffering involved is also irrelevant. Here the show dispolays a remarkably pessimistic tone that undercuts any attempt to reduce it to a Marxist parable as some have attempted: when the White Walkers come the Seven Kingdoms with their Gods and their claims to the Iron Throne will all be revealed as pathetically unreal. The fantasy element had to be introduced slowly, and build to spectacle, because it is the fantasy that is the real. A sudden exposure to these elements would have been destabilising and too easy to dismiss.
5. Arthurian Legend. It’s quite common to view GoT as a take on the Arthurian legend. The author of the essay I’m using as a launch pad gives a pretty nice take on GoT as failed subversion of the heroic mythic narrative of High Fantasy. It’s obviously somewhat true so I don’t dispute the reading. Its a mythic England at the show’s core, with Scotland north-of-the-wall, and spreading to the Meditteranean acorss the Narrow Sea. I think there is more going on though.
I want to reposition GoT as a case of futurology, or at least of our psychoaffective relationship to the future. I don’t have the time to go furthjer into this here (perhaps in another post) but it seems to me that the violence of GoT is precisely that of modernist barbarisms like Al Quaeda and ISIS, and that more than an echo of the past the show resembles a candidate image of a future ravaged by resource wars, catastophe and poverty induced by climate change and other hyper-scale threats.
The idea that the future could resemble Westeros and its surrounding environs is bleak but it is one that many states are actively preparing for and that aspects of the Neoreactionary movement seeks to reactivate. Some analysts are tlaking in less literal and more metaphorical terms of the future resembling the middle ages in terms of its political complexion, while at the more extreme end some hysterics are proclaiming a literal new middle ages born of resource depletion, overpopulation and antibiotic resistance. Again, I’m less conceerneed with whether all this is true and more with the “imaginative truth”, as Ballard used to say.
Our psychoaffective relationship with the future determines how we occupy and live in the present much more than our relationship and knowledge of the past. In a sense the excess and obscenity of GoTs is a reflection of a deep shift in consciousness that is also reflected in the popularity of the Zombie genre,and especially of The Walking Dead. At root in these other films, and the Walking Dead to a remarkable degree, is less horror and more survivalism.
Could it be that at its deepest point of psychic contact with us GoT is a playing out of all these anxities about the future and has nothing much to do with legends, tragedies, or heroic deeds? To me GoT demonstrates our profound ambiguous and tenuous hold on the future, our deep ambivalence about whether it is something to look forward to or prepare to endure.