Why Game of Thrones Is Making Us Stupid
I hate Game of Thrones. I do not watch it. I have ceased reading the books. I try to avoid reading about it, but inevitably people talking about the show on Twitter, Facebook, etc loops me back in. This outcome was not pre-ordained. I thought the show, initially, was a great genre piece. Like Matt Yglesias, I found it novel and interesting how well the show depicted the cruel logic of low-trust societies. And as a strategy nerd I enjoyed the various stratagems and shifting alliances too. But now the show is unwatchable for me. This has both to do with the show itself and its fan culture on the Internet.
What happened for me? I will attempt to lay out a case for why I have come to utterly loathe the show and would celebrate if it vanished from the airwaves tomorrow. At first I thought I disliked it because of the tendency of people on the Internet to write too much about it (“What Game of Thrones teaches us about digital marketing! What Game of Thrones teaches us about Vladimir Putin! Game of Thrones Was on Today And You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next! How to steal Daerneys’ fierce fashion look!, etc etc). I am not averse to taking popular culture seriously, so my own rabid dislike took me by surprise (see Appendix). Why do I hate Game of Thrones so much? Is it just the fans or the hot takes? Or is it something deeper? After all, people have joked to me that my inevitable social media blowup whenever I see a Game of Thrones hot take is more entertaining to them than the show itself.
I gave it some thought, and the answer is that Game of Thrones makes people stupid. It is not a guilty pleasure akin to Jackass or The Bachelor, where viewers understand that the show has no substantive content and merely consists of dick jokes or gawking at the sham of 20-30 women claiming to have a “connection” with a single, douchey playboy. It is a form of power pornography in which viwers watch human beings degrade, hurt, betray, abuse, and destroy each other and then compulsively compete to see how can make the most clever gif or Imgur image out of such depravity. They derive entertainment and satisfaction out of the show’s spectacle of power, domination, and cruelty and then turn such depraved fictional acts into a kind of cultural language and cultural shorthand that they communicate to each other with and even use to describe real-world horrors and cruelties such as the current wars in the Middle East.
I have never really be a fan of Neil Postman. But Game of Thrones is amusing the Internet to death. That amusement comes in the grotesque celebration of sadism, cruelty, and power politics inherent in the show’s appeal, the way in which such cruelty becomes social media fodder, the way in which it deprives us of the ability to describe and understand real evil and cruelty as something that exists outside Game of Thrones and its fan meta-language, and the manner in which it turns viewers into animalistic consumers while deluding them about the purportedly highbrow nature of the show’s content.
In other words, I hate the show and find its obsessive fan culture online both tremendously infuriating and also disturbing.
Game of Thrones as (Campy) Machiavellian Porn
We live in a cruel world, and the world of our past was even crueler. But there is a distinction between observing this and celebrating, even basking in it.
Game of Thrones repeatedly humiliates its characters and telegraphs these humiliations and depredations for the morbid enjoyment of its legion of obsessive viewers. Every week there is a new rape, quasi-rape, murder, betrayal, torture, or other degrading act done by one human to another. To call the gender and racial politics of the show retrograde would be a gross understatement. Finally, incest and sexual assault are so prevalent in the script as to deserve co-writing credits on IMDB.com. Pious critics of the show claim to find these acts despicable but nonetheless are still riveted to their television sets. As my friend Nick Prime said, its so funny how these critics profess to hate all of this so much but still cannot quit watching.
It is worth observing that the so-called “source material” that such show draws from was more ambivalent about these things. Not only did chronicles of the time that Game of Thrones’ universe is roughly set in depict a far wider range of human experience than the petty and tawdry struggle over power that Game of Thrones features, but they also often lacked Game of Thrones’ monomaniacal obsession with relentlessly reminding us about the cruelty of others. Game of Thrones actually reminds me most of gangster rap music and old-style Hollywood crime flicks — full of macho tales of crime, murder, and sexual power coupled with the obligatory tacked-on socially conscious message that this is not to be celebrated even if it exists as disposable entertainment.
Game of Thrones is part of a genre of television that I roughly dub “Machiavellian porn.” We watch it not because we really find the acts so disturbing and despicable but because we want to see powerful men and a few select women outsmart, humiliate, hurt, and impose their will on others. Hence the rape scenes of Game of Thrones are a feature, not a bug. We watch men spend hours cruelly imposing their will and humiliating other men, and then they do so to women in another setting. And this is not exclusive to Game of Thrones by any means. Frank Underwood, for example, humiliates, hurts, and mistreats both his mistress and many of his political allies. Like competence porn, Game of Thrones no doubt fills some deep, sublimated need. Why everyone from the Reddit bro set to Oberlin Critical Studies majors delight in such a spectacle is beyond me, but I don’t imagine it is too different from how our supposedly uncivilized ancestors enjoyed bear-baiting, public executions, gladiator fights, and other similar spectacles.
The way in which Game of Thrones masters the art of turning sadism and depravity into campy, gif-able, tweet-worthy entertainment is often ignored by those that try to highlight the complex nature of its fictional universe and the way in which it keeps viewers guessing. “See, it’s intellectual!” They say. “It makes us smart to watch it.” But this would also ignore the bizarre combination of retrograde politics and mockable camp that exists within the show’s universe:
I could get into the reasons why, here. I could try to construct some kind of nuanced argument for you. I could talk about how the impulse to revisit an airbrushed, dragon-infested Medieval Europe strikes me as fundamentally conservative — a yearning for a time when (white) men brandished swords for their King, (white) women stayed in the castle and made babies, marriage was a beautiful sacrament between a consenting adult and whichever fourteen-year-old girl he could manage to buy off her Dad, and poor people and people of color were mostly invisible — or how racism and sexism have been built into the genre ever since Tolkien. I could acknowledge the plotty, cliffhangery aspects of Martin’s writing as a selling point: So-and-so was dead! But now he’s alive! But now he’s dying! But now he’s a zombie! But now he’s the Prince of Sblarghlhaar, because he was IN DISGUISE! I could try to look at the positives, before I get to the criticism. But you know what? I’m still going to criticize the books. And if these are your toys, you’re going to be mad no matter what, because criticism of your favorite things exists. On the INTERNET, no less! SCANDAL!
Let’s focus a bit more on the camp. We’ve heard a lot about the retrograde politics of the show, but not enough about how difficult it is to fundamentally take it seriously when one thinks enough about it. Jack Gleeson, one of the former actors on Game of Thrones, expresses this postmodern, campish element quite nicely:
All I’ve done is act in a TV show and pretend to be mean for money, essentially. Worst comes to worst, I thought to myself, I can at least bring along my trusty crossbow and sexually threaten some unsuspecting students with impalement, but we discussed that and that didn’t fly with the board. …. Perhaps that was naivety or perhaps — like everyone else involved in the show — I just simply didn’t anticipate the success of it. In any case, whatever the reason was, what it led to was a sharp shock when I realized I had, unbeknownst to me, signed an invisible contract which required me to enter into a strange new echelon of society. People suddenly wanted to take pictures of me on the street, and journalists were interested in what kind of socks I preferred. Among certain groups of my peers, my jokes seemed to become a lot funnier, which perhaps was all the comedy books I was reading at the time or perhaps it was sycophancy, I don’t know. …..
Indeed, these days the apotheosis of celebrity is not just combined to the worship of movie idols, pop stars, sports heroes or even reality TV stars. We have bloody celebrity chefs, authors, comedians, politicians, intellectuals, scientists, business people, cheesemongers or something, milliners — hat makers, for those of you who didn’t get that — who constantly stick out their faces at us on advertisements and talk shows, magazines covers. But this reverence and invasion is often welcomed and indeed fostered by a great percentage of the public. …..
I started to wonder why that was and whether there was any harm in that reverence. They’re just people, after all. So whilst one can trace the origins of kind of celebrity or whatever you want to call it back to the Romantic era, and people like Samuel Johnson, or even before — Beckett — it was truly in the 20th century — proliferation of photography, radio, television and finally mass media — that finally a fecund ground could be laid for, in particular, sports stars, movie stars and singers to be massified as recognizable, influential public figures.
However, this kind of celebritization is only a positive one if the individual represents values that should be imitated by, say, a reasonable, moral person. We need to be choosier with our celebrities, or else we may find ourselves again in that situation where we just find ourselves acting out the role of the town drunk constantly. And we also need to temper the concentration with which we love to celebritize; primarily for the sake of the celebrities themselves and their self-evaluation, but also for ourselves. Just as the object of our attention can become rendered hollow and externally directed with too much worship, so too I feel can the worshipers sacrifice their own individual self or autonomy in favor of giving it up to a higher power.
What separates this, however, from the typical rant about celebrity culture is Gleeson’s unusually self-aware deployment of postmodernist theory:
This kind of fostered a culture dominated by what [Jean] Baudrillard called the ‘simulacra,’ which are images that contain no reference to the real world. For upon being able to, for the first time, see and also hear the well-known figures of the time — people like Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson — the public began to kind of, perhaps unconsciously, reduce them down to their image alone, leading to a perhaps irreparable commodification of these photogenic celebrities.
Game of Thrones as Postmodern Machiavellian Porn
Gleeson is right to utilize simulacra, because Game of Thrones itself is besides the point. It has almost entirely become a collection of cultural symbols without an original.
I would be dishonest if I did not say that another reason I stopped watching was social media and Game of Thrones’ obsessive fanbase. Legions of them obsessively lie in wait to turn every frame of the show into a gif, meme, or hot take. The show has become such a cultural commonplace, a kind of postmodern shorthand, that it is routinely used to generate SEO-worthy clickbait about everything from international politics to that ever-present Internet Social Outrage (TM) post. The show itself (perhaps purposefully) keeps its obsessive group of social media-heavy fans on a hair trigger alert by front-loading itself with outrageous, horrifying moments guaranteed to make Twitter go nuts.
Baudrillard and others observed the rise of hyperreality in Western thought:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines reality foremost as “the quality of being real or having an actual existence” and supplements this with a definition of real as “having objective existence,” and finally to exist as having “place in the domain of reality.” These conventional definitions of reality represent a larger problem in the attempt to locate the real on the most basic level, for they are wholly circular, a set of signifiers reflecting back at each other lacking the grounding necessary to render meaning. This problem is not unique to the word ‘reality,’ indeed almost all words and signs are only able to refer back towards the internal exchange of other signs in order to produce a theoretical anchor. The slippage of reality, its elusiveness encountered even in a basic search for a definition, is an element of the hyperreal — a condition in which the distinction between the ‘real’ and the imaginary implodes. There is no static definition of hyperreality, and the interpretations employed by theorists vary on some of the most essential terms. That said, this article will attempt to extrapolate a common understanding of the hyperreal based on the work of several theorists. A general understanding of hyperreality is important for it is an issue at the crux of several critical debates within the study of media including semiotics, objects and space, the spectacle, performativity, the examination of mass media, Platonism, resistance, and the structure of reality.
The concept most fundamental to hyperreality is the simulation and the simulacrum (see Simulation/Simulacra, (2)]. The simulation is characterized by a blending of ‘reality’ and representation, where there is no clear indication of where the former stops and the latter begins. The simulacrum is often defined as a copy with no original, or as Gilles Deleuze (1990) describes it, “the simulacrum is an image without resemblance” (p. 257). Jean Baudrillard (1994) maps the transformation from representation to simulacrum in four ‘successive phases of the image’ in which the last is that “it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (SS p.6). (see mimesis, representation) Deleuze, Baudrillard, and several other theorists trace the proliferation and succession of simulacra to the rise of hyperreality and the advent of a world that is either partially, or entirely simulated. Frederic Jameson (1990) contends that one of the conditions of late capitalism is the mass reproduction of simulacra, creating a “world with an unreality and a free floating absence of “the referent”’ (p. 17). Although theorists highlight different historical developments to explain hyperreality, common themes include the explosion of new media technologies, the loss of the materiality of objects, the increase in information production, the rise of capitalism and consumerism, and the reliance upon god and/or ‘the center’ in Western thought. Essentially, certain historical contingencies allow for the wide scale reproduction of simulacra so that the simulations of reality replace the real, producing a giant simulacrum completely disconnected from an earlier reality; this simulacrum is hyperreality.
Indeed, Baudrillard would likely be impressed as to how the meta-text of the show — the urge to snark about it on Twitter, the drive to ensure that no frame of the show has not been turned into an meme or gif — is one of the best teachable examples of the French postmodernist’s view of a society dominated by cultural “copies without originals.” People don’t watch Game of Thrones as much because they find the plot riveting or even the Machiavellian porn aspect of it compelling. They watch it as a collective Internet experience, livetweeting it and oversharing in a manner that forces me to either heavily mute much of Twitter or abstain from it altogether to avoid the disgusting spectacle of my timeline overtaken by a bunch of fanboys obsessively gawking, tweeting, gif-ing, and snarking about a cultural product that I now find rephrensible and repulsive.
It is not about the novel, TV show, etc anymore as much as participation in a cultural commonplace and in-crowd. If you are curious for examples of this, observe this screenshot from a recent compilation of Game of Thrones reactions:
As much as people hate Game of Thrones or find it disturbing, horrible, and offensive, they also seem incapable of taking it seriously. Everything has to be discussed in a bizarre combination of horse race, joke or meme-hawking attempt.
Game of Thrones itself is a kind of increasingly recursive self-contained fan universe, played out as an language-game:
Lyotard claims that we have now lost the ability to believe in meta-narratives, that the legitimating function that grand quests once played in society has lost all credibility. The question then becomes, what now forms the basis of legitimation in society if there is no overarching meta-narrative? For Lyotard, the answer lies in the philosophy of Wittgenstein, which analyzes the way sub-groups in society regulate their behavior through rules of linguistic conduct.
If we have rejected grand narratives, then what we have fallen back on are micro-narratives. Micro-narratives are essentially Wittgenstein’s “language-games”, limited contexts in which there are clear, if not clearly defined, rules for understanding and behavior. We no longer give credence to total philosophical contexts like Marxism which ostensibly would prescribe behavior in all aspects of life, rather, we have lots of smaller contexts which we act within.
As a kind of fan micro-language, it is also endlessly recursive and also closed. Nothing exists outside Game of Thrones.
And this has given rise to that most loathsome and annoying genre of piece, the “what Game of Thrones tells us about __” piece. Game of Thrones tells us about politics!
It tells us about economics!
There is absolutely nothing that fans cannot shoehorn into the series. There is absolutely no event, issue, process, or question of importance that Game of Thrones somehow cannot explain in a SEO-ready format. And here we see the truth of the statement that the hyperreal will eventually crowd out the real, or at the very minimum become preferred to the real:
hyperreality. A term associated with the effects of mass culture reproduction, suggesting that an object, event, experience so reproduced replaces or is preferred to its original: that the copy is ‘more real than real’. In the writings of the French social philosopher and commentator on postmodernism, Jean Baudrillard (1929- ), and of the Italian semiologist Umberto Eco (1932 ), hyperreality is associated especially with cultural tendencies and a prevailing sensibility in contemporary American society.
In Baudrillard’s discussion hyperreality is synonymous with the most developed form of simulation: the autonomous simulacra which is free from all reference to the real. In the essay, ‘The Precession of Simulacra’, Baudrillard writes of Disneyland as ‘a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation’ (1988: 171). Its function is less the ideological expression of an idealized America than to disguise the fact that ‘all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and simulation’ (1988: 172). Baudrillard therefore sees the hyperreal of selective imitation and image-making presented by Disneyland as the rule rather than the exception. The resulting ‘society of the image’, prompts a panic-stricken attempt to shore up the real that has been eroded. This, so Baudrillard believes, is futile, since the attempt to produce meaning and save ‘the reality principle’ in a media-saturated society can only produce its opposite, an exacerbated experience of hyperreality.
Umberto Eco’s theme, in his essay ‘Travels in Hyperreality’ (1986) is ‘faith in fakes’ (the American title of the volume containing this essay). He goes ‘in search of instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake’ (1986: 8). His travels take him to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, where he finds proof that in America ‘the past must be preserved and celebrated in full-scale authentic copy’ (1986: 6), to heritage villages, the Madonna Inn, seven wax versions of Leonardo’s ~Last Supper, William Randolph Hearst’s museum-castle (the Xanadu of Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane) and Disneyland, the home of the ‘total fake’ (1986: 43). Unlike Baudrillard, Eco does not suggest the real is supplanted or erased, but that imitations — because newer and more complete — are preferred to their ancient or unavailable originals. He is therefore more critical than Baudrillard (Baudrillard would say in an outmoded fashion). Thus ‘the Absolute Fake’, writes Eco, derives from the vacuum ‘of a present without depth’ (1986: 31) and Disneyland he sees as the ‘quintessence of consumer ideology’ (1986: 43). Moreover, Eco detects a different, more modernist culture and attitude in New York and New Orleans. In the latter he finds that ‘history still exists and is tangible’ (1986: 29), concluding that, ‘The sense of history allows an escape from the temptations of hyperreality’ (1986: 30). [from: Brooker, 1999]
After all, who cares about what happens in the Middle East when we have…..*drumroll*, WHAT GAME OF THRONES TELLS US ABOUT THE MIDDLE EAST.
Game of Thrones as a Symbol of Our Receding Common Capacity for Humanity and Empathy
So why do we need Game Of Thrones to describe the Middle East? Why do we need a fantasy universe to describe the power games and cruelty of the Middle East? Why do we say that the murderous tyrant Assad is like some Game of Thrones character? Isn’t it the other way around? The answer to that question ough to deeply and utterly disturb us. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno famously asked if poetry could be written about Auschwitz:
One of the most famous and frequently cited dictums on Holocaust representation is Theodor Adorno’s statement that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (1982, p.34). Clearly Adorno is not merely speaking about the act of writing poetry, but rather the tension between ethics and aesthetics inherent in an act of artistic production that reproduces the cultural values of the society that generated the Holocaust. Adorno later qualified this statement, acknowledging that ‘suffering […] also demands the continued existence of the very art it forbids’ (1997, p.252). How then does one presume to represent something as extreme as the Holocaust, when in theory one cannot do so without in some way validating the culture that produced it?
However, where Adorno went wrong was his presumption that we should be debating “poetry” at all. We would be lucky if we had poetry as opposed to sadistic, consumerist garbage like Game of Thrones and its fans. Instead, we merely have an endless series of memes that stimulates other memes:
The role of performance within mass media must thus be studied in the two following ways: firstly as being reproduced among wide scale audiences, and secondly as a forged ‘unreality’ that implies the ‘realness’ of everyday performance. The first form of analysis is obvious, that commonly portrayed performances such as race or gender normalize those modes of behavior and train audiences to take on, improve, and master those performative identities thus replicating the simulacra. Umberto Eco (1983) touches on this aspect of simulations in his book Travels in Hyperreality, where he notes that the simulacrum not only produces illusion, but “stimulates demand for it” (p. 44). In the second instance of media criticism, Baudrillard’s metaphor of Disneyland should be employed, that the constructed realm of fantasy exists to imply that the rest of the world is real (1994, p. 12). The obviously unreal performances of characters in television and movies should be examined in light of their significant role for persuading populations that their own social performances are ‘real,’ and providing the most foundational ‘other’ to stabilize all identities.
Deleuze helps to connect hyperreality to another strain of media theory originating in one of the oldest known media theorists, Plato. Suspicion of media technologies is not a uniquely modern phenomenon, indeed Plato advanced a critique of the written word through the dialog of Socrates in the Phaedrus (quite similar to that of Baudrillard in CPS). Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, purports the existence of truth in ideal forms, accessible not in reality but through the philosopher’s ideas and intellectual pursuit of the forms. Plato presents a clear understanding of simulations in the Caves; although he concedes that any artistic reproduction of ideal forms would constitute representation, he is clear that it entails the copy of an original, true form. Deleuze argues that Plato contrasts these legitimate copies to fearful simulacra, “Plato divides in two the domain of images-idols: on one hand there are copies-icons, on the other there are simulacra-phantasms” (p. 256). It is thus that Deleuze is able to claim that with the arrival of hyperreality Platonism has been reversed, for any original truth or ideal forms that provided the anchor for representation have since been permanently lost in the reproduction of simulacra and the construction of a hyperreality without any connection to the real.
And it is here that Game of Thrones has rendered us so obsessed with celebration and participation in a tawdry carciature of cruelty and violence that we lack the moral vocabulary and seriousness to talk about cruelty and violence in the real world. If there is one thing that Game of Thrones obsessives all agree on, it is that a well-crafted but also formulaic fantasy genre show has totemic cultural and literary significance. People speak in the cultural shorthand of Game of Thrones so much that they are unable to describe the cruelty and backstabbing of Middle Eastern politics without analogizing it to Game of Thrones:
So why this is so objectionable? In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein executed the Anfal campaign, a deliberate genocidal campaign (utilizing chemical weapons and other means) against the Kurds. This resulted in the horrific deaths of thousands of Kurdish civilians. A documentary of this may be viewed here:
Today, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant routinely engages in all manner of war crimes. These include executions of prisoners of war, the killing of religious minorities, the kidnap and murder of ethnic minorities, sexual slavery, and above all else despicable televised acts such as putting captured pilots in cages and burning them alive:
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ISIS is unique in a region that has now become infamous for cruelty to fellow man. Journalist Robert Fisk wrote a 1000+ page tome depicting all of the cruelty, betrayal, and suffering of the last few decades and I’m sure that his editor probably prevailed on him to leave a substantial amount of material on the cutting room floor. Some recent highlights one may recall of the top of the head include roving death squads that execute via power drill to the forehead, the execution of a terrified nine-year old boy suspected of being an ISIS supporter, the flippant attitude of Bush and Obama administration officials as Iraq burned under their watch, the cynical betrayal and abandonmen of those that risked their lives to help our sildiers to the depredations of savages, the dogged persistence of murderous authoritarian repression, rampant human trafficking, the purposeful stoking of extremism and subversion (with horrific consequences) regionally and abroad for geopolitical gain, the treatment of women as chattel, and treatment of foreigners as slaves:
So the Middle East is not lacking for its own unique vocabulary of betrayal, deceit, cruelty, and power. The Middle East, as correspondents like Fisk know, does not lack for Game of Thrones like features such as omnipresent deception and propaganda, vain and cruel princelings, arcane and cruel “justice” and dispute resolution, and brutal and power-craving despots willing to do just about anything to preserve their power. But yet we cannot discuss this in an its own independent moral terms.
We can only understand the Middle East’s real cruelty through trivializing reference to a fictionalized universe with dragons, swords, and “winter is coming” memes:
As much as I dislike Edward Said’s Orientalism, things like this remind me of why one cannot completely dismiss his arguments. The suffering of Arabs has no meaning in and of itself. We only care when we can exoticize it, when we can understand it through our own obsession with a carciature of dynastic warfare, when we can turn the suffering of the Arabs into a gif for our own amusement. “Look at those crazy foreigners,” we say, “let’s make their tragedy into our entertainment!” If I were a resident of the Middle East, I would be deeply disturbed and offended by such comparisons, much in the way that Chinua Achebe rightly pointed out the racism inherent in how Conrad and others turned Africa into the “heart of darkness.”
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”
Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings. These suggestive echoes comprise Conrad’s famed evocation of the African atmosphere in Heart of Darkness.
We cannot regard Arabs and their suffering with intrinisc and unique humanity. Instead, the Middle East is only meaningful to us inasmuch as it acts out a kind of “heart of darkness” spectacle of barbarism that resembles our favorite fantasy TV show. I never thought I would say this, but this raises Gayatri Spivak’s question of whether the subaltern can speak. So when it comes to the Middle East, can the subaltern indeed speak? Or do we need the mostly white male characters of a fictional fantasy universe to speak for them? The answer to that question deeply disturbs me.
Arabs and their suffering have been overwritten and submerged by how their suffering relates to a fanboy’s favorite fantasy TV show. And while I would not count myself politically as in the camp as Said I think he and I would both agree that such a turn of events is not only racist and orientalist but also deeply morally obscene.
Game of Thrones as the Triumph of “Animal” Visions of Consumerism
When I see a piece that half-seriously uses Game of Thrones to trivialize a region whose suffering and horror creates its own vocabulary, I see nothing more than the triumph of the marketer in animalizing the consumer and fan. The Japanese philosopher Hiroki Azuma, writing in his book Database Animals, argues for a transition in fan culture that is qualitatively distinct from the old Trekkie/Star Wars fan culture. My friend Brett Fujioka sums up this type of fan culture in a review of Azuma’s book:
Hiroki Azuma’s ideas are extensive, but deal with postmodernism in a uniquely clear and concise fashion. A simple review hardly does it justice so I’ll focus more on his description of grand narratives and how it relates to Japan and the U.S.
Postmodernists reject the belief in grand narratives, theoretical explanations of reality (religion, nationalism, politics) in favor of fragmentary definitions of the world. As a result, postmodernism formed what Azuma’s refers to as the database model of small narratives.
This is associated with fictional consumption in a variety of ways. For example, the mainstream Marvel Universe is a grand narrative. Fans will purchase an issue of The Avengers or Spider-Man to get a better insight into the mythos of the super hero world.
Otaku, on the other hand, aren’t searching for grand narratives. What they want are simply characters or gimmicks to satisfy a desired trait.
Azuma cites the Digi Charot anime character as the genesis of this. Digi Charot was originally conceived as a company mascot with no back-story. Her narrative ultimately came about after anonymous responses in the market. In other words, the setting and character’s appearance became more pertinent to fans more than anything else. The story was written to accommodate the character not the other way around.
What this does is reduces the Otaku to an animalistic culture. The difference between animals and humans is that they pursue an unquenchable meaning to life. Animals, in turn, aren’t searching for meaning. They only want to have their basic needs met.
Azuma sees this framework as a reflection of Japanese consumerism in general. Take Jpop fans into consideration who favor an idol for her image, but pay little heed to her music.
Game of Thrones has turned its fans into animals. They follow, experience, and understand the show as a procession of database-like gimmicks which they reproduce on social media in the form of commentary, analysis, memes, and other gimmicks. They have become so animalized that they cannot appreciate the suffering of those in the Middle East without couching it in the meme-ified micro-language of their favorite pop culture show. Game of Thrones is popular in large due to the way in which it is tailor-made for such database consumption. It deals in a caricatured, cartoonish, world not unlike the one that Quentin Tarantino has made his stylistic signature in his movies. It allows people to indulge in fantasies of violence and domination and derive pleasure from it while nonetheless feeling like they are consuming highbrow entertainment:
Tarantino’s versions of these characters are purposely disconnected from their historical counterparts, but they aren’t just a means to a symbolic end. They are caricatures, the unrestrained ids of all their previous incarnations, freed from the prisons of historical accuracy, morality, and realism, able to run amok in Tarantino’s hyperreality. SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a Nazi unlike any other Nazi in cinema, a character so complex, charming, and eerily entertaining that you almost forget that he’s an altogether implausible person. Yet there’s the sneaking suspicion that his eccentricities and manic quirks lurk right beneath the surface of, say, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List. Likewise, there’s a little bit of the Nazi-scalping, face-mutilating, ignorant hillbilly psychopath Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) in all the tough-guy officers from John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima to Lee Marvin in The Big Red One. Inglourious Basterds has no ideology to hold them back. It’s raw viscera.
What Tarantino has done is locate the undercurrent of sadomasochistic glee responsible for the continued popularity of World War II movies and express it in purest, unadulterated form. Like the brutal sexual honesty of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (which Tarantino borrowed rather heavily from for Death Proof), Inglourious Basterds embodies a panoply of guilt-ridden, half-repressed masturbatory fantasies about bloodshed and predation, and many people who are repulsed by them call the film “obscene.” Tarantino didn’t create those fantasies, though. They were already there, waiting to be tapped by someone bold enough to drink them straight, and in this potent state, they’re too disturbing to write the film off as mere trash entertainment. This is the World War II film confronting its Jungian shadow, acknowledging its darkest impulses and finally purging them. Inglourious Basterds is too brutal to enjoy without a sadistic streak, and too honest about the immorality of that brutality to enjoy without equal parts masochism. It’s a testament to Tarantino’s lack of hypocrisy that he counts himself among the sick “basterds” who delight in both the savagery they’re treated to and the punishment doled out to them for enjoying it, and, if box office returns are any indication, there are plenty such “basterds.”
Game of Thrones is as much a show about its historical “source” material as Inglorious Basterds (or any of the World War II genre movies that it parodies or cites) is an accurate representation of World War II. Yes, in Ye Olden Times brutal trial by combat did occur. But the real history that the show depicts was far less salacious and far more boring. Of course as you might expect the combat in the movie is also unrealistic as well, the kind of Hollywood/Errol Flynn-esque swordfighting techniques I learned in drama camp in middle school. Art is not mimesis, as Susan Sontag famously argued. Both she and Roland Barthes saw art as comprising a kind of pleasure, energy, or force that we interact with. And both Azuma and Henry Jenkins’ observations about the co-productive and obsessive nature of fan culture round out the idea that people engage with Game of Thrones for reasons other than its supposed realism or intellectual complexity. As Sady Doyle observed, it is a mega-pastiche of so many cliches of the fantasy genre, many of them unsavory in nature.And as Clive Martin points out, it dresses up those cliches for the enjoyment of a highbrow audience.
Earlier this week, Game of Thrones-the thing that people on the internet now love more than anything else in the whole world-returned for another season. For some reason, it’s a show that people have only ever felt comfortable describing to me IRL in alliterative HBO comparisons: “The Wire with wizards,” “The Sopranos with swords,” and so on. I haven’t watched it yet, and to be honest, I probably never will.
And it’s not because I don’t have HBO Go, or because every time I’ve tried to torrent something I’ve just ended up with a frozen download bar and tons of pop-up ads for dick pills. It’s because I have an innate aversion to anything that can be described as “fantasy.”
We all know the clichés of the fantasy fan: the Games Workshop employee who sighs when children don’t know how to play the game properly. The people who found their cultural Garden of Eden in the graphic-novels section of Borders some time in the late 90s. Their cultural trajectory took them from Redwall to Red Dwarf to Reddit, and now they argue loudly in small-town bars about how Bruce Lee died. They hate fashion in all its forms, yet they yearn to look different. To get around this, all of their clothing must refer to something else. Be it an oversize Alan Moore-style amulet or one of those ”Afraid of the dark, Lagerboy?” T-shirts.
The mission statement of Game of Thrones, though, is that it isn’t just meant for those people. It’s for people who like True Detective, Donna Tartt, and the National. It’s sexier, it’s full of great actors, it’s about politics, and people die all the time. You can talk about it at parties, and people won’t laugh at you!
What I find so deeply annoying and insufferable about Game of Thrones and its fans lies in its desire to dress it up as something that it is most certainly not. There is nothing about Game of Thrones’ backstabbing and cruelty that makes a point about human nature that one could not also observe in game theory, econimics or sociology. Take the Red Wedding episode for example. Gee, costly punishment in a society without well-designed institutions and norms and in which dealings occur without a central arbitrating authority? At least other works of popular entertainment explicitly engage in intellectual debates and introduce their consumers to complex ideas. Some of them are so complex and convoluted as to be unwatchable, but nonetheless have passionate fanbases.
Even if some of the things I’ve linked to above are part of the very same “database” culture that Azuma describes (and thus subject to similar pathologies), these works also at least say something valuable as works of art in and of themselves. Game of Thrones doesn’t. Above all else, re-watching Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line reminds me of everything Game of Thrones is not. First, it is not an easy movie to watch or summarize. The violent central act that it revolves around cannot be directly observed, so Morris must reconstruct it laboriously. And it examines a dispute over interpretation, forcing the viewer to think for themselves about who is actually right and what actually happened. In contrast, Game of Thrones leverages sadistic and gratuitious depictions of events for entertainment. Instead of making its viewers think, it induces them to make snarky gifs for Buzzfeed and Gawker articles. They come into it and come away with from it as rabid, animalistic consumers. And unlike The Thin Blue Line or other complex texts, it is difficult to see how Game of Thrones speaks to any important debates in art or any other important aspect of human experience.
So I have come to despise Game of Thrones. It turns people on the Internet into clowns, and they think that the act of clown-turning symbolized by their cultural engagement and participation with the show is a symbol of their own hipness and culture. It renders people unable to discuss serious issues such as the Middle East and its wars without idiotic references to Stannis or House Stark. It floods the Internet with people who want to talk nothing more about how Game of Thrones relates to their pet hobbyhorse, how much it offends them and how much they are going to quit watching it (only to resume being offended because they couldn’t stop themselves from watching the next episode), and whatever shocking thing happened on the show that all of us who have no interest whatsoever in the show anymore absolutely must know about.
I could care less about Game of Thrones. I want to care less about Game of Thrones. If I could code an algorithm that would allow me to surf the Internet and interact with people without seeing a single reference to this idiotic, over-hyped, sadistic carciature of a TV show and the fanboys that obsessively love it I would do so in a heartbeat. But not even Alan Turing, if he was alive today, would be brilliant enough to pull that off. So I grit my teeth and just try to avoid getting too upset or annoyed when I see yet another outpouring of collective derp over the TV show and bide my time until the day that it vanishes from the airwaves and Twitter finds something else marginally less stupid to hype out of existence.
Appendix: My Writings About Popular Culture
To show readers how I have written about pop culture products like games, anime, and television in the context of things I am interested in, please browse my archives at BlogTarkin, Slate, and War on the Rocks. I have written about pop culture in other places, but these have my most concentrated amount of articles. Am I being hypocritical? See for yourself. If I am, then its more a reflection on my own falling into the trap I discuss here at great length, and something I need to correct.