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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Game of Thrownness

Charlie Jane Anders in io9 on the perfectly inescapable escapism of Game of Thrones:
[W]e know Westeros is on the brink of a zombie apocalypse from the very first moment of the story. And part of the genius of Martin's slow-as-soil-erosion storytelling is that the zombie threat never quite arrives, but we keep seeing it getting closer and closer on the horizon.... Game of Thrones captures the real anxiety at the root of our apocalyptic fascination -- the sense that disaster is coming closer at an almost imperceptible rate, and we can never really know when it will arrive. We all sense that our unsustainable economic system will collapse, and/or our biosphere will no longer support so many humans, but we don't know if the crunch will come next week or in 50 years. And the endless wars and scheming show how short-sighted people can overlook a looming disaster, due to political infighting and stupidity. You wonder why they don't look over their shoulder and see the ice zombies creeping closer -- until you realize that their denial is nothing compared to our own. And meanwhile... we see in horrible detail how entrenched power and wealth gives certain people the right to walk all over everybody else. And how this injustice forces people to reinvent themselves and become monstrous in their own right. But it's also messy, showing the internal conflicts among the ruling classes, and the conflicting and contradictory ideologies that underpin this inequality. This is a dystopia that's enough removed from our own world that we can see its faults clearly, but it remains recognizable. With its focus on the power dynamics of feudalism and the slow but inevitable collapse of everything, Game of Thrones is uniquely suited to tell the story of America in the 20-teens. It allows us to talk about enivronmental disaster and political corruption, without actually facing up to the world we live in.
The title of this blog post is a ruin, all that is left of something I was about to write before I read Anders' piece, the clarity of which obliterated mine before it began. My main disagreement with her piece (apart from the fact that she describes her ruminations as a rant, which I think they are not) is that she praises George R.R. Martin's execrable writing rather than his spiffy scene-setting and storytelling, both of which are incomparably better captured in the television scripts and by the studio art departments than they are in his own novels. I imagine Martin's acerbic intelligence could reel his stories off the cuff in front of a fire more rewardingly than he does in his novels as well, probably, I honestly don't mean his unreadability as a damning criticism of Martin or anything, but I think it is wrong to pretend otherwise -- it isn't really surprising that a writer/scenarist for television continues to write well for television. Be all that as it may, I think Anders is right about what matters though: Westeros threads the needle of our all-too-knowing denialism about the catastrophes we are collaborating in, the ideological knot in our stomachs we are not untying but indulging. About the pleasures of Game of Thrones who can forget the closing lines of Benjamin on art pour l'art: "Fascism... expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology... Mankind['s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order."


Athena Andreadis said...

I guarantee you Martin had nothing of this in mind when he wrote the endless shapeless mess that's ASoIaF. He was an excellent stylist & storyteller before that. On the other side, Anders' entire argument (both the sense of slowly approaching apocalypse and the nostalgia for a bad past) applies only to people who haven't experienced the real thing -- prominently among them middle-class white Americans. Additionally, dystopian tales are standard in historical fiction. So an overlay to this is that such arguments can only be made if people form their global views by reading entirely within a single genre.

Dale Carrico said...

Definitely it wouldn't be the first time the text read is more clever than the text written. Or in this case, translated to the big screen tee vee in HD. It occurs to me that one thing Anders' account left out is that Daenerys Targaryen seems poised eventually to automagically solve the problem of the zombie apocalypse from the first volume as well -- in which case the dread deferred is more like a lollypop in the sun, little likely to explode after all, something like buying hemp t-shirts while we wait for the geo-engineers. That the particular televisual pleasures of titillating brutality and catastrophic denial and winking acquiescence to authority are uniquely suited with bourgeois Americans, precarized but still mostly pricks, seems, as you say, very likely. Funny, I don't even think Game of Thrones incarnates the kinds of judgments that would make it really dystopian, I taste cynical symptoms all the way down. I'll admit I enjoy the taste. I love a cliffhanger. Who shot JR?