Category: Popular Culture

Most fantasy literature and cinema (and most SF, for that matter), is built on an utter denial of the fact that there is something called ‘material production’. Because it is so boring, isn’t it? It is something we are escaping from: the tedious routine of our everyday lives, the nine-to-five (and sometimes more) of ordinary capitalism, the uninteresting jobs we are forced into, but have to pretend we willingly chose, all these are why we seek refuge in the dreamland of fantasy in the first place, where no one produces anything other than adventure, wars and intrigue. There is one exception to this: weapons and armour have to be produced (so that there can be adventure and wars), so every once in a while, we visit a blacksmith (or the vast Orcish weapon shops in The Lord of the Rings).

There are of course other significant exceptions: David Eddings’ Belgariad opens in a farm, where everybody labours in the fields or is engaged in some kind of productive activity, and the two main characters of the pentalogy, Garion and Polgara, are constantly working in the kitchen. Ged, the protagonist of the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin, was a goatherd in the Isle of Gont before he became a mage (and eventually the Archmage), and returns to Gont at the end of the third book, to become an ordinary working man, losing his power of magic, although still a protagonist (at least one of them) in the rest of the story.

In SF, things are a little different, but not much: in one of the earliest examples of the genre, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, there is a huge underground compound of factories, run by disfigured and ‘evil’ Morlocks, as contrasted to the naïve, childish and pastoral Eloi who do not work at all, which disparity is the central metaphor of the story anyway. In one of the better examples of SF TV series, Battlestar Galactica, we observe starships entirely allocated to production, as contrasted to the exclusively military Galactica, but that is almost all.

Ordinary working people seem not to exist (or to matter) in Fantasy and SF. Of course it is not much different in naturalistic (or mimetic) literature and cinema, but this is not our subject matter for the time being. Worse still, it is almost the same in narratives of history, and not only in the French sense either, histoire in French meaning both ‘story’ and ‘history’. It is against this ‘conception of history’ that Brecht wrote his famous 1935 poem, ‘Questions from a Worker Who Reads’:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

In the same poem, he also has something to say about the writers of Fantasy:

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The people exist only as passive subjects (or rather, a single, enormous and nebulous subject) in Fantasy: protagonists think and act in their name from time to time, make decisions, declare and win (or lose) wars, and the more they play the part of ‘caring’ for them, the more we like these selfless heroes. We pretend to ‘escape’ from the boring, dull reality of everyday to dreamlands, but we bring the most boring ‘fact’ along with us: that there are two kinds of people; the ones who speak, act and matter, the protagonists, and the ones who have to be spoken for, who need heroes to act in their name, and do not matter except as a shapeless mass without wills of their own as persons. These agents/heroes use the swords and drive the chariots they make, dwell in houses and palaces they build, and drink wine from the vineyards they labour in, but the people only make an appearance in their stories as some kind of a ‘damsel in distress’, somebody who need saving. Saving from whom? we are bound to ask. Well, from the antagonists of course, who are also agents/anti-heroes, the mirror reflections of the heroes.

To be perfectly fair, in the better examples of Fantasy and SF, the distinction between the hero and the antagonist is not that black-and-white; there are many ‘shades of grey’, and, in the best of them, even different colours, allowing for a more complex character development, Tolkien’s protagonists (Frodo/Gollum, Gandalf/Saruman and even the short-lived Boromir) being the epitome of this. It is only in the later examples, however, especially in Le Guin, that the incontestable dualism between the protagonist/antagonist and the ‘ordinary’ people is opened to critical inquiry.

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The much celebrated/criticised but in any case eagerly awaited grand finale of The Game of Thrones TV series has been ‘read’ as an ‘in-depth’ and extensive commentary on contemporary politics, complete with observations on populism, comparative government, democracy, feminism, multiculturalism and many more.

As usual, almost nobody was interested in the fact that throughout eight seasons (73 episodes in eight years), there was no indication of how the common people lived their daily lives, how they worked and what they produced, and under which circumstances. When we saw ‘ordinary people’, it was either as ‘victims’ of violence (e.g. Season 8, Episode 5), or its perpetrators (e.g. Cersei’s ‘Walk of Shame’ in Season 5, Episode 10). The only ‘production’ scene we saw was (of course) the blacksmithing of the weapons that could kill the white walkers, and the only ‘main character’ involved in it was Gendry Baratheon, who was very conveniently made a Lord later and inherited his father’s title which was denied to him because he was a ‘bastard’; thus he was forever liberated from such base and menial tasks. If we include ‘intellectual production’ (which we should), Samwell Tarly could be mentioned, who was a self-designated researcher, except that he was always the butt-end of a plethora of anti-intellectual jokes and intimidations all through the series, and an especially biting one in one of the final scenes (more on this later). Needless to say, he was also made a Lord and the Grandmaester in the end.

The three articles I have recently read about the last season (and the Finale) of The Game of Thrones are critical of its ending, all presumably from a socialist/Marxist point of view, but none of them makes an effort to account for this lack of representation of the production process, and consequently its main agent, the labourers, although they do not fail to comment on GoT’s politics. These articles are ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones’ by Zeynep Tüfekçi (in Scientific American ) ’Game of Thrones tapped into fears of revolution and political women – and left us no better off than before’ by Slavoj Žižek (in The Independent ) and ‘The hollowing out of Game of Thrones’ by Simon Guy (in Socialist Review )

Tüfekçi and Guy more or less agree on praising the first seven seasons of GoT and criticising the last season as some kind of a deviation from this course. According to Tüfekçi, the first seven seasons represent a ‘sociological’ approach, telling the story from a ‘sociological and institutional’ point of view, in contrast to the ‘psychological and individual’ approach of the eighth. The argument itself is sound enough, except for the naming, the terminology: since my chosen field is Psychosocial Studies, I would strongly object to creating an artificial duality, sociological/psychological, as if these were terms for different and antagonistic world-views. In doing so, Tüfekçi (maybe involuntarily) accepts a popularised/populistic version of ‘psychology’, as branded by precisely the same establishment she criticises, and denigrates it, hoisting ‘sociology’ to a status akin to a Weltanschauung where it does not belong. The example she chooses is the story of Hitler:

The overly personal mode of storytelling or analysis leaves us bereft of deeper comprehension of events and history. Understanding Hitler’s personality alone will not tell us much about rise of fascism, for example.

Which is absolutely correct, that is, as long as we accept the mainstream definition of ‘psychology’ as the endeavour to depict the personality traits or behavioural patterns of individuals isolated from the network of social and cultural relations they live in. There is, however, another ‘psychology’, e.g., the mass psychology of the Italian and German people between the two wars (as represented, for instance, in Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism), not to mention the many intersections between anthropology, Gender Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Marxism and psychoanalysis, and that brand of psychology indeed tells us a lot about the rise of fascism. Furthermore, no ‘sociological’ approach alone is sufficient to understand the function and transformation of institutions and masses, without taking into account this brand of ‘psychology’. The supposedly self-evident split between sociology and psychology as forcibly isolated ‘scientific’ disciplines within the strictly compartmentalised ‘scientific’ discourse of today, makes both rather useless by themselves.

Having said this, I would of course concede the fact that there is an easily observable difference between the first seven seasons and the last, although I would rather interpret this divergence using Brechtian terms, as a shift from the epic to the (melo)dramatic. The Brechtian epic/dramatic distinction, however, should rather be seen as a scale rather than a mutually exclusive dualism: The GoT was not strictly an epic-dialectic narrative ever, and it did not exactly end up in pure melodrama, although there is a distinct shift from the former to the latter. This shift may not be as radical in content as Simon Guy seems to believe:

The radical critique of class society and colonialism intrinsic to earlier seasons of Game of Thrones was replaced more recently with an individualised tale of psychology, characterised by a deep fear of its original revolutionary potential.

Having read the novels even before there was an idea of the TV show (and of course, having watched the show in its entirety), I would say assigning ‘revolutionary potential’ and ‘radical critique of class society and colonialism’ to it is a bit of an over-interpretation. Admittedly, it was radical enough to represent an at least pseudo-Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt in earlier seasons as contrasted to the last season, in which simplistic, quick and barely-explained fluctuations of behaviour and emotion observable in many main characters, intended to create a cheap emotional response, an easy catharsis in the audience, took over. George R.R. Martin, however, is hardly a Bertolt Brecht in his understanding and representation of class societies; he is rather a (fairly good) fantasy writer with a healthy rage against social injustice, pointless wars for domination and a grotesque lust for power, none of which makes one ‘revolutionary’ per se. But this is all we can expect from Martin: his political ideology fluctuates between the defence of a cursory democratic position and a yearning for a meritocratic order under the guidance of an enlightened despot. To be sure, Martin is not the sole ‘proprietor’ of the show. Although he is involved in every aspect of the production, HBO and the showrunners/writers (Weiss & Benioff) probably had the last word in ‘wrapping up’ the show in a hurry to make time for spinoffs, prequels and/or sequels, and convert the growing popularity of the show into quick cash. Coupled with Martin’s already not-too-firm ideological hold over the huge epic cosmos he created, this undue haste practically ‘ruined’ the last season, at least for many fans.

Žižek’s critique is more extensive, and in especially one respect, more ‘ideologically loaded’. The reference to Stephen King, that the fans were annoyed not at this specific ending but at the fact that there was an ending at all, is a sound argument, revealing the open-ended quality of the universes created in fantasy literature and film. Of course this does not mean that any fantasy novel (or TV series) should not ever end, although some fantasy and SF writers seem to be attempting this impossible task (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was an example in this direction). It would rather mean that any ending or denouement should not also terminate the open-endedness of the universe, drain its options and reduce its possible paths and alternate courses of progress to one, that is, to the one which has just ended. What the final season of GoT has done is mostly this in its haste to ‘wrap it up’ (except for some possibilities for sequels, which seem to be necessitated for business purposes rather than a respect for the open-endedness of the fantasy universe), and so the fans have every right to be annoyed, even if they cannot pinpoint precisely what it is that they are annoyed at.

With his critique of the Wagnerian renunciation of female lust for power, I would cautiously agree, maybe calling for a little more attention to the character of Arya, who never made a bid for political power, but nevertheless held more ‘power’ in her hands (at one point saving the entire world of the living), and at the same time successfully refusing to be used by any kind of political power, male or female alike. Unlike the other female protagonists, Arya has never been a nice girl bent on survival (Sansa), a ruthless Machiavellist (perhaps the most ‘Wagnerian’ of them all, Cersei), or a victim with a blind faith in her Birthright and ‘destiny’ (Daenerys). The female protagonist closest to Arya is Brienne of Tarth, the supposedly ‘masculinised’ female knight. Arya, however, differentiates herself even from Brienne, since after they both have their first forays into sexuality in the final season, Brienne loses most of her ‘power’, helplessly crying after her ‘man’ but unable to do anything to assert her former commanding self, while Arya becomes even more powerful with the realisation of feminine sexuality. Her vigilante/feminine power superficially resembles Jessica Jones’ in its ‘darkness’, but she is a better match for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the girl who never uses her power to dominate others, always has her mentors and comrades alongside her, and in the end shares the power with everywoman who have a will to bear it.

The final point in Žižek is the one I most fiercely disagree with: his characterisation of Daenerys as ‘the only social agent in the series who really fought for something new, for a new world that would put an end to old injustices.’ Although he puts a fine point on it by adding ‘old’ to ‘injustices’ with characteristic Žižekian subtle wit, intimating that he is aware of the fact that the Daeneryen ‘new world’ would have had its own share of injustices as well, it is apparent that he sees Daenerys Targaryen as some kind of a true revolutionary force to be reckoned with:

And one cannot help but note that those faithful to Daenerys to the end are more diverse – her military commander is black – while the new rulers are clearly white Nordic. The radical queen who wanted more freedom for everyone irrespective of their social standing and race is eliminated, things are brought back to normal.

We can concede that the claim that Daenerys ‘wanted more freedom for everyone’ is supported by the fact that she ‘freed the slaves’. Only, it was in another continent! In Westeros, where she sought her Birthright, that is, absolute power over the entire continent, there was no systematic slavery at all. The question becomes, therefore, what was her ‘program’, so to speak, to provide ‘more freedom for everyone irrespective of their social standing and race’? And speaking of Westeros, it is important to remember that there were no ‘races’ there, everyone, including the hitherto excluded ‘Northlings’ belonged to the white race. Admittedly, the fault belongs to Martin rather than Daenerys, who imagined an all-white continent, limiting the black race to the ‘other’ continent of Essos. Daenerys ‘freed’ them, not because she was some kind of Moses of Martin Luther King Jr., but to transform the Unsullied, the former slave-soldiers, into mercenaries frantically loyal to herself (rather than the slave-owners).

We can understand what ‘freedom’ means for Daenerys in her very last words to Jon Snow.

Jon: What about all the other people who think they know what’s good?
Daenerys: They don’t get a choice.

So, Daenerys wants ‘freedom’ for people, only as long as she is the only one to ‘know’ what is good for them. What is ‘freedom’, one is bound to ask, if it is not thinking about or imagining what is ‘good’, or what constitutes a ‘good life’, and actively trying to accomplish it? The standard argument here would be that Daenerys did not mean ‘people’, but other Lords, Ladies, Maesters, would-be Kings and Queens: people who have the time and means to ‘think’ what is good for the people, but not the ordinary people themselves. They are too much concerned with everyday survival anyway; left to themselves, they would never go about ‘thinking’ or trying to ‘know’ what is ‘good’, until and unless another war comes about, when they would again be too much concerned with another kind of survival, simply staying alive and escaping the dragon-fire of their saviours. If in the end a new ruler provides them with a slightly better life and means, they should be thankful. ‘Freedom’, in this scheme, is strictly the business of the ‘elite’.

We can, therefore, see that after a wide detour of fantasy (or should we say traversée du fantasme?), we arrive exactly at the place where we started, at what everybody is talking about these days, populism. Let’s ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’, Žižek is not unaware of this: ‘Daenerys [is] a new type of a strong leader, a kind of progressive bonapartist acting on behalf of the underprivileged.’ The argument here should be, of course, whether any Bonapartist can ‘act[…] on behalf of the underprivileged’ or merely pretends doing so, but this is the subject matter of a much longer and much more detailed discussion.

The argument, however, that Daenerys Targaryen had intended to prohibit the involvement of the ‘elite’ in deciding what is ‘good’ for the people and thus ‘setting them free’, is the perfect populist one (doesn’t matter whether ‘right’ or ‘left’, ‘reactionary’ or ‘progressive’) and it is not to be accepted lightly (or rejected in a hurry). In ‘rejecting’ this populist argument, the last episode of GoT quickly (in a matter of minutes) introduces a set of alternatives, ridicules and dismisses one of them (Samwell’s call for ‘representative democracy’ in a feudal order), rejects a return to the status quo pro ante, and summarily decides on a kind of Magna Carta, where an oligarchy decides on who will be the supreme ruler in every generation, abandoning the concept of ‘Birthright’. In doing so, it also dismisses the idea of Empire (the North becomes an independent kingdom). Even this short argument among the ‘elite’ should make us realise the fact that ‘Queen’ Daenerys had not intended to be a Queen after all, but an Empress, because victorious populism unerringly ends up in Empire, in its various incarnations of Caesarism, Bonapartism (of both Bonapartes, one victorious and tragic in the end, and the second ridiculous), Stalinism and Nazism.

We can (and should) discuss the fortunes and misfortunes of populism at length, to our heart’s content. Pro or con, the very fact that this discussion has become so central to our lives and theoretical endeavours, that we can see nothing but its validation or refutation in the ‘ending’ of a TV show is proof enough that it is more than a purely theoretical or political matter. It has become something that touches most of us emotionally, and this emotion is nothing but fear: we fear disorder, we dread the chaos of revolution, rebellion or any kind of destructive transformation, and we are horrified of the directionless (or misdirected) violence of the masses. Accept it or not, we are also terrorised by the prospect of the planet which we have vandalised for centuries may finally hit back, and we cannot make amends without a massive, coordinated effort. We have all read about the Age of Terror following the French Revolution, when everybody was happily guillotining each other in front of cheering masses. We have seen the Russian Revolution turning into a Stalinist dictatorship where even the victims were complicit in victimising themselves. We have seen many revolutions and ‘wars of independence’ in Asia, South America and Africa, ending up in worse dictatorships, massacres and some in open genocides. However radical our words may be, we all are terrorised, and some of us, even in a fantasy universe, have started (albeit under our breath) to pray for Lacan to be completely wrong, that there may be a ‘Big Other’ somewhere after all, an omniscient Philosopher King, a firm-handed but benevolent Glorified Father, an Enlightened Despot to listen to our counsel, somebody!

Žižek’s sympathy for Danerys and his portrayal of her as some kind of an Enlightened Despot, a revolutionary, is understandable in this sense, and it is completely in line with his recent (or maybe not so recent) turn towards a desperate acceptance (ironic maybe, but nevertheless acceptance) of some kind of meritocracy under a Benevolent Ruler. As for myself, I still have no hopes for (or excessive dread of) a Big Other. Whatever will happen, we will make it happen, not with the ‘people’ the populists promote and endorse, which does not exist anyway (‘Le peuple n’existe pas’), but with a different people, not a presumed unity but divided and scattered, split and broken. So in this respect I am completely with Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

KING ARTHUR: […] We are all Britons and I am your king.
OLD WOMAN: Oh! I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
DENNIS: You’re fooling yourself. We’re living in a dictatorship, a self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes…
OLD WOMAN: There you are, bringing class into it again!
DENNIS: That’s what it’s all about. If only—

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