Like so many of my nonviolent friends, I am drawn to HBO’s television adaptation Game of Thrones. And as I watch characters lose heads, hands, and other members, I wonder what it is about our historical situation that draws so many of us to this spectacle of violence?
To theorize violence is to approach questions of evil, justice, and the human condition. It sets me on a path of ethical questioning where one of my best guides is Hannah Arendt. To her that path winds through two countries, one the Greek and Roman path of the polis and their gods of phenomena, the other monotheistic, social (in contrast to political), and absolute.
The politically minded Greeks honored violence (cf. The Iliad) and saw tragedy as central to human political experience. Tragedy, Aristotle tells us,
is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;... in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.
Violence is at the heart of tragedy, yet it always takes place off stage. Medea kills her children, Oedipus kills his father and plucks out his eyes. Antigone is on a stage bathed in the blood of her brothers, to which she will add her own. And the task of Orestes is precisely to establish the justice of violence in order to break the ancient and vicious cycle of retribution. With the approval of Athena (goddess of forethought and forebearance) and Apollo (god of ration and order), law—human order—is invested as the legitimate use of violence to create the possibility of “noble living.” Another German, Walter Benjamin, calls this violence of the Greeks “mythic violence,” a representation of legitimated violence which either founds or upholds law, jus, droit, Recht: right.
In the monotheistic tradition, violence is much more inscrutable and much more visible. Abraham must sacrifice Isaac; Christ must suffer crucifixion; the faithful must lay down their lives for the Lord. Blood flows freely and fire consumes the flesh of humans and beasts. This is the violence before which the proper feeling is not one of justification, but one of fear and trembling—what Kierkegaard understands as the basic condition of humanity. This is essentially powerlessness in the face of such awful universal power. This is what Benjamin calls “divine violence,” a violence that overthrows human order, that stands aloof and unthinkable, but which, Jacques Derrida contends, is essentially “without bloodshed” because it is a violence which transcends the human order to redeem it and open new possibility. As such (and by definition) “divine violence” cannot be human in motive or cause.
Which brings me to the Game of Thrones episode titled “The Mountain and the Viper.” Reading this television show is a complex matter because of the many layers through which it must be read. The macro-plot lines contain echoes of European medieval history, with warring houses, religious zealots, brutal warfare, and vicious intrigue. But the characters are distinctly modern, generally cynical, and sometimes endearingly scrupulous despite the brutal world they inhabit. So the meanings of the show arise out of our established suspicions about both the past and present, presenting a viewer with what seems like a more honest narrative of world power than that given by either textbooks or the evening news, for all its fiction.
And the most salient truth, foregrounded again and again in Game of Thrones, is the nature of violence in our world today. From the first episode, when the naively rigid idealist Ned Stark beheads a deserter with an anti-climatic thunk, to the early scenes of “The Mountain and the Viper,” violence is both a theme and the driving force of the narrative (the lack of so-called "plot armor" is a major draw for viewers).
In Westeros, just as in the world today, violence can be external (the “white walkers”), national (Seven Kingdoms vs. Dothraki), clannish or regional (Starks vs. Lannisters), sectarian (followers of seven gods vs. followers of the god of light), internecine (Lannisters v. Tyrion), and just plain random, as in Tyrion’s story of his idiot cousin who spent his days smashing beetles. The “game of thrones” that gives the show its name is really simply a game of kill or be killed, and establishing the power to clothe one’s killing in legality.
In “The Mountain and the Viper” Law meets violence directly, in a literal fight to determine what is “right” regarding the guilt or innocence of Peter Dinklage’s beloved character Tyrion. As one reviewer pointed out, “the showrunners could have sent cardiac systems racing merely by showing a blank screen with the words ‘fight in progress’ for 10 minutes.” In the episode, the charismatic and sexually omnivorous Prince Oberyon was pitted against the hulking, brutal Gregor Clegane. Everyone watching knew they wanted Oberyon to win. Everyone was sure he wouldn’t. When it seemed to me that he might do just that, fear wouldn’t let me relax. So when The Mountain knocked him down, bashed him senseless, and then used his bare hands (upon which the camera focused relentlessly) to first gouge out his eyes and finally crush his skull in a bloody pulp while he screamed, I thought I was going to be sick. I felt that way for the next three days. Because, unlike the Greek tragedians, the showmakers didn’t let the imagination take over, but unrelentingly showed every detail of the brutality.
There is also something about Game of Thrones that sets it apart from gore-fests like slasher films or Quentin Tarantino’s and Frank Miller’s hyberbolic send ups. The violence of Game of Thrones is more sudden, more permanent. It is more like what we expect violence to be in this world where our screens are full of images of real beheadings, of passenger airplanes shot from the sky, of unarmed black men shot dead in the street by police.
Just like these daily rumors and representations of violence beyond our personal lives (in the highly protected world of the academy) this violence hints at the evils buried in our legal systems, or social organization. There is a surplus of violence, one that refuses to be reduced into systems of legality that are founded on its results.
We as viewers are forced to deal with a violence which does not conform to the systems we have created to contain it. It spills over, and in doing so we are reminded of its proximity. Perhaps in a world of supposed safety, we long for the catharsis of experiencing the violence we all suspect and fear is just beneath the surface, the violence at the margins which supports our lives. More and more, our immediate, experiential world is sanitized—perhaps that is why this hyperreal violence is both so disturbing, and apparently so welcome. Yet the show is simply a purchased catharsis, a way to sell violence for profit. There is no solution, no movement, no awareness that is built up from the violence onscreen. The gratification of seeing our fears played out in a fictional world is only helpful if we can relate that fictional world to the mechanics of violence and its representation in the events of real human lives today.
One hundred years ago, no one thought Imperial Germany would raze Belgian towns and shoot randomly corralled citizens to inspire subordination. Today, we are still stunned by the brutality of events across the world—yet we are told that there is less violence today than ever before. To forget the violence ongoing in the world around us today when we consume entertainment such as Game of Thrones is the worst possible reading of this text. Our outrage must not to be satiated through such representations, but inflamed. Perhaps this is something we can recover from both ancient traditions, and something which Arendt would endorse: that violence is not best confronted by fear, but courage—and most of all the courage of thought about its purpose, outcomes, and costs.