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Political Economy & Game of Thrones

Iron Throne.jpg
A month ago, I argued that the sociopaths in Game of Thrones reflect the audience’s understanding that our current politics are fueled by deception. The interesting characters of the show seem to understand this. They kill without compunction, lie to the point of losing track of the truth, and are generically unfriendly. Over the course of four seasons one of the show’s first sympathetic characters, adolescent Aria Stark, has blossomed into a calculating sociopath herself. In the fourth season finale (that’s a spoiler warning, if you care) she faces a situation that tests her sympathy. For most of the show she has been on the run, and for the past season she was in the company of a baddie she had sworn an oath to kill: The Hound—brother of The Mountain (he is the graphic skull crusher, remember). While The Hound remained a brutal sociopath, the two seemed to have become friends, with Aria even offering to dress The Hound’s wounds. But an interloper (looking for Aria) stumbles in and, in a knockdown drag-out fight (there’s that “real” violence again), finally forces The Hound off a cliff. Aria finds him at the bottom, his fractured femur poking through his armor. He begs her to kill him; she swore an oath to do so. But, rather than prove she is the sort of sociopath who will kill the man who has become her best friend, Aria shows she is the sort of sociopath who will not kill him, to make sure he suffers a few more hours on the way out.

There is, however, at least one character that resists this schema. Tyrion Lannister works in essentially the opposite direction. In the first season, he appears to be a hedonist. He uses his effortless riches for just two things: drink and whores (whom HBO loves to put on screen—but more on that later). But there is more to Tyrion, as the stories develop. It is important to note here that in Game of Thrones almost all the major characters are members of the nobility. Tyrion is no exception—he is a Lannister, that is, from one of the “great houses.” (Something very like being a Lancaster in medieval England.) Still, even though he is an elite, he is nonetheless different from the rest of his family: he is a “half-man.” And this difference allows him to be one of the only elite characters able to form real friendships across social boundaries. He genuinely loves the awkwardly acted prostitute Shea, just as he does his heartlessly evil father and sister. And yet, like Kotsko’s sociopaths, he seems able to still manipulate the social expectations of others almost at will. This complexity, along with the masterful acting of Peter Dinklage, makes him the most beloved character in the show.

So how does any of this have to do with political economy? Well, quite a bit, actually. I’d like to return to the fact that Game of Thrones follows the elites and shows that most of them are sociopaths. This reflects a widespread understanding of our own current political economy. But if the show has something to say about the elites, does it also have something to say about the rest of us? Where are the other classes in the show? What do they do? Well, we only regularly see the 99% do two things in the show: sex and violence. I mentioned Tyrion’s propensity toward prostitutes; but he is not the only one. Many minor characters in the show: Ros, Shea, and a host of nameless women (and a few men) are sex workers. A few of them, Ros and Shea, seem at first to be empowered women making a living with their own resources—a sort of neoliberal-feminist fantasy. However, the constant manipulation and gruesome deaths of these women at the hands of men contradicts that reading—sex work is dangerous in the end and the show seems to reject the possibility of selling one’s body without also selling our lives. Sex work in Westeros is biopower in the framework of capitalism. Tyrion, in fact, knows this. His whoring comes first from love—in his youth he loved and even married a lower class girl, only to find out that the whole thing had been staged by his brother, who had paid her. When discovered by their father, she was raped and killed. The same narrative echoes, with important inversions, in the plot of Shea.

In Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition she breaks human activity into three categories: Labor, Work, and Action. Those activities associated with earthly cycles and the bodily needs and pleasures are labor. This includes both the self-reproduction and maintenance of food production and eating, and the species reproduction of sex and birth. Arendt argues that modernity is the period in which labor has achieved supremacy in our political affairs; we live in a consumer driven political economy. The whores of Game of Thrones are a part of this consumer economy, and their bodies are literally used up, worn out, and even consumed. That doesn’t mean the show's makers are signaling an emancipatory feminist message. At the same time that the show is portraying these women being commodified, it enacts that same commodification itself—selling images of busty, curvaceous women available on screen (and the show has been criticized for not even having sexual equity in its offerings). What position does this leave a viewer? A critical watcher must be ambivalent toward their implication into this economy of bodies, and I certainly don’t feel great about it. However, perhaps recognizing our own implication in the ongoing politics of exploitation is better than casting blame on others in a toxic holier-than-thou moment.

Seemingly the only other way to make money in Westeros is by fighting: the aptly named Bronn is Tyrion’s best friend and paid mercenary (or “sell-sword” in the literal jargon of the show). He regularly risks his life for cash, trusting to the Lannister’s unofficial motto bespeaking financial responsibility. Though his is an especially obvious example, soldiering provides almost the only role that allows any male character of the lower class to emerge into the narrative of the show. Soldiers, slaves, and mercenaries get screen time insofar as they climb the ladder of combat and command to interact with the nobility and snag some screen time. Again using Arendt's schema, fighting would fit into her category of action—the words and deeds of humans in history.

Importantly, the disclosure of such action is made possible by the surrounding world. But that world is not a given. The human creation of places, trades, and culture that cradles action may be inevitable, but its specific forms are not. Fictional worlds, so beloved by fans of fantasy, are a precondition for the narrative: something always already there. Indeed, much of the joy of fans immersed in this genre is reconstructing backstory, history, and details like invented languages (think of Tolkien’s Simarillion, or speakers of Klingon). This givenness of the world mirrors human experience: we are thrown into the world and only come to understand it gradually and incompletely. But fictional worlds are creations of minds and always end, even if they remain incomplete. We have only what Tolkein or the producers of Game of Thrones provide, even if we invent our own elaborations. In our own real world, there is no such finality. Our thrownness and the corresponding givenness of the world does not indicate completion. We have a hand in the creation and maintenance of the world by the fact that we are born into it. In fact, most of our lives are spent in work; the Arendtian category that describes this unending making of the world. Marx, in his analysis of capital, was concerned with the distribution of the means of production and the expropriation of the results of work in the world. His thinking sought to expose the totality in which this expropriation takes place in order to show it’s inherent injustice. Thinkers following his analysis like Antonio Gramsci focused on hegemony—the expropriation not only of the goods of work and labor but the words and deeds that motivate and fulfill those activities. Arendt worries rather that we have lost track of work by automating it, hiding it away, and subordinating the achievement of creation to the satisfaction of consumption. The problem is not that the profits of work are being expropriated, though they are. Rather it is that a hegemonic voice insists that work is no longer worth doing. This also means that the products of work, durable goods, have become less durable and more estranged. We forget that we make the world, in addition to producing and consuming.

This forgetting of world making work is in Game of Thrones—great ruins remain: the Wall, Herrenhall, the Iron Throne itself. But work is not shown onscreen. No one produces anything (a few swords and pieces of armor aside). The material world and the types of knowledge that grasp it are absent. Phronesis is the ancient Greek term for this type of working knowledge, and it has much to do with what Hubert Dreyfus, reading Heidegger, calls “absorbed coping.” The only type of absorbed coping in Game of Thrones seems to be fighting, and maybe sex—both types of being that do not create durable worldly things. Humans, the product of a certain percentage of sex, are mortal where made things aren’t—a table wears out but it doesn’t die or get consumed. Warfare, of course, destroys many made things, and has real historical results, and even leads to technological innovation. But in its most narrow definition—the way it is shown onscreen—war does not create an enduring world to shelter human mortality.

This tendency to obscure the human work that creates and maintains the world is also present in the creation and distribution of Game of Thrones itself. Shown on HBO, the show has a massive budget, and is filmed all over the world. The world that is created on screen is lushly realized. But that work goes mostly unknown. The famous names are those of the actors—whose words and deeds are remembered. And the show is massively popular—so much so that it is the most pirated show in history: “193,418 were sharing a single file of the episode simultaneously” according to Forbes. This piracy of the show, just like its commodification of women, implicates its fans in a hegemonic project. That project focuses on the depravity of the elite, but nonetheless focuses on the elite. We don’t want to acknowledge (by paying) the workers whose skill has gone into making this imaginative world that is nestled in our own world. And even if we do pay, the concentrations of capital and power remain. Even if those HBO workers are richly paid, the world proletariat, without whose labor and resources shows like this would be impossible, are elided every bit as much as the unrepresented imaginary serfs who presumably form the basis of Tyrion Lannister's wealth. Of course, we can’t expect a subsidiary of Time Warner to create democractic, revolutionary literature in an inherently capital intensive medium like television. For that, perhaps, we need to still retain hope in the more democratic medium of the written word.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. New York: Anchor Books, 1957. Print.

Dreyfus, Hubert. Being in the World. Dir. Carman, Taylor, Giancarlo Canavesio, Tao Ruspoli, et al. Kino Lorber, Inc., distributor, 2011; 2010.

--Daniel Clausen

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