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Cynical Tits.Game of Thrones and Television Culture.

“Our technology forces us to live mythically”

― Marshall McLuhan

“The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness.”

— Theodore Adorno

 

 

Remember Alley McBeale?

You probably don’t and if you do you may remember that for a few seconds it was considered important and culturally significant by the sort of people who get paid to tell you something that is by definition, culturally gossamer, and glib, has the weight of a block of lead.

The trained seals of the media don’t get paid (exactly) by the word (though plenty of them do and it’s literally pennies on the word – a kind of word-based sweatshop) but it doesn’t matter. Here today gone tomorrow and with you no matter what are tattooed on the inside of their eyelids.

Alley McBeale landed Calista Flockhart on the cover of Time magazine along side such famous day time soap opera stars as Susan B. Anthony, Beatty Friedan and Gloria Steinem with the breathless Teen Beat meets Vogue headline: Is Feminism dead. Which for all of its lack of depth could just as easily have been: How to Have A Feminist Orgasm.

One could dwell on the irradiated stupidity of Time Magazine but why bother. If you’re enough of an atrophied carbuncle to take Time seriously than you’re too much of an imbecile to understand they’re selling shit on a stick and beyond redemption.

Alley McBeale of course is hardly unique.

As we discussed previously, the system – from hedge funds to entertainment empires to their colonies which everyone pretends are independent news outlets writing reviews when in truth they are wholly owned subsidiaries cranking out industrial scale paid advertising and propaganda – views reality through the wrong end of a telescope. As a result, things like Friends and ER are declared culturally important because 20+ million people watched them every week and millions more watch them in syndication.

What goes missing of course is that billions of people not only don’t watch but that even if you subtract significant numbers who are too young, too old, or too busy, there remains hundreds of millions who decide not to watch as a matter of principle.

And yet, everything from establishment organs like The New York Times to your average YouTube vlog act as if it’s the one thing everyone has in common like oxygen or gravity.

All of which brings us to Game of Thrones.

It has its charms but to be reasonable so do Marvel movies and no one who doesn’t have the emotional maturity of a ten year old thinks Marvel is to cinema as Scorsese or Truffaut, or Bergman or – well as usual feel free to make your own list and don’t consider ours anything except provisional.

Of course one could make the otherwise valid argument that you can’t fault something for failing at something it’s not attempting. After all it’s Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings not Kurosawa’s and while that’s tragic, the fact is if you want good fast food go right ahead and enjoy it but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fast food and stop talking about it as if it’s criminal that it hasn’t received a Michelin Star.

The defenders of these products all more or less use the same methods. They make the case that the product has cultural significance – and they’re not wrong – and while not overtly claiming the product is the equal of say, Wertmuller or Mallick, they don’t stop others from making that case for them.

This happened with The Wire and The Sopranos. With the former we are constantly told that it has the sweep and depth of a (generic) Russian novel or is Dickens-esque.

For the latter one might hear that it was similar to Flaubert.

When asked to offer specific examples that make the case the response was/is predictably, calm down, it’s just television.

This recalls the binary gotcha of North Dallas Forty where a character says, when we say it’s a game, you say it’s a business and when we say it’s a business you say it’s just a game.

Of course that’s capitalism at a cellular level.

And when confronted by that fact, the machine responds like a proper Borg cube and denies the content of the response and then kills the messenger.

In other words, when the wage slaves demand a raise they’re told no because it will cause an inflationary spiral.

When the plantation owners cough up an IPO that sends rents up to cocaine level prices and force gentrification which is a euphemism for laissez-faire ethnic cleansing were told it’s a sign of a robust economy in rude health.

This same methodology is deployed against cultural critiques in a war against culture while simultaneously insisting the debate is open and free from financial extortion.

Comparing The Wire to a “Russian novel” is like saying War and Peace is a really long book about bad weather and Anna Karenina is a slightly less long book about railway safety.

It’s the sort of thing that works if you’re a halfwit or a snake oil salesman who can be found extolling the health benefits of a weekly ether binge.

To understand Game of Thrones properly you have to address the author of the books on which it is based, George R.R. Martin.

Martin has made the perfectly valid aesthetic point that while all contemporary writers of fantasy novels or to be more precise, swords and sorcery (because after all, all works of art are fantasies from Story of O to The Chronicles of Narnia – in one God wears leather and in the other God is a talking lion but both are about discipline and redemption among other things) work in the shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien, there should be room for stories in which the heroes or at least the protagonists die and things are at best morally ambiguous.

That this ignores the works on which Tolkien rests and in which the heroes and protagonists usually die, and that it also ignores Tolkien’s own Silmarillion epic in which the hero dies, is not exactly on point though not insignificant.

Martin’s idea however many asterisks it requires is not by definition wrong. Tolkien being a Romantic Reactionary Liberal Monarchist took Modernism, fused it with the classical and in the context of the two world was and all of their attendant issues, rewrote Arthur, and the misty mess of Central European mythology with dragons and dwarves, elves and magic. Anyone who thinks Gandalf declaring, “You shall not pass!” isn’t an echo of ¡No pasarán!, should not be taken seriously though they should be seriously taken as a reason to keep one eye on the nearest exit.

But, no one who is central to the story dies (except peacefully from old or very old age – aside from Boromir and Théoden) and everyone who is central to the story is righteous except the very specifically delineated Bad Guys.

Of course there is enough moral ambiguity in Tolkien to drop a Nazgul because it’s the utterly sketchy tormented Gollum who saves the world as the Ring Bearer gets a bad case of the jitters and shakes at the worst possible moment.

Then again, all of that gets drowned out by everything else and by Peter Jackson’s not very subtle use of post 9/11 anxiety to ram Meaning down everyone’s throats.

The Orc who is a suicide bomber at the Battle of Helm’s Deep could very easily be used to accuse Jackson of any number of things but as we see it the worst of those charges would be, bad taste. Add in the utterly gratuitous Feminism Virtue Signaling where Arwen plays gotcha with Aragorn while Frodo lies at death’s door, (and switches emotional gears from irresponsible to concerned in a heartbeat) and you have more than enough with which to find Jackson guilty of bad faith which is a far more egregious charge than being a sometime bad director.

Operating in the long shadow of Tolkien Martin did two things that are if not unique are at least interesting.

First he dispensed with seemingly easy virtue and the binary construction of Good vs Bad.

And secondly, he added zombies.

That the former is not a new idea we shall return to later.

That the second is a kind of off the shelf product found at a cultural box store we can address now by saying yes, that’s clever but it’s not clever like moving Homer to Dublin or Sophocles to the American South or “wagon train in space” with pointy-eared science officers trying to control their otherwise out of control emotions.

After the media hocus pocus that insisted The Walking Dead was not, as Craig Ferguson rightly put it, a soap opera with zombies (his exact phrase was: it’s stories, i.e., soap operas, with zombies) but Culturally Significant, and after Danny Boyles infinitely more authentic and culturally significant 28 Days (in which the proximate source of the plague is a virus called “Rage.”) was faded from the discussion by the corporatist foot soldiers, any reasonable discussion about Martin has to find that one of the central conceits of his work is derivative.

There are, said Robert Bly, basically only two stories. The mysterious stranger arrives and the mysterious stranger departs.

As a result essentially all stories are derivative and yet, the fact is originality is real; it occurs. It doesn’t occur very often but it does happen and when it doesn’t and you have instead a pale imitation of originality it’s at best annoying and at worst toxic.

This brings us to the other quirk in the stories. The structure of the plot points.

Essentially every plot point is the same.

X needs Y.

Y previously betrayed X’s Father/Mother/Brother/Sister/Aunt/Uncle/Dog.

Y agrees to help X

In doing so they kill A.

B previously allied with A vows revenge and forms an alliance with C who wants revenge against X and Y because they were previously allied with X’s Father/Mother/Brother/Sister/Aunt/Uncle/Dog and betrayed C and who were previously betrayed by Y and are now being betrayed again because X has gotten into bed with Y not withstanding the fact that X’s need for help is legitimate because Cersei Lannister is Lady Macbeth on steroids.

At the same time D engages in extreme violence for no other reason than they enjoy it.

As a result the new alliances fracture and the parties involved trade places but, crucially, all subsequent alliances retain or repeat the previous form.

Then there’s sex.

And then someone explains all of the above in a cynical if not glib tone that is meant to suggest both world weary resignation and a sophisticated nuanced understanding of how things are really.

Repeat.

Add incest and then repeat.

Which then transforms cynicism into a faux cynicism akin to people who (as Ray Chandler pointed out) mistake Hammett’s experience for a stunt and think writing “yeah” and describing cool blondes with long legs and icy stares is sexy the same way some people think anatomy textbooks are seduction manuals.

What seems to have gone missing in excavations of the show and the books is that this is not very different from your average Greek tragedy or Faulkner novel.

Except for two crucially important points.

Greek-Athenian tragedies were woven into a wider controlled socio-religious ritual and not woven into vast marketing schemes – unless one wants to define hating the Persians as selling the product but even then only a pinhead would say it’s analogous to a bobblehead of Peter Dinklage – and Faulkner was a seminal genius.

And the violence, byzantine feuds, relationships, incest, and assorted calamities in Faulkner don’t rely on dragons or zombies – not withstanding the emotional zombies of the Deep South.

Martin’s aesthetic, as such, can’t be faulted for not being Tennessee Williams nursing a hangover, or for not being a Greek tragedy distilled and hyper distilled through Faulkner’s protean imagination.

But as a result if it is defined as a success it is a success defined as being a kind of cultural curio not a masterpiece.

Additionally everyone is supposed to get collective amnesia and say they’ve never heard of The Lord of The Rings. This of course is part of the Borg marketing cube which by controlling the media can claim that GOT is an organic cultural artifact and not an arcade curio invented by marketing weasels ordered to find the next “Tolkien” but with tits. That this turns Tolkien into fast food, hollows out the crucially important role a free press plays in the life of a nation and turns the commons into a whore house of course goes undiscussed – and any attempt at discussion is rendered either irrelevant through silence or is rendered irrelevant through hysterical denunciations.

After all just consider what happens when a prominent media platform dares to allow dissent and someone says, they don’t think Marvel movies are the greatest thing since sex or food – the cyber burning at the stake is fundamentally not any different in its impact than burning books.

Dismissive and outraged cries of snobbery and elitism to one side the issue then is, what to make of a derivative, paint by numbers story that is completely unpredictable so long as your idea of complex literary narratives is confined to comic books and other television shows.

Since the people who want Game of Thrones to be taken seriously are adamant about it’s cultural heft one is obligated to seriously excavate the subject.

Martin is not alone in being bleak or cynical or even partially hardboiled. The problem with that is of course Mickey Spillane only appears to be Hardboiled if you have never heard of Hammett and find Raymond Chandler to be soft. And, more importantly, either ignore Spillane’s neo-fascism or celebrate it.

Which in turn raises important questions about the reactionary nature of GOT. It is a celebration of pre modern feudalism with easy ideas of honor and binary issues of revenge and justice.

And why is that?

On the one hand it’s down to the limits of the genre. The limits of the genre are however locked into place by the dictatorial nature of the systemic rot that defines corporate publishing. Literary agents will be the first to tell you that they are in charge of what genre your work will fit because publishing is not about curating works of literary art but are about marketing and the professional weasels who report to the accountants who report to the stock holders.

The corporations that own the publishing houses also own the media platforms that produce the “reviews” which of course forces contrary views and dissent into the ghetto of the internet.

That in turn cements the dictates of “genre” which is no longer an aesthetic choice but a marketing strategy.

Hardboiled cynicism and nihilism then are at multiple removes from intent even if they exist inside the work like a series of (accidental or corrupt) nesting dolls.

No one will go broke overestimating the nihilism of Beckett or Graham Greene or the gaping all consuming maw at the heart of nearly everything by Conrad let alone the world breaks everyone mantra of Hemingway.

Camus is alleged to have summed up his branch of Existential gloom by saying it all comes down to: Should I shoot myself or have another cup of coffee.

The aesthetic (authentic or accidental) then is not the issue per se.

The issue is the execution (sic) of the aesthetic and both how it works or how poorly it succeeds and what does it mean?

To the issue of success, Martin is successful but only so long as one accepts it is the success of a minor work and a minor writer and a silly show (inside a Borg Shopping Mall – which is essentially a haute version of the same thing you can find in North Korea) with essentially two emotional gears.

In one everyone broods. In the second they comment on the brooding. After all there’s a scene where the completely charming Emilia Clarke as Daenerys says to Jon Snow (the brooding Kit Harington who while a substantial cut above the notorious ‘Manikin Skywalker’ can still give a table a run for its money) I’m happy for you – with all the emotional verve of someone either just coming out of a coma or just slipping into one.

Ouch.

Shields up, swords drawn, etc.

To the issue of quality: A better writer would have not been blatantly derivative and would not use the same two step construction for every plot point. But even if one grants the premise what is left is not just a cynical vision but a simplistically cynical vision.

Consider The Iron Bank.

Essentially the proverbial power behind the throne, the bank is, capitalism.

As such Martin is offering what in the hands of an accomplished artist, could be a potentially brilliant metaphor.

Instead it’s a cartoon cutout that allows HBO to appear Woke; hip to the authentic and aesthetically realized cynicism of anyone who isn’t a tool of the system.

But it’s a con and is devoid of authenticity because the action, as such, is focused on the sex and the brooding and the blood letting.

And the dragons and the zombies.

The bank is there as a dodge; a cover so everyone involved can say see, we understand and the whole contraption can be sold as a critique of end phase capitalism as the world sinks under a wave of enslaving debt and rising oceans.

And of course why does Ayra kill the Knight King? Because, you go grrrrl and #Metoo. Which all could be authentic except it’s insincere and cynical and is hiding behind “feminism” and any criticism of it will be called out as misogynistic.

Why does Lyanna Mormont kill a giant zombie? Because you go grrrrl – even if you’re a child and your spine’s been crushed but you go ahead and stab that giant with the pointy end because, #MeToo.

After all, Khaleesi is trying to end slavery.

While there have been a few muted ahems regarding Martin’s recycling of the old trope about white goddesses saving the barbarians, which goes back to Robert E Howard’s 1930s neo-fascist violence porn in the Conan the Barbarian stories, the fact is, that’s a dodge as well.

The barbarians as Brecht said, have their heroes just like everyone else and a white savior is no more or less problematic than a green one or any other type.

A character in Game of Thrones declares no one can protect anyone. This is not essentially dissimilar to Hemingway leaning on Donne to declare a man alone is fucked and even if he’s not alone odds are he’s fucked all the same.

But Martin has not invented the modern American novel or short story.

Hemingway did.

And so what remains is a nihilism and cynicism in which what is being celebrated is a half orc clinging annoyingly to Aragorn’s saddle.

But with more sex.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se.

At the same time there is a kind of critical lockstep in which all “reviews” offer essentially the same praise.

But recall they did the same for ER and no one ever bothered to point out that nearly every plot point included a scene of other characters down the hall in the hospital as if to say yes, Doctor Handsome is your focus right now but look over his shoulder and you’ll see the other doctor who is next up in the rotation.

Subtle?

Sure, like a heart attack or an army of zombies.

In Game of Thornes you have the same thing. Look, X is having an impossibly unrealistic and vague innuendo heavy conversation that makes Scully and Mulder seem like a conversational How to Manual by comparison, and there, in the background, is a raven. Or Bran. Or the guy who is going to be fed to the dragons.

Add sex.

Repeat.

And that is also down to the paint by number’s “talent” of David Benioff who’s novel City of Thieves reads like a Novel Structure for Dummies reprint with each plot point telegraphed with all the subtlety of a dragon cooking its dinner.

He is of course thus revealed as a typical product of the industrial scale marketing machine that owns publishing, controls who what and where books are published, controls “reviews” and pretends they are independent and not off the shelf propaganda, and that publishing remains essentially a small batch artisanal endeavor and not a wholly owned subsidiary of the Borg Corporate collective.

In other words, Benioff is a hack.

This is on full display in the 8th and final season of the show.

The “epic” battle for Winterfell (hereafter, the epic battle of Winterfudge) with its resolution of the series-long arc of the Knight King-winter-is-coming is curated as a masterpiece – the single greatest epic battle in television history.

That being the greatest epic in the history of television is more or less the equivalent of being the Unsullied with the biggest cock is not unimportant but for our purposes we consider other issues.

The Knight King, a cross between a less prolix if not mute Vader and a more sinister and less interesting Thanos, ends up as a damp squib taken out not so much by a blade wielding if lethal munchkin, but by the utterly unbelievable incompetence of his ersatz Nazgul who all of a sudden stop paying attention.

And crucially for the Culture industry generally and the cult of Game of Thrones specifically, take note of how the acolytes perform logical gymnastics to explain the Grand Canyon size plot holes in an effort to  convince you and themselves that the deux ex machina laziness-we-don’t-give-a-fuck-because-we-have-already-cashed-our-checks attitude of HBO and the writers is not the issue.

These foot soldiers of the Culture industry, these second rate Borg Drones don’t understand that if you have to do the heavy lifting to explain the “plot” is means the writers don’t care – they don’t care about the work, they don’t care about the audience, and the situation is fundamentally no different than it was fifty years ago except the effects are better and some people are making a lot more money than anyone did previously.

No doubt we’ll be told later Ayra used a secret tunnel or there was magic involved but any way you stick the pointy end it was a failure. And even if the Knight King “returns” in some sort of “surprise” or “twist” that does nothing to subvert the truth – the scene was bad and a betrayal of the series and the audience’s faith.

It is the very definition of being a hack.

At least with Jackson’s Tolkien there’s an explanation however half-assed for such a catastrophic lapse in attention by the bad guys or the silliness of the good guys.

Here’s there’s nothing except obedience to the product’s claim to integrity which if not jumping the shark is stepping over the nearest zombie.

Even the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan are better and that’s in spite of, not because of Spielberg’s saccharin diabetics beware patriotism.

And by way of comparison consider the fight scenes in Richard Lester’s the Three Musketeers or anything by Kurosawa.

When Michael York’s D’Artagnan finally kills Christopher Lee’s Rochefort, the scene is authentic in every sense – the violence, the anxiety, the absurdity, the pay off for the audience, is all there and the writing, direction, editing and acting all succeed because of course the work is authentic and not a paint by numbers imitation of Art or story telling.

But in the case of GOT what is it in the service of?

Cynicism and nihilism and a resulting exploitation of the media junkies of the wider culture.

Because “culture” has been captured and is being rolled off an assembly line.

And this is the moral dilemma.

Being existentially bleak or nihilistic is not the problem. But using it as an ersatz cudgel with which one beats people, and again beats them, into unthinking submission and subsequent cheerleading is really just more of the same. It’s the same politics, the same faux analysis of politics and the same industrial scale celebration of the culture where one chat show is essentially the same as any other.

As a result when the slightly more sophisticated fans extoll the show’s virtue they suggest it’s a critique of contemporary politics and impending environmental catastrophe they sound not just absurd but absurd in the manner of a tween who on Monday is obsessed with a song and on Wednesday hates it. Attempt to argue the point and they will pitch a fit.

And that is breathlessly reported as being culturally significant.

Except it’s not (or is but not for any reasons anyone is going to discuss) and is instead a fun house mirror that like most of the rest of the media landscape is in symbiosis with that which it may or may not be condemning.

This easy virtue would be funny were it not intrinsically sinister.

This week Dr. House’s mantra that everyone lies is celebrated as a hardboiled pearl of wisdom.

Next week he’s condemned by #MeToo for suggesting women are as prone to deception as men.

Consider Chat shows.

They are all prefabricated and despite moments of charm or – gasp – some wit – the fact is they are essentially infomercials sandwiched in-between commercials and which offer scripted conversations that are all designed to sell a product.

Some are more blatant than others as no one is going to confuse a smurf and Golden Retriever like Jimmy Fallon with Dick Cavet.

But all of them simultaneously claim or suggest that they are excavating the culture and curating the cultural moment.

A few years ago an actor mentioned in passing that Gary Oldman – an often brilliant and brilliantly combustible actor – had a great team behind him that was guiding him towards an Oscar for his turn as “Churchill.”

No mention of the fact that his “Churchill” was one of two that season and that the two-fer is the SOP of the industry – two cowboys movies, two action movies two romcoms and so on – Burger King v McDonalds – and no discussion of what it means to say he has a great team.

Because of course no one who is making the sausage wants you to hear the animal’s scream as they get ground into dinner.

But first a word of hype from your sponsor and the sound you hear is not the wall coming down but the money tree at HBO HQ barfing up another billion in revenue.

This, says an increasingly rouge Captain America, is not freedom, it’s fear.

The plot point is of course not developed lest the powers that be, get angry and additionally it’s not just fear, it’s corporate tyranny.

You’re free to watch anything you want – as long as it’s what we have provided and you’re free to say anything you want but if you want your voice heard you’ll have to sign away your rights, move into a company town, shop at the company store, and do as you’re fucking told or we’ll kick you out of the airlock and replace you with someone who knows how to follow orders.

After all, Nick Fury can go from borderline genocidal fascist whose rage is excused because it’s anchored by a story that shields him (sic!) in the armor of bigotry’s victim, then, with the snap of a finger, changes to renegade ideologically committed subversive, all without any emotional depth or authentic angst.

Criticize it and you’ll be told, contemptuously, it’s just a comic book movie.

Agree that it’s just a comic book movie and you’ll be told, contemptuously, you’re an elitist.

In this episode of Game of Thrones, Joey and Chandler lose Ross’ engagement ring while Rachel tries to get over Ross, Monica plays with Tom Selleck’s mustache, her parents fret, and Phoebe reunites with her birth mother, while being impregnated by her brother, and Nurse Hathaway tries to kill herself but Doctor Greene saves her and an army of undead marches across Georgia, while malfunctioning robots dressed like cowboys fight fire breathing dragons and the president’s fixer has a heart attack in bed with the president’s daughter, who is a coke sniffing dominatrix.

Cue laughter.

Add sex.

Repeat.

Next, a preview of the new smash hit, based on the life of Virginia Woolf. It’s Bloomsbury, with vampires.

HBO’s, Cynical Tits

 

For a look at the specific issues with GOT see the following:

Watch

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