Category Archives: popular culture

Rediscovering The Velvet Underground

Some Apple Music playlists seem bot-made, but its Velvet Underground Essentials is a proper journey, and a masterfully curated introduction for anyone who doesn’t already dig this seminal rock band. (The Velvets are the only hip band I can confidently say I introduced many highschool and undergrad friends to.)

In this playlist — which for some reason made for perfect holiday listening yesterday — the songs are perfectly sequenced (for instance, following “Oh sweet nuthin,” a deeper but critical cut, with “All tomorrow’s parties” is inspired); the versions are judiciously selected (for instance, here’s the proper take of “Sweet Jane,” with the bridge); and if there are some omissions (like “The Murder Mystery” or “Cool it down”) there are more essentials (“Here she comes now”), and even some delightful surprises (how have I never heard “Foggy notion” before?).

I’m sharing a pic of the playlist for those who don’t have Apple Music but can source the tracks otherwise and sequence them this way. For Apple Music users, here is the playlist link.

SF: so many corporate dystopias, so few unions.

A couple of years ago, during a break in a faculty association meeting, my Athabasca U colleague Bob Barnetson and I got to talking science fiction, and he casually observed that for all its depictions of big business, the genre’s oddly lacking in corresponding images of unions. I told Bob there was a paper in his idea, and voilà, in the current issue of TOPIA, Canada’s journal of cultural studies, you can read the interdisciplinary article we co-wrote on the subject: “Resistance is futile: on the under-representation of unions in science fiction.” Here’s the abstract:

“This article surveys science fiction (SF) since 1980, and queries the conspicuous under-representation of recognizable images of unions in popular SF, which includes, in contrast, numerous images and narratives of corporate business. According to theories of unionism, science fiction studies and Mark Fisher’s theory of ‘capitalist realism,’ the co-authors theorize this pattern of under-representation, and, in the process, identify and analyze a very small but diverse body of SF works from this period that do include images of unions, in ways that range from the symptomatic to the radically suggestive.”

We gave 1980 as a start date for our study because that was about when corporate elite rule (a.k.a. neoliberalism) started to take off, and because that’s why tweets like this make sense:

Research is integrally intertwined with teaching, but it’s not as often that we in academia get to link research as closely with service. This collaboration has been one such welcome opportunity. (And it’s involved our students, too: we’re specifically indebted to the insights and references shared by AU alumna and SF author Heather Clitheroe, who’s reminded me I need check out The Expanse for more evidence of unions in SF.)

On a point unrelated to our subject matter, I also like that our article appears in an issue that both a) marks the debut of Dr. Rinaldo Walcott as TOPIA‘s new editor, and b) pays tribute to the great, late Canadian writer Austin Clarke.

Lastly, if you’re interested in the article, but you or your institution don’t subscribe to TOPIA, you can e-mail me at academicalism[at]gmail[dot]com to request a single copy (because Canada’s educational fair dealing provision in copyright law allows for individual sharing like this).

Aside

I made two mistakes last night in watching Julie Taymor’s gorgeous 1999 film version of Shakespeare’s atrocious Titus Andronicus: waiting so long to watch it; & making a drinking game of having a sip every time there’s bloodshed. #BearThouMyHandSweetWenchBetweenThyTeeth #ShakespeareMakesTarantinoLookLikeDisney

New Fronts in the Copyfight, Part 2

Now published, just in time for Fair Dealing Week 2016: Part 2 of New Fronts in the Copyfight, my guest-edited series in Digital Studies/Le champ numérique (DSCN). DSCN is an open access journal in the Digital Humanities. New Fronts in the Copyfight is a series featuring innovative, multidisciplinary directions in critical copyright studies. The new installment includes research articles by Dr Carolyn Guertin (author of Digital Prohibition) on digitally remixed creativity, and by Dr Daniel Downes (author of Interactive Realism and co-editor of Post-Colonial Distances) on a theory of “transproperty.” The installment also includes my review of Rosemary Coombe et al’s Dynamic Fair Dealing (2014), an excellent book, and a timely one, given the fast-approaching review of Canada’s amended copyright act and the copyright implications of the signed but not yet ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership.

New book chapter: “Institutions and Interpellations of the Dubject, the Doubled and Spaced Self”

I’ve got a chapter in Raphael Foshay’s just-published edited collection on Internet culture and politics, The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement.

“Institutions and interpellations of the dubject, the doubled and spaced self.” The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement. Ed. Raphael Foshay. Edmonton: Athabasca UP, 2016.

At the links you’ll find free, full-text PDF versions of the book and its individual chapters, including mine. (Athabasca University Press is an Open Access scholarly publisher that sells print copies and offers free PDF copies simultaneously.)
Here’s a quick intro to what my article’s about (and what a “dubject” is):

This essay develops the idea of the dubject as a model of remediated subjectivity. It will discuss some theoretical and institutional contexts of the dubject, and then will consider digital manifestations of the dubject with reference to how popular digital applications interpellate the user (see Althusser 1971)—that is, how they impose specific ideological and institutional conditions and limitations on applications and on users’ possibilities for self-representation. This work is an attempt to think digital identity and agency in the context of postcoloniality, as a complement to the more prevalent approach to mediated identity in terms of postmodernity. This work thus builds my larger research project of applying postcolonialist critique to popular culture, particularly that of Canada’s majority white settler society. (128)

Margaret Atwood on McLuhan’s copyright contraband

I’ve just stumbled upon this great anecdote that Margaret Atwood told the Globe & Mail in 2011, about Marshall McLuhan and his first book’s tussle with copyright.

I was one of those people who luckily was able to obtain a copy of The Mechanical Bride, early on. You know that he had to pull off the shelves – do you know this book at all?

He reproduced a lot of ads, from soap companies and cigarette companies and everything. He showed the actual ad, and then he would do an analysis of them. And it is very funny.

But the companies whose ads they were took exception. Copyright issues. And he had to pull the book. But he had them in his cellar and if you had contact you could purchase one out of the back window of Marshall McLuhan’s house – so The Mechanical Bride, a piece of genius.

McLuhan’s work sometimes shows a critical concern with copyright; The Medium is the Massage anticipates and encapsulates more or less the whole argument of Mark Rose’s 1993 book Authors and Owners:

“Authorship” – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology. … The invention of print did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. … The rising consumer-oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy. The idea of copyright – “the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, and sell the matter and form of a literary or artistic work” – was born. (122)

This section goes on to theorize photocopying as a democratized, user-driven form of “instant publishing”: Anybody can now become both author and publisher. Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book by simply xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one – instant steal!” (123). McLuhan here presents an image of radical appropriation, of the kind that copyright maximalists like the photocopy royalty-collecting agency Access Copyright (formerly CanCopy) have been invoking to lobby and litigate against fair dealing for years now. This is not to say that McLuhan’s image exemplifies fair dealing, the users’ right in copyright law that allows for certain limited reuse of copyrighted works (see “What is Fair Dealing”): he leaves unclear whether the hypothetical user is assembling just one compilation (which would be more fair), or mass-photocopying multiple copies (which would be less fair); and whether the user is using the compilation non-commercially (more fair) or for sale (less fair).

Since not only The Mechanical Bride but also The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, and Culture is Our Business made extensive collage use of cut-up print media samples, maybe there is, in Atwood’s suggestive anecdote, a fuller story worth looking into. One wonders if copyright was a legal pretext exploited by the advertisers whose work he reproduced simply to suppress what he had to say about them – what he had to say about postwar advertising wasn’t good. Atwood’s description of McLuhan’s purportedly infringing work as “genius” also related interestingly to her own statements on copyright from around the same time, which tended to side with proponents of the kind of copyright maximalism that would severely curtail not only fair dealing but even the kind of licensed, commercial reuse that made so much of McLuhan’s work possible and so distinctive in the first place (see Knopf; McCutcheon, “It’s unfair”). Were books like The Mechanical Bride and The Medium is the Massage in production today, it’s conceivable that the hefty fees now being asked for permission to reprint song lyrics, poetry lines, and photographs (McCutcheon, “Cento” 92) could prove prohibitive, and prevent them from ever getting to print.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood, uncensored.” The Globe and Mail 29 Apr. 2011. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/margaret-atwood-uncensored/article578234/?page=all
Knopf, Howard. “To Margaret Atwood: Copyright and Cars cannot conflate.” Excess Copyright 14 Mar. 2011 http://excesscopyright.blogspot.ca/2011/03/to-margaret-atwood-copyright-and-cars.html
McCutcheon, Mark A. “The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright.” English Studies in Canada 38.2 (2012): 71-101. http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/ESC/article/view/21280/16093
—. “It’s unfair to impugn #cdnpse…” Tweet 7:27 pm, 14 Oct. 2012 https://twitter.com/sonicfiction/status/257668880841973762
McLuhan, Marshall and Jerome Agel. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967). Berkeley: Gingko, 2001.
Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
“What is Fair Dealing and how does it relate to copyright?” Library, Simon Fraser U, 4 Mar. 2015 http://www.lib.sfu.ca/faqs/copyright-fair-dealing

Game Of Thrones isn’t escapist, it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism

“Old-fashioned escapism”? | Definitions | Win or die | Brands and circuses | “The slavery of being a girl” | “Winter is coming” | A “cracked-mirror” Europe | A critical or ideological fantasy? | Notes | Works Cited

“Old-fashioned escapism”?

Fantasy may think of itself as escapist, but it of course escapes nothing, and the idea that it therefore does not have anything to say about ‘reality’ is wildly simplistic. (Miéville ¶40)

Game Of Thrones season 1 screenshotThe HBO TV series Game Of Thrones is one of today’s most popular TV shows. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, Game Of Thrones is set in a fictional world “like a cracked-mirror reflection of medieval Europe” (Tucker ¶2), and its plot concerns a struggle among several aristocratic families, or “Houses,” for the monarchy of a realm called Westeros. Game is mainly a character drama about these “high-born” families embroiled in this war for the realm’s “Iron Throne,” but it belongs to the fantasy genre that was innovated by J.R.R. Tolkein. The setting is a feudal, agrarian society; battles are fought with blades and bows among castles, cavalry, and catapults; and there are fantastic elements like magic, and monsters: dragons, giants, and, yes, zombies too.

In the popular press, Game is often described as “escapism” – whether for better or worse. In the UK’s Independent, Sarah Hughes attributes the popularity of Game to audience demand for “fantasy and escapism, which tends to happen when times are hard” (Hughes ¶11). Critic Navneet Alang praises violent shows like Game and The Walking Dead for their “brutal escapism”: Martin_STFUaboutGoT“both shows are escapist dreams,” he writes; “[w]hile The Walking Dead is a look into an imaginary future … Game of Thrones is a look back into an imaginary past” (¶3). BBC journalist Ken Tucker applauds Game for its “old-fashioned escapism … invit[ing] you to join a world where you can solve your problems with a sword and a saddle” (¶2). In contrast, Vice columnist Clive Martin states his “aversion to anything that could be described as fantasy” and categorically dismisses Game – together with the whole fantasy genre – for its escapism: “I’ve always seen it as a culture that tends to be adored by people who can’t quite deal with the chaos of the real world” (¶8).

Nevertheless, some of the critics who call Game escapist still point to elements of social relevance from which they would otherwise distance the show (or fantasy in general). The Independent‘s Hughes mentions “hard times”; and the BBC’s Tucker notes that “at a time when people fear upsetting the boss lest they find themselves tossed into a frighteningly small job market … the escapism of a programme in which bosses can be cut down to size with one precise slash of a sword exerts a gut-level allure” (¶6). Other critics question the supposed escapism of Game. In The Nation, Michelle Dean asks if Game is “escapist enough”: “typically the escapism we once preferred was, as in the Great Depression, social-comment-free: musicals … utopian dreams and escapist fantasias … about … the hope of a better world in a really bad one. But Game of Thrones … isn’t about that. It is about choosing the lesser of evils” (¶ 4, ¶8). Dean suggests that Game’s “postmodern approach to power” signals a “politically interesting shift” in how popular culture “imagin[es] alternate worlds” (¶7-8).

Detail of "Realms of GAFA" by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Detail of “Realms of GAFA” by David Parkins (The Economist 1 Dec. 2012)

Likewise, in 2012, The Economist commented that, for Silicon Valley audiences, “the escapism [Game] offer[s] may be tinged with … recognition. … [Its] tales of a world that has lost its king echoes the reality of today’s technology industry, where the battle lines between the four large companies seen as dominating the consumer internet … are in furious flux” (¶2). The Economist article compares Game’s contenders for the “Iron Throne” to Silicon Valley’s competitors for “the iron phone”:

Their lordships Page, Cook, Zuckerberg and Bezos thus need to map a course for their respective firms through dangerous legal and regulatory territory. At the same time they have to avoid being distracted from fighting their rivals; the mad emperors of Microsoft … And the shareholders, hungry for returns in a moribund global economy, need to be kept happy. (¶28)

Connections like these, between the feudal world of Game and today’s capitalist world, are what the Vice columist alludes to, when he ridicules fans of the show who claim “it’s about politics” (¶4). In what follows, I want to challenge “escapist” readings of Game – which mystify the show’s social relevance – by elaborating on its relevance, on how, exactly, “it’s about politics.” Game is not “escapist,” it’s an allegory of today’s new feudalism.1 (Fans should note that what follows is only about the TV series only, not the books it is based on.)

Definitions

Some definitions are now in order, for my key terms: allegory, neoliberalism, and new feudalism. First, allegory can be summarized as “the concrete presentation of an abstract idea, typically in a narrative – whether prose, verse, or drama – with at least two levels of meaning. The first level is the surface story line, which can be summed up by stating who did what to whom when. The second level is typically moral, political, philosophical, or religious” (Murfin and Ray 10).

This meme made Game Of Thrones an allegory for the 2012 US presidential election: it’s illustrative, but parochial. We can think bigger.

That is, allegory is “an extended metaphor” – extended, sometimes, to the length of an entire narrative (10), and involving extensive and often subtle use of tropes – figurative language and images – to convey multiple meanings, to convey irony and subtext. And irony and subtext need have nothing to do with the intention of a text’s creator, but are equally valuable (if not moreso) as acts of reading. I read Game as an allegory of what has been called the “new feudalism” of neoliberal capitalism.

Neoliberalism basically describes a free-market ideology that masks a globalized economy of governments controlled by corporations. David Harvey calls neoliberalism “an elite-political project that ‘proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade’” (qtd. in Smith ¶4). That’s the free-market ideology part; however, as Peter Jay Smith writes, “[f]ree enterprise does not mean free competition as depicted in neoclassical theory.” Instead, this “free-market fundamentalist” ideology conceals the real operations of global capital as an oligarchy – a system of elite rule by corporations, with state leaders as their servants, which means “protection for the strong and socialization of their risks, market and discipline for the weak’” (Smith ¶15). In other words, neoliberalism means, in practice, “socialized costs” and “privatized gains” (Hjersted ¶8) – for the rich, the “socialism” of generous tax breaks and subsidies, and, for everyone else, the cut-throat capitalism of the “free market.” The demonstrable result of neoliberalism has been the impoverishment of the public good, and a corresponding, sharp increase in wealth inequality.

The dog-eat-dog neoliberal ethos, together with its resulting wealth gap and financial crises, has led some artists, thinkers, and even businesspeople to understand capitalism today as a return to feudal society: a new feudalism. William Gibson’s “Sprawl” novels from the 1980s envision a near future ruled by heavily fortified corporations. For political scientist Tim Duvall, writing in 2003:

The New Feudalism is much like the Old Feudalism. We call it ‘liberalism’ now, we think of it as ‘democracy,’ but it is really what it always was: the freedom of the economic elite to dispose of their property at will. (83)

The “serfs” of our New Feudalism are the shrinking middle classes and the growing working classes and under-classes of poor and precarious labourers, all redefined as consumers. The “lords” of our New Feudalism are corporations that have annexed the state and the media, to enforce business interests by any means necessary, persuading us that business interests are society’s interests, and attacking as heresy any questioning of “the deified Market” (87).

Occupy LA photo courtesy of ringospictures.com

Occupy LA photo courtesy of ringospictures.com

The 2008 “Great Recession” has breathed new life into feudal analogies of the modern world’s economy, amidst the “economic awakening” of Occupy Wall Street and related movements. US journalist Chris Hedges writes: “a slow-motion coup by a corporate state has cemented into place a neofeudalism in which there are only masters and serfs” (¶3). UK blogger C.J. Stone writes: “we are in the midst of … a return to feudalism. … The new Feudal Lords use financial rent – indebtedness – [for] living off the back of a servant class” (“Empire”). The comparison of late capitalism to feudalism recurs often enough in the Huffington Post that the term “neo-feudalism” is a searchable tag on the Huffington Post website (see “Neo-feudalism”, Pederson, and Whitehead). And even a US venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, makes the same point: “Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. … If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us” (¶6-8).

We see the feudal character of neoliberal capitalism in the ways that corporations cultivate consumers’ “brand loyalty”; in the ways that workers toil like serfs in a globally distributed and fortified gulag of “export processing zones”; in the ways that corporations enjoy more rights and representation than citizens. Corporations are the new aristocratic “Houses,” while workers are being disciplined or coerced to work under conditions of serfdom, indentured servitude, or guild apprenticeship (e.g. unpaid internships), if not outright slavery.

Win or die

In this context, Game allegorizes the new feudal society that has been built by neoliberal policies (and it is far from the only TV series to give allegorical form to neoliberal capitalism2). The show dramatizes the competition among an aristocratic elite for “the Iron Throne,” object and symbol of a monopoly on power and wealth; this dramatization includes forceful scenes of the wealth inequality, militarization, corruption, and patriarchal violence on which that power and wealth depend. The “high-born” Houses of Westeros echo those of feudal Europe. As the creators acknowledge, Game borrows from many historical sources, mainly the 1455-85 War of the Roses between the English houses of Lancaster and York; in the series, they are “Lannister” and “Stark” (“Plot”). But these Houses are also figures of corporate business. Many corporations are family dynasties that rely for their sustenance and reproduction on kinship, a patriarchal division of labour, and ties of loyalty (chiefly the loyalty of their client governments, and also that of consumers). Among the Houses, the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism characterize the contest for the throne as a “war of all against all” (Vint 139, 141). Early in the series, the queen of Westeros, Cersei Lannister, expresses this ethos with her characteristic economy of words: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Claims to the Throne that base their legitimacy in anything but violence and guile are ridiculed as naïve: among Westeros’ noble Houses, as among today’s corporations and investors, lofty claims to legitimate rule are most often a smokescreen for force and cunning.

In Game’s world, only might makes right, as we also see in the summit meetings of state leaders and corporate lobbyists (like the routine show of elite force and narrow interests at Davos, Switzerland, which is happening as of this writing). Since the 1990s, such summits have been met by escalating public protests, and accompanied (and sometimes sabotaged) by disproportionately growing security forces. Corporate capital routinely presses its entrenched advantage with state leaders in closed-door meetings that, like sites of capitalist production, are hidden and militarized zones.

The main reason we never see the so-called “invisible hand” of the free market is because it’s hidden behind the pointy end of the weapon it’s pointing at us.

claimongold

Stannis Baratheon asks for a loan in Davos. I mean Braavos.

Game features many characters who are “sellswords,” or mercenaries – the realm’s private security contractors, as it were. The loyalty of these characters, like that of their cynical “high-born” lords, is always for sale to the highest bidder, and self-preservation trumps all bids. Likewise for its financiers, as seen when Stannis Baratheon, brother of King Robert Baratheon whose death precipitates the war for the Throne, gets a loan for his war campaign from the “Iron Bank” of Braavos, a city-state in Essos. Scenes like this also present an alleogorical image of the familiar link between force and finance: as it turns out, the monarchy is running a deficit. In the first season, we learn that the realm’s finances are badly managed; in season three, we learn that the monarchy is in debt to the Iron Bank. The fact that the Westeros government is indebted to a foreign eastern power is a detail that resonates with the present financial relationship between western powers like the USA and eastern powers like China.

Brands and circuses

The ruling elite also spends conspicuously, not just on repressive apparatuses, like armies, but also on ideological apparatuses, like displays of leadership and charity. We learn the monarchy is in debt amidst the Throne-occupying Lannister family’s planning for King Joffrey’s royal wedding. circusesThe expense of the wedding is justified as a nation-building spectacle for the masses, a spectacle of conspicuous consumption calculated to inspire the poor with a circus, not give them bread. This subplot resonates with the media attention and public finance spent on British royal weddings – amidst the neoliberal dismantling of Britain’s welfare state that has continued steadily since the “iron” rule of Margaret Thatcher. Westeros’ Houses are as concerned with their subjects’ loyalty as corporations are concerned with consumers’ “brand loyalty.” Each House has its own distinct heraldry and “words,” which together function as brand and trademark.

Significantly, “low-born” and poor characters are mostly marginal to the plot. Where poor characters do appear – as servants, soldiers, sellswords, serfs or slaves – they are shown to be abject, exploited, and yet still loyal to their lords. mobWhen depicted as crowds, the poor become a stereotypical menace. A scene in season one shows a royal parade get mobbed in a poor quarter of the capitol. This mob, with its bare hands, dismembers a royal priest, and some men threaten to sexually assault the young girl Sansa Stark. She is rescued by a royal bodyguard, who kills her attackers. With very few exceptions, the low-born, labouring, and poor characters in Game tend to be depicted either as virtuous individuals who are unquestioningly loyal to their lords, or as wretched masses always ready to riot.

“The slavery of being a girl”

Game‘s allegory of capitalism as new feudalism also becomes apparent in its images not just of class inequality, but also of gender and sexual inequalities. The series has become controversial for its harrowing and graphic scenes of sexual assault, abuse, torture, incest, and other kinds of gendered and sexual violence. takeordersMen in the show constantly subject women of all classes and ranks to violence and humiliation; one of the most striking and distressing details of the show is the frequency (and sometimes even the tone of resignation or boredom) with which the word “rape” gets used. In Game, women are commodities and objects; and the complicity between feudal rule and patriarchal oppression is shown as clearly in the expectations of aristocratic women characters as it is shown horrifically in the all-too-predictable fates of prostitute women characters. These representations have prompted some important feminist critiques in their own right (see Murphy and Zeisler)3 – especially since some of the show’s most compelling main characters subvert or oppose these strict and exploitative gender and sexual norms – but these representations are also integral to Game’s allegory of our economic world-system, which bell hooks describes, bluntly, as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (46). Corporations and feudal Houses alike traffic in gendered divisions of labour for their reproduction, by consolidating family fortunes through bloodline succession and marriage, and by exploiting women in all kinds of precarious service work (Rogan 77). Game’s “high-born” women protagonists are constantly reminded of their one job: to produce future kings. Girl children are traded and bartered to strengthen ties – and treasuries – among the aristocracy; or they are exiled or abandoned; or they are imprisoned; or they are assaulted and killed outright.

The complicity between capital and male privilege may be highly stylized and sensationally depicted in Game, but it accords with the intersectional critiques of this complicity in our own world, critiques well expressed in the work of feminists like hooks, Donna Haraway, Adrienne Rich, Dionne Brand, and Jasbir Puar – to name just a few among so many others who remind us that we are nowhere near living in anything like a “post-patriarchy,” but instead are living through something more like a “war against women” (Mallick ¶11). This gender aspect of Game’s allegory is memorably captured in a scene between Cersei and a Prince from an eastern land, Dorne, where Cersei’s daughter has been sent. Bristling at the “barbarism” he finds in Westeros, the Prince tries to assure Cersei:
got-5-7
Cersei’s reply is a curt but unflinching condemnation of patriarchy:
7

“Winter is coming”

Just in case the economic and gender parallels between Game’s world and our own aren’t striking enough, the story also includes extreme weather and characters’ preoccupation with weather – both of which are uncharacteristic for the fantasy genre. whitewalkerIn the world of Game, seasons do not turn with the years; instead, seasons themselves last years, sometimes generations. Game’s plot begins as “the long summer” is ending; and as we constantly hear, “winter is coming.” The descriptions of winter, given early in the series, evoke grim images of snowdrifts high as houses, of mothers murdering newborns to spare them from being raised in darkness and starvation. The onset of winter, in other words, amounts to climate catastrophe.

In an io9 article (which piqued my initial interest in watching the show), George Dvorsky offers five scientific hypotheses that could account for such “messed-up seasons.” Climate change is not one of these hypotheses, but it is mentioned as a factor in how “oceans, currents, and winds” could make for unpredictable seasonal change and “long-term weather trends” (¶24-25). The very mention of climate change in an article about Game highlights how the show resonates with current concerns; what’s more, while Game leaves largely unexplained the reasons for Westeros’ unpredictable climate, it does hint at one large-scale human intervention in the natural environment that is strongly associated with – and may even have influenced – weather: the continent-barricading Wall, said to have been raised by magic in ancient times to protect Westeros from dangers lurking in “the North” such as “wildlings” (read: indigenous peoples) and fantastic creatures (mammoths, giants, and zombies). The Wall often stands as a sharp spatial division between winter and summer, and the story’s consistent preoccupation with weather augments Game’s overall relevance to the real world that has been wrought by neoliberal capitalism.

A “cracked-mirror” Europe

The Wall is one of several geographical details that further build Game’s allegorical relevance. Patrolled by a conscript army recruited from bastards, criminals, and the poor, the Wall exists to keep “the wildlings” out of Westeros. One subplot involving these wildlings represents them as a colonized, indigenous people who engage in anti-colonial resistance against Westeros. The Wall thus resonates with the real-world wall erected by Israel, the wall that US conservatives perennially want to raise against Mexico, and the overall sharp rise in wall-building that has followed the attacks of September 11, 2001, as found by Elisabeth Vallet’s research on “democraties fortifiées” – fortified democracies. Whereas in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, some fifteen state or territorial walls stood to divide a supposedly “globalizing” world, by 2011 over fifty such walls could be found (“Des murs d’argent”).

Élisabeth Vallet: “Toujours plus de murs dans un monde sans frontières : nombre de murs frontaliers, 1945-2012” (“Always more walls in a borderless world: number of territorial walls, 1945-2012”).
Note especially the dramatic increase after 11 Sept. 2001.

Other geographical cues to Game’s allegory appear in the map that is shown in the series’ opening title sequence, a clever TV adaptation of the fantasy novel’s convention of introducing its with a map. In this map, Westeros looks like the UK: the capitol, King’s Landing, looks like London on the Thames; and the Starks’ House, Winterfell, is in the north, like England’s York. Westeros is separated from the continent of Essos by a “Narrow Sea,” or channel; Essos looks like Europe, and the specific area of “Slavers’ Bay” – where the subplot involving the exiled princess Danaerys Targerian takes place – closely resembles the rim of the Mediterranean. Westeros map, Game Of Thrones titlesPredictably enough, then, the people of Westeros are quite English looking and sounding, while the various peoples of Essos are ambiguously “ethnic” in their darker complexions and vaguely Slavic and Arabic sounding languages. The map of the opening titles looks very much like a “cracked-mirror” map of Europe.

A critical or ideological fantasy?

So, among with its depictions of feudal economy, patriarchal oppression, climate change, and Eurocentric geography, Game constructs an allegory of the new feudalism that is resurgent today, a new feudalism brought about by free-market ideology and corporate-controlled governance. The point of my allegorical reading is not whether the show depicts feudalism with precise historical accuracy, or even whether Game’s feudalism maps precisely onto the social systems of globalized capitalism. Rather, my point is that Game’s image of feudalism provides an apt and timely metaphor for today’s wealth inequality, the economic and political structures that support it, and the social effects – and side effects – that it has produced. This allegorical reading challenges capitalism’s claims to modernity, progress, and above all democracy; it challenges the tired capitalist hype about “the end of history” – which Game shows, instead, to be something more like history’s rewinding, or its barbarous revenge. In this way, Game can be read as what leftist fantasy author China Miéville calls “critical fantasy,” in which

the realism of concern and the weird of expression are each their own end, but through metaphor, that magic dialectical glue, they are also … functions of each other. (¶11)

But to read Game as critical fantasy is to miss some key aspects of its narrative strategy: Game might create a critical allegory of the new feudalism in certain details of its setting, imagery, and tone; but in its plot and characters, Game also reproduces the dominant neoliberal ideology that has brokered feudalism’s return.

The plot reproduces neoliberal ideology in the main story’s constant focus on competition and conflict among the noble Houses. The plot of traditional fantasy, after the fashion formulated by Tolkein, is a quest story, in which an individual or group attempts to achieve an arduous or impossible task: the main story of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga is the fellowship’s daunting quest to infiltrate Mordor and destroy Sauron’s ring. Quests provide the plot structure of most popular fantasy plots, from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, to Dungeons and Dragons franchise pulp, to Harry Potter’s long struggle to solve and exorcise the enigmatic scourge that is Voldemort. Game does include some sub-plots that could be construed as heroic quests: the travels and travails of Arya Stark and her brother Bram Stark are both individual voyages of apprenticeship and self-discovery. But the main plot that drives most of the character drama is a story of vicious, no-holds-barred fighting and treachery among elite families in pursuit of the monopoly on power promised by monarchical rule. This is a kind of decentralized plot, in that it is not organized around any one specific quest, and in the way the early episodes establish all families’ claims to the throne as more or less equally pretentious.

So the plot of Game differs sharply from that of most fantasy. The quest plot is linear, monumental, with a fixed end in view; but the contest-for-supremacy plot is lateral, and this kind of decentralized plot works better for the television serial drama format: it more effectively deals in suspense and continuation than in beginnings and endings, as scene changes sustain the viewers’ interest in several families and individuals at once. The way that Game privileges multiple points of view and choreographs them around the pursuit and achievement of monopolistic power, the way each viewpoint commands our sympathy in greater or lesser degrees – these elements of the show’s plot depart significantly from the traditional fantasy genre and are legible as symptoms of the neoliberal ideology that is creating a neo-feudal world.

Furthermore, Game makes this ceaseless competition – this feuding – of the new feudalism seem not only like the only story worth telling, but also normal, even natural, by anchoring the plot action among “high-born” aristocrats as the characters who we viewers are supposed to relate to. We are invited to identify with protagonists who are monarchs, royal family members, and nobles of Westeros’ ruling elite. In this focus on elite charactes and their concerns, Game promotes the interests and values of the ruling elite, and, moreover, misrepresents such values as the values of society in general (Duvall 85). This is nothing new in culture, literature, or media, from Jane Austen’s dramas of leisure-class match-making, to Fox News’ constant pleas of sympathy for beleaguered, persecuted big business. Such invitations to identify with the elite are long-standing symptoms of culture and entertainment under capitalism, a powerful strategy with which the elite continues to persuade us “low-borns” that the interests of the “high-born” are our own interests too.

Moreover, the construction of elite characters as the most “relatable” characters belongs to the same ideological system that encourages audiences to interpret a show like Game as merely “escapist,” as irrelevant to contemporary everyday life. mastersCritics who read Game as “escapist” (whether positively or negatively) fail (whether by deficiency or design) to pay attention to the uses of allegory and metaphor, and such critics are either underestimating the interpretive powers of the viewing audience, or they are actively mystifying the metaphorical work that fantastic and non-realist narratives can do. In this work, much of the political power of these narratives can be found, if we exercise the critical imagination to detect it, raiding the stories of the rich to make them speak for the rest of us.

Notes

1. While chasing down some last research details for this essay, I stumbled upon David Stubbs’ article on Game as an allegory of “modern times”; his argument is similar in premise, but it’s briefer, attuned to different details, and overall rather vague about how exactly Game relates to “modern times” (a side effect, perhaps, of understandably wishing to avoid sharing spoilers).

2. Several TV serial dramas have developed extensive allegories of neoliberal capitalism, economic globalization, and the market society. As I wrote in 2009, of the re-made Battlestar Galactica series:

Battlestar belongs to a recent trend in specialty cable programmes about the US as an increasingly deregulated and/or underground market society – such as Showtime’s Dead Like Me (Canada/US 2003-04), in which the grim reaper’s work is all outsourced to undead sub-contractors; Showtime’s Weeds (US 2005- ), in which a single mother tries to maintain her gated-community lifestyle by dealing drugs; and HBO’s Deadwood (US 2004-06), a Western which, like Battlestar, works as a frontier allegory of diasporic migration, militarised public space, technologised security threats and unregulated enterprise in a society characterised less by democracy than ‘adhocracy’ (Doctorow qtd. in Jenkins 251). Among these series, Battlestar most stridently articulates questions of market-society culture, technologies of reproduction and political-economic ethics to a military problematic. (21)

More recently, AMC’s zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead has generated widespread interpretations as an allegory of the neoliberal market society – and some compelling interpretations as an allegory of settler-invader colonialism, as in Cutcha Risling Baldy‘s must-read post about teaching The Walking Dead in Native Studies courses:

for a long time in California, if you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. (Zombies. But even worse, living, breathing, people Zombies…) (¶18)

In the wake of the burgeoning popularity of zombie texts, the increasing volatility of global economics, and a corresponding boom of critical and scholarly interest in “zombie economics” (e.g. Quiggin and McNally), The Walking Dead has become a cultural lightning rod for critiques of neoliberalism in culture and society. For just a few examples, see Clitheroe, Powers, and Sherryl Vint, who reads the series as “an extended meditation on the problems of community and individuality” (139), “in a world understood to have peeled away the veneer of community and revealed the ‘true’ state of nature as a war of all against all” (141). This understanding, for Vint, represents the “rapacious values” of neoliberalism, “a discourse that acts on the population to ‘make survive’ … but one that simultaneously dehumanizes and makes monstrous these survivors”- who, like the zombies they flee, are also, ironically, “reduced to endless walking and consuming” (141). As Gerry Canavan sums up readings like Vint’s, “narratives like The Walking Dead map onto a form of capitalism that has itself become completely monstrous” (143).

3. More than I’d have expected of the online discussion of Game Of Thrones and feminism seems unduly concerned with whether the show, or its creator, “is” feminist in and of itself. I agree with Zeisler’s suggestion that such a concern seems misplaced, neglecting the interpretive powers of audience response to search instead for the creators’ intent (and doing so well after Roland Barthes’ famous 1967 declaration of “the death of the author,” the idea that every reading is a new re-writing). As Zeisler puts it: “does it matter if Game of Thrones is feminist? Maybe not. But what does matter that it’s one of few shows to give us a reason to even argue the case.” Whether a given cultural text itself “is” feminist seems to me a less urgent question than how a feminist reading of that text is productive for feminism.

Acknowledgments

This essay is a revision of a talk I gave at the Fourth Research Forum of the Centre for Humanities at Athabasca University, on 28 Nov. 2014; I want to thank the audience for their questions and comments. I also want to thank AU alumni Sarah Mann and Heather Clitheroe, who, in reading courses I supervised, found and built on key studies of the new feudalism and of neoliberalism in pop culture.

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Further Reading

Larrington, Carolyne. “Game of Loans.” 1843 Magazine, ca. 2016.