Is Game of Thrones “pure ideology”? (Spoiler alert: Yes)

Voyou recently pinpointed one of the peculiarities of Game of Thrones:

Part of the problem here is the audience judging the characters by contemporary liberal-democratic norms, but the more serious problem is that, although, as fans like to remind us, the show is set in a pre-modern world of violence, hierarchy and pervasive gender inequality, all the characters have the mores of contemporary bourgeois liberals. Apparently it’s easier to imagine the pre-history of modern social structures than to imagine the non-existence of modern liberal norms. This could perhaps be explained by the show being a bit stupid, but maybe this is a kind of ideology critique I haven’t yet quite grasped. Ideology, after all, is a pervasive set of practical beliefs which misrecognise underlying social structures, but usually we would think that this misrecognition is at some level itself explicable in terms of social structures. In Game of Thrones, though, there is an all-encompasing set of beliefs which is at no point compatible with the lived experience of the people who hold these beliefs: it is, that is to say, pure ideology.

I agree with this analysis, and for me it opens out onto the broader question of where the “fantasy” in the fantasy genre lies. It’s always struck me as strange that the genre known as “fantasy” is always some kind of medieval setting — yes, there’s magic, etc., but how does the rigid patriarchal structure, the militarism, the treatment of all women as property, etc., fit into this “fantasy”? Perhaps the fantasy genre gives us our fantasy of a tradition or more “natural” order of things, when men were men and so forth, while allowing us to disavow it insofar as all the characters always see right through it (in the style of a Zizekian cynical subject). In this regard, it’s interesting that the family that has suffered most in the show is the Starks, who basically do appear to believe in the “official” ideology, and that Joffrey is so hatable precisely because he immediately buys into that ideology as well — he embodies Lacan’s insane king who believes that he really is king.

I don’t know if the show counts as ideology critique, but it’s an interesting variation on the sociopath fantasy — we have dozens of characters who hold themselves at a distance from social forces in order to instrumentalize them, but instead of this being in conflict with good liberal values, good liberal values are precisely what enables the sociopathic pattern.

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43 Responses to “Is Game of Thrones “pure ideology”? (Spoiler alert: Yes)”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There may be an inner necessity at work in the fact that Game of Thrones and Mad Men are airing at the same time this year, because particularly in the early seasons, it seems as though Don Draper anticipates liberal attitudes — he pursues independent women and rejects the idea of sleeping with his subordinates, his first appearance includes a casual conversation with a black man, he acts as a mentor to Peggy, etc. He does all these things for his own reasons, though, which means that the apparently liberal attitudes are folded into his other idiosyncracies/pathologies.

  2. mikewc Says:

    The claim that GoT characters are liberals at heart is completely counter-intuitive to me. I can think of snippets of “liberal” behavior – Ned’s seeming acceptance of Arya’s sword training, for one.

    What are you guys talking about?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    None of them “really believe” in patriarchy, honor, etc. They’re all cynically distant from traditional values, though willing to indulge them when it suits them. It’s more the general stance than the particular views — though there is a lot more in the particular views that fits pretty neatly, such as the general belief in the power of women, the consciousness of patriarchy as an imposition (almost every woman on the show is a proto-Betty Friedan), the general view that royalty and oaths aren’t “real,” etc.

  4. Marcus Says:

    It seems not really so much that GoT characters in general are liberals at heart as that the times when the characters demonstrate to the audience the most sympathetic sorts of intelligence, their attitudes very often turn out to be essentially contemporary liberal ones. Tyrion seems like the most common example of this sort of thing. But the show (and the books) also spend a decent amount of time thinking about what happens when different ideologies (quite often those imported from the East, tellingly) come into conflict with others, and the presence of magic and miracles and fantastical creatures seems more interesting here than in most genre stuff: there are material verifiable reasons for characters to believe in the Lord of Light, for example, but we see Davos still cling to a more or less liberal skeptical subjectivity, and this makes him appear virtuous, even though we’re afraid he might be wrong to do so. I don’t think the show or the books are really after much of a critique of liberal subjectivity, but it does seem like one thing they repeatedly do on several different levels is enact an imposition of the real (in different forms) against anything any of the characters believes or desires. That seems precisely to be what makes up so much of the thrill of the series, which maybe says more about where modern subjectivity imagines (and enjoys imagining) the end of ideology must reside than about an inability to imagine the non-existence of liberal subjectivity. We can only be good (liberal) until reality destroys that possibility and then we have to either play by the vicious rules of reality and kill lots of people or else we’ll all be murdered by creepy people with weird beliefs.

  5. mikewc Says:

    So cynical distance from traditional views is the general position of bourgeois liberals? The primary trait, as it were? Given that such a general position is pretty much a constant (from the sophists to Machiavelli), that seems to turn liberals into the universal subjects they always thought they were.

    As for the particular positions, I think only Cersei has displayed anything like “gender consciousness.” The rest of the women just see various obstacles; not even Brianne blames her troubles on being a woman.

  6. mikewc Says:

    Davos is a good example: he saved Stannis’ life and his entire household by smuggling onions, and Stannis cut his fingers off as a punishment for smuggling. Davos sticks with him because Stannis is his rightful lord.

  7. nonmanifestation Says:

    “Perhaps the fantasy genre gives us our fantasy of a tradition or more “natural” order of things, when men were men and so forth, while allowing us to disavow it insofar as all the characters always see right through it (in the style of a Zizekian cynical subject).” That may be true of GoT, but in Tolkien’s LoTR, the archetype of the epic fantasy, there is clearly no such cynicism. None of the good guys ever suggests that the “swarthy” orcs are anything but inherently despicable and fit to be slaughtered on sight. There is a fantasy of a natural order where good and evil are clearly distinguishable, but the disavowal of the fantasy, if there is one, is external to the world of the story (the reader can always say it’s “only” a fantasy).

  8. David Roden Says:

    1) I cannot think of a single character in GOT who has argued for political autonomy, democracy or right to pursue competing conceptions of the good, etc.. 2) Not all fantasy is set in Medieval worlds (cf. Mieville, Harrison); 3) You believe in ideology and still have chutzpah to dis fantasy!

  9. nonmanifestation Says:

    “I don’t know if the show counts as ideology critique, but it’s an interesting variation on the sociopath fantasy — we have dozens of characters who hold themselves at a distance from social forces in order to instrumentalize them, but instead of this being in conflict with good liberal values, good liberal values are precisely what enables the sociopathic pattern.” As you point out, the Starks are the only characters who actually believe in the official values of Westeros, and they’re also precisely the only ones who are even decent people. The show seems to be saying that even if patriarchy, monarchy, etc, are basically absurd and fraudulent, we should hold onto them to prevent civil war on the political scale and inhumanity on the personal scale. The only alternatives the show presents are submission and chaos.
    It’s interesting that it’s Ned Stark’s execution that launches the civil war and plunges Westeros into chaos. The message is basically: “See what happens when you kill the Father!” So I think the cynicism of the show is a sort of veneer over a Hobbesian conservatism: once the officially-sanctioned patriarchy breaks down the world falls into chaos, therefore we must protect the patriarchy.

  10. Tom Elrod Says:

    None of the good guys ever suggests that the “swarthy” orcs are anything but inherently despicable and fit to be slaughtered on sight.

    That’s basically true, but, while the characters in LOTR do not themselves question the ethics of Orc-slaughter, there is a really interesting passage at the end of the The Two Towers where Sam overhears a couple of orcs talking amongst themselves about what they hope happens to them after the war. They come across sounding like a couple of working-class blokes. This is never followed-up on and all the Orcs die anyway, but it’s a weird moment and suggests Tolkien at least considered the experiences of the Orcs, even if he ultimately had no use for them.

  11. Hill Says:

    I thought Marcus nailed it.

  12. Craig McFarlane Says:

    I speak the language of political theory and Game of Thrones and I found both Voyou’s original post and Adam’s endorsement of it to be completely and absolutely opaque. No doubt, per Twitter, Adam will take this as confirmation of his thesis (whatever it is).

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I wish Voyou would show up….

  14. nathaniel drake carlson Says:

    Serious question: is all ideology inherently false? If so, why? I know that Voyou addresses this with the comment that “Ideology, after all, is a pervasive set of practical beliefs which misrecognise underlying social structures” but I really don’t know what that means. Miscrecognise how exactly? David Hawkes is very good on the subject in his dedicated book on ideology but I was just interested in some responses from those here.

  15. voyou Says:

    What got me started thinking along these lines was when Cersei was shocked that her father would force her into a political marriage; this despite the fact that her father had already forced her into an earlier political marriage. That is, the characters conceive of themselves, and interact with the world, on basically individualist and broadly egalitarian lines (they think of their actions as reflecting individual, personal interests, rather than social roles; they think of differences in rank as contingent distributions of power, not differences of kind). When they discover they are actually living in a feudal society, they are often shocked; if they are not shocked, they act strategically on the basis of a cynicism which assumes the reality of their situation is one of self-interested rational agents (that is, their cynicism is a modern cynicism).

  16. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Voyou, I’m not buying the broadly egalitarian argument. Take Daenerys and her anti-slavery: she still has mountains of servants–all former slaves–who she understands to be her social, albeit useful, inferiors, and she has no doubt that by virtue of being “the last Targaryen” and the “Mother of Dragons” and the “Breaker of Chains” (etc, etc) that she is a messianic figure who differs in degree from all others. There are no conditions under which Daenerys would ever accept another as her equal, except, perhaps, Drogo (and, obviously, Daario). We see the same but from the opposite direction in the relation between Arya and Gendry: “we can be a family!” “no, you’d be Milady” “what?” “You’re a lord; I’m a commoner; we cannot be family.” The immediate identification with social role as a characteristic of pre-capitalist social formations seems, well, a bit romantic, wouldn’t you say? If anyone embodies the petit bourgeois, though, it is Davos and, possibly, Littlefinger, both of whom are hyperaware of the distinction between their abilities/worth and the social location.

  17. Will Says:

    Is not their bourgeoisie-ness though a device to render certain select characters more empathetic to the audience? In fact it is precisely the point that not all of the characters are liberal subjects. The characters shock at living in a feudal society is staged, for the audience, in terms of the family dynamics of the Lannister’s via Tywin being the emblem of patriarchal feudalism.

    What role for the people north of the wall who seem to coincide best with the liberal subject / society (democratically elected leader, self interested individuals etc..)?

  18. seanchristophercapener Says:

    It seems like either I’ve misunderstood Adam and voyou’s basic argument or literally everybody else has.

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It seems like both of us have been consistent in identifying cynical distance with contemporary liberal-bourgeois subjectivity. If people think that’s not an adequate characterization, fair enough — but that’s what we mean. Filling in your own idea of what “contemporary liberal-bourgeois subjectivity” means is not going to work. I’m not writing Mad Libs over here!!!

  20. bob mcmanus Says:

    “If people think that’s not an adequate characterization”

    Okay, I’ll troll.

    Osawa Masachi as analyzed by Azuma Hiroki says that 1945-1970 was an age of idealism, grand narratives and ideology followed by an age of detachment/cynicism/snobbery (Kojeve Hegel Japan) that ended in 1995. Post-modernism is over.

    Contemporary culture products, according to these authors, now add to a vast database of elements that consumers draw from to create small personal sentimental mini-narratives. Essentially GoT and MM provide a massive amount of neutral or ambiguous elements for consumers to use in imagining fan fictions (or philosophical analysis). They are not at all reflective. See comment threads at Basket of Kisses or Kaufmann and Attewell’s most recent piece at LGM.

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What happened in 1995?

  22. Robert Says:

    The show also has dragons and such things, so I don’t know how seriously we should take the socio-political commentary. Unless the dragons themselves are liberal…

  23. Alex Says:

    There was a particularly jarring example of the liberal characterisation in the last episode where Robb’s wife and even him were appalled at the bedding ceremony, but he went along with anyway as tradition. Made even more jarring by the fact we were supposed to be glad the arranged marriage was to a beautiful (and presumably young by modern, but not medieval standards) bride?

    Does this sort of stuff carry over to the books?

  24. bob mcmanus Says:

    “What happened in 1995?”

    For the Japanese intellectuals, Aum Shinrikyo and the Sarin attacks. It is just a convenient date for the non-viability of the postmodern counter-narratives and mythologies. If you want I can paste or try to summarize more of Osawa-Azuma-Lamarre argument about databases. Otaku aren’t driven by narratives, characters, or even signifiers (which no longer have a signified) but by consciously and deliberately evacuated signs.

    Like the huge database of telephone records, and those who use it to create narratives and characters arbitrarily.

    I will cheerfully admit I am too ignorant to really discuss this here.

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s good to know, though, that we’ve left the postmodern era and entered a bold new world where major cultural productions are pure surface characterized by pastiche.

  26. mikewc Says:

    Alex – No one is appalled at the bedding ceremonies in the books, and the girls tend to be married off as young teens. Most of the female characters have been aged up for the tv series.

    The bedding ceremony usually takes place among friends and well wishers, but some characters are aware of how nasty it can be in the wrong context – hence Tyrion’s refusal of it with Sansa.

  27. bob mcmanus Says:

    It’s good to know, though, that we’ve left the postmodern era and entered a bold new world where major cultural productions are pure surface characterized by pastiche.

    Yeah, ain’t it grand that irony is dead. Or that we can’t tell anymore.

    Incidentally, I don’t consider Eddard Stark, Hand of the Usurper, or Robb Stark, who doesn’t seem that loyal to Stannis or Renly, as deeply committed to the “official ideology.” They wear it as convenient.
    And Joffrey sure seems to have to remind people all the time he is King, protesting too much. All surface.

    Your post does come close to something. It is ideology ala carte for the characters in GoT, as it is for us, because a meaningless menu of ideological affects and affectations is all we can access or understand anymore.

  28. Craig McFarlane Says:

    A few comments in order as they appear in comments above:

    1) Adam’s “they don’t really believe”–are you suggesting that only in liberal societies is it possible to “disbelieve” in the society as such? This is theoretically dubious and empirically false. I’m sure you’ve read, say, Plato, who, as it were, weaponized disbelief and lies and covers in Republic. The only way your claim is possibly true is (1) if people were complete and absolute fucking idiots prior to the invention of liberalism by… Hobbes? Locke? Smith? Monstesquieu? Rousseau? Hume? Kant? Hegel? Bentham? Mill? Mill? Zizek? and (2) people suddenly switched from being puppets of social structure to active, cynical agents of their own pessimism. The only social form for which your claim is at all possible is the simple, “primitive” tribe and only then because there is so little to be cynical about.

    2) Adam’s “proto-Betty Friedan” as the default viewpoint of women–this is silly. Female characters aren’t even proto-Mary Wollstonecraft. Significantly, the only two female characters who challenge the convention of their gender have (1) completely devoted themselves to a cause and (2) have absolutely no interest in sex or romance. I’m referring to Arya and Brienne, obviously. All of the other female characters recognize themselves as female, recognize that they are constrained by being female, and work within those constraints. When Cersei says she should have been born a man, she wasn’t making a feminist statement.

    3) mikewc’s Cersei vs. Brienne–Cersei is no feminist, proto or otherwise. She’s a powerful woman who, on occasion, wishes she were a man so she could be more powerful. After all, she was abundantly clear about this at Sansa’s wedding: “Call me your “sister” again and I’ll kill you in your sleep.” A clearer rejection of sisterhood and the common situation of women (powerful women, at least) could not be more obvious. This is also the subtext to her forced marriage to Loras: yes, she’s upset that she has to marry again (rather than “be” with Jaime) figuring that she has “earned” retirement from such things–her son is king and, if he dies, her other son will be king. But, she’s more upset that what was supposed to be victory over Tyrion ended up being a loss for both of them. She thought she had trapped Tyrion only to discover that she’s as disposable as he is in her father’s eyes. A lesson about patriarchy, yes, but not a feminist one.

    4) Dave Roden’s lack of expressions of political autonomy, democracy, free economy, etc–completely correct, but with a couple provisos. The Brotherhood Without Banners seems to be the most egalitarian and democratic organization in Westeros, but (1) it is exclusively male, (2) it is a religious cult, (3) it has not political goals as such, and (4) is illegal. The independence of the north was done in the name of political autonomy, but with identical political structures: a localism, if you will.

    5) Will’s on the wildlings–they seem to be analogous to the Franks and other Germanic tribes. Interestingly, these tribes have an odd history of representation in political theory, especially during the early development of liberalism. Are they liberals before liberalism or are they warrior aristocrats? It is as though GRRM read Boulainvilliers, Dubos, Montesquieu, etc. It surely isn’t insignificant that literally everyone in Westeros looks down on the wildlings as savages. Even the men of The Wall despise the wildlings, even if they respect them.

    6) Alex on Red Wedding–Robb’s wife is a foreigner, no wonder she is surprised at the customs of the Westerosi. Robb, on the other hand, didn’t seem to find it appalling; he seemed to find it amusing. “A fun thing middle aged fruity guys do with their fifteen year old wives while all the local lords and ladies rip off their clothes, make dirty jokes and cheer them on!” But, on the other hand, Robb didn’t perform the ceremony with his wife.

  29. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Obviously some number of people have always had cynical distance toward their social structure — I’d even grant that there are some tribesmen who go along with the rituals “ironically.” The question is whether this stance can be considered normative in all historical eras. I don’t think it can. The cynically distant were the exception “back then,” and now they’re the rule — likely due to historically unique factors in capitalist development that tend toward a thorough-going individualism.

  30. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Okay, but I think you’ve changed your claim vis a vis GoT. The examples cited are the exceptions to the norm and not the norm itself: Cersei’s reaction to the forced marriage, for instance. (You mention “dozens” in your post, but the one scene with Cersei is the only one put forward so far.) The only character who takes on irony an an ethos is Tyrion, who is widely regarded as a weirdo and is only allowed to behave that way because either his father will buy out his debts or his brother will kill any enemies he makes. If literally everyone is like, “That Tyrion, what a jackass!” then his ironic stance cannot possibly be normative in Westeros.

    This results in an interesting disjunction: the most modern family (Cersei, Tyrion, and Jaime) are, on the whole, the second most reviled set of characters (aside from the Greyjoys and, maybe, the Boltons). It’s clear that Ned and Robb really do believe in duty and honor, even if they lapse; it’s clear that Catelyn really does believe in family, even if she lapses vis a vis Jon; it’s clear that Sansa really does believe in “court romance;” even if she gets the crap beaten out of her at court; it’s clear that Arya really does believe that her “god” is death, even if she usually refrains from killing; and so on–the beliefs of Rickon and Bran aren’t really fleshed out yet.

    (For my part, I find Roose Bolton, Stannis Baratheon, Davos Seaworthy, Brienne of Tarth, and Ghost to be the most interesting characters and Tywin Lannister to be the most consistently hilarious. I like Loras Tyrell’s fashion sense, but I’m not fond of his sister, but I like his grandmother.)

  31. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The figure of “dozens” was more a nod at the absurd number of concurrent plotlines than an exact figure. I would also point out the subtle difference between you thinking Cersei is the only example and me agreeing with you.

  32. Craig McFarlane Says:

    So we have an example that may not be an example, a norm that could be an exception, and dozens of uncited examples that maybe amount to a couple on a generous interpretation. Your analysis may need some development.

  33. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Given your encyclopedic knowledge and eye for nuance, it somehow didn’t feel worth it to go into detail. Presumably everything I said was going to be further evidence that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

  34. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Alternatively, it makes sense to acquaint yourself with the object of your analysis before you impose an ill-fitting interpretation on it. You know, basic intellectual honesty. (I’m also found of Sandor, even his love of pig feet is endearing.)

  35. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Dude, I skimmed the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page before writing this! Back off!

  36. Thomas Witten Says:

    For what it’s worth I find voyou to be pretty convincing. Many of the more common pov characters seem to be basically modern people play-acting at being a lord, but this may just be a conceit/limitation of the high fantasy genre. Also there may be differences between the sense of the characters between the books, and the television show which I’m not familiar with.

  37. Will C. Says:

    The question I’d ask is whether we should read the characters’ bourgeois-liberal attitudes less as worldbuilding than as a strategy to involve the viewer. An accurate representation of medieval attitudes would be really alienating to contemporary viewers: it would be hard to sustain the affective investment the show is going for. That in mind, what’s interesting isn’t so much the way the characters hew to liberal values as the way they’re forced to *reconsider* those values. E.g. we have Tyrion (the show’s most sympathetic character, arguably, and Martin’s favorite) introduced with a bunch of prostitutes, a nod to a more modern attitude of sexual permissiveness, but then we have a really heavy emphasis, in later Littlefinger scenes, on the underside of what’s going on there (the basic violence underlying the brothels). (I’m hesitant to talk about Daenerys in this regard, since I haven’t read the books yet and thus don’t know where the plot will take her, but it does seem interesting that her hatred of slavery is attached to a less-sympathetic messianism.) Not that anyone’s going to watch the show and feel that medieval times were fine and dandy–obviously not–but at the same time the show really avoids the kind of “well, we know better now” attitude that it would be really for it to fall into.

  38. burritoboy Says:

    I don’t have any knowledge whatsoever of the show or books (and refuse to learn anything about it), but as the resident blog monarchist, of course modern liberals can’t imagine what the internal experience of being in a medieval monarchy is like.

    I don’t know how the show grounds itself metaphysically – an inquiry into the subject is likely a dead end, since the author spiced up his imaginary world with magic. But, let’s assume we’re talking about an actual monarchy in the late 13th century:

    1. The monarchy is ultimately based upon a very highly articulated political theory. The best articulations of it are probably Aquinas’/Ptolemy of Lucca’s De regimine principum and Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum.

    2. These accounts of politics are, in turn, based upon a very elaborate and articulated system of metaphysics (more or less, Aristotle’s metaphysics modified in various ways).

    3. Subjects of the medieval monarchy are no more, and no less, cynical than the citizens within the liberal democracy. Where the cynicism centers or points at will be different, however. Indeed, if you read, say, Dino Compagni’s Chronicle of Florence, the depiction is as cynical as you could wish for. (Yes, Compagni was writing from within, and about, a republican city-state, but his book indicates what was readily mentally possible at the time).

    4. Our modern medievalisms (like the ones we create in fantasy novels) have nothing to do with any medieval realities. From what I can tell, essentially none of the writers of these things understands what the implications of magic would be, for just one example. (The existence of magic would mean that Aristotle’s metaphysics is implausible, which means that the underpinnings of the Western Christianity that actually existed at the time would likely be entirely destroyed, which in turn means that all the political regimes of the time would by necessity look entirely different.)

    5. What I would say then in response to Adam is not that the medieval fantasy actually utilizes real medieval elements. Rather, these medieval fantasies incorporate an imaginary other – an imaginary other that pretends to contain “real” medieval elements along with fantastical elements that the genre admits are fantastical. (Medieval people didn’t, of course, conceive of themselves as irrationally militaristic or irrationally treating women poorly – they did what they did for well-articulated and often closely reasoned reasons – sometimes reasons better articulated than what modern people give.)

    6. Thus, in the fantasy genre, many tropes pretend to re-construct medieval elements, but always fail to do so. Fantasy genre writers never actually fully reconstruct how real medieval people did see a natural order of things. There would be no point in doing so – attempting to fully reconstruct something like that would end up looking like a reconstruction of the Summa theologica.

  39. Huol Says:

    Wow, many of the fanboys commentating here need to chillax. I wonder why there is such a strong push back?

    The show gives each character a Machiavellian disposition, that is true, but to say that this reflects the attitudes of actual premodern people is dubious at best. Any wide reading of classical and medieval literature would prove this; the nobility and royalty, especially, always championed virtue, honor, and faith. They fundamentally believed themselves to be good people who did the right and honorable thing. Now whether or not they actually did so is another point, but nevertheless, premodern people genuinely believed themselves to be doing what was “good.” The level of cynicism and rampant individualism seen in the Game of Thrones discredits it from being any real depiction of premodern people. The show’s characters, by in large, are essentially modern egocentric cynics, who are more a byproduct of Freud and Marx than any actual premodern way of thought.

  40. Joe Miller Says:

    I don’t know how anyone could come away from reading Chaucer or Boccaccio without perceiving the readily apparent cynicism.

  41. burritoboy Says:

    Joe,

    It’s not precisely cynicism that is different. Rather, what distinguishes us (or moderns) from most medievals is that the medievals believe the solution is that people (rulers, primarily, but also others) reject their self-interestedness and turn to disinterested virtue (how that virtue is defined varies, of course). Moderns would rather utilize every individual’s self-interest within the modern social contract state – the modern state allows the individual to pursue his self-interest in ways that aid the society (Smith’s invisible hand) or are rendered harmless.

  42. M Says:

    “Many of the more common pov characters seem to be basically modern people play-acting at being a lord, but this may just be a conceit/limitation of the high fantasy genre”

    This is the key. The books are a reaction to 80s fantasy in general and the Wheel of TIme in particular, where the “modern liberals who are continually surprised to remember they live in feudal society” thing is done with to a much more blatant and absurd degree. GoT only half-heartedly scrubs this away, and I’m unsure if this is because the author can’t or won’t for fear of alienating readers, but as pointed out upthread he at least has a go at making the most modern-thinking characters outcasts or criminals.

  43. Mysterious X Says:

    To burritoboy, I agree with the characterization of monarchy but I don’t see the distinction of virtue/individualism insofar as it pertains to cynicism.

    In both cases, modern and medieval people would be cynical of leaders being truly virtuous (despite the fact that medieval people truly believed in it whereas moderns believe in channeling individualism for society). Today for instance, cynicism is still directed towards people claiming to be for the public good, honor etc. with the suspicion that they’re really self-interested individualists. That is, cynicism still acts the same way even if the belief is different.

    The problem I see with the analysis of a lot of the commentators is that cynicism is largely independent of liberalism, monarchy etc. and was probably as pervasive and “normative” as today, but was directed for a different purpose (for medievals to dissuade individualism and for today to more or less promote it). The only alternative would be to assume that, like Craig said, most people were “absolute fucking idiots” or totally fanatical in spite of lived experience.

    To Craig/Adam/voyou, the issue isn’t so much how many characters numerically hold liberal beliefs, it’s how the “protagonists” or at least characters we are supposed to root for (even if they’re trying to kill each other) like Tyrion, Daenerys etc. hold such beliefs.

    Here I think the ultimate problem is really just what Zizek might have called a “medievalism without the medieval” where we as modern liberal viewers want an authentically “medieval” (at least in terms of social structure) sword and sorcery adventure but without the actual grime of backward medieval beliefs from the characters.

    Although I’m very open to the possibility that its to show some repressed desire for medieval hierarchy and regressive beliefs but I just don’t think we’re at that point.


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