Nothing does a better job of reminding me that I’m a member of the plebiscite masses in need of my panem et circenses than a well-crafted pop culture phenomenon about powerful leaders plotting to control the plebiscite masses.
At age 12 I was an avid player of Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, a real time strategy computer game in which the player builds up an economy and army of soldiers (macro) and then uses those soldiers to attack the enemy (micro). For people like me, the desire for medieval fantasy needs an outlet in the modern world. If, hypothetically speaking, there happened to be a person or group of people interested in keeping human majorities content with their situation, social/material/etc, then such an elite would need to find a way to drain energy into something passive. Video games work. TV shows work. Movies work. Porn even more so. And so on.
As Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) says; “The people are hungry for more than just food. They crave distractions, and if we don’t provide them they’ll create their own. And their distractions are likely to end with us being torn to pieces.” Game of Thrones has to make its characters cynical, otherwise people wouldn’t be able to relate to it. Why depict an elite that understands its mission in life when you could follow the points of view of vicious, greedy, bloodthirsty, imperfect men and women? Viewers relate to it because people fight about things that are immediate and physical, and not idealogical. They’re not murdering, pillaging and warring for their gods or Heaven. These elements are in the story and yet they’re in the background.
I occasionally wonder why things like epic fantasy end up in the popular imagination, yet music that fits this theme ends up appreciated by an invisible fraction of society. Skyrim is relatively popular, so why don’t people listen to its music outside of the context of the game? They probably wouldn’t enjoy the game as much without its music, yet the music’s role in shaping the experience doesn’t appear consciously before the mind. The music adorns the image of the product, just like most music that comes out of the mass-produced factory. The real product is the people, who will fade as soon as new trends are selected by the businesses lording over them. I recently asked some of my adult English students what they think is different between their generation and the ones before and after. The topic turned to music almost immediately. The older generations like more “traditional” music (which from my perspective is just another way of saying they like music that’s actually unique to the Chinese). Younger generations listen to new music, and not just music but new idols. The idols are what sell, and the music is a kind of pretext for the adoration of the personalities and styles.
So you’d think that if popular movies and television were marketed the same way as music, men and women young and old would be watching pornography instead of drama. But somehow the lowbrow nature of popular music doesn’t seep into movies and TV quite as much, which means there’s a strategy behind it. And if there’s a strategy, it must be profit oriented as well as political. In other words; the stories people are interested in are simultaneously constructed and catered to by the mass media. If you can’t eliminate a population’s interest in a subject (such as conflict, history, hierarchy, beauty and ugliness) then the next best thing is to get them to siphon it into media viewership. I think everything in society is trivialized in that way, up to and including religion and war so much that these ‘activities’ become historical reenactments. If you can’t get people to stop craving adventure, the next best thing is to treat it like a lab experiment.
In one of his orations, arguably his best, Jonathan Bowden talks about the way our pre-rational will takes shape in the mass mind: “Much of popular culture involves the celebration of men–iconographically, in films and so on–who are authoritarian, who are hierarchical, who are elitist. How many cinema posters have you seen with the man alone with a gun staring off into the distance? It’s the primordial American myth. These are men who think “fascistically.” And they fight against fascism. They fight against authoritarian ideas of what the West once was and can be. This is always the trick: that they will use the ideology of the Marine Corps, to fight for a liberal, a humanist, and a Democratic purpose. That’s the trick. In every film, in every television program, in every comic, in every simple novel, in everything that the masses consume that isn’t purely about sex or sport, the heroic is there. And they always fight for liberal causes, and their enemies are always grinning Japanese generals, or Nazis. Used again, and again, and again, as a stereotype, of a stereotype, of a stereotype, to impose the idea that that which is core, primal, Indo-European, is morally wrong.”
Game of Thrones rejects this formula. The ‘good guys’ if there are any fight for family, loyalty, glory, survival, vengeance, and power. Everyone is fascistic. A ‘good’ person is honest and strong, and not meek and inoffensive. In our world, the way ordinary people treat that kind of mental climate is with irony. But irony doesn’t satisfy everyone. The masses require heroic inspiration like children need to be held. The series depicts a world where the harshness of life takes a violent and grisly form. And we like it because our world is harsh too.
Mishima describes the post Second World War in his poem “Voices of the Heroic Spirits;” “War, having become a nuisance / now thrives in the shadows. / The trust between spouses, among friends, has vanished / deceitful democracy has its day, / the world is infested / with duplicitous, easygoing harmony.”
Amid all the conflict in the books/series is the sense that the end will not be happy. We know this as viewers going forward, because we get many hints, including brief premonitions of King’s Landing in ruins in a snowstorm. Even people who aren’t familiar with the series may have come across the phrase “Winter is Coming.” Corrupt regimes try and hold on to their power as their doom approaches. People engage in Earthly matters while saying things like “thank the gods,” “a lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of a sheep,” “I am the master of whisperers,” or “You think my life is some precious thing to me?”
The idea that history goes in cycles is not a normal contemporary view, either because we believe our technical progress defines history, or due to lack of interest in history altogether. But the idea that completed forms will submerge back into chaos and then work themselves back into order is uncensorable. My generation (I mostly mean Americans, but thenAmerica gets to make a lot of the ideological rules) is not looking toward as prosperous a life trajectory as that of our parent generation. I see this in the popular imagination everywhere. It becomes the plot of various stories; the man who becomes evil because his world is falling apart.
I can’t think of anything that does this better than Game of Thrones. It’s ugly and beautiful and tragic. “There’s a war coming…” Characters deal with things that matter, because they are forced to recognize what it takes for a family and civilization to survive. Things like economy and society are life and death. The forms that emanate from characters in such an environment are hierarchical, patriarchal and grandiose, because their cultures aren’t arbitrary. We dream of a life where culture means survival.