Additional Thoughts on Game of Thrones and Media Criticism

Posted: September 14, 2011 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , ,

I’m going to wax pretentious here for a little while, and I hope you’ll bear with me.  There’s going to be a lot of “this is what MY philosophy is,” which I think is a kind of navel-gazey way of dealing with art in the best case scenario, and at worst is just a pretty insufferable thing to have to hear.  But I’ve got a point that I hope to get to by the end, which I think is worth sitting through the bullshit, so if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to dive right in:

I don’t believe that art is constituted of objects.

That’s actually a little misleading, wait.  Let me say that I believe we can call a thing like a book or a painting or a movie a “work of art,” and that’s fine in so far as it’s a pretty good word to describe a pretty broad but fairly well-defined category of things in the world.  However, I don’t think that a work of art’s…uh…”thingness” is the important part of it.  What I’m interested in about art is not the thing itself, but the experience of art.

I know.  That sounds either 1) completely stupid, or 2) utterly self-evident.  In the first place, how can you experience art if there isn’t a thing to experience?  And, 2), of course it’s the experience of art that matters, who cares about a book that no one has ever read?

Okay, right, shut up.  But the thing is this:  I think that the important part about art is that it’s experienced.  A work of art is a distillation of the artist’s (or artists’) notions about something, and the art is your collection of notions about the world and the way that the art effects them.  The art is not the stone, it’s the ripples formed when the stone is dropped in the pool.  (Hey, look at me, Mr. Tao te Ching, or something.)

You’ll notice the problem, though, right away:  there’s no clear delineation where or how a thing affects your mind.  If I read a book today, and I think X and Y and Z, and then something traumatic happens — let’s say my dog is destroyed by a comet.  Well, maybe if I read that book again, I’d have a completely different perspective on it.  Not only that!  But what if I just THOUGHT about the book again?  Like, what if I read a book, and then my dog was killed by a comet, and then I started thinking about the book that I just read?  So, when did I experience the art more truly or correctly or rightly?  Which one is the better experience?


It gets even more interesting to me, because what if something traumatic didn’t happen to me?  What if something regular happened to me that just caused my perspective to change a little bit?  Like, for example, when I was in high school I met a girl who told me that the word “gyp” — as in “I got gypped at the McDonald’s drive-thru” by which I mean I was  “cheated” — is actually a racial slur against the Roma (er:  Gypsies, but, duh, when you see it written out it’s obvious).  The thing is, this wasn’t traumatic, and it didn’t cause me to re-evaluate my understanding of the world, but it did make me look at some things in a slightly different light, and began a process of my becoming generally a little bit more sensitive to what turned out to be a horrible, systemic, and largely invisible discrimination against gypsies that’s been going on for a thousand years.

Anyway, that’s not even the half of it, because the thing is, you learn things from a book, right?  You know things at the end of the book that you didn’t know at the beginning, and so if you read the book again — if you even think about the first chapter again — the experience of that chapter is different, because it’s now informed by what you know at the end.  But which is the real experience?  The one where you didn’t know too much, or the one where you didn’t know enough?

So, let me boil it down:  I don’t think you’ve read a book until you’ve thought about it, and I don’t think you’ve thought about it until you’ve talked about it.  The experience of any piece of art or media doesn’t end the second you put it down, any more than your dinner disappears the second you swallow it.

It always has repercussions and, frankly, I think this is what I find so detestable about the Transformers movies:  not only do they give me philosophical indigestion when I chew them over, but their advocates are constantly insisting that they SHOULD disappear the moment I’ve consumed them.  I’m supposed to watch them and instantly forget about them, and what’s the point of that?  Two hours later, I could have NOT watched them and still been exactly the same person.

But, anyway.  The problem I had with Sady Doyle’s article about Game of Thrones wasn’t necessarily that I thought her points were wrong, but that I thought they were presented in a way that was designed to curtail discussion, and I think that’s antithetical to the nature of art.  HOWEVER, Sady’s point about Martin’s fandom, and how they’re a community dedicated to only the celebration of Game of Thrones, and how they react so poorly to any kind of criticism — is a completely true point, and exactly indicative of the same problem.  And, in fact, I think it’s a much worse problem in fandom, since it’s widespread and pernicious and self-reinforcing.

My brother just read Ender’s Game, and of course he loved it, and of course I had to point out that it’s a shame that Orson Scott Card is a complete asshole.  And when you know a little more about how much of an asshole Card is, and once you’ve seen the contempt that he has for gay people, you can’t help but read even well-crafted novels like Ender’s Game in a little bit of a different light.  And I also send him articles that I find — articles like this one, which actually re-casts Ender’s Game in such a way that it actually makes the book seem less like a story about a deeply moral person, and more like a story by an author who wants you to believe he’s writing about a deeply moral person but is actually performing a kind of grotesque moral sleight-of-hand.

Which one is it?  I don’t know.  It’s both, I guess, or all of them.  It was one thing when I read it, and another thing when I thought about it again, later.  It’s still the first thing, too, in the sense that even though my new perspective is different, I still remember what my old perspective was like.  It’s all true, and in a sense it doesn’t really matter what the “real” book is, or which experience came first, because it’s actually the act of consideration that’s the important thing.

The journey is more important than the destination, &c and so forth, said Dr. Braak, Zen Master.

So, the problem that I have when Alyssa Rosenberg, who wrote the response to Sady’s article that prompted my response, writes out questions like these is that they look an awful lot like trying to establish general rules on the subject of feminism in literature.  The thing about is that any intellectually honest person is going to answer those questions the way that theoncominghope quite rightly does:  “is it sexist to portray female incompetence?”  Well, that depends on the context.  “Should fantasy stories take place in ideal worlds or in worlds that are thought experiments?”  Well, it depends, and also it’s more complicated than that, and that’s not even a very good question.

And contexts and complexities change every single day.  I can read Game of Thrones and not think it’s sexist at first, and then read Tiger Beatdown and think Game of Thrones IS sexist, and then read Alyssa Rosenberg on it and then think that maybe it’s not again, and then talk to the Threat Quality commenters and conclude that actually it probably is kind of sexist, but also in a relatively benign way — and “conclude” isn’t even the right word, because it implies that I’m going to eventually reach some kind of end end in the process of consideration, and that’s obviously crazy.  At best I can say, “it generally seems to me that it’s a little sexist,” because tomorrow my dog might get hit by a comet and then who knows what I’ll think about it.

So all of these questions are really good questions to ask about individual works:  is THIS an ideal world?  Does it portray it in an idealized way?  Is this portrayal sexist?  Is it sexist given the context of the rest of the book?  Given the context of human history? Given any number of things — they’re all useful question to ask and try to answer.

Except when they’re as general as this, because it’s patently absurd to either by consensus or reason establish that fantasy worlds should take place in an ideal world, or that they shouldn’t.  It’s obviously completely crazy to even ask a question like that, because obviously there aren’t any rules, and the time we spend sitting around talking about whether or not there should be rules is tantamount to arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin — how would we know in the first place, and who cares in the second?

I promised that I had a point when I began this, and now I’m not sure I was even telling the truth.  What am I even talking about?  I guess just this: there are two things you can mean when you talk about a novel.  The first is the actual object that you bought in the store and could kill a spider with; the second is the web of semantic relationships that begin with an author and is crystallized into words and then carries over into your mind, which is itself just a web of relationships that you have gathered and are gathering and will gather up from the world.

Anyway.  Everyone, think about things more, and stop complaining when people criticise things you like, because maybe tomorrow your dog will get hit by a comet and then you’ll find yourself agreeing.  We are all one dog’s-death-by-comet away from each other at any moment.

  1. Kimmi says:

    Sady’s a troll, who boasts about getting more traffic by enraging people.
    Her points go out the window, when she turns to “the victim willingly participated in his own sexual assault” (aka tyrion). That’s rape apologist talk, and it’s unacceptable for anyone to say, let alone a so-called feminist.

  2. braak says:

    Well, my feeling is, imagine that somebody says a lot of different things on a lot of different subjects — and maybe some of those things are terrible things, but maybe some of them are at least a little interesting because the person saying them has such a particular and radical perspective — there’s no sense throwing the interesting things away just because she said some terrible things, too. Who doesn’t say terrible things, sometimes?

    But that is me, I spend a lot of time just filing things away for future consideration, and a lot of time discarding what I think is bullshit.

    Anyway, I’ve seen Sady say enough that I think is worth chewing on that I’m unwilling to write her off just yet. I can’t help but feel like it’d be counter-productive.

  3. Emily Manuel says:

    Good post. I tend to agree with the description of a text as an encounter, and I think one of the issues in engaging with fandoms as a critic is there’s often very different understandings of the text at stake. When I write criticism, I do so with the understanding that meaning is never entirely in the text in-itself, that it inherently has multiple interpretations. I also do it from the perspective of literary theory which understands there to be an unconscious to the text itself, to signify more than the author intended.

    So I write – and read – often in the speculative mode, to say this is what I see, this is what it could be, even this is what it should be. Is criticism interesting? Provocative? Does it make you think, consider a text anew? That’s successful criticism, not confirmation of your own reading. You don’t have to agree with everything to be stimulated.

    But like Sady says, some people will always just hear “you don’t like my toys.” I think in many ways fandom as a whole sees commentary as a threatening activity, as stealing their enjoyment.

    No matter how much praise you give, as soon as you introduce an element of critique some fans will hate you. And as a woman, inevitably sooner or later someone will call you a cunt or threaten you. And the question to me is: why? Why is someone not liking what you like so enraging? Why is a different reading worth your vitriol?

    And, why are there implicit demands to have the proper level of veneration to texts? To bring it back to Game of Thrones: IF you were to see the text as Sady does, as a rape and pedo apologist, creepy book.. why *should* she have been moderate in the way she expressed that? She wasn’t expressing rage against a person, she was expressing it against a popular part of the culture she lives in. A very few texts in my opinion have no redeeming features, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expressing that disgust in a highly performative way.

    I would also like to note: as one of the editors Sady’s worked with, I think the idea that she’s a troll because she’s written a few scathing, over-general pieces on pop culture is ridiculous. She’s done a lot of reporting – you know that thing where you go out interview people – as well as commentary on serious issues like domestic violence, transphobic assaults, worker’s rights, the right-wing etc and NONE of that work gets a quarter of the attention.

    And there’s very definite reasons for that, that have everything to do with the way we weigh textual criticism, how we read online for entertainment, how we have too little empathy for other people, too little solidarity for the oppressed and too little outrage at political violence large and small, and too much outrage for someone daring to disagree with us over things we see as beloved possessions. As part of ourselves.

    From my perspective, the idea that a few venting posts about a bloody TV show invalidates her entire body of work is itself laughably over-broad.

  4. braak says:

    Emily: I think we’re on the same page here. I think it’s probably pretty true that if you do see a book as an apologia for rape or pedophilia (or, in the case of Ender’s Game, a kind of apologia for Hitler) then you should definitely at least feel infuriated by it — and there’s nothing implicitly wrong with venting or just getting mad and being mad about something. While it’s not always the most productive avenue, it’s probably better that we live in a world that’s angrier in its condemnation of things that could be apologies for rape than it is that we’re angrier in their defense.

    Pursuant to that, I guess that’s the thing: I think Sady’s position is much more tolerable than fan veneration, because in the long run I’d prefer to see something I like dragged through the mud of critical opprobium than see something I hate unjustly venerated. Good work will withstand scorn; wrongly-adored bad work won’t have to.

  5. Moff says:

    I didn’t dig the “George R.R. Martin is creepy” phrasing in Sady’s post. I know it’s apostrophe, just using his name to stand in for this set of books, the same way you’d say, “I like to read George R.R. Martin,” so this is nitpicky. But still, you can write some pretty creepy shit and not be a creepy person at all, just like you can write enlightened things and be a grade-A assface.

    Anyway, art is hard. Works of art are encounters, and I’m pretty revolted by any notion that a person should fear or absolutely avoid any such encounter. That’s why my initial comment on the previous post was what it was. I felt different after I actually read Sady’s piece and one of her comments on it about the okayness of enjoying problematic art*—but even though I think her assessment is pretty well thought out, her tone there is so contentious that I can’t help but think there are people reading the post and coming away with the idea that to read and enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire is to Be a Bad Person.

    I wish there had been more clarification, not because I think Martin needs to sell more books or should be protected in some way, but ’cause the inference that you’re a bad person for enjoying some work of art is a short step away from the decision that everyone is a bad person for enjoying it, which is a short step away from the notion that the work of art shouldn’t even exist. Even Sady’s P.S. about not wanting all book to be about fluffy bunnies—I don’t think she does, but when she cites the fact that she’s reading a novel about rape that doesn’t sensationalize or eroticize it, it comes off kinda like: “This art is OK (because it’s smart/because it’s realism/because it’s difficult); but this art is not.” And while I don’t think she’s saying that, I could hardly blame someone else for thinking that’s what she means. And yikes, that’s the last thing we need people thinking about art.

    *This strikes me a problematic phrase, actually. Isn’t “problematic art” redundant?

  6. Emily Manuel says:

    It’s true. Personally, I can’t help wondering if part of the fanrage is specifically because of knowing that a particular text *isn’t* that good, that it will in all likelihood forgotten fairly quickly. Or in something like Game of Thrones, that it is morally repugnant, and that some of the unacknowledged pleasure of reading/watching lies in that. Which is a pretty unpalatable truth to live with, so hence the acting out.

    I think there’s a lack of real sophistication in talking about aesthetics and responses – enjoying something doesn’t mean it’s a good piece of art, and it definitely doesn’t mean that it’s moral. And by the same token, a piece of art can be good (well executed, innovative aesthetically, etc) and still not be pleasurable and/or moral. Texts (and readers) do a lot of things all at the same time!

  7. Emily Manuel says:

    >>>“This art is OK (because it’s smart/because it’s realism/because it’s difficult); but this art is not.”

    Not being funny, but would be wrong with making distinctions between OK and not OK art? I mean, realism’s a silly reason, but why not make moral (or indeed aesthetic) judgments about art? Art always makes certain kinds of connections, and we can (and do) discuss whether something is telling an immoral or harmful kind of story.

    That’s the realm of the ethical – not the realm of the legal (which would be another thing altogether and I would defend artists’ right to make ugly art).

    It does have the risk of being taken over very quickly by people intent on censoring art, but moral or aesthetic relativism annoys the shit out of me too. Not everything’s equally good, meaningful, moral, liberatory, interesting, whatever… That E.M Forster quote: “one person with passion is better than forty people merely interested.” The same goes for texts, and critics.

    Personally, I very much DO judge people (and myself!) in certain ways for liking certain things, but am always open to arguments why they work and what they do. The one thing that was interesting to me about the Game of Thrones discussion – which I had no real interest in per se, I like the show, read the first book – was how unconvincing most of the arguments were. Sady anticipated a good deal of them in her text, yet still there were a hundred people going “that’s just how it waaaaas in the Middle Ages” or whatever. That’s just dull to me, when so many people can’t even respond to a critique as written.

  8. braak says:

    It’s interesting. Obviously, I think it’s reasonable to be a little paranoid about pulling at the hammer of judgment, you know, just because of how easy it is to go from, “This art is immoral, therefore the people who wrote it are immoral, and it’s encouraging the people who read it to be immoral, and therefore we should make it illegal.” To any sane and reasonable person, of course it doesn’t follow, but I don’t think it’s altogether wrong to be a little leery of the notion — I know I’m hesitant to come down definitively in most cases like that, and I like to think of myself as pretty reasonable.

    If pressed, though, yeah, I have to admit that there’s nothing wrong, critically speaking, with calling something stupid, ugly, bad, or immoral — though I still don’t know that you can either extend that to: a) the author is therefore immoral, or b) it is therefore encouraging people to be immoral. Nor do I think anyone can make an effective argument for general case scenarios, though I also don’t think that’s what Sady was doing.

    In Martin’s particular case, I don’t think what he was doing was immoral, or specifically an apologia for pedophilia; I think the core of his work was an attempted de-romanticization of traditional fantasy tropes — a kind of Lord of the Rings world coupled with a brutal (heightened) realist aesthetic. I think the worst parts of the books are just parts where he wasn’t doing that very well.

  9. Moff says:

    Well, first let me say what should go without saying: that I’m strongly in favor of people making distinctions and thoughtful arguments about art.

    And I don’t think everything is of equal quality, exactly. I don’t think art can be ranked or graded though, either, for reasons like what Braak gets at in the post: works of art strike different people differently, and even strike the same person differently at different times. (And to say even that much is to presume we have some way of measuring what a work of art “affecting” someone actually means, which we don’t.) I’m not sure that amounts to relativism, because I think we can compare different works that share similarities and make concrete-ish judgments about how well they each do what they do. Still, even if ninety-nine people think Work A does x better than Work B, if the hundredth insists that Work B just seems superior to her, you can’t say she’s wrong. Ineffability is integral to art; she doesn’t have to be able to articulate an argument. You can’t even say she’s less right—like the Forster quote implies, if Work B resonates more deeply with her than Work A resonates with the other ninety-nine, that matters. That means the art is working, I would say. So I have to conclude that everything is of equal quality in the sense that there’s no reliable way to measure any of it. (The fact remains, of course, that we do rank art—that within a culture, we do often agree about works’ relative worth—but that could have just as much to do with inertia, not to mention cronyism and lack of imagination, as something inherent in the art.)

    Here’s what I mean when I say thinking some art is OK and some isn’t is the last thing we need to encourage: I just happened to write down a sentence I might use in a book I’m failing at writing. It goes: “You know how it is with the people you love, especially family: you might hate them, too, but more often, you’re kind of indifferent.”

    Now, I think there’s some truth to that sentence. But I also think that if someone—it could be an overweight middle-aged white man, but it could also be a mom with a nice haircut and lunatic eyes; usually it’s one of those two, though—if someone got up in front of a bunch of other people and read the sentence to them in a scornful voice, and then said:

    “You might hate your family. Or you might be indifferent to your family. That’s real nice. That’s great. Is that what we want our books to be telling us? Is that the sort of idea we want our kids to be getting when they sit down to read a book?”

    …if someone said that in front of a bunch of people, I think a lot of those people would take what (I believe) are just some words pointing out a truth about the human condition—which truths are absolutely necessary to acknowledge if we want to grow as individuals and societies (I’m using my own writing here, so I don’t want to sing its praises too loudly, so feel free to sub in another sentence if mine doesn’t work for you)—and decide that yeah, that is a horrible thing to say, that you hate or are indifferent to your family. And that, ugh, that thought should be quashed.

    I am not talking about state censorship here or a legal issue. I am talking about the voice of shame in everybody’s head—the voice whose presence makes it so necessary to point out truths about the human condition—that doesn’t care whether a thought is true or not, but only about what other people would think if they knew you were entertaining it.

    You can’t make art if you listen to that voice. And that’s what I mean about being careful about pronouncing some art OK and some not OK. It’s one thing to tell people to be thoughtful about the art they make; it’s another to say, “This is how art should be; this isn’t.” In the former case, you’re asking so much, asking them to do real work. In the latter, you’re giving people what gets read as a shortcut—“Ah, so that’s one way I can’t think if I make art, OK!”—and we love shortcuts. So potentially, whole avenues of imagination get closed off, because at some point this person heard that you’re not supposed to explore them, and that even if they cry out to you, you need to beat them down into submission and silence.

    I think art should be a totally free space for the exploration of ideas. That’s a real blithe way to sum up what is deeply complex in practice, but I think it’s a good guideline. I don’t know what you guys mean when you talk about “moral” works of art. I think art should be true, but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing, and I suspect it’s an important distinction. I don’t think art’s job is to teach us how to live; if it does that, it’s only incidentally, as a byproduct of its real role, which is to show us how we are. And I don’t think I’m saying anything especially revolutionary here, or anything you guys will majorly disagree with, but I think it was worth saying anyway, if only for myself.

  10. braak says:

    Moff, that comment was too long.

  11. Moff says:

    Or is it just long enough???

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