Category: Arts & Letters (Page 2 of 3)

Life is More Binary than Fiction: A Writer Reflects on Political Polarization

By: Shannon Kirk and Political Animal

Shannon Kirk is a novelist, a practicing attorney and law professor in Massachusetts, and also an avid follower of politics. She, like many of us, finds Trumpian politics incredibly distracting. In a world where the President-elect is constantly saying new and outrageous things on Twitter, how are news junkies supposed to get anything done?

In a great column on The Thrill Begins, Kirk addresses this problem, and outlines the system she’s using to try to stay focused. We highly recommend reading the whole thing.

One particularly interesting point is her observation that our current political climate encourages people to sort ourselves into two hostile camps based on our political identity. From a novelist’s perspective, this is maddening. Depth and contradiction make characters believable–because human life is complex. So why are we so attractive to binary extremism in our political life?

The following Is an excerpt from The article originally published in The Thrill Begins:

A good friend has a great response to try to chill me out every time I get spun up about the current political environment: “Is this going to impact the happiness of your cats?” Meaning, is this really going to lead to something that will change your life in a catastrophic way? I wish I could have this outlook on politics. I used to. I used to be able to tune most of it out and concentrate.


I confess. I have a problem. I’m addicted. I am distractified by Trump. But since I acknowledge this serious weakness, I’m hoping to fight my way back to my old ways and not let him win. I have devised a system, which I include at the end. No idea if this will work.

The distractification of Trump has impacted my writing in three ways: To lose time. To wallow in the quagmire of arguing about the fallacy of binary extremism. To resist bullying.

Distractified by Binary Extremism (frustrating my notion of character development)

Let’s first set the table and acknowledge the objective fact that we are living in La La Land right now. Nothing is normal, and, yes, nothing is logical. If your objective is to disagree and say that things are logical, then you are trolling this article; please move on.[1]

The reason it’s easy for me to get distractified by all this is actually nothing new; it’s something that’s always been a gripe of mine, even before Trump—just now more acute and in my face every single damn day, and in alarming ways. It is indeed a core issue I try to battle in my writing: the pushing of people into simplistic, binary camps. Example: Your character is a scientist, so she must be an atheist. I battle this notion, I reject it.

Here’s where we are, I liken it to the Fruit Loops vs. Cheerios Political System. Each Fruit Loop represents a position on an issue, and each Cheerio its “opposite.” If you are on Team Fruit Loop, you MUST accept and agree and support all Fruit Loops, likewise with Team Cheerio. Never may a Fruit Loop cross-pollinate the Cheerio world, and NEVER EVER may a Cheerio contaminate a Fruit-Loop-protected zone.

This is a binary system.

This is bullshit.

We would never allow such simple sorting for fictional characters, so why is it being pushed in reality?

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What is “Fascist”? Umberto Eco on Ur-Fascism

Howl of the Day: Nov 30, 2016

There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

In 1995, the late Umberto Eco wrote an essay on what he called “Ur-Fascism”. What he meant by this term is the fuzzy constellation of ideas and feelings out of which fascism grows. “[B]ehind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.” In the case of fascism, this is Ur-Fascism.

Eco’s essay is as relevant today as when he wrote it. Indeed, with the election of Trump, and the debate over to what degree it is fair to call him or his positions “fascist,” it is extremely timely. (A topic we have covered a number of times before.)

The key insight of the essay is that fascism, and the underlying mode of thinking that gives rise to it, are impossible to clearly define, because they embrace many contradictory elements. “Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

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Chuck Klosterman and Relative Morality

Thoughts on “But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past”

By: Matt Ryklin

When I was fifteen I had ridiculous opinions. Of course, at the time I didn’t think they were ridiculous, I thought they were well deliberated, intelligent, and insightful.

Everyone looks back with some disgust and amazement at how they behaved when they were younger, but the opinions I’m talking about weren’t only related to music, or fashion, or how to get girls. When I was fifteen, I was of the opinion that we shouldn’t legalize gay marriage. Now, I couldn’t imagine holding this opinion, and I even look disdainfully upon those who do. How could you not legalize gay marriage? It has no effect on anyone except for the positive effect it has on people in love who want to be together. I can’t possibly imagine not being for the legalization of gay marriage. And yet nine years ago, I didn’t think it was necessary.

This is where my head went when I first heard of Chuck Klosterman’s newest book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. He seeks to explore how future society will look back upon the time in which we currently live. To do so, he first explores how we look at the past and how our present morals and values shape our perception and distort reality. Then, he examines how predictions about future society are almost always wrong, because we naturally employ present-day values in order to create these predictions. Klosterman then uses this analysis as reason to question nearly everything we think about ourselves in the present, asserting that our present is draped in an unavoidable relativism that makes it difficult to reckon with right and wrong, and makes it almost impossible to attempt to understand how future societies will think about their past – our present.

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Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art

By: Stefan Schindler

The demand to abandon illusions about our condition is a demand to abandon the conditions which require illusion.Karl Marx

Bob Dylan’s winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature – the most coveted literary prize in the world – presents us with an opportune moment for looking back on his long and astonishing career as a constantly evolving musical icon.  It is the first time that the Nobel Prize committee has awarded the literature prize to a musician.  In defending this almost revolutionary break with tradition, the committee’s chairman, quoting Dylan’s most famous line from the ‘60s, announced, “The times, they are a changin’.”  Dylan’s originality as a surrealist lyricist was elevated by his engagement with profound social and political themes.  So in honor of his award for “literature,” let us examine what Mike Marqusee calls “the politics of Bob Dylan’s art.”

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Silence as Speech: Reading Sor Juana’s Primero Sueño in the Light of her Final Silence

By: Rich Frontjes

Speakers and Listeners in Public Discourse

American public discourse is theoretically founded on the freedom of speech.  This freedom to speak, however, in no way guarantees entry into conversations where the common good is considered, assessed, or decided.  Free speech is the freedom to speak publicly—but participation in public discourse requires inclusion.  And inclusion is variously brokered: depending on the conversation, its participants, and the power dynamics at work, any given stream of public discourse involves a boundary.  On one side are the participants, and on the other side are the listeners—or, frequently, those whose attention is focused elsewhere.

In contemporary society, the boundary between participants and listeners exists partly as a function of access to media.  Individuals or groups with the (financial or other) power to gain access to media increase their chances of entering the public discourse.  The powerless, of course, are typically also voiceless.  But financial power has not always been the key that opened the door to participation in public discourse: various epochs and cultural moments have likewise had various modes of adjudicating participation in public discourse.

The present power of media outlets to perform this boundary-keeping function once resided largely within other institutions.  The Roman Catholic Church and its functionaries exercised considerable control over public discourse for centuries of European history and cultural development.  Exploring how participation in public discourse has been adjudicated in a specific past instance elucidates a dynamic which clarifies the nature of contemporary public speech.  In the example of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), we discover a turn of events in which ecclesial power brokers attempted to enforce silence upon an otherwise astoundingly prolific poet.[1]

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Varys – His Riddle


One of the central questions in the book is Varys’ riddle…George R.R. Martin

Varys is a figure of vital importance in A Song of Ice and Fire. He is key to both the political action of the series and its political wisdom.

The core of his political philosophy, if one can use that term, is encapsulated in a riddle. The riddle — which concerns the nature of power itself — first appears in Chapter 3 of A Clash of Kings, where it is posed to Tyrion Lannister. Varys has found Tyrion at a King’s Landing inn, where the latter is ensconced (secretly, he believes) with his mistress, Shae.

Before Varys takes leave of Tyrion and Shae, he poses the riddle: “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”.

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Varys – A Eunuch


The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

One fact we learn early on about Lord Varys, and are reminded of frequently, is that he is a eunuch. His castration is one of the central features of his character.

Looking across the series, we see other examples of eunuchs, most notably in the Meereenese warrior, Strong Belwas, and the slave soldiers from Astapor, known as the Unsullied.

All of these characters are extraordinary in some way. Varys is one of the wisest characters in the series, the Unsullied some of the finest warriors. This connection between castration and talent is suggestive. G.R.R. Martin seems to be hinting that sexual desire is an impediment to the development of other kinds of human excellence.

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Varys – A Machiavellian Beast

Part 1 of the Character Discussion of Varys

A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that made him promise have been eliminated. And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but because they are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them. Nor does a prince ever lack legitimate causes to color his failure to observe faith.Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

Varys, the Master of Whisperers, is one of the most enigmatic characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. He is also one of the most self-aware. A major player in the action of the story, who usually operates behind the scenes, the author of the books has invested him with an enormous amount of political wisdom.

Varys, nicknamed The Spider, is originally from the Free City of Lys in faraway Essos. Over the course of time, he rose from his inauspicious start as an orphaned slave to achieve a great reputation as a spymaster. This, in turn, led King Aerys II Targaryen, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, to invite Varys to Westeros, into his employ there at King’s Landing, the capital.
Varys remained in place both as spymaster and a member of the small council, an elite group of advisors to the king, when House Baratheon led a rebellion and overthrew House Targaryen. And he remained again when House Lannister effectively took the throne.

His political maneuverings are so many and varied that it is almost impossible to keep them straight – yet they are consistently effective.

Just surviving so many regime changes is itself impressive. But Varys not only survived, he flourished. The deeper Westeros fell into political chaos, the more his political influence grew. With each new regime on a weaker footing than the last, his spy network became more and more indispensable even though his title, or lack thereof, remained the same. As Varys puts it to Tyrion Lannister in Chapter 8 of A Clash of Kings, “The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.”

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The Argument and the Action

We have divided our study of the political theory of G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire into a series of discussions, each one focusing on a single character. Why this character by character approach?

First and foremost, A Song of Ice and Fire itself is told from the perspectives of its characters, each chapter is presented from the point-of-view of one of them and named accordingly. G.R.R. Martin clearly puts the characters front and center in his work, and we intend to follow his lead.

Moreover, we think this method follows naturally from the way we read his works. As in any novel, the political insights of Martin’s saga come in three general forms, corresponding to 1) the argument of the text, 2) its action, and 3) the interplay between them.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, the first kind of insight, that in argument, can be found mostly in the speeches of the books, the things uttered (or sometimes thought) by the various characters. So, for example, Tywin Lannister might teach a lesson about kingship to his grandson, Joffrey, as he does in Chapter 53 of A Storm of Swords: “When your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you. And any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king at all.” The reader is here afforded a glimpse of what makes Tywin Lannister such an impressive political actor – he knows how to make men serve him. His lesson is not that cruelty should be tempered by mercy or kindness, but that it should be tempered by considerations of efficacy. If cruelty weakens a ruler, then it should be brought to an end.

The second kind of insight, that in action, is to be found mostly in the events of the story, the choices made by the characters and the consequences of those choices. An example of this is to be found in the later parts of A Storm of Swords, particularly when Daenerys Targaryen is faced with the realities left in the wake of her conquests. The “Mother of Dragons” has gone from city to city in the region of Slaver’s Bay, conquering them and liberating the legions of slaves that are their lifeblood. She has come to regard herself as a great emancipator. But when Danaerys reaches and conquers the city of Meereen, the third of the great slave cities, she learns of the fates that have befallen the previous two cities, Astapor and Yunkai, since she has left them. The council that she had installed to rule Astapor has been killed and replaced by a vicious butcher (literally, a butcher) named Cleon. The city of Yunkai has already begun to reorganize against her. And even Meereen, the city in which she has just liberated the population, is in a condition other than what she expected; Daenerys learns with shock that vast numbers of Meereenese have flocked to the riverside, hoping to be sold back into slavery. The action of the story therefore serves to instruct Daenerys, as well as the reader, that human beings are not so malleable as she thought. They are also not so grateful as she might have liked, nor do they see their liberty as an unmitigated blessing. This is a provocative insight – that many men want to be ruled.

The third kind of insight, that which is presented through the interplay of argument and action in the book, can be found throughout the books. Often the context in which a speech is given modifies the meaning of that speech. And, sometimes, events in the books prove the veracity or lack thereof in a given speech. Take, for example, Joffrey’s fate in A Storm of Swords – he is poisoned and dies during his own wedding feast. The manner of Joffrey’s death, the pitiful length of his reign as king (less than two years), the immense number of individuals with obvious motives to have been the one whodunnit, and the fact that, other than his mother, Cersei, practically everyone in the book thinks that Joffrey deserved his horrid end, many of them even celebrating it – all of these aspects of the event serve to confirm the wisdom of what his grandfather, Tywin, had tried to teach him earlier in the same book. A king who is simply cruel will not be effectively loved or feared by his subjects and competitors, he will be reviled by them, and he will probably not last long for it. This insight about cruelty is not a moral one, it is one about good rule, where good rule consists in the security and aggrandizement of the ruler.

All of these kinds of insights center on the characters. The characters make the speeches in the books, as well as the choices. They are the principal agents of both the arguments and the action, the political actors in this tale of grand politics. By structuring our inquiry into the series’ political insights around the characters, we keep that dramatic context firmly in our minds.

Return to the main hub for discussion of the politics of A Song of Ice and Fire here.

(Image: Symbols of the Seven Noble Houses by twipzdeeauxilia, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence. Via Flickr.)

A Politics of Ice and Fire

By: Lewis Slawsky

There are many reasons that G.R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, has been such a tremendous popular and critical success. Here is just one reason, but a major one – A Song of Ice and Fire is an eminently political piece of literature.

Discussion is Coming!

Over the next few months, we are going to examine the political insights of A Song of Ice and Fire through a series of character studies. Join us!

Why character by character?

Find details, and all the articles in the series here.

The beating heart of the story is the seemingly endless number of political moves made by various parties as they seek power. This is the action that gives its name to the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones.

Now, A Song of Ice and Fire is not political in the sense of partisanship or ideology, although these things can indeed be found among the panoply of groups and individuals within the context of the books. This fact alone makes it a valuable work of literature, in these days of big party politics and entrenched partisan commitments. But A Song of Ice and Fire is political in the broader sense of politics – the series is concerned with how human beings choose to live together or how they are compelled to do so. It is concerned with questions of power: who rules, in what manner, on what basis, and what the effects of power are on both the rulers and the ruled.

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