Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna is a writer whose latest book, due out in October, is a biography of Joseph Stalin.

End of Thrones
Monday, 12 December 2016 15:09

End of Thrones

Published in Fiction

Tony McKenna argues that the historical necessity embedded in the story and characters of Game of Thrones means that there is only one way it can end.

Winter is coming, for Game of Thrones is now approaching its denouement with the penultimate series scheduled for next year and the final one arriving the year after that. Remarkable not only for its writing, depth of character, feudal brutality, blood-soaked magicking and otherworldly pathos, the novels and the show have bled into the fabric of the twenty-first century imagination, creating an independent industry of cosplay, fan-fiction and comic-book convention, and providing a whole literary genre with a new lease of life.   

A building discussion revolves around how the series/books will be concluded.   In the case of Game of Thrones this is a particularly interesting question.  One of author George RR Martin’s great strengths is the vastness and complexity of the fantasy world he has brought into being; not only in terms of its topography – the various kingdoms, the two continents, the myriad of hamlets and keeps and ports and temples – but also the sheer number of plotlines which operate coextensively at any given point.  And this is what makes bringing the books/series to a coherent resolution such a challenging task from the perspective of the writer.  How does one integrate Arya’s revenge plotline, with Daenerys’ tale of slave liberation coupled with dragons of mass destruction?  How can one blend the civil war which is taking place between the Lannisters, the Starks, the Tyrells, the Baratheons et al. – with the White Walkers whose undead legions are threatening to overwhelm the defences of the Nights Watch and storm the wall once and for all?  This article attempts to answer these questions.    

Weaker literary endeavours – from much of Modernist literature to a soap opera like EastEnders – are characterised by an abiding fact: they suffer, more broadly, from a lack of historical necessity.  What I mean by this becomes clear when we consider something like EastEnders.  Every so often, the writers of the soap bring a storyline to fruition by posing a cliff hanger.  So, for example, in 2001 they brought us the ‘Who shot Phil Mitchell?’ storyline which saw the brooding cockney villain almost dispatched by a mystery assailant on his doorstep.  Because the soap had been bedevilled by leaks, the press would often get the revelation - the solution to the ‘Whodunit?’ - before the episode itself had gone to air, thus depriving it of much of its dramatic impact.  At this point, the producers changed tack.   They realised they could film six or seven endings, in which a different character was revealed as the attempted murderer in each case, and then one character in particular would be selected, the episode aired, and the spoiler-press thwarted in its endeavours.

But the fact that they began to resort to such an ingenious tactic, on a regular basis, also revealed the paper thin level of characterisation the writers were employing.   There was no real underlying necessity by which an action a character took was grown out of a particular set of conditions and circumstances unique to that character.  Rather the murderer or the arsonist or the adulterer could be anyone and everyone.  The plot ‘twist’ could fall at random on any head.  And this is a sign of poor literature.  If one is keenly following a murder mystery, and the murderer is eventually unmasked by the detective as the postman who appeared fleetingly in a scene many pages before, then the reader feels thwarted and cheated, for the raison d'être of the character has by no means been developed and the necessity which underpins his or her action (the murder) has been by no means adduced.  In contrast the true plot twist, the finest form of dramatic revelation, is not simply one which comes out of the blue.  It comes as a surprise, yes – its power relies on the fact that it is unexpected.  But, as soon as the writer/viewer begins to think about it, he or she can see that the clues and signs were there all along – that the necessity and reason for the plot-twist/conclusion had been cultivated throughout the development of the plot, albeit invisibly and from behind the scenes.  Think of something like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects.  Both films provide two of the greatest twists in history – and without going into the details and risking the possibility of spoilers – one is aware that both use the same technique: once the revelation has been announced the viewer is treated to a quick flashback of past scenes – scenes which at the time appeared entirely incidental – but which reveal their full meaning in light of the plot twist.  In other words, an ending with genuine aesthetic integrity has to already be present, latently, in the beginnings; the oak, to paraphrase Hegel, must be immanent in the acorn.  

I say this by way of consideration of Game of Thrones.  If one believes that Game of Thrones is great art (as I do) then it follows that the ending which has yet to be written, nevertheless still exists as a latent necessity, as a ghostly outline, in the characters and plot which have been unfurled thus far.  On the same note, when Michelangelo suggests that the statue is already inside the bloc of marble, the sculptor’s job is merely to carve away the residue material – it is to this type of aesthetic necessity that the great renaissance artist alludes.  In order to discover the ending of Game of Thrones we must peel away all the paraphernalia of the plot and locate the latent necessities which underpin it. We must reference the fundamental nature of the fantasy world which Game of Thrones calls into being. 

In essence it is a world that involves a predominantly feudal centre with various slave economies and nomadic societies at work on the periphery. Some of the feudal polities are decadent and corrupt – the Lannisters for instance, who come to control the Iron Throne – are ruthless, acquisitive and power-hungry; a clear nod toward the feudal absolutism of the Tudor age in which one dynasty was eventually able to submit a series of vassal lords to itself in and through the tax impositions of an increasingly unified state – but a state which was achieved at the price of civil war, mendaciousness, and increasing ties with the financial priests of a developing commercial bourgeoisie.  The Starks, on the other hand, represent a more benevolent vision of an earlier medievalism in which more parochial forms of kingship operated largely unmolested by the external stresses of an encroaching market economy and a centralized absolutism.  

The Lannisters, though they are of the high aristocracy, are nevertheless aware that much of their power is buttressed on a burgeoning market economy.  Witness Tywin’s (the head of the House) warning to his daughter Cersei:  ‘And that's what the Iron Bank is- a temple. We all live in its shadow, and almost none of us know it. You can't run from them, you can't cheat them, you can't sway them with excuses. If you owe them money, and you don't want to crumble yourself... you pay it back.’ ("First of His Name")  Although the Lannisters are profligate spenders and feast and revel in the debauched manner of the aristocrats of yore, although they are prey to the same religious superstitions, and privy to the same honours system of knightly ideals, nevertheless this veneer of ideology provides little more than the decaying facade of a once glittering exterior, for the Lannisters - and Tywin in particular - have understood that such values are being eroded inevitably by the logic and intrusions of a market economy.  For this reason despite all their aristocratic glamour and finery, the unofficial motto of House Lannister is rather more prosaic – ‘A Lannister always pays his debts.’

The essence of the Starks, on the other hand, is sundered in an earlier feudal archetype which precedes feudal absolutism and eventually discovers itself in contradiction to it.    Winterfell, the Starks' kingdom, is contrasted with the seat of the Lannisters, Kings Landing.   Winterfell is grey and provincial but homely; lanterns burn at night revealing the thick, dark forests beyond, and in the day, the main square is alive bustling with peasants and artisans, and it is here where the little lords and ladies of the Stark clan mix freely with the denizens of the castle keep.   In Kings landing, however, in the baking streets of the sun-soaked metropolis, the Lannisters and their consorts are rarely ever glimpsed, and when they do appear, they are surrounded by the circle of their lethal pretorian guard.  The Starks represent a more embryonic social form whereby the state has not yet fully abstracted itself from the community; the Lannisters, on the other hand, feel themselves to be a distinct and elevated social power, a qualitatively superior species from those they oppress.  Ned Stark believes fully in the religious and chivalric values of the knightly ideal for he is still bound to his community immanently and experiences an organic sense of duty and responsibility toward those he leads.  The Lannister’s pay lip-service to such values but in reality their ties to high finance and the commitment to the shoring up of a supra-state which has raised itself above a multitude of individual kingships and communities mean that the medieval values of honour and duty have ceased to correspond to the realities of their social position as rulers who are verging on some form of post-feudal absolutism.      

And it is this historical contrast which holds the key to the tragedy of the Starks and is evinced in the conflict between Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister.   When Ned Stark discovers that Cersei Lannister’s children are the product of incest and therefore not the legitimate future kings according to the sacred tenets of bloodline, he is appalled and realises it is his duty to reveal the truth; but at the same time he acts generously, forewarning his antagonist, giving Cersei Lannister time to evacuate her children, for Ned Stark feels that their slaughter would be a blemish on his honour and conscience.   In the moment when he displays such munificence, Cersei’s response comes as a soft, sibilant rebuke, for the ruthless Queen discerns the weakness which is latent in such generosity – ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.’ ("You Win or You Die")  As a result, because of the fact that Cersei is given this window, she has time to manoeuvre, assassinate her husband, and ensure Ned’s downfall.   A similar development is played out in the case of Rob Stark, the young wolf, who wins battle after battle fighting with honour and humanity.    It is no coincidence, therefore, that when his demise finally comes, it takes place at a wedding feast where Rob Stark and his entourage are slaughtered in direct violation of the chivalric code by a pre-orchestrated plot which has seen the Lannisters use the power of the royal purse to buy off one of the Stark’s allies in the North.

But even though we, the audience, are desperate for the gruff, steadfast Starks to rout the slippery, corrupt, power-hungry Lannisters, the historical contradiction which drives the logic of the plot means that such a result simply can’t transpire.  The defeat of the Starks by the Lannisters is in some sense pre-ordained; it marks in a fantasy form the erosion of a more communal based form of kingship by the logic and the prerogatives of an encroaching moneyed economy.   The civil war of the five kings is still far from over; at the end of series six Cersei is herself ensconced in the Iron Throne, while it seems as though John Snow, although a ‘bastard’, is a likely candidate to carry on the Stark’s struggle.  Jon Snow is presented as the illegitimate son of Ned Stark; he is, therefore, an aristocratic outcast – but although he is ostracized by way of his lack of name - spiritually speaking, he is very much the inheritor of the Stark legacy and the set of familial values which go with it.  Snow is gruff but thoughtful, determined but compassionate, and feels a great sense of duty to those he is given to command.    He is a courageous warrior who leads his troops into battle, eats with them in the mess, and shares many of their experiences, remaining attuned to their thoughts and feelings, and often heeding their advice.

 At the end of series six, having been betrayed, stabbed and then brought back from the dead by the dark magic of a priestess representing a cult of fire – Snow ousts the evil Ramsay Bolton and looks on course to take control of the North.  An ending which sees Snow vanquish the Lannisters would be highly satisfying but again would violate the underlying historical logic of the piece which exhibits in its tragic arc the way in which the values of an honour, clan based system which grows out of a more organic community are destined to perish.   If one begins with Ned Stark as Lord of Winterfell and one concludes with a similar feudal archetype – Jon Snow winning the North (and later the whole of Westeros) – then the motif which really gives the series/novels their power; the sense that winter is coming, that an epoch is in the process of passing from the scene of necessity - that the shadows of a new reality are drawing close; if one returns to a sense of unmediated feudal harmony, then the underlying thrust and direction of the aesthetic is artificially spun into reverse.

Of course, it is at the end of the sixth series when it is revealed how Ned Stark has taken Jon Snow under his wing as a ‘bastard’ in order to cover up the child’s true identity as a Targaryen and thus keep him safe.   The Targaryen twist is important because as Jon Snow cements his power as the King of the North, to the Mystical East, the mother of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, is also on the move.  Like Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen is a driven, powerful leader with a strong sense of compassion and the need to act honourably.  During her campaign she has allied herself with the Dothraki, a group of nomadic warriors who are again bound together in a more cohesive community which places critical emphasis on honour, bloodline and conquest.  Though it is a profoundly patriarchal society, Daenerys is able to overcome her innate disadvantage as a woman with the courage she displays, the force of her will, and also her compassion.   She fashions her own army made of Dothraki loyalists and the rebel slaves she has freed on the way.    Everything at this point suggests that Daenerys will link with her brother once she crosses the great sea, that she and Snow together will bring justice to the battle weary, war-riven Westeros and perhaps inaugurate a new epoch. 

But the idea of Daenerys pacifying Westeros would mean absolving the plot of the same social contradictions.  Daenerys, like Jon, is once again redolent of an older archetype – both are bound to their armies by their noble lineage but also by the fact and force of their personalities and their sense of a moral imperative grounded in tradition, duty and the wider community.  What becomes clear in the trajectory of the Khaleesi plotline is how difficult it is to impose these values from above on societies which have fundamentally different social structures.  When Daenerys liberates colonies which are predicated on slavery, she finds that the old mode of production begins to assert itself once more; her armies can subdue the former slave masters but are incapable of replacing them with a blueprint for a new social order.  Once her troops are forced to move on, the old social form reasserts itself, even if there are now a new set of masters at the top.  One should note, in passing, just how historically astute this is.  When slave rebellions did take place in the Ancient world, they were sometimes capable of inflicting great defeats on the old order, as was the case with Spartacus, but they were incapable of replacing it with a fundamentally new model of social organization.      

And this brings us to the crux of the matter.  Daenerys’ ambition is to sit on the Iron Throne – to place herself in the seat of feudal absolutism - is entirely at odds with the nature of her own historical role.  As a liberator, freedom fighter and rebel queen who stands at the head of a nomadic army which attains a certain democratic character precisely because of a highly undifferentiated social structure and primitive division of labour, Daenerys is bound to her troops for she moves among them and experiences them as the outcrops of a vast extended family with herself at the centre. Such a paradigm of leadership could only have grown out of a nomadic society welded together by bloodlines into a series of relatively homogeneous blocs or clans.  But such a model of leadership would be out of sync with the historical demands of the Iron Throne and the social structures which underpin it.  If Daenerys Targaryen were to defeat the Lannisters bringing the civil war which has inflicted Westeros to a close - she would not then be able to govern in and through a direct mediation with the vastly differentiated, highly stratified peoples whose towns and villages were scattered across a vast terrain of competing, often highly antagonistic fiefdoms. 

To power the centralized state would increasingly require the force of a professional standing army – a move which starts to take place in British history during the 100 Year War – in order to stabilize and facilitate a much wider and integrated system of bureaucracy by which tax could be syphoned from the peripheries to the centre.  In adopting the mantle of feudal absolutism, Daenerys Targaryen would be forced to shed the nomadic values which compel her to challenge the corruption and injustice of the Westerorosi political state; she would, of necessity, become abstracted from the populous by way of the absolutist machine; she would require the funding of the nascent bourgeoisie represented by the Iron Bank. To all intents and purposes then, she would be compelled to rule in Lannister-like fashion.    

So for a set of similar reasons, an ending which sees either Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow come to power in order to provide a more benevolent template of absolutist rule works against the grain of the historical process which is condensed into the logic of the plot.  And yet, it is clear that by the end of the sixth series, and by way of the Targaryen connection, the space has been created for Jon and Daenerys to be brought into alignment.  If they cannot consolidate some form of final victory, because they are both archetypes of a more primitive historical epoch, then what is the author’s purpose in bringing them together?  In my view, like many fantasy epics, the conclusion of Game of Thrones has to culminate with a great and mighty battle. 

This is particularly necessary for Game of Thrones because such a battle would provide a means of totalisation by which the various desperate plot threads could be woven into a higher resolution.  The Tyrells could conceivably ally with the Dornish who might well make a pact with Jon and Daenerys in order to finally settle accounts with the Lannisters and their forces.   But the backdrop to this would be the broader conflict posited between the forces of the living and the army of the dead.  And it is the implications of this broader battle which interest me.  My guess is that the Lannisters will be defeated by the Daenerys Targaryen-Jon Snow alliance because the latter have such superior forces, but my instinct is that they will be fighting a war on two fronts – that it will be in the last two series when the White Walkers begin to manifest their awesome power.  

The original set of novels is called The Song of Fire and Ice and this quite possibly hints at the way in which the two elements, of necessity, cancel one another out.   I think that beyond resolving the specific complex of storylines Game of Thrones has thrown up, the final battle with serve a more fundamental purpose.  That is, such a battle will see Daenerys’ dragon boosted army alongside Jon Snow and the forces he has marshalled thrown into collision with the White Walkers, the zombies from the frozen wastelands - and the cataclysmic impact will see both sides annihilated; both elements, fire and ice, to perish in their antipodes.  Such an ending might seem futile, even nihilistic, but again it is entirely in keeping with the aesthetic necessity which drives the piece.   Beyond everything Game of Thrones’ tragedy is one of Weberian ‘disenchantment’; it is about the way in which feudal values of honour, chivalry, tradition and familial code must inevitably disappear before the more impersonal calculations of a modern economy in which individuals are bound together solely by their position in the market and the vast cash nexus.  

An epoch replete with dragons, sorcerers, necromancers, tree sprites, giants, zombies, gods and demons must, quite literally, give up the ghost before a reality in which the more prosaic, grinding interminable forces of bureaucracy and the cold, rational calculations of the profit margin become the prime mover, the raison d'être, the moving spirit of the world.    The tragedy of Game of Thrones is nothing other than the death of magic.  And that is why both Jon and Daenerys must die, evincing the heroic qualities and aspects of the feudal age, which are nevertheless in interminable decline and about to pass from the scene.  Both Jon and Daenerys are imbued with magic; the mother of dragons able to command fire, the gallant nights watchman himself a revenant, returned from the shadowlands of the dead.    The great, apocalyptic final battle then is one in which magic is driven from the world once and for all.

But what pertains in the aftermath?  Throughout the series the elements of a new bourgeois age are alluded to.  The dour, severe directors of the Iron Bank who scribble their accounts from within grey spartan rooms are clearly the gloomy auguries of the epoch of investment and accumulation.   The puritanical and self-abasing religious sect of the Sparrows is a nod toward the Protestantism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries out of whose strict, ascetic code of abstemious discipline ‘the spirit of capitalism’ was evolved.  But although the Iron Bank itself casts a shadow across the aesthetic realm of Game of Thrones, its central actors are rarely glimpsed, and the Sparrows are wiped out as the sixth series reaches a conclusion.  Nether element could plausibly fill the void which is to be opened up by the death of magic and the demise of the heroic epoch.  There is one character, however, who represents the logic of the new age, and has been central and fully present throughout.  This is, of course, Lord Peter Baelish – commonly known as ‘Littlefinger’. 

Baelish’s ‘House’ is of meagre origins and has no distinguished bloodlines; his great grandfather was a mercenary prepared to sell his sword to the highest bidder, and though ostensibly noble, Baelish’s journey is much more that of the self-made man, the aspirant plebeian who has little fortune, no connections, nothing to fall back on except his guile, resourcefulness and determination.  Baelish represents a new breed of men and with it a new breed of politicking; one in which the familial loyalties, personal enmities, blood feuds, arranged marriages and honorific titles are to be superseded by the cold, rational calculations of the economic individualist before whose egotistic ambition all other considerations are evaporated. A new form of ambition which encompasses the ghostly never-ending circuit of exchange value and capital expansion:  ‘Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, who are given the chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm. Or the gods. Or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.’ (“The Climb”)

Baelish is a man of the future and as such he dreams its dreams.  In the final episode of season six, he reveals to Sansa Stark the true extent and depth of the ambition which moves him: ‘Every time I’m faced with a decision, I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action, I ask myself will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne… and you by my side.’ (“The Winds of Winter”)  The fevered, fervent way in which he imparts to Sansa his vision has something of a mystical intensity, but its power is not one of prophecy in the supernatural sense.   When we consider the role that magical divination play in Game of Thrones it is often problematic and highly deceptive.  Consider Stannis Baratheon, for instance.  The Red Witch Melisandre, who is blessed with a formidable array of supernatural talents including reviving the dead, comes to predict Stannis inevitable ascension to the Iron Throne using her mystical powers.  Convinced that the sorceress is correct, Stannis prostrates himself before the Lord of Light – the deity whose power she claims to harness.  As part of this, he sacrifices human lives, even that of his own daughter, in order to pay homage to the god and ensure its favour. 

But eventually, and despite the fact of her magical power, Melisandre’s prophecy proves to be a false flag.  Stannis endures his corruption; he is compelled to murder his own daughter and his brother, but all to no avail.  In the event he is routed in two key battles, and finally slain; in the moments before his death, he is utterly despondent, bereft of any real emotion except a draining sense of disillusionment, for he finally realises that the magic he has put his faith in is nothing more than a chimera.   Again, the motif abides: magic, although a potent presence in this world, already contains within itself the germ of its own dissolution.  What makes Baelish’s vision of the future so much more potent is that it discerns a different type of preternatural power; the ghostly objectivity of a market economy which increasingly insinuates itself into the pores and pockets of all human life, warping and restructuring them from behind the scenes in accordance with its own iron like prerogatives.   What is the power of a wizard or a dragon compared with the invisible, inexorable objectivities of capital reproduction?

As the early harbinger of the new epoch Baelish’s prediction resonates with a historical power which puts the supernatural back into the box.   For this reason, once that final battle is being fought, once the old epoch and all its magical forces are teetering on the edge of extinction – it is Littlefinger, the self-made man, who will be able to manipulate the situation, to use his Machiavellian wiles in order to raise himself up onto the Iron Throne and take power in the aftermath.  And yet, this may not be the end of the story.   Revisiting Baelish’s prediction, we can see it involves two parties – himself and Sansa Stark.  This is critical.   For in a somewhat different fashion, Sansa Stark is as much a person of the new epoch as Peter Baelish himself.   Perhaps even more so.   In Sansa, the tragic trajectory of the series as a whole – the death of the feudal epoch and the prefiguration of a generalised market economy; in Sansa Stark this transition is exhibited at the level of individual destiny.  When we first meet Sansa, she is contrasted with her mischievous tomboy of a younger sister Aria.  While Aria is bold, inventive, courageous and high-spirited – from the very start cut from a heroic cloth – her older sister is naive, wet, superior and condescending.   While Aria despises the kind of life the feudal system has in store for a young noblewoman, Sansa gushingly embraces it, wanting nothing more than to drape herself in the flowing silks of an elegant princess, to enrapture her prince, and devote herself to raising highborn children. 

At this point, Sansa’s character is unsympathetic, and yet, when one sees what she has to then go through, how these rather guileless ideals are dashed on the rocks of her changing reality, the writer is able to elicit from the audience the most profound sense of pity.  For Sansa traverses the same ‘disenchantment’ which Westeros must past through as a whole; she finally meets her prince - the sadistic Joffrey - who executes her father and delights in tormenting her, before she is later palmed off on the equally horrific Ramsay Bolton who subjects her to a series of rapes.    The values of ‘romance’ and ‘magic’ in which the feudal epoch is cloaked are for Sansa the most devastating of illusions to be ripped away in the most brutal of fashions.  From her trauma, she emerges as a survivor; a quiet, melancholy but increasingly powerful presence shorn of all illusions; ever more calculating and pragmatic, she now begins to demonstrate the most steely sense of ruthlessness.  There is now something of iron in those soft, dove like eyes which sends a chill down the spine, as we watch, hypnotized, as she very patiently feeds her tormentor Ramsay Bolton to a group of starving hounds.

This kind of archetype is in many ways a very modern one.  Think Sarah Connor from The Terminator who is a gentle, unassuming waitress until the murderous realties of existence close in on her, and in the aftermath is created a lethal revolutionary fighter who lives off the grid in order to protect her son at all costs. Or Grace Mulligan in the excellent and powerful Dogville, who takes refuge in a small town and winsomely tries to win the bonhomie of the locals only to have those narrow minded citizens exploit and abuse her, to the point at which her kindness dies - and she treats them to a very different display of behaviour.   This way in which, to quote Yeats, a terrible beauty is born - from the most profound forms of oppression - gains a particular aesthetic resonance in what might loosely be termed the ‘proto-feminist’ hero of modernity, and despite all her aristocratic trappings, it is this remorseless, ruthless, revolutionary beauty which Sansa more and more comes to bear.  If one were to talk about the most powerful female character in Game of Thrones – or even the most powerful character per-se – one would certainly alight on the figure of Daenerys Targaryen, and yet, at a more profound level, the Dragon Queen might well prove to be something of a red herring in this regard, for it is the power of the future and the outline of modernity which Sansa Stark increasingly comes to posit, and no magic, no sorcery can stand against the tides of historical time.

The final issue on which to mull regarding the subject of the terrifying resonance of Sansa’s burgeoning power – is toward whom it will be directed?  There is already an early indication that Jon Snow, who has now been crowned King of the North – will be displaced by his onetime sibling; and this makes sense, for as we have seen, both Sansa and Snow represent archetypes of two conflicting historical periods.   But one should also take into account that one of Sansa’s central abusers, albeit largely unknown to her, has been Littlefinger himself.  It was Peter Baelish who betrayed her father, and thus precipitated his execution.  It was Baelish too who delivered her into the hands of Ramsay Bolton.   My prediction is that Baelish will succeed in his manipulations, once again he will be able to play off both sides and at the end of it all he will be perched atop the Iron Throne.  But having manipulated the trusting, naive and guileless Sansa so frequently and so easily, the true nature of her becoming - her ruthlessness, will and determination, the person she is morphing into – this is something Littlefinger will remain oblivious to, will overlook, until, at last, it is too late.

And then it is possible that in the game of thrones, Baelish will win the most gruesome, colourful death of all.   So the ultimate prophecy from this red wizard is as follows: when the dragon fire is extinguished, and the zombies have once again returned to the ground, it will be Sansa Stark, who is still standing.       

Friday, 16 September 2016 13:58

Reification and the writer

Published in Films

Tony McKenna applies marxist theory to screenwriting.

If ten people were put in a room and asked to come up with a list of great film directors, the numbers would probably be quite high. We all know the names, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Bergman, Cameron, Loach et al. Now ask those same people to come up with a list of screen writers. That roll of names will probably be a good deal shorter. David Simon perhaps. Lena Durham. Aaron Sorkin anyone?

That, in itself, is kind of odd. I don’t want to malign the role of directors because it is an important and necessary one. When one thinks of the shower scene in Pscyho, say, one is aware of the aesthetic skill which underpins the horror. Hitchcock not only shows his protagonist being stabbed to death half way through the film (revolutionary in itself) but also depicts the murder in terms of 77 different camera angles. Not only is the victim carved and sliced with the knife, but also by way of the camerawork itself. A grim form of ingenuity indeed.

The director’s touch doesn’t have to be so visceral in order excite feelings of apprehension or horror, of course. Consider Spielberg’s masterful Jaws and the long, deep shots of the abyss of murky dark which seems to stretch out indefinitely beneath the helpless flaying of a pair of legs that breach the surface somewhere high above.

And yet Jaws existed as a novel before it was brought to the big screen. The world knows the name of Steven Spielberg and yet, today, there are few who are familiar with the name of Peter Benchley, the writer and journalist through whose mind that notorious Great White first swam. Indeed it was Benchley who gave birth to the haggard, water-shy character of Police Chief Brody, the cocky college boy but brilliant biologist Hooper, and perhaps most memorably of all, the driven, demented Ahab-like Quint. Yes Spielberg interpreted these characters, perhaps one might argue he brought them out more fully, but he did not create them.

And that is why it irks me no end when I hear the deep, booming tones of an advert promoting a film as ‘Steven Spielberg’s Jaws’ say – i.e. an advert which displaces the primary source of the creative act from the writer to the director. Notice too, we rarely do this when the writer is famous in historical terms or in their own right. Romeo and Juliet is rarely said to be the property of the particular director – rather it is nearly always presented as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Again when we think of something like Harry Potter, our first thought is nearly always with J. K. Rowling as opposed to Chris Columbus. That directors can either make or break a good script is almost unquestionable; their role is a significant one. But, to me, it is foremostly about interpretation. The director in a film is the equivalent of a conductor in an orchestra – he or she works with a given material and coordinates the different elements which are required to manifest say Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a totalised performance. But is there a conductor out there who imagines his or her efforts to have priority over the brooding 19th century German composer himself?

Why is it then, in Hollywood today, the directors and even the producers are almost always accorded more prestige, and certainly a greater level of financial renumeration than the writers? Part of the answer might lie in the broader structures and relationships of our social and economic existence.

In the early days of economics, thinkers tended to see the source of wealth simply in its external expression – i.e. they saw it in the level of money a treasury could hoard by being particularly frugal, or the amount of trade a nation could facilitate by being particularly canny. But those theorists who developed some form of the labour theory of value – and they stretch from Thomas Aquinas, through to Benjamin Franklin, and onward to Smith, Ricardo and Marx – tended to understand that the true basis for wealth lay at the level of production.

They postulated, with varying degrees of concreteness, that the value a particular commodity holds is determined by the (socially necessary) labour (time) embodied within it. So, for example, a diamond is worth more than a banana because it contains within itself the ghostly echo of all the labour operations required to bring it to market: the miners who cleave it from the rock, those who separate the pure material from the ore, those who transport it, those who cut and polish it and so on. The banana is an altogether simpler prospect to bring to market, requires less labour, and therefore fetches a lower price at point of sale.

And so it is labour power at the level of production and distribution which infuses a particular product with its value. Money itself is a measure of this value – that is, a measure of the labour time which is embodied in any given commodity. The high monetary level of Bill Gates’s fortune, therefore, represents nothing other than the billions of labour operations enacted by hundreds of thousands of people in factories and labs around the world who work to create Microsoft products. And yet, every product, every commodity, does not exhibit this fact nakedly and openly. When one looks at the diamond or the banana in a shop or on the market, the metaphysical, social labour which is crystallised within it retains a spectral invisibility; it is not a palpable property of the object in the way in which the yellowness of the banana or the hardness of the diamond is.


For this reason the social relations which underpin the commodity – the labour power which is embodied in it and has been harnessed by the capitalist thereby – are rendered invisible. The diamond or the banana presents merely as a pure, finished, isolated ‘thing’ whose price is entirely dependent on the demand for the product in question (For this reason theories of supply and demand have been prevalent in economics from the time of Jean-Baptiste Say onward). To put it as Lukács does, the social relations are disguised, for they are converted into the purely tangible properties of a thing – they are ‘reified’, for they seem to perish in the physical actuality of the product we immediately encounter.

Experiencing things in their immediacy thus has important consequences. If we are not able to penetrate to the deeper level of social relations which are disguised by the objective appearance of the commodity form, then it is easy to understand why those who accumulate those commodities, who are able to accrue them to themselves and sell them at a profit are perceived as generating that value and that profit in the first place. After all, is it not a part of common parlance to say – ‘Bill Gates made over a billion dollars’ – does not such an assumption hold within itself all the trappings of immediacy by vanquishing the labour activity of the legions of workers who create that wealth?

In a world in which ‘reification’ provides the primary appearance of the deeper economic mode and the social relations which underpin it, then it is almost inevitable that the active component of wealth creation is displaced from its true source in labour power to the group of individuals who direct, oversee and invest in the labour process more generally and thereby appear as the bearers of the ‘thing’ – that is, the class of investors, owners and managers who control the capitalist system of production. Such reification provides the necessary but veiled appearance of an economic process which takes place at the metabolic level, but the logic of such a process also intrudes and warps the forms of culture and the way in which we experience them.

In the case of the writer-director issue, we can see that the creative act is displaced from its true origins in the writer onto a secondary source, the director – an entity which is responsible for structuring and facilitating the creative material, but does not in itself give birth to it.

That Hollywood in particular should be, on a cultural level, particularly susceptible to the broader economic logic of reification is particularly understandable because it is a multi-billion dollar industry whose aims and prerogatives have been increasingly fused with capitalist corporate culture and its representatives in the political system who look toward Hollywood as a potent and lively source of potential PR and one of the prime movers in creating forms of cultural hegemony.

The Oscar nominated screen writer Jose Rivera describes the early twenty first century as a period of time when the studios really ‘got really fat on the Bush years’ because the political climate more generally was so ‘pro-business, pro-corporation’. New York Times writer Jay A. Fernandez argues that, of late, the fusion between business interest and cultural production in Hollywood has become so entrenched that it ‘has forced a mercenary corporate culture down through the very human ranks of studios and networks that used to be filled with actual movie and TV lovers. Now it's as if the top executive ranks are a different race – brutal bean counters, not simpatico cinema dreamers’.

As a result of this process the rights and the royalties of the writers on the ground have increasingly been degraded.  Temporary contracts, precarious working conditions, little cover, and underfunded unions are more and more the order of the day. In 2007, for instance, the main union for writers in the UK – the Writers' Guild of Great Britain – received 5.6 percent of all revenue for DVDs its writers had written the scripts for. At the same point in time the equivalent body in the US received 0.3 percent for the efforts of its affiliates with regard to the same work.

The writer John Fernandez noted how in sixty percent of the guild were earning under $70,000 a year, and that while 12,000 writers in that same year earned $56 million collectively a single CEO from Viacom received $75 million by way of a severance package.

Clamping down on the jobbing writer’s existence, rendering their working conditions precarious and their wages low, can help create a more supine work force where competition for the meagre positions and perks on offer is high. This has the added benefit of compelling writers to tailor their scripts in accordance with the aspirations of the studio big-wigs who tend to bridle against innovative and original storylines, while gravitating toward those vehicles which offer a more friendly and banal depiction of an aesthetic world unblemished by fundamental political and social conflict.

The type of scripts which offer high returns in the short term by trading in on tried and tested commercial formulae. At the same time, however, the immiseration of the writers is always in danger of reaching a critical mass, which can explode into the type of political conflagration which was exhibited in 2007 when 90 percent of the Writers' Guild of America got behind a mass strike which brought many thousands of writers into its remit.

At this point the strike became a focal point for the broader panorama of class conflict in which the nation itself was embroiled. For example, in 2007, the studio bosses hired democrat officials such as Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane among others, officials who were employed to besmirch the strikers in the mainstream media, and these figures were notable for having provided public relations services for the Clinton administration.

The economic depredations the Hollywood moguls sought to impose on the writing workforce, therefore, increasingly flowed into the political context of the neoliberal stratagems and practices of the broader epoch in which the concentration of financial power at the top pushed to facilitate a working existence which was ever more regulated and rationalised, so that writers were compelled to generate scripts in much the same way a factory generates products – perfectly parcelized gobbets of words which would feed into the broader conveyor belt of aesthetic production.

Or to say the same thing, the aesthetic process itself had increasingly been subject to the processes of capitalist reification. The creative act more and more manifests in the production of a rigid, brittle ‘thing’ which had been compelled by the commercial pressure of the moguls as they more and more structure the labour operation in accordance with capitalist prerogatives.

But in compelling their work this way, in reducing and immiserating their conditions, the bosses were as well pulling the writers into the slipstream of a wider current – the vast swathes of people who experienced more generally the intensive commodification of their labour product on the part of a small cabal of financial interests.

Will Koza, an assistant for the film studio Paramount and a keen participant in the strike of 2007, understood the writers’ struggle against the studios to be the microcosm of a far more fundamental trend: ‘The dominance of six conglomerates? Well, that’s true for everything, really. The whole world is controlled by a few people and it’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller until people start doing something about it.'

The way in which the travails of the writer are brought into contact with the fundamental social processes of workers who are struggling for their livelihoods in the face of the neoliberal onslaught, also provide the writer with an encounter with those living experiences which provide the reality behind the reified appearance - the true nature of the social contradiction and exploitation behind the pristine guise of the market product.

In other words, it forces the writer to confront the reality which the processes of reification disguise, the elemental social powers and forces which are at work behind the façade of stability and integration which any modern capitalism seeks to promote. And the truth of this, especially in the last decade, has been increasingly evinced in the aesthetic realm, through shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad.