Three Thoughts on Westerosi Political Economy


Two prefatory notes: First – no, I know nothing about the books. Everything I’m going to say here draws exclusively on the HBO version of Westeros. Second, the more theoretically committed of you will note that only one of these thoughts is really about political economy proper. Fine. But I came up with a pretentious blog post title I liked and I’m not going to change it. Deal.

1. The Iron Throne isn’t worth all this fuss.
One of the most remarked upon features of the Game of Thrones TV series is its distribution of narrative energy. Unlike other shows from the golden age of narrative television, Game of Thrones has no clear protagonist – no Walter White-esque anti-hero, no philosopher warrior like Rust Cohle, no principled agitator like Sarah Manning . The focus usually reserved for a television protagonist is instead distributed over the entirety of the Game of Thrones cast, arguably with slightly more energy invested in the show’s half-dozen “A-tier” actors. Still, unlike the quest narratives common throughout fantasy genres, Westeros has no heroic main character.

To the extent Game of Thrones has a center of energy, it’s the Iron Throne itself. Cersei Lannister’s sinister invocation of the show’s title when addressing Ned Stark – “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die” – sets out from the first season what all the blood and murder are meant to serve. At least three times each subsequent season, the throne is included in the background of a two-shot featuring those who desire but never sit upon it, visually reinforcing the centrality of the Iron Throne to everyone in Westeros (and, for that matter, the remaining Targaryens across the Narrow Sea). It is the object of each character’s quest and the focal point of nearly all the machinations that dominate the series.

Which is why it’s so weird that the Iron Throne is the seat of a startlingly weak monarchy. » Read the rest of this entry «

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Fractal Problems in Comparative Domestic Policy


After every mass shooting event in the US, charts like the one above (from flood social media and the blogosphere. Proponents of stronger gun control policy use such visualizations to highlight the links between gun ownership and gun violence and to advocate for America joining the rest of the rich world in restricting gun ownership.

I think they’re crazy.

No, not about the policy. Let me be clear: I strongly support gun control. I think the Second Amendment was probably a mistake. I think America has way too many guns. I think fewer guns would mean fewer gun deaths. I think anyone who disagrees with this does so in bad faith.

What I think is crazy is trying to compare gun control policy from any other country to the American situation. American affection for guns is unique among nations. The NRA and its friends celebrate this fact – or more accurately, weaponize this affection to deter any restriction on the profits accruing to the gun makers who comprise their true constituency – but it is a real phenomenon. And it does change the facts on the ground in ways that render comparative policy analysis essentially useless.

Gun control advocates look at that chart and say, “We need fewer guns like everyone else.”

I look at that chart and think, “There is no way to get rid of all those guns.” There’s a change in kind when you’re talking about this scale of problem. It can’t be addressed by cribbing solutions from contexts that differ by orders of magnitude.

It’s a problem of fractal imagination. » Read the rest of this entry «

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Tough Question, for Certain Values of “Tough”

developmentNo. Next question.

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On Polarization

Following up on my notes yesterday regarding the use of out outmoded “liberal” and “conservative” labels within Catholic circles:

Providence College’s Holly Taylor Coolman took to America magazine earlier this week to make an argument rather similar to mine. She argues that viewing disputes within the Church in terms of political polarities renders static and seemingly natural what are otherwise dynamic. Thus:

Concern for the unborn is conservative; concern for the undocumented is liberal. A family rosary is conservative; a ministry among the homeless is liberal. As a constellation of elements becomes fixed at each pole, commitment to the Catholic faith simply becomes commitment to that pole for those who call it home.

It’s worth considering how we got here, and I’ll be thinking this through in coming days. It’s important to understand the appeal of this polarizing framework. I think Coolman’s emphasis on apparent stability – illusory stability but desirable stability, nonetheless – is an important element. As I’ve documented in my work, Catholic identities often become retreats from the disruptions of globalizing modernity. I’m beginning to think these polarizing labels – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditionalist, etc. – serve a similar function for smaller groups whose concerns are far from the frontiers of lived religious experience.

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On “Rusty” Labels

rustybucketTo the extent I’m able, I try to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars. I’m an academic (read: liberal) by training but a scholar of nationalism and religion (fundamentally conservative institutions), so I find no home in any cultural “camp.”

I say this not to put myself above the fray but to point out how useless culture war categories often are.

Take, for example, the carpet bombing of scare quotes in this post at First Things by my old professor Rusty Reno. Ignore for the time being the line-drawing title – “Our Homophobic Pope” – and note the political language in which a fairly small disagreement is cast. Reno characterizes the “liberal” desire for “the Great Capitulation” in which an otherwise “anti-modern” Catholic Church becomes “progressive” with regards to “sexual liberation” instead of “reactionary.”  He says “it’s good to remind ourselves of how frustrated progressives are…” when parsing various proclamations by Pope Francis on issues of sex and family.

Ostensibly, Reno’s replying to this post by Jamie Manson on the institutional effects of Francis’s language with regard to marriage. Manson advocates rethinking complementarity as the bedrock of Catholic thought on the sacrament of marriage. Reno’s reply is snarky and smarmy in equal measure:

Against this “reactionary” intransigence, Manson calls for church leaders to “evolve.” Don’t the bishops know that forward-thinking people don’t think in terms of “men” and “women” anymore? When is the Pope going to get over his reactionary mentality and ascend to the bright uplands of progressive thought?

My issue here is not with the debate over gay marriage within the Church. My views on that subject don’t align neatly with Manson or Reno. Nor is my issue strictly one of Reno’s tone. My issue is the framing in terms of us and them, wins and losses, comforting and discomforting. “I find it reassuring to know that Jamie Manson finds Pope Francis frustratingly reactionary,” is a pretty self-serving way to contribute to a worthwhile debate on the place of marriage in the lives of non-hetero Catholics. Note the preponderance of first-person pronouns throughout the post. Reno’s only interested in our, we, us, I, my, and so on.

Of course, that’s because certain Catholics view Francis as a champion of their idealized version of the Church. Others, Reno among them I’m sure, hope to find in Francis’s words some space for their idealized version of the Church. Each “side” takes solace when the other appears to “lose.” Pope Francis is ours. I won the debate. And so on. This whole framing is repugnant. Not because it divides the Church (nothing as large and diverse as global Catholicism is ever “whole” to begin with), but because it can only conceive God and the papacy in such dialectical, political terms. There’s literally zero concession that those with whom we disagree may have insight we don’t have. They actively discourage consideration of truths we don’t already hold.

More importantly, there’s no recognition that the salient cleavages – both within the Church and in American culture writ large – no longer divide “liberal” and “conservative.” These are outmoded, old-fashioned labels replaced by self-conceptions and idealizations much more deeply rooted than these 20th century political identities. But Reno and others need to hang on to this old framing.

We’re all trying to drink from the same well here, but some want to use rusty buckets to draw up the water. That won’t hold.

“Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can,” Flannery writes. You can’t do that with labels and scare-quotes.

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Self, Image, Labor

I’ve written before about late capitalism and the labor-intensive maintenance of the self. But this…

… this is some next. level. ish. What labor is necessary when the image precedes the self? What recognition is possible, qua Lacan, when there is a genealogy of the image but no possibility of dialectical inversion?

Can there be a selfie with no self?

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Lumbersexuals and Homosocial Spectacle

The Advocate has an interesting, if brief, blurb on the illustrator Robert Riggs today. Riggs, not known to have been gay but clearly influenced by gay male artists of his time, sketched and painted oversized male bodies in dramatic, hyper-masculine scenarios (boxing, baseball, hunting, warring).  His work appeared in Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Argosy.

The Advocate says:

There is a grimness to his work, like an underlying threat […] Riggs’s work has a tension that verges on frightening, like the electric moment right before violence erupts.

What strikes me about both this work and how it’s described here is the complete erasure of the kind of anxieties that animate any of the dozens of think-pieces written about lumbersexuals in the last year.  Chief among these concerns is the idea that privileged, young, urban, hetero men are embracing the trappings of working-class labor (beards, flannel, work boots, cheap beer) without acknowledging or challenging the structures that enable them to borrow without doing the actual work. It costs nothing to grow a trimmed beard.

From my perspective, such criticism demands of masculinity an authenticity we would never comfortably expect of post-feminist women. Jezebel’s foray into the conversation is even titled “Who is the lumbersexual and is anything about him real?” As Peter Lawrence Kane articulates in one of the more insightful enquiries into the phenomenon, the lumbersexual would have been unthinkable without the metrosexual revolution of the early-00s. “Around the time men who previously just thought of themselves as men began thinking of themselves as straight men,” Kane writes. Both using beard oil and tszujing in the manner Carson Kressley taught to straight male viewers are ways of performing a decentered masculine identity.

To that end, it’s notable that Riggs’s cartoonish male forms are mostly engaged in homosocial spectacles. The image above, titled The Brown Bomber, presents Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in 1936. They appear in an elevated ring, their muscles and sweat high above the press and the crowd.  There is no doubt that what is taking place is not an essential aspect of masculinity; rather, it is a performance of one version of “man” for the entertainment of other men. One could not imagine the balding reporter in the image’s center performing in the same manner.  Similarly, other Riggs illustrations of baseball players and hunting parties resplendent in ceremonial dress emphasize the considered, affective dimensions of even the most hetero-normative visions of masculinity. One may critique the privilege of office workers dressing-up as laborers, but Riggs’s work ought to remind us men have been dressing-up in one form or another forever.

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The New #DigitalHumanities

Brought to you by Fly / Art.

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Never Graduate

Every school year I hear rising college seniors express excitement about finally graduating. Every year I think this:

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College is a Promise, Unless You’re a Humanities Major

Frank Bruni covers some familiar terrain in this column from the Sunday Times. He points to data demonstrating that the choice of college major increasingly determines income and employability just as much as access to higher education. In short: what you study is just as important as earning a degree.

The column cites Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, whom I often find useful, to tell readers what most already know: if you want a job after college, major in a STEM field, nursing, or accounting; don’t major in the humanities. Bruni then trots out the pet anecdote of Silicon Valley and Tom Friedman:

The thing is, today’s graduates aren’t just entering an especially brutal economy. They’re entering it in many cases with the wrong portfolios. To wit: as a country we routinely grant special visas to highly educated workers from countries like China and India. They possess scientific and technical skills that American companies need but that not enough American students are acquiring.

Everyone in Silicon Valley knows this is bullshit. H1B workers are cheaper, full-stop. That’s why companies go through the hassle of recruiting them. There are 1.8 million unemployed engineers in this country. They can’t compete with cheaper imported or outsourced labor. Studying engineering may be a more secure path to post-graduate employment, but it doesn’t insulate one from the growing global talent pool. More importantly from a policy perspective, we don’t have a shortage on engineers. What we have is a shortage of cheap engineers.

The policies Bruni advocates here are designed to nudge students to STEM degrees, especially engineering. Make science and math cool beginning at the elementary level. Tie student aid packages to particular areas of study. Align local college curricula to the needs of local employers. These ideas betray a worldview in which some types of knowledge are more valuable than others because they are more marketable. This is why I’ve resisted calls to emphasize the marketability and utility of humanities degrees – that’s ground on which we cannot win. Instead, we must make the more fundamental assertion that knowledge of the humanities is valuable even if it is not marketable.

Presumably, Bruni knows this. I doubt he pursued his B.A. in English at Chapel Hill with a career in mind.

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  • About Me

    I am a scholar of literature and writing in Chicago, where I write about Catholic Literature and Globalization. This site is my mental clearinghouse.