wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Multiclassing into idiot: Game of Thrones simply gives up.

I quite enjoy Game of Thrones, though you wouldn’t know it from the way I write about the show. I much prefer the books, which are vastly more ambitious in terms of narrative economy and more serious (adult) in their conception of personality and society, but the show is beautifully made and has the occasional moment of greatness. Its cast has few weak spots, though unfortunately Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) might be one of them; like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), she’s shown less and less interesting emotion as time has gone on and the writers have moved out beyond Martin’s own work. This is partly a function of seriality — the cost of serial dramatic protagonism is that one or a few characters must bear the weight of a very world’s changing, which naturally deforms them a bit, stripping away accident and frivolity and often personality, cf. my beloved Buffy Summers — and partly a function of the Thrones writers having conceived shallowly of the characters and story. Every time I think they’ve captured the magic of the books, they deliver a monthslong embarrassment like Bronn/Jaime’s trip to Dorne, or have a once-multifaceted character like Arya suddenly fall into endless comicbook declamations, or…

…or send a party of high-level Fighting-Man PCs, including a couple of Paladins and a Fighter/Cleric multiclass, on a deeply stupid quest into an apocalyptic hellscape to, I dunno, steal a single zombie from what until now had seemed to be a single mass of zombies and, I guess, carry it back through miles of inhospitable wasteland, apparently without even the most basic wilderness gear or preparation.

Y’know, that sort of thing.

The show has been silly for years, at times ugly and dumb, but this week’s Beyond the Wall’ was the first merely contemptible hour so far. Every single plot point depended on heretofore-savvy characters (or script supervisors) behaving stupidly. Arya and Sansa didn’t share obviously helpful vital information because…’drama.’ Jon and his band of hardened soldiers embarked on their ludicrous fetch-quest through the Plane of Snow because…’excitement.’ Daenerys and Jon are tumbling into a boring romance because…’destiny.’ A raven can fly from Eastwatch to Dragonstone, and Daenerys can fly back, all in a day or so, because…’suspense.’ In each case, the need to move plot-chesspieces forward has again washed out the integrity of character- and worldbuilding. The story (generational, historical, social) has been choked by the plot, and is now nowhere to be seen. The world has gotten smaller, collapsing to the cast of named characters and a handful of stage sets; indeed, entire continents are crossed in moments because the writers have given up caring about what lies between Dramatic Locations.

This collapse has been going on for a while — I called Season Five a hamfisted near-miss and Season Six a failure, and refused to watch the show for the first several years precisely because Martin’s grand history had been consigned to the DVD Extras as monologic infodumps — but with ‘Beyond the Wall,’ Benioff and Weiss seem to’ve put aside Martin’s story altogether in favour of their Plot. Their Westeros has no deep history, no sense of place, no mystery.

If I were George RR Martin I’d be lying in a house-sized pile of money right now, screaming at the sky.

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Richard Rorty, ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY.

Lectures (dated 1998) on Dewey and Whitman, America as secular ‘civic religion,’ economic vs cultural Leftism, the Left’s embrace of the concept of ‘sin,’ the mid-60s cultural shift from fighting selfishness to fighting sadism, and the compatibility of anti-Enlightenment philosophical critique with Left-liberalism.

What a joy to read a passionate, unabashed celebration of intellectualism and Americanism and justice (social and otherwise) and poetry and philosophy and civilization — and what a shock to read a full-throated defense of the 20C American Left tradition against the bourgeois-academic equation of leftism with pseudoradical anticapitalism. Brilliant and prescient: his Littwak-esque talk of the growing desire for a nativist strongman is spooky to read with Trump in the White House.

I nearly wrote, ‘…in Trump’s America.’ But it’s not. That’s the point: it’s not his, not at all. It’s ours.

All seeing is seeing-as, or, Why Trump thinks you’re stupid.

I’ve said it before: stupidity is the problem.

Trump assumes that everyone is as ignorant as he is, lies as much as he does, hates as he does, precisely because he’s stupid — and he’s stupid because he’s apparently never, not even for a second, made any kind of intellectual or emotional effort in his life. He’s a xenophobe: he fears difference, newness. He believes himself historically unique, so everyone and everything is the Other, and he hates the Other. Which is why he’s infamously disloyal, a petty backstabbing coward, when it comes to anyone he doesn’t see as an extension of himself/his will.

Trump’s stupidity means that, as far as he knows, he occupies a stupid world — so why shouldn’t he rule it? He doesn’t know how to spot climate change, so climate change isn’t real. He doesn’t have any real relationships with women, so women are trash. Nazis make him feel good by puffing him up on Twitter and at rallies, so Nazis must be good.

Of course he relished a chest-puffing contest with the witless nepotist Kim Jong-Un. I imagine it made him feel less alone.

One of the saddest things I know is that more than 1/4 of Americans don’t read at all.1 Trump is, by his own admission, one of them. He might be a psychopath or a narcissist, but the reason he has such a dangerously, unfunnily narrow conception of the good — the reason he goes on endlessly about ‘deals’ but is incompetent to discuss the content, the meaning, of any of his business — is that he has no intellectual bulwark against the stupidity of the world he alone lives in. He fills up every day with the idiot stories he sees on Fox News because he doesn’t know how to find anything deeper in the world.

Trump can’t see, he can only see-as — not in the phenomenological sense, but in the coarse psychological one. He thinks you and I are idiots because he’s an idiot; he thinks he alone possesses The Whole Truth about this or that issue (the ‘climate change hoax,’ say, or ‘black-on-black crime’) because he can’t imagine anyone having an inner life that’s richer than his. He’s a ‘transactional’ being because any other kind of existence is literally impossible, and you’re stupid for thinking otherwise. (Look at how he treats his wives, at the obvious contempt he and Melania have for one another.)

I feel sorry for Donald Trump the boy, semiliterate, unloved, allowed by teachers and parents to remain forever angry and dumb. I suspect he’s wired wrong, but I’m certain he didn’t need to end up as he did. I feel no sympathy for the cruel ignorant coward he became.

Please, please, please: make sure your children love learning, which is to say, love life.


  1. Some are illiterate. Some can read but find it taxing. Some will tell you they don’t have the time — though I’ll bet you $5 that all but a vanishing minority of our non-readers make the time to watch television… 

Game of Thrones.

‘Realpolitik Tolkien’: A Distant Mirror with dragons. The first three books (the series’s first movement) are major achievements: impeccable hybrids of grand quest-fantasy, court-intrigue whodunit, (anti)war epic, and empathetic social portraiture. Books 4-5, interwoven as one volume, are nearly as good, deepening the series’s historical consciousness, but dangerously slow. If Martin sticks the landing, ASOIAF is its genre’s capstone work. The show is impressive, at times superb (and perfectly cast), but since overrunning Martin’s books, it’s gotten silly, lacking Martin’s social-historical vision and sense of proportion. Read the books instead — then Viriconium.

‘Cheer up honey, I hope you can.’

Maybe the power of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comes from just this: its songs are designed to create a world, one less perfect-plastic-lossless-synthetic, one accessible only at night, by a journey inward. It’s a nostalgic album, and a fearful one: about 60% of its 52-minute runtime is touched with feedback, fuzz, static, electronic glitches, or its infamous Conet Project samples (whence comes the title) — and it seems to me the album’s heart dwells in its darkest corners rather than its cleaner, more straightforwardly ‘anthemic’ moments. The brighter, warmer tunes recall the band’s brilliant Summerteeth, while the more heavily laden tracks (the collagelike opening song, the astonishing Poor Places > Reservations, whose interrupting silence is as much a part of the suite as the songs that surround it) look sadly forward to the nightmares of A Ghost Is Born.

I like to think (can’t help it) of albums like YHF as portraits of an imagined world the musicians invoked and inhabited and responded to in making the album, rather than a ‘statement’ of some sort. That kind of hero-narrative doesn’t appeal to me when it comes to musicians; I believe them when they report that deep inside the work, they feel they’re responding to impulses from beyond themselves — though I treat the specifics of those testimonials (the Muse, the Cosmic Consciousness) as pretty fictions only. YHF and atmospheric artworks like it not only depict but create a kind of listening-consciousness, about which you feel however you feel, but which is in a sense complete unto itself: pocket universe, paracosm. And in that place, everything comes to mean everything else. Symbol and referent are jumbled, interwoven, the symbolic layer is the ground of the real and vice versa and permute further and so on. If ‘psychedelia’ is this I don’t mind.

Did the album come on the coffeehouse stereo while I was writing this? Yes of course, and it doesn’t mean anything in itself but it means something in me-here-now, or I mean us-there-whenever. This is there; now is every other ever; I become ‘us,’ and it’s about time isn’t it. The music is the echo-artifact-pretense of the transformation which is the art, or (boring) the art’s purpose. Means to many ends, including pleasure (sure!) but especially joy. And ‘joy’ might just be the somatic component(?) of being-truly-in-the-world. Any world. Even this world of ghosts and remembering and war beneath the bedroom window and a mystery voice on a shortwave radio.

Magic.

System(s) of ritual/programmatic antirational worldmaking, way(s) of being-in-the-world resting on a number of ridiculous, factually inaccurate claims, but producing extraordinary results. Our corporate-capitalist unculture’s present interest in psychotropism (microdosing, nootropics, etc.) charts a smooth curve downdowndown from techtopia’s counterculture roots to the Carefully Managed State — SV execs taking meetings at Burning Man, etc. — nothing magical about it. Lost for now for most: enveloping ritual which cleansed the personal of its parochiality (the absolute opposite of ‘myopic’ is ‘cosmic’). The ground of magical practice is the community, the macro-self, the trans-self. No place for that now, no more…eppur si muove.

Cultural studies.

Academic field — the mutant offspring of philosophy, literary studies, and political economy. Once the most interesting thing going in academic humanities, now unsurprisingly shallow in its philosophy, obtuse in its approach to texts, and dogmatic in its politics (and economics!). Online-leftish discourse is deeply indebted to cultural studies, as is identitarian pseudocriticism now standard in e.g. TV reviewing. The field’s dependency/hostility toward sci/tech is its greatest liability at present; or wait, no, I mean its political monoculture. Er, political dogmatism? Status-seeking? Hilariously bad writing across the board? ‘Fun’ research project: how many humanities academics have entirely given up reading for pleasure?

Game of Thrones and ‘narrative economy.’

Game of Thrones in its seventh season has become a different show, set in an entirely different world: instead of the densely populated, richly imagined world of the first few years, or even the rapidly collapsing stage set of seasons 5 and 6, the show now takes place in a purely abstract space unmoored from anything like actual geography. This makes for more efficient ‘narrative economy,’ but the transition from dramatic to almost comedic abstraction comes at enormous cost — to believability, obviously, and (worse) to the books’ delicately balanced historical consciousness.

What I’ve always loved best about Martin’s books is the sense that the history of Robert’s Rebellion is playing out across a second generation twenty years later; history is present for the book’s characters at just the right scale, if that makes sense, with just the right weight. The Starks and Lannisters relate to the past as people do, rather than as Player Characters, and the generational struggle which drives the various court intrigues is simply correct. (‘Realpolitik Tolkien,’ as they say.) The TV show has never given me that feeling, mainly because its world is so much smaller than the books’. The Citadel is three rooms onscreen, but Martin can situate it in a complex ecology. The same for, say, the Starks’ relationship to the ‘smallfolk,’ who don’t appear in the show because that kind of ‘worldbuilding’ (the kind that matters) means hiring even more extras. The fifth book in the series ends with Kevan Lannister grandly murdered by Varys — a complexly motivated chess move which the TV series is too coarsely plotted to accommodate. (Kevan Lannister barely appears in the show, as does his entire stratum of ‘second-string’ players in the titular Game.)

Season 7 has so totally collapsed the physical and temporal scale of the story that the connection to Robert’s Rebellion, say, has been lost altogether. This doesn’t seem to bother the audience, whose numbers swell further as the show abandons Martin’s sense of seriousness or purpose. But it bothers me.

All of which is maybe just to say: I told you years ago that the show would lose its brain when Benioff and Weiss passed Martin’s books and had to go it alone.

Tonight’s episode was funny and ‘heartwarming,’ and oh yes, patently absurd. It was, at several points, a literal parody of itself. Most disappointing.

Epistemic status; attention conservation warning.

Reading Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex (one of the best blogs out there, no question), I’m reminded of a feature of his blog that I wish were more widely adopted: the epistemic status note at the top of a post.

A recent example:

Epistemic status: idea for one’s toolbox of ideas; not to be followed off a cliff

Another:

Epistemic status: So, so speculative. Don’t take any of this seriously until it’s replicated and endorsed by other people.

You might think this is humourlessness, or the author assuming his readers’ humourlessness or poor reading comprehension, and some idiot is probably getting ready to use the phrase ‘Swiftian satire’; please don’t. What Scott is doing is suggesting one or more reading frames for his readers, in order to shape both their approach to the posts and the discussions that follow. But crucially, this isn’t about content — it’s just additional information about how strongly certain claims are intended to be taken.

This is the most important thing, I think, and the strongest indication that Scott’s site is ‘grownup’ in a way most modern-USA ‘intellectual’ discourse simply isn’t: he assumes that the point of his writing is to generate and contribute to robust adult communication, and avails himself of the right tools for that job. Moreover, he does not assume that his readers will agree with him (and they often don’t) — only that they’re willing to read in good faith and assume that he’s writing in the same spirit.

This isn’t quite the same as a content note: if you look at, say, shakesville.com, the ubiquitous content notes often (usually?) function as neutral guides to topics under discussion, but surprisingly often serve as editorial prefaces, e.g. a (hypothetical) discussion of rates of gender-detransition might be framed with a ‘transphobia’ content note. The purpose of such notes isn’t to increase reader flexibility, and they don’t assume readers’ good faith — they’re there in part to shape the readers’ attitude toward the content itself. They aren’t just warnings to stay away, of course: most readers will read the posts regardless of the content notes. For those readers, the content notes are just guides to reception posture at the level of content.

Scott’s ‘epistemic status’ warnings guard against unproductive forms of argument but are agnostic as to reader perspectives; Melissa’s, I’d argue, militate subtly against specific perspectives. Both are intended inclusively, I think, but my sense is that they don’t both function that way, at least not to the same degree.

The great and knowledgeable Cosma Shalizi includes ‘attention conservation notices’ atop his long posts, which are somewhat more complicated (or at any rate pretentious) than normal content notes/trigger warnings.

In theory, credentials serve as persistent epistemic status warnings: ‘I have a PhD in area XYZ, so I can be expected to know A, B, and C.’ But life is complicated and dumb.

But again: why would you take my word for any of this?

Pronoun schema.

In my writing I use female generic pronouns by default, freely switch when I get bored, sometimes switch to male pronouns when I’m talking about some characteristically male idiocy, and am especially careful to refer to Dungeon Masters as female and RPG players as male — when the latter distinction is relevant, which it fucking always is.