On sociological storytelling

Daenerys Targaryen in Season 8 of Game of Thrones

I had been mum about the series Game of Thrones (GOT) because I only watched it once — and that is only for like 20 minutes — before turning it off because I couldn’t stand the gore. Furthermore, like Harry Potter books (of which I had never read — yet), GOT books also came out during the time when I wasn’t doing financially well, so books were a luxury to me during that time hence I never picked up any. It felt too late now (is it?) to pick up after so many years, but I will think about it.

In the midst of the collective rage and outburst that is the ending of GOT’s final season, one thing I observe — is that people were unhappy and could not relate with the ending. Irritated fans even took the time to set up a petition to remake the final series. I guess in the state of today’s world, escapism comes in the form of sci-fi series such as GOT, Star Wars, and The Avengers — and the possibility of a remake gives the fans some sort of hope in a societal situation they no longer have control of.

There are several people of whom I wish that’s how I would grow up to write critically like “when I grow up”, and one of them is technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci — who, among many things, teaches at Chapel Hill, writes for The New York Times, spoke at TEDTalks, and wrote Twitter & Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. It’s also probably not an understatement to say that my doctoral research was, and still is, largely influenced by her writings and ideas.

Zeynep wrote an excellent review on why the ending of GOT no longer resonated with people. One of the biggest reason was, the author George R.R. Martin started the books within a sociological storytelling, whilst the Hollywood directors decided to take a shift into personal, hero/antihero narrative:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

After the show ran ahead of the novels, however, it was taken over by powerful Hollywood showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Some fans and critics have been assuming that the duo changed the narrative to fit Hollywood tropes or to speed things up, but that’s unlikely. In fact, they probably stuck to the narrative points that were given to them, if only in outline form, by the original author. What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

On the agency of characters, and why it was acceptable for earlier seasons to have so many major characters killed:

One clue is clearly the show’s willingness to kill off major characters, early and often, without losing the thread of the story. TV shows that travel in the psychological lane rarely do that because they depend on viewers identifying with the characters and becoming invested in them to carry the story, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the society, institutions and norms that we interact with and which shape us. They can’t just kill major characters because those are the key tools with which they’re building the story and using as hooks to hold viewers.

In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.

The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices.”Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances” is a way into a broader, deeper understanding.

This is why the question of going back in time to kill baby Hitler, in order to destroy fascism, in essence, will not work:

The overly personal mode of storytelling or analysis leaves us bereft of deeper comprehension of events and history. Understanding Hitler’s personality alone will not tell us much about rise of fascism, for example. Not that it didn’t matter, but a different demagogue would probably have appeared to take his place in Germany in between the two bloody world wars in the 20th century. Hence, the answer to “would you kill baby Hitler?,” sometimes presented as an ethical time-travel challenge, should be “no,” because it would very likely not matter much.

On abandoning the notion of charismatic leadership in a world that requires a lot of institution building and incentive changes:

Destructive historical figures often believe that they must stay in power because it is they, and only they, who can lead the people—and that any alternative would be calamitous. Leaders tend to get isolated, become surrounded by sycophants and succumb easily to the human tendency to self-rationalise. There are several examples in history of a leader who starts in opposition with the best of intentions, like Dany, and ends up acting brutally and turning into a tyrant if they take power.

Varys, the advisor who will die for trying to stop Dany, says to Tyrion that “every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.” That is straight-up and simplistic genetic determinism, rather than what we had been witnessing for the past seven seasons. Again, sociological stories don’t discount the personal, psychological and even the genetic, but the key point is that they are more than “coin tosses”—they are complex interactions with emergent consequences: the way the world actually works.

Zeynep concludes the article by examining this notion of sociological storytelling and hero/antihero narrative against her area of the impacts of digital technology on society — and urging us to discard the techno-deterministic views and the constant idolisation of key players in tech, by seeing the bigger picture.

In German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s classic play, Life of Galileo, Andrea, a former pupil of Galileo, visits him after he recants his seminal findings under pressure from the Catholic Church. Galileo gives Andrea his notebooks, asking him to spread the knowledge they contain. Andrea celebrates this, saying “unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” Galileo corrects him: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

Related:

… and on plotters versus pantsers.

Comment 1

  1. Pingback: On The Good Place – Two Kinds of Intelligence

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