Xenophon

Discusssion of the Political Philosophy of ASOIF

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Not sure if this is the right forum, but on a political theory site I admin, we're starting a discussion of the political philosophy of ASOIF.

I used to be active on these forums and I remember the level of discussion is really good. So I want to invite you all to join in. If you'd like to get involved, we'd love to have you!

We're examining the topic through a series of character-by-character discussions, starting with Varys. We've got a few articles lined up to kickstart the discussion, and we're going to let it develop from there. The writers we have so far are mainly political science/philosophy types who also are fans of the books (so things like Varys compared to Machiavelli). We'd really like to add more voices, particularly readers of the books who might not know Machiavelli, but know ASOIF really well.

You can check out the discussion at the link below. If you want to comment or contribute something, you can get in touch with us via the site (I'll also be checking this forum). We're open to submissions of all types. If you think it will add to the discussion, we're interested. Even if you just want to throw up an idea for debate, or point to a section of the book that you'd like to see someone comment on, that would be helpful.

The "stretch goal" for this discussion series is to distill it down into a format that could be used as a teaching aid in classes either on ASOIF or political theory. Anything you submit will be attributed as you like, of course, and if we do turn it into something used in classes, you'll get authorial credit, royalties, etc..

Here's the link: http://politicalanimalmagazine.com/a-politics-of-ice-and-fire/

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Fine work, I hope there's more. My only quibble is that Varys' turnkey disguise is named Rugen, not Ruger.  

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5 hours ago, Littlefinger's dagger said:

My only quibble is that Varys' turnkey disguise is named Rugen, not Ruger.  

Thank you! Changed. This is why we need well-versed readers like you!

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What a great idea!

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Got some more articles up, including a discussion of Varys riddle: http://politicalanimalmagazine.com/varys-his-riddle/

I'm not 100% sold on the comparison with the prisoners' dilemma that article makes, but I think it's an interesting point about how Varys "theory of power" puts so much emphasis on the individual belief of the sellsword, whereas we typically try to find more universal/abstract theories. I guess this also is reflected in the medium--Varys conveys his views in a riddle, vs. a treatise or maxim, etc.. 

Also, the article makes a point about how we're supposed to reconcile the existence of the Gods in the story. Given the magic in the world, the riddle is at least complicated, he's suggesting. I.e. power doesn't just lie wherever people believe it does. Melisandre has power even if people don't believe in it. I was wondering what you all, who know the books really well, think about that. Is this just a footnote to Varys' claim, or does it put a serious limit on his view of power and politics?

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Nice article!

I think the sellsword of the riddle may be viewed as a representative of his class. In that sense, the emphasis is not so much on the individual as in the commonly held beliefs, like what forms the "public opinion". Which is, in turn, malleable by the influence exercise on them by forces such as the ones represented in the riddle by the other three figures, creating a perpetualness of interaction and change.

We have a couple of "historical" examples in the series -notably in "The princess and the queen" but the riot in Kings Landing would qualify as well- where "the sellsword" shows his teeth, under the influence of their own needs combined with ideas. There's also the rise of Sparrows in Westeros and of the Red Priests of Volantis in Essos...

 

Regarding gods, I would disagree that they have power. I think Varys got it right (as I understand him, anyway :)) that religion has power, but that's different to "gods". Magic exists in-universe, true, and certain individuals do draw power out of it, but gods themselves are not presented as entities with consciousness and will (the author has said that we are not going to see any gods in action). In the end of the day, my impression from its usage so far in the series is that magic has the power to, schematically, "win you a battle but not the war".

 

I hope I managed to convey my ideas sufficiently - in this sort of discussion the language barrier gets higher.

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On 3/11/2016 at 10:47 AM, Xenophon said:

the riddle is at least complicated, he's suggesting. I.e. power doesn't just lie wherever people believe it does. Melisandre has power even if people don't believe in it. I was wondering what you all, who know the books really well, think about that. Is this just a footnote to Varys' claim, or does it put a serious limit on his view of power and politics?

While I wouldn't claim to 'know the books really well,' herewith a few reflections.  Firstly, it's important to be cognizant upfront of the fact that Varys is the most enigmatic character, for whom we have the least reliable information, in the whole series.  Not only do we not have a single point-of-view chapter for him, having to contend with only flimsy snippets of backstory, it would be a mistake to trust anything he says about himself (or anyone else, for that matter). 

He is first-and-foremost a first-class liar-- a man of many faces -- a disingenuousness on which he has built his survival and, paradoxically, his empire of knowledge.  Therefore, I would recommend that you take anything and everything Varys says with a grain of salt.  Regarding the riddle, the importance of perception as reality, and therefore deception as central to power, is highlighted, and this certainly accords with Varys's personal philosophy of 'persuasion.' 

What's most intriguing for me, however, is to consider not only which players Varys includes in his riddle, but -- more importantly -- whom he leaves out.  I deliberately used the phrase 'leaves out' instead of 'excludes,' because I believe that there are other parties, of whom Varys is aware, playing a part in the power equation, whom Varys strategically doesn't mention.  Surely there are other players besides a king, a priest, a rich man, and a sellsword?  Where in his own paradigm would Varys himself be located?  And Littlefinger? 

Symbolically, Varys is a 'spider,' therefore he cannot really be said to be separate from the web, a metaphor of power; likewise, Littlefinger has his 'little' finger in every pie.  Despite participating in the game, both these players place a premium on being difficult to pin down.  Moreover, in order not to draw attention to themselves and their actual power, they deliberately cultivate an aura of impotence: Varys the flowery, violet-not-violent, soft-slippered, unctuous, effacing eunuch, shuddering at the slightest sight of blood; and Sweetpetyr the always-jovial, genial, lowborn runt of a man, who seems more interested on the surface in matchmaking than murder. 

So, where is power located then?  Power is located where it is not locatable, and hence not located!  (to your point about Melisandre). Even poor naïve Ned gets an inkling of this truth, i.e. that danger lies in the unknown and/or unknowable, shortly before what he doesn't know gets him killed:

Quote

the truth of Jon Arryn's death still eluded him. Oh, he had found a few pieces, enough to convince him that Jon had indeed been murdered, but that was no more than the spoor of an animal on the forest floor. He had not sighted the beast itself yet, though he sensed it was there, lurking, hidden, treacherous.

In this sense, it is not the shadow on the wall that gets you killed, it's the shadow you don't see coming.  Otherwise stated, power is not located in the form of a shadow projected on a wall, but in what is as yet unformulated, in the shadows itself. 

I would argue that for both Varys and Littlefinger, the shadow beasts frequenting the Red Keep, the currency of power is knowledge.  This can only work by sequestering knowledge for themselves, which implies reciprocally withholding knowledge from others.  In a Machiavellian sense, the hierarchy is maintained by exclusion, i.e. repression and oppression, via which power is maintained as the province of an elite.  According to this interpretation, therefore, power can never be democratic.  It does not serve to erode ones position by enlightening the other; on the contrary, keeping ones opponents in the dark (confused and stumbling on the backfoot), disseminating misrepresentations if necessary, is vital to the organization of power. 

From this perspective, Varys is a more powerful figure than Littlefinger.  As the most elusive character of all, Varys operates at a deeper, more shadowy level than Littlefinger, who is a less disciplined, and therefore relatively more transparent psychopath.  And, as I've argued, transparency is antithetical to power.  Indeed, Littlefinger's Achilles heel seems to be his penchant for luxuriating in details of his own greatness just a little too much for his own good, bragging about his exploits and machinations, inadvertently spilling a few-too-many beans, in his need for an adoring female audience.  Compared to Varys, it's easier to see through and conceptualize Littlefinger's motivations, and as Littlefinger himself has warned, once you know what a man wants, you know how to move him...

This brings us back to the question, what does the eunuch want..?!  That's less easy to answer.  A eunuch is defined by something that has been cut away, something that is missing.  A priori, he is framed by an absence, problematising the question of who he is?  Let's not forget, the text, as far as we can trust it, suggests that great power was concentrated and released in the blood-and-fire sacrifice of Varys's genitals.  Accordingly, the absence/s characterizing Varys should not be read as a paucity, but rather as a source of power.  Symbolically, this is further represented by Varys's versatility and resourcefulness maneuvering on and through a multiplicity of poorly-defined levels, both above and below ground, holding sway over the domains of air (the invisible  'airwaves' of his 'little birds') and the dungeons (as keymaster), respectively.  While Littlefinger may be adept at making the rounds of the court, it's clear not even he can claim to 'know the secrets' of the Red Keep in the way Varys does.

Edited by ravenous reader

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Posted (edited)

On 3/11/2016 at 1:21 PM, ravenous reader said:

While I wouldn't claim to 'know the books really well,' herewith a few reflections.  Firstly, it's important to be cognizant upfront of the fact that Varys is the most enigmatic character, for whom we have the least reliable information, in the whole series.  Not only do we not have a single point-of-view chapter for him, having to contend with only flimsy snippets of backstory, it would be a mistake to trust anything he says about himself (or anyone else, for that matter). 

He is first-and-foremost a first-class liar-- a man of many faces -- a disingenuousness on which he has built his survival and, paradoxically, his empire of knowledge.  Therefore, I would recommend that you take anything and everything Varys says with a grain of salt.  Regarding the riddle, the importance of perception as reality, and therefore deception as central to power, is highlighted, and this certainly accords with Varys's personal philosophy of 'persuasion.' 

What's most intriguing for me, however, is to consider not only which players Varys includes in his riddle, but -- more importantly -- whom he leaves out.  I deliberately used the phrase 'leaves out' instead of 'excludes,' because I believe that there are other parties, of whom Varys is aware, playing a part in the power equation, whom Varys strategically doesn't mention.  Surely there are other players besides a king, a priest, a rich man, and a sellsword?  Where in his own paradigm would Varys himself be located?  And Littlefinger? 

Symbolically, Varys is a 'spider,' therefore he cannot really be said to be separate from the web, a metaphor of power; likewise, Littlefinger has his 'little' finger in every pie.  Despite participating in the game, both these players place a premium on being difficult to pin down.  Moreover, in order not to draw attention to themselves and their actual power, they deliberately cultivate an aura of impotence: Varys the flowery, violet-not-violent, soft-slippered, unctuous, effacing eunuch, shuddering at the slightest sight of blood; and Sweetpetyr the always-jovial, genial, lowborn runt of a man, who seems more interested on the surface in matchmaking than murder. 

So, where is power located then?  Power is located where it is not locatable, and hence not located!  (to your point about Melisandre). Even poor naïve Ned gets an inkling of this truth, i.e. that danger lies in the unknown and/or unknowable, shortly before what he doesn't know gets him killed:

In this sense, it is not the shadow on the wall that gets you killed, it's the shadow you don't see coming.  Otherwise stated, power is not located in the form of a shadow projected on a wall, but in what is as yet unformulated, in the shadows itself. 

I would argue that for both Varys and Littlefinger, the shadow beasts frequenting the Red Keep, the currency of power is knowledge.  This can only work by sequestering knowledge for themselves, which implies reciprocally withholding knowledge from others.  In a Machiavellian sense, the hierarchy is maintained by exclusion, i.e. repression and oppression, via which power is maintained as the province of an elite.  According to this interpretation, therefore, power can never be democratic.  It does not serve to erode ones position by enlightening the other; on the contrary, keeping ones opponents in the dark (confused and stumbling on the backfoot), disseminating misrepresentations if necessary, is vital to the organization of power. 

From this perspective, Varys is a more powerful figure than Littlefinger.  As the most elusive character of all, Varys operates at a deeper, more shadowy level than Littlefinger, who is a less disciplined, and therefore relatively more transparent psychopath.  And, as I've argued, transparency is antithetical to power.  Indeed, Littlefinger's Achilles heel seems to be his penchant for luxuriating in details of his own greatness just a little too much for his own good, bragging about his exploits and machinations, inadvertently spilling a few-too-many beans, in his need for an adoring female audience.  Compared to Varys, it's easier to see through and conceptualize Littlefinger's motivations, and as Littlefinger himself has warned, once you know what a man wants, you know how to move him...

This brings us back to the question, what does the eunuch want..?!  That's less easy to answer.  A eunuch is defined by something that has been cut away, something that is missing.  A priori, he is framed by an absence, problematising the question of who he is?  Let's not forget, the text, as far as we can trust it, suggests that great power was concentrated and released in the blood-and-fire sacrifice of Varys's genitals.  Accordingly, the absence/s characterizing Varys should not be read as a paucity, but rather as a source of power.  Symbolically, this is further represented by Varys's versatility and resourcefulness maneuvering on and through a multiplicity of poorly-defined levels, both above and below ground, holding sway over the domains of air (the invisible  'airwaves' of his 'little birds') and the dungeons (as keymaster), respectively.  While Littlefinger may be adept at making the rounds of the court, it's clear not even he can claim to 'know the secrets' of the Red Keep in the way Varys does.

I agree completely with all of this. I would add that the desire for power gives birth to the hope of control and the fear of loss of control. Which is what we see in bloody sacrifices that accompany this desire for power. Power in the series is systematically associated with all seven of the deadly sins in the entire conversation between Varys and Tyrion. From Robert's bastards (lust) to Joffrey's wrathful justice. Which puts power in the realm of poison. Remember the quote Power is the crown that eats the head.

As a side note: One thing that you pointed out is the use of grief, sadness, intense negative feelings as a form to harden oneself as examplified by Varys vowing to show the wizard who castrated him that he would live. That is part of reason why the King of Winter is the Lord of Ashes. Covering oneself in ashes was both a sign of grief and a whitewashing. Which the grief part is shown in Dany having ashes and cinders falling down on top of her while in Drogo's pyre and the whitewashing seen when Sansa powdered her face after Ser Meryn Trant beat her. Make up has always been considered a lady's armor. 

In terms for Varys, his secrets are shadow swords that burn while his grief over his castration is the whetstone (the oily wet stone we keep seeing). 

Edited by Pain killer Jane

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On 3/7/2016 at 7:36 AM, Xenophon said:

Not sure if this is the right forum, but on a political theory site I admin, we're starting a discussion of the political philosophy of ASOIF.

I used to be active on these forums and I remember the level of discussion is really good. So I want to invite you all to join in. If you'd like to get involved, we'd love to have you!

We're examining the topic through a series of character-by-character discussions, starting with Varys. We've got a few articles lined up to kickstart the discussion, and we're going to let it develop from there. The writers we have so far are mainly political science/philosophy types who also are fans of the books (so things like Varys compared to Machiavelli). We'd really like to add more voices, particularly readers of the books who might not know Machiavelli, but know ASOIF really well.

You can check out the discussion at the link below. If you want to comment or contribute something, you can get in touch with us via the site (I'll also be checking this forum). We're open to submissions of all types. If you think it will add to the discussion, we're interested. Even if you just want to throw up an idea for debate, or point to a section of the book that you'd like to see someone comment on, that would be helpful.

The "stretch goal" for this discussion series is to distill it down into a format that could be used as a teaching aid in classes either on ASOIF or political theory. Anything you submit will be attributed as you like, of course, and if we do turn it into something used in classes, you'll get authorial credit, royalties, etc..

Here's the link: http://politicalanimalmagazine.com/a-politics-of-ice-and-fire/

These are a few thoughts I have had on power which I think Martin is using the Polynesian concept of Mana complete with the incest aspects. While it may seem to be about magical power it actually refers to political power and there are several references to the concept throughout the series. 

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Ah, this seems like such an important and interesting topic. Will definitely look into it more when I have more time.

The immediate idea that sprung to my mind was the wonderfully horrible weddings in ASOIAF. That's a sign their societal order is breaking down, right? Because it's a feodal society, in which marriage alliances are of crucial importance. A society like that cannot take too many Red Weddings or Purple Weddings, it undermines their whole social construct. Similar with guest right and oaths, breaking them undermines the world as they know it.

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Varys' riddle is really much more straightforward than people think. Power resides where people believe it resides. The riddle is a microcosm in that one man's belief will determine the outcome. On a larger scale what society believes as a whole enables the powerful to be the powerful and stay powerful, until society decides to change and stop believing in their power.

The reason why third parties don't have a good track record in national elections in the United States is because most of the people "believe" that a third-party candidate has no shot, and until people start to believe otherwise it will remain the case. The belief creates the reality. 

Mel is an interesting case because she doesn't have the power she lets people think she has. She gets visions of course, but she often misinterprets them, and she also uses illusions to create the belief she wants people to have. Yet some remain immune to her, or insist that her powers stem from an evil source and thus resist her.

I'd like to know what kind of political system, if any, the Others have. Their motivations may be far more complex than we know.

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