Sociological vs Psychological Storytelling

Game of Thrones, in its eighth and final season, enjoyed audiences of more than 17 million people per week. However, fan and critic reaction though out the season indicated many of those millions loathed it.

Where did the season go wrong and why exactly did it go downhill? In May 2019, Zeynep Tufekci published an article in the Scientific American entitled, ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.’

Her thesis was simple; the original narrative created by George R. R. Martin struck a cord with audiences because of its unique subtlety as a sociological story which stood out among Hollywood narratives characterised by being psychological and individually motivated.

It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological .

She explains that in sociological narratives, characters evolve in response to the broader social, political, economic and cultural incentives and norms that surround them. Author George R. R. Martin drew from medieval and renaissance history for his characters and plot devices, as well as from European myth and legend. In doing so, he specialized in having characters evolve in response to the broader social fabric and beliefs within which they were placed.

On the other hand, psychological narratives features characters driven by much more individual quests and motives. The preference for this narrative style in Hollywood is understandable: the story is easier to tell and we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. The hallmark of sociological storytelling however, is 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. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.

An example of the power of Martin’s sociological storytelling was his willingness to kill off major characters frequently without losing the thread of the story. Narratives driven by psychological and individual motives rarely do that because the main characters are the key tools with which the story is built. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

Showrunners, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, took the narrative beyond Martin’s books, and turned the later seasons into Hollywood psychological narratives. In the final season, none of the main characters are killed early or unexpectedly and the motives and movements of the protagonists and antagonists became ever more internally wrought. What resulted in season 8 was ‘deus ex-machina’ styled defeat of the forces of the dead, and simplistic dissolution to good vs. evil interplay between main characters.

And it was the story’s richness which was lost in season 8, moving fans and critics to openly pan the final episodes online. Meme’s abound like the image below featuring a young woman’s Halloween costume literally ‘trashing’ season 8.

You can read Zeynep Tufekci’s full article on Scientific American, HERE.

The Power of Reading

In an earlier post, I examined what would happen ‘If All the Books Disappeared.’ Ricky Gervais pointed out that science is the axiom the universe, an unchanging constant that would be discovered again and again should we lose all knowledge and records of learning. He contrasted this to religion which would reappear in a different form because it is couched in culture, language, and context.

For Gervais, science is worth believing in. Religion was not.

In contrast, C. S. Lewis an atheist until his early 30s, described himself as a “reluctant convert” to Christianity,  because as an intellectual, he found he had no choice but to accept what he clearly saw to be truth.

In his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry’ he mused,

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.

C. S. Lewis

This little comic articulates the importance of ideas to shape the way we see the world. Should we lose all books, humanity would have to reprocess the fundamentals of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ the world, in order to test, examine and rediscover science.

Without ideas of being, notions of truth and identity, we would in fact ‘see’ the world very differently. Science would not only have to be relearned but would have to in fact be ‘re-seen.’

This process of epistemology, the process of ‘knowing’ is philosophical and tied to notions of belief, truth, and identity. This is why humanity are story tellers, and our narratives of identity which form the basis of religious beliefs run parallel to, and indeed fundamental to, the scientific process.

On Being an Adult Child

It is a lovely thing to be an adult and have a strong relationship with one’s parents and know them more as friends. Growing to adulthood is a lot about gaining agency and objectivity. One is less the subject of your parents, and more the object of your own life.

Yet in family, there forever exists a dynamic that one can never escape – the reality that you are forever their child, and they are forever your parents.

I recently enjoyed a holiday with my parents. When living far away, any quality time together, forming happy memories is a good investment. However, when returning to extended time together this family dynamic is reinforced in curious ways.

Is it being placed in a single bed again? Is it the conversation about a different generation of friends, their health challenges, their grandchildren which makes you realise you’re not with your peers? And that you are uncomfortably, the object of much of their worry, analysis and discussion.

We recently chose a holiday venue for the over 65+ which only compounded my feeling. I was definitely outnumbered and cultural differences did abound some of which I did not object to, including the early nights and afternoon naps, the schedule of coffee, cakes, scenic locations and group photos.

Around my parents’ friends, I find that in open dialogue they will bemoan unmarried children, talk of their welfare and concerns. I find myself patted and prodded, gently sized up, commented upon.

I realise that here I’m not the object of my life, the agent of decisions. I’m the subject of someone else’s life, their worries, decisions, their social standing with their peers. I am the object of devotion and love, but also of anxiety, surprise, disappointment and stress.

I am reminded that we are always tied into the fabric of a large community quilt. We are our parents’ children. We are the subject of their conversation the way they are the subject of ours with our friends. We will always be subject to care, commentary, criticism, gossip, humour, anxiety and love. As they are subject to ours.

But this makes us part of community, loved and well as loving. We are object and we are subject. We belong.

Emotional Hygiene

Dr Viktor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, talks about ‘hygiene’ emotionally and psychologically, a hygiene necessary to maintain a healthy mind and heart.

Upon release from internment in concentration camps, release from the extremes of deprivation and human suffering, Frankl observed that humans encountering their new freedoms had to be cautious of their emotional health in the following ways.

First, they had to be cautious to not react with vengeance and hatred towards the world, careless of the hurts or disadvantages towards others that their behaviour could cause, all the while justifying their actions by their own needless sufferings.

Second, they had to be wary not to succumb to bitterness when encountering those who would trivialise their prisoner experience with hollow platitudes devoid of any true empathy.

Third, they had to be on guard not to give in to disillusionment when returning home, upon learning that the objects of their love and hope for the future, their family, beloved, friends, were now gone.

In this way Frankl teaches us all, very few of whom have suffered the indignities of a concentration camp, to care for our own hearts and minds as though for our bodies and homes. We must daily clean the toxic emotional build up and thought patterns of life as we would ritually wash our hands before eating, our bodies before resting, our wounds before going out into the air. We must throw away rotting thoughts and attitudes before they infect our lives and vigilantly clean up our living space of soiled attitudes or ideas past their due date.

How is your emotional hygiene?

On Responsibility

In Victor Frankl’s work ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he explores the question of what is the ‘meaning’ of life. Frankl explains, that life, like the game of chess, has no perfect move, only the perfect move for a specific player in a specific situation. Life has no ‘meaning‘ other than meaning derived from responding to one’s life in any given circumstances.

He correlates then, ‘responsibility‘ with the essence of human existence. To live meaningfully, one is to imagine one is living for a second time and that the first time we lived, we made every mistake possible. This imagining, confronts us with all of life’s limitations and the finality of what we make of our life and of ourselves, pushing us to be responsible.

He continues. The question of ‘responsibility‘ calls into question whether we are truly free or not. If we are indeed victims of life, we have no responsibility for the consequences of our existence. However as victims, we are not truly free. If we are however, to claim to be truly free beings and to have agency over our existence, we cannot then fall back upon the comfort of claiming ‘victimhood’. We must face the reality that our life, and the consequences or our existence, and indeed our total responsibility.

Frankl, as a psychiatrist, saw his role in therapy much the way an eye-surgeon would when dealing with a patient. He worked on the faculty of sight to restore a patient’s ability to see the whole spectrum of his or her potential and the meaning of their life. By helping a patient to become ‘responsible’, he would help them become empowered to actualise the potential meaning of their existence.

And in doing so, no matter the circumstance of his or her life, to become truly free.

It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want To

or Why FEAR is Like Hot Sauce – Part III’

Recently my colleagues bought me cake and a signed card with lovely wishes for my birthday. A [false] social media alert had triggered their interest and they had pooled together to congratulate me.

I stammered something about it not being my birthday but they clarified they had then done research and found my date of birth on our staff database and that it was only a few weeks prior.

I managed to thank them and mutter something about being a birthday ‘grinch‘. However, when left alone, I was overcome with a wave of emotion, humiliation, condemnation, and hot tears.

Why did such a lovely guesture catalyse such a flood of emotion?

As I paused to examine my feelings, I unearthed a deep sense of failure, unloveliness, lack of dignity and embarrassment layered there. These sadnesses about my life are emphasisesd at each anniversary of my birth as though mile markers taunt me to show my lack of progress or as a measuring rod, to highlight my lack of stature.

When my colleagues tried to cheer me for my birthday, I felt like a door to a private room of grief was suddenly thrown open, a door I was hoping to keep closed. Memories of relationship failures, griefs about unmet expectations and unrealised dreams came tumbling out; fears of social indignity and disrespect met the light of what I fear most of all, the knowledge of these failures in the faces of my colleagues. I felt crushed.

I looked down and focused on my work and I cried silently in the office that afternoon.

Joseph Campbell writes,

It is by going down into the abyss
that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble,
there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center.

You find the jewel,
and it draws you off.

I don’t talk about my birthday because it reminds me of the failures of my life. I have not achieved XYZ and am still struggling with questions of identity, purpose and direction. I’m not where I feel like I should be and I am I feel shame.

My response to being warmly congratulated by friends, alerted me that there was a cave I needed to enter, a cave of vulnerability and to sharing my life experiences with my colleagues, my life story, with others that could yield a treasure of friendship and connection that I have not yet experienced with them.

Instead of pretending to be ‘A-Okay’, and a little distant, my story with all its honesty and griefs, could indeed be a treasure to encourage other people who feel they are failures, unlovely, undignified or ashamed.