I’ve only watched one episode of Game of Thrones (don’t @ me, I read the first three books and that was more than enough). But I was fascinated by this NYT Magazine article on visiting the Westeros sets and locations in Northern Ireland, written by an Irishman. The blending of the real and the artificial, and the way in which the artificial overlays the real, is understandable but also troubling. What happens when we create Disneyfied landscapes in places with real history? And what happens when our mental images are dominated by the way they stand in for fake worlds and start to erase the real ones?
Less than half an hour after the tour bus left the pickup point, I realized we were no longer in Northern Ireland, but had entered the realm of Westeros. We were passing Stormont Castle, on the outskirts of Belfast. This was theoretically the seat of Northern Ireland’s government, but for over two years now this executive office — jointly controlled by the right-wing loyalist (and largely Protestant) Democratic Unionist Party and the left-wing republican (and largely Catholic) Sinn Fein — had languished in a state of indefinite suspension thanks to a densely complex sequence of disagreements. The tour guide made no mention of this notable landmark, and the reason he made no mention of it, I further understood, was that it had nothing to do with “Game of Thrones.”
This has already happened in a non-political way in New Zealand, with the landscape being associated with the Lord of the Rings movies rather than its own history.
Somewhat relatedly, I was listening to a radio report on the Notre Dame fire as it was happening, and there was an interview with someone who had immediately set about creating online video libraries of photos of the cathedral and its interiors. Which is great, but virtual visits aren’t substitutes for actual visits. I understand not everyone can visit historical and artistic monuments (I’ve never visited the Parthenon, and I doubt I’ll ever see Petra), but we do a disservice to them and to ourselves when we elide the difference between looking at a two-dimensional or even three-dimensional virtual representations with the actual tactile and optical experience of seeing the real thing. For my whole life I’ve told people that however many photographs you’ve seen of the Taj Mahal, it will not prepare you for its beauty. Marble in person is just different than marble in a photograph or video, and you can’t fully appreciate the Taj’s perfect proportions until you see it in situ. It’s OK not to have seen it (none of us will see everything we want to). It’s not OK to act as if Google Earth is a satisfying substitute.
I’ve been fascinated lately by novels grappling with the Spanish Civil War, most notably Soldiers of Salamis and In the Night of Time. But I hadn’t really thought much about the long-term cultural consequences beyond the obvious, i.e., the killing of artists like Garcia Lorca, since what I’m reading is more about the politics and individual responses to events. This article in The Conversation highlights another, much less talked-about aspect of Franco’s regime: the effect on literature. For most of the Franco period all books had to be submitted to censors before publication, and even when that requirement was lifted a soft censorship continued. But more than 40 years after Franco’s death and the transition to democracy, those censored texts are still the ones people read:
Franco’s censorship laws sought to reinforce Catholicism and promote ideological and cultural uniformity. The censors enforced conservative values, inhibited dissent and manipulated history, especially the memory of the civil war. Sexually explicit material was banned, as were alternative political views, improper language and criticisms of the Catholic church.
Spain abandoned these policies after Franco’s death in 1975, yet most of the same texts are still widely available today. Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is available in more than 20 different Spanish-language editions, for instance, including an electronic one, all of which lack two extended passages that according to the censors glorified Satan. James Baldwin’s Go and Tell it on the Mountain is only available in a version with cuts that include references to birth control and details about the sex lives of the main characters. The publication of this expurgated text is sponsored by none other than UNESCO.
What’s striking about this is that most people aren’t aware it’s going on. You can’t fight what you don’t see.
Courtesy of Nate at The Digital Reader, here’s a Vox story on product placement in books. I’d forgotten about Beryl Bainbridge’s Bulgari novel and the outcry over her “selling out.” The story is only partly amusing, though, because it points out that one of the reasons for lack of product placement is lack of return for the advertisers.
Weldon says she thinks part of the outraged response to The Bulgari Connection was specific to the era. “The novel at the time was seen as a sacred form,” she said. “It is not anymore.”
“That was a very different time in publishing,” agreed publishing consultant Jane Friedman over the phone. “That’s when publishing was running large. It was the height of Barnes & Noble.” If The Bulgari Connection were to come out today, in a post-Amazon world, she suggested, the response would be more muted.
But, she added, it’s unlikely that it would come out today. “Books don’t have that wide of a reach,” she said. “The potential audience is pretty modest, and it’s gotten even more modest since 2001.”
I hate to agree with this but I do. I was thinking about this when the Marie Kondo craze reappeared last year. When her books came out there was a spate of articles around Kondo-ing, but it was nothing compared to the reaction to the Netflix series. TV and movies just draw a lot bigger audience than books do, because we (not we the readers of this blog, but the social we) spend a lot more time watching than reading.
A coupe years back I saw an segment on some news show—either 60 Minutes or Vice about how strongly Iceland was being associated with Game of Thrones and how their tourist industry has mushroomed as a result. Some Icelanders appreciated the jobs, Airbnb profits, etc. but others hated it.
I’d forgotten they filmed in Iceland. But that makes sense, the mixed feelings people have about becoming a destination for something that is not about them at all but that comes to represent them to others.
I agree that video is no substitute for visiting a beautiful place—be it a building or a wonder of the natural world like a coral reef or the Grand Canyon. Years ago, I was in Japan and visited Himeji castle. It’s is a magnificent building and when I look at photographs of it, they seem so paltry in comparison. I envy you for having seen the Taj Mahal in person! I think it is quite possibly the most beautiful building in the world.
It’s the most beautiful building I’ve seen, but I’m undoubtedly biased. 🙂 That said, it is considered to have perfect proportions, and there is a quality to marble that makes it warm and changing in a way other building materials don’t have. You can see it in statues, too.
I think that using representations to aid in cultural literacy and education is a great idea, I don’t want to make it sound as if I’m against people looking at interactive sites of natural and built monuments, paintings, etc. Of course that’s a good thing. It was something about the way the radio discussion went from the fire to discussing a photo/video way to access it, as if that would somehow lessen the awfulness. They’re two separate things to me. Sometimes we just have to face the awfulness (and in this case, thank goodness it wasn’t more devastating).
It’s funny that you raise this issue of the virtual vs. the real. (“Funny” isn’t quite “it,” but I have a cold and my brain is being lazy right now.) My dad pointed this out way back when the movie Amadeus came out. In fact, Mozart and Salieri were friends, but in the movie, Salieri is depicted as nothing short of a murderer. And my dad was passionate about this being a Problem for society (capitalism intentional). I feel the same way about Oliver Stone’s movies, because he is so very biased and so very pompous about not being so. It’s dangerous, because it redefines truth.
I think we’re in a crux-point of human history and letters. I know I’ve gotten shit before for bringing up the Canon, but I can’t help but wonder what people will think of our times a hundred years from now. Will they look back on the advent of the internet and the shortening of our collective attention spans as pivotal? Or will they regard the fear of me and others like me as histrionic? But just as the press fundamentally changed Western culture, I think the internet is similarly changing ours – and the facility with which we can share experiences, uncurated, is both democratic and disorganized. Whether it’s good or bad is not for me to determine; that’s for our successors to look back and judge.
I am minded, though, of a story about a travel writer (and I’m sure there are more than one, but I know of one specifically) that was busted for not having visited any of the places about which he wrote travel guides. And this was about fifteen years ago – I can’t help but wonder if it’s only gotten worse. Like you say, there’s no substitute for first-hand visits and experience. But are we training our youth to have the skill of travelers? Or are we becoming a people of phone-itis, unable to look up from our electronics to perceive the world in which we are living?
Or is my black-and-white point of view merely the Dayquil talking? 🙂
Well, we’re definitely changing the way we experience different kinds of cultural products. I’m not one of those people who thinks only print books are worth reading, obviously, but I do find there to be a difference between reading print and reading ebooks, and I’m not alone in that. What the loss of tactile engagement will do, and how it will be balanced by the gains of virtual engagement, is something we won’t know for a while.
My concern is that we too easily accept new technologies as substitutes rather than as augmentations of the way we’ve done things, before we know fully what the tradeoffs are. And our incentives to substitute are driven by companies who profit from our wholesale acceptance of that option.