The Psychological Dimensions of Game of Thrones: The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast Explores the Fantasy Spectacle

The HBO TV show Game of Thrones, like its source books, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is classified as "fantasy," but that term as literary classification has become unmoored from its literal meaning. A person's fantasy is most typically a matter of wish fulfillment, which should put super-hero media at the center of the genre: We regular mortals wish to be powerful and strong, to save the day and be recognized as a hero. Certain elements of classical fantasy fall under this description: Frodo in Lord of the Rings gets to save the world while remaining more or less ordinary (well, yes, he can turn invisible with the ring, but that becomes problematic), and Harry Potter qualifies as a kid super-hero.

Another key element of fantasy is obviously the imagination, which can be deployed as in dreams and the psychedelic art that draws on dream experience to come up with ever-more-fantastical imagery, ever more amazing situations and powers one could fantasize about possessing. However, the imagination also seeks to expand the fantasized creation, to make its world wider and richer, to fill in the details, and almost inevitably to try to make the fantasy more "realistic." What would it actually be like to have super powers? Would you suffer emotional trauma from damaging all those villains? What about collateral damage? If you get to ride on a dragon, how do you take care of it? What (who) does it eat?

George R.R. Martin writes in the tradition popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien of "high fantasy," which involves not only characters of high stature engaged in epic struggles, but typically involves a very fleshed out alternative world with its own slightly different laws. The more spelled out these laws are, the more nuts and bolts of the workings of the world are specified, the more realism and hence suffering can be depicted. A Song of Ice and Fire describes its rotating cast of protagonists with such a degree of detail that readers are (as in much literature) able to identify with them, to see the world through their eyes, but they suffer so much that such alternate lives as these books offer readers would hardly be anyone's fantasy in the sense of wish fulfillment. A visual presentation like a TV show by necessity can't be as clear about whose eyes the viewer is supposed to see events through (we see through the camera instead), but nonetheless Game of Thrones invites us to live through (some of) its characters, to identify with them, through their exertions of power, through their reactions to loss and triumph. But such identifications will always be imperfect, given that these characters have been drawn as living in a world that is fundamentally foreign to us, not because there are zombies and dragons, but because HBO viewers are for the most part living comfortably in a peaceful country, not having been systematically and often personally exposed to horrible sufferings.

Hear Mark Linsenmayer and Wes Alwan, regular hosts of The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, along with guest Sabrina Weiss, discuss the psychological and social aspects of the show, but in what is depicted on screen and how these play out in our society's relationship to this grand spectacle.

Read more about it on The Partially Examined Life website.

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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Is the Leonardo da Vinci Painting “Salvator Mundi” (Which Sold for $450 Million in 2017) Actually Authentic?: Michael Lewis Explores the Question in His New Podcast

Journalist and bestselling author Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short) has a new podcast, Against the Rules, that "takes a searing look at what’s happened to fairness—in financial markets, newsrooms, basketball games, courts of law, and much more. And he asks what’s happening to a world where everyone loves to hate the referee." That is, what happens when we, as a society, lose confidence in the arbiters of truth and fairness?

In Episode 5, Lewis focuses on “Salvator Mundi,” a painting of Jesus Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which famously sold at auction for $450 million in 2017. Pretty remarkable, considering that some question whether “Salvator Mundi,” is really a Leonardo painting at all. Or, if it is, whether the highly-restored painting still retains any brushstrokes from Leonardo himself. This leads Lewis to ask some intriguing questions about the authenticity of art, and to explore the pressure placed on the referees of art--namely, art historians--to confirm the authenticity of potentially valuable paintings. Below, you can stream the episode, "The Hand of Leonardo."

As a bonus, we've also added an episode that examines how sketchy "customer service" companies mislead people trying to repay their student loans, and how the Trump administration has undermined government agencies designed to protect debt-strapped Americans.

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Is Modern Society Stealing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Genevieve Arnold

The prologue of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) introduced his notion of the "last man," who is no longer creative, no longer exploring, no longer risk taking. He took this to be the implicit aim of efforts to "discover happiness" by figuring out human nature and engineering society to fulfill human needs. If needs are met, no suffering occurs, no effort is needed to counter the suffering, and we all stagnate. Is our technology-enhanced consumer culture well on its way to delivering us up to such a fate?

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast considers this possibility, explores Nietzsche's picture of ethics, and concludes that the potential mistake by potential social engineers lies in underestimating the complexity of human needs. As Nietzsche argued, we're all idiosyncratic, and our needs are not just for peace, warmth, food, exercise and entertainment, but (once these are satisfied, per Maslow's hierarchy of needs) self-actualization, which is an individual pursuit, and so is impossible to mass engineer. Having our more basic needs fulfilled without life-filling effort (i.e. full time jobs) would not leave us complacent but actually free to entertain these "higher needs," and so to pursue the creative pursuits that Nietzsche thought were the pinnacle of human achievement.

Nietzsche's target is utilitarianism, which urges individuals and policy-makers to maximize happiness, and the more this is pursued scientifically, the more that "happiness" needs to be reduced to something potentially measurable, like pleasure, but clearly pleasure does not add up to a meaningful life. While we may not be able to quantify meaningfulness and aim public policy in that direction, it should be easier to identify clear obstacles to pursuing meaningful activity, such as illness, poverty, drudgery and servitude. We should be glad that choosing the most ethical path is not a matter of mere calculation, because on Nietzsche's view, we thrive as "creators of values," and figuring out for ourselves what makes each us truly happy (what we find valuable) is itself a meaningful activity.

The Partially Examined Life episodes 213 and 214 (forthcoming) provide a 4-man walkthrough of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, exploring the Last Man, the Overman, Will to Power, the declaration that "God Is Dead," and other notorious ideas.

Episode 213 Part One:

Episode 213 Part Two: 

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

Listen to Last Seen, a True-Crime Podcast That Takes You Inside an Unsolved, $500 Million Art Heist

In the early morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 pieces of precious art, including paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt. To this day, those paintings, valued at $500 million dollars, have never been recovered.

The story of the bold heist and the various attempts to recover the paintings--they get told in a 10-part series of podcasts called Last Seen. Created by WBUR and The Boston Globe, the true-crime podcast "takes us inside the ongoing effort to bring back the jewels of the Gardner collection." You can listen to the engrossing episodes online, or via iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify. Or simply stream the episodes below. And if you know anything that cracks the case, there's a $5 million dollar reward.

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

To delve deeper, you can also read two books on the mystery: Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist and The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft.

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Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre produced plays and novels like The Respectful Prostitute (1946), which explored racism in the American South. These works were criticized as too polemical to count as good literature. What might in the present day culminate only in a Twitter fight led Sartre to publish a whole book defending his practices, called What Is Literature? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast explains Sartre's view, outlining both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seriously anyway. In short, Sartre sees the act of writing fiction as an ethical appeal to his reader's freedom. The reader is challenged to hear the truths the work expresses, to understand and take action on them. More directly, the reader is challenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the reader's attention and imagination to "flesh out" the situations the book describes. The reader takes an active role in completing the work, and this role can be abandoned freely at any time. If a writer creates an escapist fantasy, the reader is invited to escape. If the writer produces a piece of lying propaganda, then the reader is being invited to collaborate in that fundamentally corrupt work.

So if writing is always an ethical, political act, then Sartre shouldn't be blamed for producing overtly political work. In fact, writers who deny that their work is political are dodging their own responsibility for playing haphazardly with this potentially dangerous tool. Their work will produce political effects whether they like it or not.

The Partially Examined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Literature) is a two-part treatment of the first two chapters of this text, weighing Sartre's words to try to understand them and determine whether they ultimately make sense. Listen to the full episode below or go subscribe to The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast at partiallyexaminedlife.com.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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The Big Pond: Stream 50 Audio Stories from the Goethe-Institut, Available Free Online

 

Who doesn’t love a good podcast? Don’t tell me you’ve never binged Serial or laughed out loud with Marc Maron. Over the last few years, podcasts have become a cultural phenomenon–they help us endure our daily commutes and then lull us back to sleep at night. Listening culture isn’t new, though–talk radio has been filling the silence with anecdotes, news, and drama since the early 1900s. The Goethe-Institut’s new radio and podcast series THE BIG POND. A US-German Listening Series is a perfect marriage of these two audible storytelling formats.

The Goethe-Institut, a German cultural center with its North American headquarters in Washington, has partnered with the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), the RIAS Berlin Kommission, KCRW Berlin, and other public radio stations and producers in Germany and the US to bring you THE BIG POND, a collection of 50 unique audio pieces released on a weekly basis. From pretzels and beer to the Berlin Wall, from motorcycles to recycling, THE BIG POND offers a fresh perspective on just how much these two countries share while celebrating podcasting, broadcasting, and “Wunderbar Together” – the German-American Year of Friendship.

Don’t worry, the radio features are all in English! Episodes are available for free via PRX, iTunes, Spotify, and THE BIG POND’s website as podcasts and for broadcast by public radio stations in the United States. This carefully curated library of audio productions covers all things German-American: German motorcycle tourists in Utah, a young German journalist’s mythical day with John Lennon, German-style apprenticeships in the US, an American opera singer’s life in Berlin, New York City beer gardens, and much more. THE BIG POND is home to features from up-and-coming producers as well as industry greats like Katie Davis, a contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “This American Life”, and the Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva), producers of the award-winning NPR series “Hidden Kitchens”.

"When an editor asks me to do a radio story, it usually comes with lots of directions,” said radio producer Katie Davis. “When the team at THE BIG POND talked to me about a story for this series, everything was wide open. No rules, requirements; just a wide open canvas with space for original stories.”

Provided with the necessary freedom to tell their transatlantic tales, THE BIG POND producers have developed pieces that resonate with audiences of all backgrounds on both sides of the big pond, conveying a balanced and modern image of Germany and the US. THE BIG POND isn’t a collection of puff pieces about Germany–it’s a well-researched narrative of German and American life and culture. Close cooperation with German and American journalists gives an authentic voice to Germany, the US, and their many subcultures while building up the transatlantic radio network.

Anyone interested in the series can download episodes free of charge for individual use or broadcasting at PRX, iTunes, Spotify, or by visiting THE BIG POND’s website. Check www.goethe.de/bigpond and the Goethe-Institut Washington’s social media channels for transcripts and behind-the-scenes content.

For the project’s press release and other press materials, please visit:

www.goethe.de/bigpond/press

Savannah Beck is the Online Editor at the Goethe-Institut Washington.

“Stay Free: The Story of the Clash” Narrated by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: A New Spotify Podcast

FYI: Spotify, in partnership with the BBC, has launched “Stay Free: The Story of the Clash," an eight-part podcast on the iconic punk band, narrated by Public Enemy front man, Chuck D. It might seem like an unexpected pairing. And yet Spotify explains: "Like The Clash, Public Enemy openly challenged the status quo in a completely original way—this parallel and Chuck D’s personal experiences bring a surprising new dimension to the story of The Clash." Reviewing the production in The New Yorker, Sarah Larson adds:

In [“Stay Free: The Story of the Clash"], we learn that Chuck D, a radio d.j. at the time, co-founded Public Enemy after a conversation, in 1986, with a friend at Def Jam, who wanted him to become “the hip-hop version of Joe Strummer,” of the Clash—to make music with “intellectual heft” that could also “rock the party.” And reader, he did. His presence as narrator adds appealing perspective and gravitas to the podcast, which begins with the story of the Clash’s origins, in a West London riot in 1976. With a skillfully layered presentation of punk music, seventies-London audio, and interview clips, the podcast so far thrills me the way that “Mogul,” the Spotify-Gimlet podcast about the late hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty, did; I’m eager to hear the rest.

Watch the podcast trailer above. Stream the podcast episodes--or at least the four released so far--on Spotify here. Also the related playlist of music. And remember folks, The Clash, they're still the only band that matters...

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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