Academia: It’s like Game of Thrones, except there’s no throne

I’m giving season 6 of Game of Thrones as pass because, frankly, I don’t enjoy watching people be cruel to each other the way I used to. And yet in a way I don’t have to watch season 6 because I’ve already lived. Or rather, I’ve already lived it because I’m an academic.

The things that make academia a metaphor of Game of Thrones are not unique to my profession. There’s nothing unusually terrible or uniquely tainted about academia that makes it worse than any other profession. But it does have certain formal traits — a small number of jobs, bonds that are both personal and yet professional, and high exit costs — that make it analogous to Game of Thrones. I imagine that you could find similar dynamics among professional plumbers of very serious cat fanciers.

What makes academia like Westeros is the way that a certain segment of the people doing it don’t do it just to do it, they do it to win. And winning, for them, seems to necessarily involve other people losing.

Some of us are professors. We’re essentially nobles, trying to keep order in our domain, keep people fed, keep the peace, and so forth. Some of us are minor bannerman at state schools, reluctant to take orders from our lord — at least until the North is attacked by the effete, sun-dappled armies of the Ivy League departments funded by House Lannister and its ridiculous postmodern anti-four field approach. Others are graduate students like Bronn or Jorah Mormont, desperate to make it into the big leagues.

But then there is always a certain segment of people — and they don’t come from any one institutional or theoretical school — who play the game just to win it, and are often unscrupulous about how they do it. Today’s fashion, tomorrow’s scandal — this is their meat and drink. Most professional anthropologists are interested in the state of the art of our discipline. But most of us just get to a point where the latest fad or craze just gets… yeah, it’s just not worth worrying about. But for some people the whole point is to be the person who worries more about this than everyone else.

It doesn’t stop when you get tenure. At the last AAA I was asked by someone ‘where I was applying this year’. My answer was: Apply for what? I already have a job! But for a certain segment of the professoriate the goal is to always be circulating, and for that circulation to always be upwards. Once — back when people remembered the truth about the White Walkers — anthropologists got jobs and built departments. Now they flit between them, and no one is willing to tithe in order to keep The Wall repaired for the common good.

The difference between anthropology and Game of Thrones is that in anthropology there isn’t actually a throne. There’s no way to know you’ve won. You never get to say ‘for today, at least, it’s me on the Iron Throne.” Instead you just get endless circulation and speculation.

But then again, does anyone ever win the Game of Thrones? Being ruler of the Seven Kingdoms just means you have to play to keep them. Perhaps the difference between Westerns and anthropology is that in anthropology, the ultimate futility of the game is all the more obvious.

Or perhaps I shouldn’t be so glum. It’s the game that turns Tyrion Lannister from fop to phronimos. It allows the Brienne of Tarths among us to rise above their station and defeat expectations. And, I mean, you know: THE COSTUMES. Let’s face it, no one gets into this business without loving the game. And I confess I’m a junkie.

This isn’t to condemn Game of Thrones, or academia, so much as it is an invitation to ask you to extend the metaphor and see where it takes you: Which academic experience of yours was the most like the Red Wedding? Which academic entrepreneur is the most like Margaery Tyrell? Will your job search end like Jon Snow’s? Let me know in the comments.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Academia: It’s like Game of Thrones, except there’s no throne

  1. Hi Alex, what hit home to me is your statement on high exit costs. It is too costly to quit (after close to a decade going through grad school) and bleak when i finish my degree (or begin the slugfest!). The seniors are too busy surviving writing grants and hardly any system of mentorship working!

  2. A recent faculty meeting reminded me of the Red Wedding and I’m pretty sure many of us are Margaery when we have to ask for money or resources from our Deans.

  3. Alex, for some academics there is an Iron Throne, and reaching it involves cunning little games of strategy, treachery, and politicking. They are unsatisfied with being Wardens of the North or Lord of Casterly Rock (Department Heads, Deans) and would rather be the King’s Hand (Provost) and eventually sit on the Iron Throne of their own little kingdom wherever in Westeros it might be.

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