As good as it gets: Mad Men and neoliberalism

It’s difficult to imagine the scale of the postwar abundance compared to previous eras. The US was not only able to completely tear out its old infrastructure and build new while also providing an unprecedented degree of material wealth and security to an ever-widening number of its citizens — it was also able to essentially build the next two largest economies (Germany and Japan) on the side. Whole new groups were included in the mainstream economy (blacks, women) as the welfare state expanded, to the point where even Nixon could propose the implementation of universal health care and a universal basic income. And then, within a few short years, all those possibilities were suddenly foreclosed as the transition from Fordism to neoliberalism began. What went wrong?

I wrote yesterday that Mad Men shows us how the elites of the 1960s managed to weather the most radical critiques of that era, but it is also beginning to tell us the story of how that generation failed to reproduce itself. Read the rest of this entry »

All This: Mad Men and the Persistence of the Old Regime

Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to childhood? Like pain from an old wound, we remember the joy of Christmas — the joy of getting stuff, without having to realize we were being bought off. We wish that it could be that way again. We wish our stuff could have meaning, that objects could mediate our social relationships once more. We want it so much that we’re all willing to pay a surcharge so that the company can hire very smart and conflicted people to lie to us about the consumer goods we’re purchasing, giving us a spoonful of ideological sugar to make the consumption go down.

That’s what’s hardest to deal with — that we want the ideology. We want to believe. We want “all this” to be what they say it is, what we tell ourselves it is. We should be happy, but failing that, we can at least manage to be grateful.

Who is “we,” though? Read the rest of this entry »

Living in the prequel

Over the last year, The Girlfriend and I invested a truly appalling amount of time in a full viewing of all the contemporary Star Trek series (Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise). Neither of us regard the JJ Abrams films as canon, and so for us, the Star Trek franchise effectively ended with a prequel — and since completing it, I’ve become strangely fascinated with the idea of living out a prequel. Partly this stems from my general habit of over-enthusiastically identifying patterns (an inheritance from my conspiracy theorist grandfather and right-wing radio fan father, presumably), and yet there is a sense that a certain phase of my life is ending over the next couple years: The Girlfriend will finish grad school, I will complete my biggest evaluation at Shimer, and I will hopefully be wrapping up major projects that have defined my life since I finished my PhD (finally doing the devil book, completing the pop culture trilogy with Creepiness, translating the last volume of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series). It’s somehow more aesthetically pleasing if this unit of time announces itself as a unit in superfluous, purely formal ways, echoing back to various beginnings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Heidegger and Mad Men

In the fifth chapter of Division Two of Being and Time, Heidegger addresses the question of Dasein’s historicity and how it relates to the academic discipline of history. He argues that authentic historical study must not content itself with a cataloguing of past factual events or even with an “aesthetic” appreciation of weird historical life-worlds long since past, but that it must somehow connect with the whole existential situation facing the once-but-no-longer Dasein of that era. In other words, it must somehow get at the possibilities that Dasein faced in past historical moments and the stakes of those possibilities for the people who, after all, had their one life to live in that historical world.

In class, I contrasted this with a “historical tourism,” which marvels at the weirdness of past eras’ customs without ever really getting “inside” them and understanding them as something with the people of the past could take seriously and stake their lives on. One might also think of the kind of “contextualizing” history that excuses past racism and sexism as simple facts of that historical era — “Of course Kant was a racist, everyone was back then!” As a counter-example, I put forward Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where we get a palpable sense of Nietzsche’s investment in the history he’s recounting, his genuine outrage that it didn’t turn out another way — and his hope that we might be able to “repeat” what was most promising in that historical moment today. More recently, one might think of Zizek’s reckoning with the October Revolution and Stalinism.

On a less philosophical level, however, I think Mad Men may be the best popular example of the kind of authentic history Heidegger is calling for. Read the rest of this entry »

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Repetition and Remembering – Thoughts on the Season Finale of Mad Men

1) The Bar Scene – During this scene, I really worried Don was going to have a conversion experience to Xianity. Instead, he punched the minister for offering him salvation and for damning JFK and MLK (although apparently Don was OK with Nixon). While Weiner draws our attention to another memory of Don’s life with the condemning minister, another idea came to mind. As Don is once again coping with his emptiness through alcohol, this minister attempts to offer him the ultimate escape: the fantasy of a redeemed past. Don rejects this illusion and beats the hell out of him. The past cannot be changed. Dangling the carrot of redemption in front of a broken man is torturous.

2) California – As usual, Don attempts to deal with conflicts and problems by wanting to run away. He hopes to escape the ennui of his existence and his frustration with his marriage and children. Given that he and Megan had good experiences in CA, Don believes he can magically save his marriage and himself through a change of scenery. Perhaps this represents Don’s attempt to reconnect with Dick Whitman who was only ever himself with Anna in CA. Of course, there is no holiday from one’s self. This becomes apparent in Don’s next major scene.

3) Hershey’s – After presenting his typical sentimental pitch to Hershey’s of an imagined childhood that he never experienced, Don begins to have a tremor in his hand. While everyone appeared satisfied with his presentation, Don cannot contain the repressed truth that is demanding to be spoken. He confesses his truth. He was an orphan raised in a whorehouse, neglected by his mother. He only obtained Hershey’s chocolate bars by stealing change from men who rented prostitutes. He then engaged in some ritual wherein he imagined (probably dissociated) having a life where he was wanted and loved. He fantasized about a life where things were sweet rather than bitter.

4) The Final Scene – Now that Don is being given an unspecified holiday, he decides to continue down the path of his own redemption. My friend reminded me earlier tonight that Sally had previously said that to Don, “I know nothing about you.” Don has decided to finally open up to his children about his past. He came from poverty and the “bad side of town”.

Analysis: In these movements of the episode, we see that Don is continuing to confront themes of redemption. In the first scene, Don violently rejects the myth of the redeemed past. He knows this is cheap. As is typical, Don imagines that he can only be saved by fleeing to CA and hiding. This reminded me of Freud’s (1914) beautiful paper “Recollection, Repetition, and Working Through” in which he argues that repetition is a defense against remembering (past traumas). Don’s entire life has been a series of repetitions of the same scenarios: impress, seduce, self-destruct and hide. CA would be another way to repeat the cycle. However, it would simply represent another attempt to avoid remembering, recollecting, and integrating the past traumas. Don’s salvation will only come through remembering and being honest about the horrors and suffering of his childhood. Moreover, Don will only receive grace by coming to terms with his own sins and confessing them to the people he loves, especially his children. No God can save him, however. Only through recollecting and mourning the difficulties of his past can he hope to live a life full of integrity, wholeness and honesty. This final scene represents the first steps of Don trying to be honest. Perhaps he will not survive this exploration of the past (many trauma survivors suicide during this painful phase). The number of repressed memories that resurfaced this season indicates that his unconscious demands to have a voice. The return of the repressed must be dealt with and alcohol cannot silence the truth of his history. Can Don survive the final season?

The abyss of freedom: On the recently-concluded season of Mad Men

This season of Mad Men was not much fun. Not that they ever really are — but this season was sad in a different way, a more anxiety-provoking way. We’re all sick of Don Draper by this point, sick to death of his compulsions, his past, his alternation between a fake detachment and a deep-seated panic that every once in a while issues in a bizarre hail Mary maneuver.

I’ve rewatched most of the series in the last month or so, and I can verify that Don has always basically been like this. When his identity was threatened in season 1, for example, he panicked and proposed running away to California, even before we knew what that meant. He’s always been cold and cruel, and he’s always “bought his own pitch” about childhood nostalgia. In short, he’s always been a man on the verge of falling apart. What made him fall apart so definitively this season, then?

The secret to his past success, such as it was, had been compartmentalization. Read the rest of this entry »

“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Read the rest of this entry »

Don Draper the Jew

One of the dominant themes of the first season of Mad Men is Jewishness. In the very first episode, Sterling Cooper is courting the Jewish department store Menken’s, which is trying to convert to a more mainstream luxury format under the leadership of the owner’s daughter, Rachel Menken. When they seek out a Jewish employee to attend the initial meeting, Don joins in with the casual anti-Semitism of the era, declaring that they haven’t hired any Jews “under his watch.” But as the season goes on, the Jewish motifs continue — they try (and ultimately fail) to get the Israeli tourism account, Don takes up with Rachel (at one point using the Israeli tourism connection as a pretext to meet with her), and there are also little touches (such as the delicatessen served to the Lucky Strike representatives who are nervous after Roger’s heart attack, an interesting counterpoint to the shrimp cocktail served at the original Menken’s pitch).

On one level, this is a misdirection. The audience knows Don has a secret, and the writers are luring us into the trap of assuming that Don is a secret Jew — when in reality he is just a poor Southern boy, the orphaned son of a prostitute. But one of the key techniques of Mad Men is to “sublate” apparent misdirections into deeper truths. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Mad Men backlash

Fair enough: Mad Men has been on for a long time, and there was bound to be a backlash at some point. What’s interesting to me, though, is the form the backlash has taken. Over and over, people are saying: okay, we get it. The symbolism is heavy-handed. Parallel plots are too elaborately coordinated. Everything is becoming too simplistic. A recent manifestation of the backlash in the New Yorker has claimed that Don Draper is less a character than a “thesis statement.”

In other words, the show is being castigated for remaining true to its original vision and for continuing to explore the same themes it’s always focused on. And again, fair enough: people are allowed to get tired of things. Yet it seems to me that there’s always an underlying demand, an unspoken grievance motivating these complaints. “Yes, yes, we get it, we realize that Don Draper is a terrible fraud, a pure surface whose success is an indictment of the system he operates in — so can you please get back to plotlines that allow us to view him as a charismatic character with real depth?” “Yes, yes, we understand, the system is rigged so that do-nothing old white dudes continue to triumph over more talented young people and particularly women — so now that we’ve acknowledged that, can you give us a fantasy portrayal where Peggy is totally put in charage and succeeds brilliantly?” “Okay, God, we hear you, we know that the advertising milieu is so toxic that even an apparently innocent character is ultimately pulled into the self-centered scheming — but why did you have make Megan seem to be more or less a naturally good person at first and deprive us of the fantasy that everyone is always-already a backstabbing social climber?”

As Gerry Canavan said on Twitter yesterday, Mad Men, like other “high quality” shows, succeeds because its audience doesn’t understand it. They tune in for the suave Don Draper, and they resent being deprived of that fantasy — even though the entire work of the show has always, from day one, been to deprive us of that fantasy. They tune in looking for a soap opera filled with sexy people and elaborate sets (and “fan service” such as more screen time for Peggy or the triumphant return of Sal), and they resent that the show has a moral critique of the milieu it’s documenting. If you really “got it,” you’d either stop watching — or start watching the show differently. As it stands, the backlash seems to be driven by the fact that the show’s viewers simply don’t want to “get it.” And the fact of that paradoxical combination of addiction and resistence makes me wonder if Mad Men will turn out to be the most interesting and artistically successful example of the early 2000s “high quality cable drama” genre.

Early thoughts on rewatching the last season of Mad Men

I’ve only gotten a few episodes into my rewatching of last year’s season of Mad Men, but things are already coming across different to me. I’m even beginning to suspect that some of the things that made it frustrating to watch going forward — the excessive attention to Megan at the expense of Peggy, the pat “thematic” nature of each episode — were features rather than bugs.

One of the overarching themes is that generational transfer is not a clean and simple thing. Read the rest of this entry »

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