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Introduction / Issue 17: Through the Looking Glass, and What We Found There: Ourselves

Published onMar 18, 2012
Introduction / Issue 17: Through the Looking Glass, and What We Found There: Ourselves

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angle would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. –Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940.1

In 2002, in a now well-documented rebranding effort, the cable television network American Movie Classics changed its name to AMC. From 1987, when the abbreviation “AMC” appeared, it was that, an abbreviation for something explicit, and a reference to what was on the screen, be it Gone with the Wind (1937), High Noon (1952), The Green Berets (1968) or The Untouchables (1987). If there was ever any doubt, the viewer was reminded that these were historical films of irrefutable value. As of 2002, AMC was no longer an acronym, but an empty signifier, a flat sign from which viewers either tied their experiences to ones they had in the nineteen-eighties and –nineties, or took the sleek new brand and made it what they wanted—perhaps, as the AMC tagline suggests, the place where “story happens.” As an icon, the network became a sort of Rorschach blot, absent of specific meaning (as in “American Movie Classics”). The show Med Men, broadcast on AMC since 2007, is as much an empty signifier, inkblot, or mirror as the network’s moniker. While it remains true to the mode of historical fiction and period dramas that originally aired on American Movie Classics, the plot is rarely neatly packaged, the meanings are often implicit or even obtuse, and driven by the viewers’ interpretations as much as the writers’ intentions.

As an epitome of postmodern television, Mad Men engages in narrative breaks, non-linear storytelling, open symbolism, and self-reflexivity. Such a model of memory-shifting and creative historical presentation is hard to relate to scripted television, seemingly conflicting with the standard model of television production as seen in sitcoms, occupational dramas and crime or detective series. It’s also a far cry from the agenda-bearing television of the postwar era—if Mad Men is promoting a particular politics or family model, it’s certainly not the promotion of the nuclear family. Yet, as an hour-long weekly drama, Mad Men has clear narrative structures, and a team of writers, directors, actors, and creative staff to produce a series, one with defined plot lines, season-long character arcs, a sequence and chronology, even if one of the trademarks of the show is its non-linear narrative gaps. Set in the world of postwar Manhattan advertising executives, Mad Men, ironically, airs on the cable network with the fewest commercials per hour.2  A self-reflexive show, creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner makes reference to the medium of television, and Mad Men’s viewers frequently see Don, Betty, Sally, and Bobby, Joan, Roger, and Jane, Pete and Trudy, watching television.  In the words of television scholar Horace Newcomb, “As it appears in the series, television is emblematic of and deeply embedded in the construction of the America created in the series.”3 What does it mean to watch television characters watch their worlds constructed via television? Referencing Marshall McLuhan, Weiner noted, the medium is the message.4

But more to the point, what does this mirroring experience suggest as we view television viewers as the medium for delivery changes? While Mad Men is filmed—yes, filmed—following period standards, its delivery mechanism—its medium—differs significantly from the cathode ray color televisions situated prominently in the characters’ living rooms. Today’s viewers increasingly view the series on flat screen tvs, or digitally on the even flatter screens of laptops, iPhones and iPads. The television image is reduced from gaseous tubes to motherboards and pixels, as flat as the AMC logo of line and type that opens each of the iTunes files. The differences in the media, and the implications of that for both the content and the meaning can be difficult to conceptualize, but flatness pervades the televisual in the twenty-first century to become an overarching aesthetic mechanism.

Fig. 1 Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum © 1995, Nam June Paik

Looking to a comparative artistic and interventionist example, in Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway, installed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in DC (fig. 1), the televisual or the moving image constructs national identity and individual memories. Outlined by commercial neon, televisions of varying sizes project images that Paik associates with each state—presidential candidate Michael Dukakis delivers a campaign address from Massachusetts; the Kentucky Derby runs almost continuously in its home state; the Atlanta Olympics, and the Olympic bomber, are interspersed with Civil Rights-era broadcasts in Georgia; popular films such as The Wizard of Oz and Oklahoma come to define Kansas and Oklahoma respectively. But, completed in 1995, Washington State does not project images of the 1993 Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, but of dancer Merce Cunningham, a native of the state. Together, the state identifications and personal memories encompass a technological nation of images, its size and disparate content one work of art. A massive installation, the full work can only be viewed by stepping outside the alcove in which it is installed. Television defined not only the era in which Paik’s work came to the fore, but the 1990s, as Americans (or, I) sat to watch NBC’s “Must See TV.” The so-called appointment television era has, however, collapsed, with DVR, Tivo, and computing, none of which were relevant in Paik’s 1995 work. Though the artist died in 2006, one cannot help but reimagine the Electronic Superhighway of today, a single netbook or MacBook Air with fifty different windows open on the screen, the sounds and images coming out and across like a symphony on such a flat device. Rather than standing at fifteen to twenty feet from the art object—or sitting ten to fifteen feet away in the living room, today’s viewer is within hand’s reach of their media player, an intimate distance that brings one closer in its flatness, close enough to see ourselves in the mirror-like reflections of the screen. Our faces superimposed with Don, Betty, Peggy, and Joan’s.

As an aesthetic practice, such reduction and flatness is the series’ modus operandi from the first moments of the opening credits and of the viewing experience, to the scripting and acting. Mad Men’s opening credits have generally remained unchanged throughout the first four seasons, save for a few cast names. To the rhythmic tones of RDJ2’s “A Beautiful Mine,” a darkened silhouette tumbles from an office window, and cascades down a series of skyscrapers occupied not by people or even fellow silhouettes, but advertising images, as if the promotional images had not only controlled the American subconscious, but pushed further, taking over both mind and body. But rather than crash landing into a New York City sidewalk, the cut-out man tumbles instead, into a club chair that, also in silhouette, recalls Le Corbusier’s Le Petit Confort (1928), the historical source for all manner of club chairs that fill American living rooms and dens.

This flatness, layering, and illusions of depth carry over to the production itself. In “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” a pinnacle episode of the series’ third season, the illusion of Don Draper is revealed to his wife, Betty.5 After years of secrecy and collusion, Don Draper, portrayed by actor Jon Hamm, mistakenly leaves the key to his always-locked home desk drawer in his bathrobe pocket, and Betty, ever suspicious of her philandering husband, hears the key tumbling round and round in the clothes dryer, and eagerly tears into the desk, only to find that the entirety of her marriage is a lie: Don Draper, the handsome, debonair advertising executive, seemingly without roots, is the ultimate pitchman, disguising his true identity as Dick Whitman, the poverty-born son of a prostitute and farmer. As the war hero becomes the war defective, an impersonator is exposed as the hobo. Confronting Don upon his return from work, Betty sits in the dining room. Yet, through lighting and static camera positions, the once-lively kitchen is seemingly transformed from a family kitchen to a stage set, the television set to the flattened scenery of the stage. Flatness pervades, not only in the scenery, but Betty’s facial expression, her lack of movement, the intonation and affect of her voice. Betty’s flatness here, aside from Don’s, is a mechanism of furthering the emotional distance between she and Don, or a testament to the progressive distancing throughout the series. While such flatness can be used as a source of critique, as in Daniel Mendelsohn’s now-infamous critique in the New York Review of Books, it is the very mechanism of the show. It is the corporate mechanism, it is the advertisement, and it is the medium. Most importantly, when it is most successful, this flatness and its distancing effect function dialectically to bring us closer.

In mimicking print ads—or even pre-staging the show’s promotional advertising—in the production of the show, Mad Men echoes Weiner’s own assertion that advertising is a mirror,6 or Don’s definition of advertising as self-assurance, a therapist telling you, “it’s normal,” an affirmative look in the mirror before leaving the house.  In the very first episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don has an outburst toward Lee Garner, Sr., the owner of Lucky Brand cigarettes, after the executive and his son have rebuffed Don’s proposed campaign, and reveals the postmodern sensibilities that inform the show: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”7

Don’s words presage those of the postmodern architects and theorists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who head to Vegas in 1968.8 In 1961, Don Draper has viewers cruising down the Vegas strip (or New York skyscraper, as the credits have it), overwhelmed by signs that not only entice, but define our experiences by 1960, these billboard-sized mirrors, these flashes of ourselves rather than of fictional characters. Don Draper, the silhouetted cutout sitting in the club chair at the close of the opening credits, stares not only at the advertisements whirling past at 35 miles per hour, but settles in to watch life through a frame. Staring out the window as we sit before the television, Don Draper is a stand-in for ourselves.We are afforded the opportunity to learn from Ossining—itself a rebranded environment, no longer Sing Sing like its neighboring prison—if not from Levittown.9

Aesthetically, Mad Men’s world is the height of postwar modernism, but as a show tells us, Don Draper and his cohort are proto-postmodern, they encourage and embody self-projection and the power of style over substance. This is a self that is continually conflicted, self-constructed, and faltering beneath a veneer of a crisp, tailored suit and gelled hair. Is this not what people are seeking when they “Mad Men” themselves or don some of Banana Republic’s Mad Men-inspired clothing—to put out a perfectly coiffed self for public consumption or self assurance, as their daily lives remain complicated and ever the same? In our own backward glance as Mad Men viewers, we learn from the daily lives of archetypes of ourselves, through a history of the mundane, a point made by Monique Migglebrink in her article published in this issue.

While other historical dramas function to celebrate progress, Mad Men interrogates the cyclical nature of history. Bloggers and critics alike have noted, as we did in the initial call for papers, that the viewing audience often feels a sense of superiority over these characters. With a bit of self-righteousness, we scoff at the Draper family’s disregard for the environment as they toss the debris from their picnic blanket, leaving it on park grounds. When Betty Draper smokes during her pregnancy, or is induced into a hallucinatory state during the delivery of baby Gene, viewers experience a self-congratulatory modernity. Look how far we’ve come! Look at how much smarter/better/aware I am! Yet, these self-congratulatory moments are ones of cognitive dissonance—as the global financial future, environmental sustainability, and even human health remain in the balance. Where though we no longer have racial politics in the elevator, a racialized labor force remains an important aspect of the global economy, but more specifically of the American landscape. Weiner has never intended for the viewers to accept these comic moments with a great sense of progress, and we are never to believe a single character is on the right side of history. Despite what newscasters routinely project as history-making moments, we don’t know what moments, spectacular or mundane, will mark history, and from the biographical position, we don’t know what forms who we are in the moment, and we are not always on the “right side” of history. As Weiner has stated, “We don’t know what’s important in history.”10

And so the moments portrayed are both grand historical narratives and personal interactions.  They are the women’s, sexual, gay liberation, and civil rights movements, and conversations between Smitty, the openly gay creative opposite Sal Romano, the closeted art director at the fiction Sterling Cooper.  They are visible in the lives of characters who take birth control pills and join Freedom Riders. History is examined as a series of private revolutions in which women identify their sexualities through various vibrating objects, Bob Dylan permeates musical consciousness, and divorce becomes a norm. Cultural change in Mad Men is not identified in grand historical narratives—there isn’t a Civil War, as in Gone with the Wind, and the Korean War is a distant memory as the Cold War wages in the background and US military presence escalates in Vietnam with little attention. Instead, Mad Men’s rewriting of history is a writing of the present day. It’s an allegorical history, and one in which individuals and their personal actions, when tallied with others, create seismic shifts in the cultural landscape. The show’s focus on historical accuracy in dress, furnishings, and even magazines crafts a form in which viewers are able to engage with their own shortcomings. For American viewers, the storylines of Smitty and Sal are not so distant from the ongoing legislative fights surrounding gay marriage, the civil rights movement mirroring contemporary immigration and voting rights issues; birth control remains a hot-button issue and black youths remain subject to violence and even death without cause today.  The Vietnam War is, for today’s viewers, the memory of the Korean War, present but also distant, as troops move throughout the Middle East with comparatively little attention. As Mad Men brings us into a fictionalized sixties, critical viewers are introduced, through these empty signifiiers and through its flatness, to their own worlds, where they are increasingly aware of their own failures, and recognize that rather than disappearing or collapsing in the postmodern era, history and its specificities remain as relevant as ever.

The articles that follow highlight formal elements of Mad Men that address notions of nostalgia and the social power of the outmoded. Moreso, our authors identify the ways in which by watching Mad Men, we watch ourselves, our mistakes, and our successes. Aviva Dove-Viebahn’s essay, “Mourning Becomes the Mad Men: Notes on Nostalgia,” the first here, examines the way Mad Men addresses nostalgia through the relationship between Don and his protégé, Peggy Olson, of longing and disavowal. Don’s outlook is the “pain from an old wound” he identifies in the Season One finale, “The Carousel,” but for Peggy, those wounds are scarred over, ignored and disavowed in order to move forward. In our second article, Monique Miggelbrink considers the portrayal of history through manipulations of narrative time. Arguing that Mad Men crosses the genres of serial, series, and soap opera, she considers the role of personal or private histories, and the episodic lapses into character backstory and dreamspace. These narrative tools allows the show the show to reveal “the production of predominating products and images of the 1960s and negotiate them anew.” Lastly, Fiona Cox’s “So Much Woman” examines another seemingly retrograde aspect of Mad Men, and focuses on the personal or private histories of the characters, analyzing the working women of the show, Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson, portrayed by Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss, respectively. Of opposite ends of the same generation, Joan and Peggy serve as archetypes of postwar femininity, and it is through their relational dynamics that, for Cox, Mad Men functions as a critical—and feminist—show. Manipulating the serial nature, long-term viewers are able to observe power shifts between the two women, their coworkers, and bosses. For the modern-day viewer, whatever the format of his or her viewing, Joan and Peggy represent the conflicted vision of contemporary femininity as much as that of the nineteen-sixties.

As a complement to the articles and a nod to the self-reflexivity of Mad Men, we include an interview with Scott F. Stoddart, editor of one of the recently-published scholarly texts on Mad Men, Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2011). As we publish this edition, we rewrite (parts) of the history of Mad Men as did those before us. As viewers, we prepare for a new season of Mad Men, which will surely rewrite its history the way the third and fourth seasons shifted the trajectories of the characters, and the way the series rewrites the nineteen-sixties and the twenty-tens.

In the spirit of this continual writing and re-writing of history and of the show, we are also pleased to announce the launch of a new component of Invisible Culture, launching with this issue. To encourage active scholarship and broader engagement with our media—both the television and the web-based platform we have here—we will be blogging each week, providing scholarly sketches and analysis of the weeks’ episodes, revisiting the themes and concerns of this issue. Returning to Walter Benjamin, “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and never seen again […] For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”11


Erin Leary is currently completing her PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, where her dissertation focuses on women’s participation in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century’s nativist and eugenics movements in America prior to the vote. Previously, she completed an MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. She also serves as adjunct faculty in Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons, The New School for Design, and in American Fine and Decorative Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, where she teaches courses on decorative arts and design, gender and immigration studies, and visual culture.

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