Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mad Men

I started watching Mad Men. It's a delightful and entertaining show and very well written. It's inspired me to start drinking Old Fashioneds and to wear pocket squares. It's not inspiring me to smoke. Nothing has inspired me to smoke since I quit four and a half years ago.

It's also one of the most interesting shows I've ever watched. It depicts an America arguably at the zenith of its power. The show starts at the end of the early 60s recession when the country was about to move into a period of unprecedented economic growth (which would only be surpassed by that in the 90s). The American middle class was stronger than it has been since, due to (not despite) strong unions and high taxes. Median household income was growing faster than at any other time in history before or since then.

Ideologically things were simpler. There were enemies within and without. Yet this was before the country was shaken by the assassination of the President, and it was before the oppressed and the marginalized rose up and rightfully demanded a fair share in the prosperity enjoyed by white, male America. It was a less self-conscious, more self-assured nation. Or so it seems.

It takes place in a time before the critique of consumerism was widespread. We take consumerism so much for granted now that it's hard to recognize that it represented a revolution in the way capitalism operated. Before the 1950s, capitalism was mostly production-focused. The good factory or company was the one that operated the most efficiently. The Ford factory was the paradigm of this efficiency, though it only produced the Model T in one color. Things like marketing and advertising were almost an after-thought, a way to make sure the thing gets bought and used.

All this changes in the 50s, and there's a big shift. Companies like Proctor & Gamble move from a "production orientation" to a "marketing orientation". Marketing and advertising are no longer an after-thought to production. Connecting with the consumer becomes the goal of production, not merely a way of getting rid of product, and doing so creates astronomical profits. The focus is no longer production. Production matters insofar as it contributes to consumer satisfaction.

Nothing like it had ever been done before, and society arguably became wealthier, in both the broad and the narrow sense, because of it. It led to tremendous economic prosperity. It set the United States on a path which was arguably different (finally) from the Soviet Union, leading to Khruschev threatening to "bury" us—in consumer goods (it never happened, because central planning is comparatively bad at consumer-focused production).

Commodities became more than a mere means to surviving. High wages and rapidly growing income created the economic space for a more leisurely existence in which only one "bread winner" per family was necessary, and in which children could stay in school and enjoy their youth beyond the age of 10 or 11 (when they would usually have to work on the farm). Consumer products filled this space of leisure, giving Americans more ways to discriminate and explore their tastes and subjectivities. There were suddenly more kinds of cars to drive, more kinds of music to listen to, more ways to define oneself and be in the world.

This is the world Mad Men takes place in. And it doesn't take place just anywhere in that world. The show is about ad men. They're the magicians at the center of this entirely new form of capitalism. It's remarkable, because it's probably the first time in all of human history that artistic creativity came to the center of the production process. Artistic creation and aesthetic appraisal are no longer on the side-lines of economic life. They're now the life's blood of it, the center from which it emanates and returns.

I know, Adorno would puke. But I think it's true. And I don't think you can understand the course American history took in the second half of the 20th century unless you also understand why this move toward a consumer-based approach really was a revolution and why it had to happen. It really was a new thing, and it was a better thing.

It's not just "false consciousness" or a colonization of the human psyche by the "culture industry". And I think this comes across beautifully in the show. I've only watched the first two seasons, but one of my favorite parts so far is the presentation Don Draper gives on the Kodak Carousel. The product is initially called the "wheel", and Draper's team initially tries to do some word play on "reinventing the wheel". He eventually comes up with this.

There are a lot of things to love about this scene. The otherwise inscrutable Don Draper's deep love for his family finally surfaces. There's a direct appeal to this desire that most human beings have to be able to return to the beginning, to do things right, to really be there, to have a chance to say "I love you." But what's really twisted about this—at least from our perspective—is that it's done through a commercial! We've all seen and laughed at a hundred stupid coffee or long-distance commercials that try the same trick. But what's brilliant about the carousel scene is that you're able to see that move with fresh eyes.

And I would argue that it's not a trick. You're not being fooled into believing that your identity and self-understanding are tied up with a product. That link really exists. It didn't always exist, but capitalism created it.

And it's not entirely a bad thing. The movement toward machine production in the 18th and 19th centuries allowed women (and children) to move on to the shop floor. As you can see in the show, the movement toward the market orientation brought women and youth in the boardroom. Why? Because their unique perspectives became a sine qua non of moving the product and making a profit. In order to sell, you need to know who you're selling to. In order to know who you're selling to, you need to solicit their perspective, their particular subjectivity. Voices that were initially marginalized began to play a larger role in the mainstream of society. I think it's no accident that the zenith of the marketing and advertising revolution in capitalism coincides with the start of the period of social unrest. This is frequently adumbrated in the show.


Gretchen said...

I've watched all 4 seasons of Mad Men, and it continues to impress me with the sort of historical commentary which allows us to reflect on which things have changed in the last 50 year, and which things are still very much the same.

At first, the open sexism and racism, not to mention the smoking and drinking in the workplace, come across as very dated, but often it's just the expressions used that are different, and many of the underlying beliefs are still in force.

Someone on my reading list said that it was one of the few tv shows that looks at the world from a sociological perspective, rather than focusing on character psychology, and I think that's exactly why it's so interesting.

der Augenblick said...

I think it's very character-driven, though I'm also impressed by the attention to historical detail.