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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

I Don’t Care What The Critics Say, I Love Mad Men (and the Sopranos and the Hills)

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/16/10 at 03:29 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

I’ve just finished Scott Kaufman’s very enjoyable post, “Don Draper as an unraptured Emma Bovary,” and feel moved to respond.

Scott observes, quite insightfully, that the difference between Don Draper and other, younger characters on the show, including Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson, is that Draper is stuck in a single historical moment, that of Advertising’s Golden Age. Even as history takes place around him, ushering in a new age of research-driven ads and social upheaval, Don remains a rock. For Scott, this turns Draper into something of a fiction. Other character show a realistic tendency to move with the zeitgeist, making him less real, and in fact it is his unreality that allows us to forgive his misdeeds—unlike the sins of Pete Campbell, which we “revile” because they are all too familiar, Draper’s lapses seem to take place in an aesthetic otherworld where all is permitted. There are no sins inside the gates of Eden.

Scott has done a beautiful job pinpointing Don’s relation to “history,” as the show understands it; he has also used Draper as a convenient poster boy for a set of attitudes about aesthetic self-fashioning with which I must take issue. Pete Campbell is not more “real” than Don; on the contrary, he is far less real to us, as I will show with a little help from Entourage, The Sopranos and The Hills.

First of all, we cannot discount the role of aesthetics in our (potentially) differing attitudes toward Don and Pete. Pete utterly fails to live up to Don’s standard. He is less handsome than Don. His voice is squeaky and high. He is clumsy around women, and often gives the impression that he cannot anticipate what they are going to do. Furthermore, his wife is less pretty than Betty, but is much more impressive as a personality, with a strong sense of what she wants and of what her husband deserves. We revile Pete not because we are reminded too much of ourselves, but because he lacks backbone, polish, and verve. He also undervalues his partner. Scott implies that we have different moral standards for televised life and real life, but in my experience this is neither true, nor—were it true—would it be desirable. As it happens, lots of people (Flaubert included) judge Madame Bovary quite harshly for wrecking her life, just as there will always be people who think The Sorrows of Young Werther is about a selfish, idle young man. But more to the point, it is quite common in real life to let other people “get away” with attitudes or behaviors that we eschew, and that we (rather confusingly) also consider unethical. That is because, sadly, our sense of the “ethical” often functions partly as a justification for the dead spaces, aesthetic failures, and unresolved dreariness that infiltrate our lives.

The best argument for the reality of Don Draper is also the most transparent one: he is the most important person on the show, the absolute focus of the audience’s attention. Without Don Draper, Mad Men wouldn’t have lasted half a season. Scott believes that his stubborn recourse to an increasingly outdated subject-position makes him unreal, but I would counter that his stubbornness is, in fact, peculiarly modern. Modernity, after all, enwraps him whether he will or no: the final episode of Season 2 is entitled “Meditations in an Emergency,” a title taken from a collection of Frank O’Hara poems. In other words, Draper is already inside the O’Hara poem even though the beatnik at the bar tells Draper he probably wouldn’t enjoy O’Hara’s work. Draper’s personality is a careful fabrication, as we know from the painstaking backstory, and that is why we might meet him tomorrow on the streets of an American city, whereas meeting Peggy Olson or Pete Campbell would be a shock. We are all Don Draper, or whatever alternative to Don Draper we have fabricated instead. Meanwhile, the historical events that are determining the minor characters have now either faded into the background, or disappeared; for Peggy Olson, moving from a secretarial job onto the creative team foreshadows 60s feminism, whereas in a contemporary show like Entourage all the secretaries (male and female) in Ari Gold’s office are hoping to become agents, a fact with zero larger significance. The reason Draper dislikes free love is not because it’s ahead of his time; he dislikes it because it destabilizes the kind of structures that support an easily readable identity, such as marriage and fatherhood.

In other words, it’s not just that, by definition, Pete Campbell the fictional character cannot be inherently “realer” than Don Draper the fictional character. It’s also that Matthew Weiner cut his teeth working on The Sopranos, and Tony Soprano is a realistic character precisely because of all of his anachronisms. Draper is a symbol of what we want now. He stands for our conservatism, our hedonism, and our cynicism. On Season 5 of The Hills, the engagement between Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt becomes certain after Pratt meets Heidi’s father, who she describes as “a real cowboy.” When Bill Montag arrives, he has a Sam Elliott moustache, a cowboy hat, and (apparently) a shotgun in his car. Multiple people refer to the shotgun, Bill included, even though it will obviously never be fired and is practically a fashion accessory. Spencer and Bill get along famously, erasing the memory of Spencer’s disastrous interactions with Heidi’s fundamentalist Christian other family and friends, who he calls “aliens from another planet.” When Spencer talks about getting into a bar fight to conceal an adulterous flirtation, Bill immediately mythologizes that as something “you do to protect your family” according to the rules of “the Wild West.”

Who are the “real” people here, the ones living within historical time? The young fundamentalist Christians from Colorado, talking about St. Paul’s injunctions against “fornification”? Spencer and Heidi, referencing the Sopranos, drinking Patron Platinum, and starring on an MTV reality show? Bill with his signifying shotgun? Spencer and Bill are sitting in a diner in Los Angeles, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, when Bill launches into the ethos of the West. Spencer tells him the Wild West sounds perfect. He adds: I’d like to live there some day.


Comments

I’ve never understood why people take such an anachronistic approach to character (and scenery and props): the old mingles with the new all the time, everywhere. Have you ever seen a parking lot in which all the cars were new? No: there’s older ones, out of date and out of fashion, always mixed in. Same with people: some do “move with the zeitgeist” but most don’t, trapped in their adult patterns (or adolescent ones, depending on their development and the issue). Perhaps I’m more aware of it in academia, where the tenure system blends generations of scholars together rather than allowing a smooth transition from one age to another.

This is why “the sixties” is such a misnomer, as all decadal notations are. There are people there who are precursors to the 70s, people who still live like the 50s never ended, folks who came of age in the 40s and miss the social character (if not the rationing, etc.), etc., etc.

By Ahistoricality on 01/16/10 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t want to be a dick, but can we all remember that characters aren’t real?  They don’t live or breathe or think or love or die.  They are conglomerates of words.  So I don’t know what it means for a character to be more or less real than other characters.

By on 01/16/10 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott has done a beautiful job pinpointing Don’s relation to “history,” as the show understands it; he has also used Draper as a convenient poster boy for a set of attitudes about aesthetic self-fashioning with which I must take issue.

The technical term is, I believe, “stepping all up in your dissertation.”

We revile Pete not because we are reminded too much of ourselves, but because he lacks backbone, polish, and verve.

Draper lacks two of those three qualities—he’s obviously quite polished—and yet the fetishization of all things Draper indicates that the audience doesn’t hold this against him.  The reason isn’t because he’s the protagonist, as you suggest, but because of the kind of protagonist he is. 

Scott believes that his stubborn recourse to an increasingly outdated subject-position makes him unreal, but I would counter that his stubbornness is, in fact, peculiarly modern.

Not as represented on the show, it isn’t, otherwise the majority of the characters would be (or be becoming) more like Draper.  They aren’t.  Their individual narratives are, in fact, pulling them away from the kind of cipherdom Draper embodies.  In terms of raw numbers, then, I don’t think you can argue that Draper is more representative of modernity than the entire rest of the cast.

Draper’s personality is a careful fabrication, as we know from the painstaking backstory, and that is why we might meet him tomorrow on the streets of an American city, whereas meeting Peggy Olson or Pete Campbell would be a shock.

You place unwarranted weight on the word “shock” here, because of course we would be shocked if we bumped into a representative type of a bygone era; however, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t recognize them as a type, and be able to communicate as much to others in short sentences like, “I bumped into a real Huey P. Newton on the street today.” Moreover, the central reason we wouldn’t be shocked to bump into a Don Draper on the street is because he’s a minor hipster phenomenon.

We are all Don Draper, or whatever alternative to Don Draper we have fabricated instead.

I didn’t mean to suggest that Draper was alone in self-fashioning, only that his is figured on the show as being far more extreme—and, by extension, more extreme than the mundane self-fashioning we all do on a daily basis.  It is significant, though, that a subculture is devoted to fashioning itself in the Draper mode, if only because that reveals the disconnect from the concrete self-fashioning of the character and its results: people aren’t pretending to be the orphaned children of prostitutes who took the name of a dead soldier, they’re becoming dour, caustic drunks who dress snappy.

In other words, it’s not just that, by definition, Pete Campbell the fictional character cannot be inherently “realer” than Don Draper the fictional character.

Absolutely: I wasn’t making larger claims about fictional status, but within the purview of the show, and with regard to how it treats the types it represents, I think there’s an argument to be made that Campbell is inherently more real than Draper.  Obviously, I ought to finish watching the third season before becoming too invested in my argument, but as it stands, there seems to be a striking difference between the way Draper inhabits the represented historical moment and the way everyone else (except Joan) does.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/16/10 at 08:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve never understood why people take such an anachronistic approach to character (and scenery and props)

At least in fiction, this approach makes sense: the construct of a decade is, as you note, fictional, so when a writer wants to reference a period, he or she typically does so through the fictional construct available to them.  That said, Matt Weiner and his crew have taken this to an extreme, e.g. not only do they limit their use of seasonal fruit to what would have been available in New York in 1962, they shun the roided fruit of our present moment in favor of the more modest output that would’ve been typical then.

I don’t want to be a dick, but can we all remember that characters aren’t real?

As I hope my response to Joe made clear, I’m not claiming that any particular literary character is more real than any other, only that certain ones are figured as such within the fictions they inhabit.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/16/10 at 08:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

can we all remember that characters aren’t real?  They don’t live or breathe or think or love or die. ...  So I don’t know what it means for a character to be more or less real than other characters.

“Heidi” and “Spencer”, as far as I can tell, don’t do any of those important things either. Once this is percieved in all its horror, the kids on Facebook then begin to seem questionable. And ...

The question facing the present moment of society is not so much the reality of fictional characters but the substantiality of allegedly real contemporaries. I see much of the energy behind the former question as sublimated panic over the unacknowledged latter.

By on 01/18/10 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just taken a stab at responding to Scott’s post on my own blog, but my basic sense is that many of the other characters _are_ becoming more like Don while Don is becoming more like them.  I would even say that Don is becoming less “likable” while Pete, Joan, and Betsy are getting much more likable. 

But the difference between Don and the rest, at least in the beginning, isn’t exactly that his character rejects the changing historical moment but rather that he was characterless.  He’s only gradually been developing into a character over the course of the series.  Still, I don’t think he’s nearly as inscrutable now as he once was. 

At the same time, Pete, Joan, and Betsy, who were such stock characters to begin with, have each suffered some sort of alienating trauma that now prevents them from identifying as a certain type.

It’s probably the experience of alienation that strikes me as modern about all of them.

By CT on 01/18/10 at 04:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott:

Draper lacks two of those three qualities—he’s obviously quite polished—and yet the fetishization of all things Draper indicates that the audience doesn’t hold this against him.

He definitely has backbone; while it’s true that he makes concessions to his clients and family, he rarely does so except out of reasonableness, or else because of his Great Secret.

You think he lacks verve? “Excitement of imagination such as animates a poet, artist, or musician, in composing or performing”?

***

Not as represented on the show, it isn’t, otherwise the majority of the characters would be (or be becoming) more like Draper.  They aren’t.  Their individual narratives are, in fact, pulling them away from the kind of cipherdom Draper embodies.  In terms of raw numbers, then, I don’t think you can argue that Draper is more representative of modernity than the entire rest of the cast.

Yet I can, for two reasons. First of all, most of the male characters would like to be Don Draper; it makes perfect sense to them that he should be placed higher than they. (When it doesn’t, as with Pete Campbell, we wince at his arrogance.)

Second, quite a few decades separate us from these characters. Many of the minor characters are there to embody conflicts that carbon-date them pretty exactly—not only “Peggy Olson and the Mystery of the Glass Ceiling,” but the subplots involving the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, and so on. Draper is miles beyond them, but not because he’s Don Draper. He’s the most avant-garde character because he’s Dick Whitman pretending to be Don Draper.

Moreover, the central reason we wouldn’t be shocked to bump into a Don Draper on the street is because he’s a minor hipster phenomenon...It is significant, though, that a subculture is devoted to fashioning itself in the Draper mode, if only because that reveals the disconnect from the concrete self-fashioning of the character and its results: people aren’t pretending to be the orphaned children of prostitutes who took the name of a dead soldier, they’re becoming dour, caustic drunks who dress snappy.

Well, right. What would be the point of being Dick Whitman? That person barely even exists, and he’s not glamorous at all. See, I think here you’re trying to use Don’s childhood traumas to authorize his later acts of self-invention, when in fact the act does not need to be justified on any grounds other than aesthetic ones. Even if Don came from a nice home and a good family, he would still be within his rights to become Don Draper, and his invented persona wouldn’t necessarily be less convincing or true. Calling him a dour, caustic drunk makes him sound pitiable, but we don’t pity him (except at the show’s most sentimental moments). We envy him. Sure, we might feel bad for him when he tells his mistress that he feels nothing inside, but there’s a lot of evidence that Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed didn’t feel much inside, either, at least not in the officially approved ways.

It is true that acorns with advantages and a reasonably OK family life tend not to far fall from the oak, which makes them different from Don. Nonetheless, there is nothing inherently truer about those personalities. They are still artworks, albeit unconscious and perhaps less consistent ones.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/19/10 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

there’s a lot of evidence that ... [self-expressive icons] ... didn’t feel much inside, either, at least not in the officially approved ways.

That last bit is extremely interesting.

personalities. .. are still artworks,

Failure to recognize this openly leads among other things to the regrettable interest in artist’s biographies, as a kind of substitute.

By on 01/19/10 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Big diff between The Sopranos and Mad Men, though they share some of the same writers.  I gave the advertizing smoking boorish gropers plenty of chances, but eventually came away with almost all style and no substance.  The gangsters, on the other hand, did almost no wrong.

By on 01/24/10 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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