Critical Inequalities: Closing Roundtable
Jenn Baldwin

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


[On May 9-10, 2014 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held the conference “Critical Inequalities.” Below are the remarks by closing roundtable participant Jenn Baldwin (Medicine/Anthropology).]

Written by Jenn Baldwin (Medicine/Anthropology)

Over the last two months, through the faculty/graduate seminar organized by the Unit for Criticism, we have engaged with the subject of this conference through a range of different disciplines, theoretical frameworks, and the impressive scholarship of many of our conference participants about the real world contexts they each study. And in reflecting on the scholarship and discussion from the last two days, I want to revisit the two terms that brought us all together: Critical Inequalities.

To many of us in the audience the term “critical” refers to a theoretical mode of engagement, a critique. Critique engages us in the necessary task of cultivating theoretical models and analytics that allow us to move back and forth between particular contexts and wider shared experiences, between the micro and macro manifestations of historical and global processes. But the term “critical” also references an analysis of the role of power in shaping social formations and experiences.

For example, critical medical anthropology, my own discipline, seeks to evaluate the body as a political site, with material and symbolic qualities that are produced through and made the subject of power relations. Well-recognized scholarship includes Paul Farmer’s work and interventions in medicine that demonstrate how social inequalities powerfully sculpt the distribution of infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis as well as health outcomes among the infected. As Farmer notes, “in a very real way, inequality itself constitutes [a] modern plague” and a “pathogenic force.” At the conference in May, Didier Fassin’s harrowing statistics told a comparable story regarding the disparate rates of chronic conditions and life expectancies experienced by individuals who occupy different racial and class positions.

Fassin’s work on biolegitimacy also makes an important intervention into the Foucauldian concept of biopower. He argues that Foucault’s biopower addresses the governmentality of life itself which is defined as le vivant, or life-as-biology following the work of Georges Canguilhem. Instead, Fassin wishes for us to analyze life as such which he defines as life that is lived (le vécu--biographical, and embedded in political choices and moral economies. Fassin argues that to talk about biolegitimacy rather than biopower is to emphasize the stakes of the game rather than the rules. Discussing biolegitimacy in his keynote address, Fassin revealed the inherent contradictions between rhetoric upholding the equality of all men and the disparate meanings, values, and treatment assigned to particular lives.

In the world of medicine, the term “critical” also references a particular bodily state. Being in a “critical condition” denotes a vulnerable status of severity, acuity, and precarity. To the medical profession, it indexes a dangerous deviation from a state of balance in which the body is no longer able to flexibly regulate and adjust to changes in its internal and external environment. It is a deviation from a state conducive with living and the future. It warns that the individual’s prognosis is not favorable to and potentially incompatible with life.

In identifying these alternative meanings of “critical,” I am restating what we already know: when we talk about “critical” inequalities, we are often talking about relationships of power that render individuals and communities vulnerable--sometimes to the point of physical or social death. On an abstract level, inequalities are the products of large-scale social forces that have disparate effects on unequally positioned individuals. The work we addressed during the Critical Inequalities conference and seminar all points to the concrete and devastating effects of such inequalities. Specific examples from the presentations and scholarship discussed includes:

* Margaret Somers’ haunting images of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, along with her analysis of the increased risk, insecurities, and burdens that are borne by the poor and increasingly the middle class as a result of market fundamentalist policies that recode as deregulation those regulative policies that redistribute wealth to the rich.

* Jeremy Varon’s presentation which recalls the social vulnerability that inspired the anger of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the wake of the recent financial crisis and its accompanying soaring rates of unemployment and housing foreclosures.

* Patricia Williams’s writing on Trayvon Martin’s death and the struggle for justice within the courts, as well as her keynote address on the re-biologization of racism (thanks in part to a new book by the science editor of the New York Times), as well as the ongoing deployment of racial stereotypes in the media, by corporations, and society-at-large. Her scholarship vividly captured how these factors framed Martin's death, as well as the changing metrics for assigning value to (or we might say, devaluing) human life within increasingly neoliberal, privatized, and corporate moral economies.

* Rob Nixon’s published work on the protracted, slow deaths among this and future generations as a result of environmental degradation and climate change which provided yet another example of how inequality works to exacerbate environmental risk. Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan’s juridical and ethnographic analyses also revealed how environmental destruction poses a threat to social rights and collective identity.

My own work on US veterans returning home with war traumas suggests yet another set of asymmetrical effects: examples include the targeted recruitment of the urban and rural poor into our professional military, the epidemic of veteran suicides and homelessness resulting from these recent wars, and even a soldier’s predisposing risk for developing PTSD when he or she has had earlier exposures to trauma and violence including childhoods marked by poverty, domestic abuse, and other forms of overt and structural violence. Looking through the glass darkly also reveals the hidden companions to these veterans’ politically acknowledged traumas and injuries. It reveals the significant burdens of psychological trauma, physical injuries, and deaths of both private contractors and Iraqi civilians that are little recognized in our society.

In all of these ways, our engagement of this topic showed again and again that the task of critically countering the mechanisms and effects of inequality of various kinds requires a diverse disciplinary tool kit and multiple methodologies. Likewise, many of the talks demonstrated the importance of evaluating inequality at different scales: whether from the precious individual to the statistical population Fassin surveyed, from the local community and village courts to the national juridical arena assessed in Sivaramakrishnan’s work, or from national policies to their linkage with international trends as Siobhan Somerville analyzed.

Somers’ and Williams’ scholarship asks us to consider how ideologies that naturalize or biologize the status quo justify prejudicial treatment and the state’s lack of obligation to serve particular groups equally.

Mary Romero and Somerville highlight the need to compare—perhaps even to queer—our analyses of how the rights and citizenship of particular populations are framed. As their scholarship individually and collectively suggests, such analyses allow us to elucidate how the use or expansion of certain categories can result in the contraction of rights and possibilities for some groups, while also shoring up normative, or otherwise exclusionary ideologies and policies.

I would like to end with some questions that emerged in reflecting on the last two days: How do we or should we represent inequality? What are the necessary aesthetics of representation? What are the cognitive, affective, and political tasks that these representations should accomplish? Do some mediations or modes of representation harm rather than help, and how so?

Fassin contrasted the image of a “precious brown haired girl” with statistical renderings that alienate the personal and lived realities from the quantitative representation of inequality. Somers presented us with three slides regarding representation. The first one stated “this is what inequality looks like” and revealed a messy, complicated graph of statistical trends. The second slide announced “this is what inequality sounds like” and cited the sickening statistic that the top 1% of Americans captured 95% of the income gains in the first two years of the economic recovery. The third slide concluded with “this is what exclusion looks like” as a caption to an image of a victim of Hurricane Katrina, dead from flood waters she was unable to escape. Angelique Haugerud’s work offers an analysis of the aesthetics of satire and its use in social and political activism as performed in the Billionaires for Bush movement. Additionally, Sivaramakrishnan’s work offers another way of thinking about representation that suggests a more celebratory and optimistic modality through his documentation of the political and legal gains being made by those whose cultural identity and heritage is under threat by environmental degradation.

Yet, in reflecting on how to represent inequality, I am also reminded of Arthur and Joan Kleinman’s concern over the effects of the commodification of images of suffering and inequality via their global circulation and consumption. The Kleinmans warn that many of the mediations of inequality and suffering that populate nightly news stories and humanitarian campaigns risk alienating the consumers of these images (largely located in the global north) from their own complicity in the production and maintenance of inequality. Further, they warn against the tendency of representations of inequality and suffering to mask local agency and obfuscate from view the significant and necessary efforts made by local communities to intervene on behalf of their own members.

While I can posit no answers to the questions I raised, it is clear from both the Kleinmans’ cautionary remarks and the exemplary scholarship of our participants in this conference that much work lies ahead which will require both our heads and our hearts as we commit ourselves to understanding and representing critical inequalities, their causal mechanisms, and the solutions necessary for their extinction.

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Author’s Roundtable: Vivek Chibber, "Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital"
Response by Utathya Chattopadhyaya

Thursday, June 26, 2014

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory held an Author’s Roundtable hosting Vivek Chibber (NYU) to discuss his new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013), with responses by Hina Nazar  (English), Anustup Basu (English/Media & Cinema Studies) and Utathya Chattopadhyaya (History). The responses from Nazar  and Basu were published earlier; the response from Utathya Chattopadhyaya is below.]


“Time to move on? A response to Vivek Chibber”
Written by Utathya Chattopadhyaya (History)

It is time to let the dust settle and move on, that remained the lingering thought after Vivek Chibber spoke at the recent author’s roundtable on his book, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. It was abundantly clear that there is no possible critique that such a work is open to, because, as Chibber insisted vehemently to a room full of students of critical theory, “theory is either right, or wrong.” Spending more time and breath on why this recent attempt to “take down” (the spectre of?) Subaltern Studies is futile and flawed, may just end up being a wild goose chase.

Several people have, by now, pointed out the flaws in the book. Chatterjee has noted Chibber’s inability to understand why Guha’s critique of liberal historiography was indifferent to the question of how empirically accurate his version of European history was or in fact, that Chakrabarty had left the Marxist assumption that capital universalizes through the homogenization and commodification of abstract labour, untouched in the analysis of the limits to capitalist universalization. Spivak has pointed out, in turn, how Chibber remains guilty of several category errors: for example, switching between Capital and Capitalism, Bourgeoisie and capitalist.

In my response to Chibber’s book at the event, I came to it not as someone invested in the continuation of an ideal-type Subaltern Studies that Chibber has made the project out to be. By now, everyone is well aware that Subaltern Studies scholars have themselves moved on to different terrains which may or may not bear resemblance to their work of two decades ago. I came to it, rather, as a student of interdisciplinary history, most specifically of South Asia. While that may itself be a specialist’s corner, I think that emphasis is necessary to evaluate the intervention Chibber is making in the landscape of social theory, riding on the back of what was, to begin with, an initiative in critical South Asian history writing. I say social theory, not just because the book’s jacket says so, but because I doubt this work can unsettle much else within and between other humanities disciplines. Social theory remains its nebulous home for now.

The reasons for my scepticism are simple enough. Historians and anthropologists of South Asia, working inside as well as outside South Asia, have, for the last three decades, critiqued, transformed, and enhanced arguably every inch of ground that Subaltern Studies had ventured into since 1982. Most importantly, they have done so by not using Subaltern Studies writing as some kind of general theory with its unshakeable cornerstones, as Chibber does. Instead, they have approached questions of agrarian history, peasant politics, judicial violence, gender history, nationalism and other historical questions in order to produce historically specific and layered kinds of theory about subalternity. (For a recent study of the convict-coolie as subaltern, for example, see Clare Anderson, Subaltern Lives.) Indeed, many have rejected subalternity as well, finding its emphasis on autonomous domains restrictive in the histories of multidimensional peasant and worker politics. For lack of a better term, we could call this approach “history-as-theory,” as opposed to the brush-like application of “theory” to “history.” To take just one example, when Ranajit Guha came to write Chandra’s Death, one doubts whether he decided to apply theories of everyday resistance to his archive, or lack thereof. In that essay, the idea of dignity is arrived at, not presupposed, as a theoretical and interpretive explanation for the events at hand.

Chibber’s book seems to overlook a wealth of already existing critique of postcolonial theory, which is arguably far more contextual than Chibber’s. Again, let me give just one among numerous examples. Chitra Joshi wrote a meticulous book, titled Lost Worlds, on working-class history in Lucknow. Her argument, that reproduction and reaffirmation of power exists co-constitutively with resistance to power, was a measured critique of Dipesh Chakrabarty's Rethinking Working Class History, as well as Rajnarayan Chandravarkar’s work on practices of worker politics and sites of resistance. Joshi’s book-length study showed how workers actively negotiated culture, reproduced and reconstituted it both in moments of internal class conflict as well as class solidarity. In other words, cultural forms of differentiation were not imposed by capitalists to merely divide workers, something Chibber argues often in his book. Joshi’s persuasive critique was that Chakrabarty had ended up reifying “culture” both descriptively and analytically, whether or not he had intended to do so.

So, is Chibber aware of this substantial volume of work? Yes, he is. Except that Joshi’s weighty criticism is reduced to a footnote on pg. 140, apparently to elucidate “in the Indian setting... how capitalists often find laborers clustered into distinct occupational specialization, associated with particular communities.” The staggering misrepresentation of what is a deeply nuanced critique, arrived at through years of primary engagement with historical material, remains bewildering.

It is necessary to point this out fundamentally because Subaltern Studies, warts and all, began, first and foremost, as a critical historical practice, influenced by several other kinds of critical practices such as everyday history, micro-history, and social and cultural anthropology. Therefore, any book-length criticism of the topic should seriously account for what the discipline of history has itself produced in response to that which provoked it— in this case, Subaltern Studies.

Chibber’s book has already been criticized elsewhere on the internet: for example, here, here, here, and here.

I can only highlight and foreground a more selective response. The audience for the Unit for Criticism’s author’s roundtable, was asked to read Chapters 8 and 10 of the book, which deal with the categories of interests and universalisms, and the nationalist question of modernization respectively. Both chapters are emblematic of the book’s larger argument, which is, in short, the claim that European modernity and Indian modernity effectively have the same trajectory. The nature of capitalism may be uneven, but the operative principles and engines are the same. Consent was equally lacking in the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” in Europe, and therefore, the rise of the Indian bourgeoisie is no real deviation from a classical norm. Moreover, the working class in both parts of the world, have similar experiences with capitalism and its mechanisms of oppression. Their resistance to it has a shared repertoire, the most basic among which is, physical well-being and a shared interest in the sustenance of such well-being, whatever the place-specific cultural articulations may be. Thus, the two universalisms that are always at work in the world are the universalizing tendencies of capital and the universal resistance to it for the sake of physical well-being.

In Chapter 8, “Interests and the other universalisms,” Chibber undertakes his critique of Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working Class History—a book that, as others have argued, reifies “culture” even though culture itself was the subject of his analysis and the moment of his departure. What Chibber doesn’t point out is that Chakrabarty’s critique came at a time when working class and labour history in India had become saturated with questions of class formation and a high reliance on the event-character of strikes and work actions. The shifting focus towards communal violence and moments of calcification of various identities, primarily caste and religion, in the historiography of the 1980s coincided with the rise of the popularity of Hindu fascism among the urban underclasses and working poor. The range of questions around violence and the limits and fissures of class solidarity became central to historical introspection, and the literature grew to cover diverse moments ranging between the last decades of the nineteenth century that appear in Chakrabarty’s work, to the Great Calcutta Killings. Within such a context, Chakrabarty’s work produced a polarity which later historians had to contend with and successfully breach.

Chibber reduces the argument about pre-capitalist identities affirming and limiting capitalism in Bengal’s jute industry to a contorted question of the psychology of the “Eastern” worker. Chibber asks, "What psychological resources did workers or slaves draw upon when they fought their masters?" This concern would make sense if Chakrabarty was indeed making an argument about psychology or psychic history, such as the kind undertaken by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in the 1960s. Except that Chakrabarty wasn’t. Partha Chatterjee has already pointed out that it was the social and cultural anthropology coming out of Indian universities that Subaltern Studies was wrestling with as it worked through the category of “consciousness.” But the reason Chibber makes it all about some kind of static psychology is because it furthers his own statement on the conditions of universal worker solidarity, wherein he states "the psychological need was in fact the universal interest in advancing their basic needs.” Ironically, while Chibber spends so much time accusing Subaltern Studies of re-crafting an Orientalism, he uncritically reproduces a static and thoroughly un-dialectical essentialism that is resolutely unmarked by geography, history, language, philosophy, and faith. That these categories are not merely cultural, and produce materialities of different kinds that historians have to reckon with every day, is lost on Chibber and his “correct” version of class analysis.

Historians of Southern Africa have often had to wrestle with a foundational event in Xhosa history. In the mid-19th century, responding to a prophecy made about the increasing European control on land and capital, following several Anglo-Xhosa skirmishes in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa decided to kill their cattle and burn their land with the belief that it would regenerate and recalibrate the Xhosa community and its ability to ward off European incursions. Bullets would turn to water and the white colonial presence would be washed to the sea, a belief outmatched by the famine and suicides that followed. (For a recent argument on the uses of afterlives and failure, see Jennifer Wenzel, Bulletproof, Chicago, 2009.) Millenarianism of this kind was common across the nineteenth-century colonial world where Christianity, print culture, and other common imperial phenomenon collided with local historical contingencies to produce extremely dynamic outcomes for peasants and workers. Ranajit Guha himself had to work through similar questions in the case of the Santhal rebellions in India.

What sense of physical well-being were the Xhosa working with? I mention this to suggest precisely how un-universal the notion of physical well-being is. While Chatterjee has already remarked upon how physical well-being remains unmarked by class, and can actually work both ways for the capitalist and the worker, the category is also fundamentally impenetrable. What is physical well-being to an organ donor willing to give away a kidney, or a surrogate mother in India selling the reproductive power of her womb, or an addict who is well aware of the debilitations of his/her addiction? The term “well-being” is hollowed out of historical specificity and remains a far cry from the dialectical materialism that the Marxist tradition has prided itself upon. It is equally a prioristic as a category of analysis, especially in the ways that it flattens out precisely the kinds of unevenness that Chibber has acknowledged elsewhere. In fact, Chibber appears well aware that such an argument is basically contractarian and liberal sophistry, which is why he situates such an analysis within what he calls “liberal freedoms,” which apparently every worker in the world aspires to. If the commodity was fundamentally mysterious to Marx, it is rendered instrumental in Chibber’s work, meant only for the fulfilment of “basic human needs”.

Both the working class and the feminist movement have previously attempted to work with transcendental notions and ideal-type subjects, only to run up against the limitations of an imperialist world and the subjectivities produced out of the experience of colonial modernity. Today, the international working class and the global sisterhood are being re-drawn following repeated moments of torsion and undoing, using critical interrogative practices of universal politics that are extracted from the lessons of experience. We need to acknowledge difference and the prejudices which lie implicit in the languages used to explain and recast difference, while working to create co-constitutive notions of the universal and the particular. The burden of this task, which has been forced upon us by movements from below, and not the academia, is exceptionally difficult but it forces us to think harder. Chibber’s answers, on the other hand, appear all too simple and woefully inadequate.

In Chapter 10, “The Nation Unmoored,” Chibber argues that Chatterjee does not account for the vertical pressures that global capitalism puts on decolonising nation-states. The power of such global capitalism is evidenced by the geopolitical and military pressure on new states in the twentieth century to modernize their armed forces to compete for national security. Similarly, there are pressures from below, such as those produced by mass movements led by various marginalised constituencies which the state’s power elite have to accommodate. There is nothing problematic per se, Chibber would have us believe, with modernization since it was a rational choice that “made sense” to the post-colonial political leadership, primarily Jawaharlal Nehru. It was never, Chibber argues, about any implication with colonial modernity in the way that it emerged in colonial society.

Ironically, here, Chibber basically ends up affirming the sole argument that he picks out from Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. Chatterjee had pointed out that it was “not just military might or industrial strength, but thought itself which can dominate and subjugate.” What Chatterjee was attempting to do in 1986 was diagnose the formation of political ideologies implicated within colonial modernity, nationalism being the prime example. That scientific rationality, industrial enterprise, military solutions for maintaining politico-juridical borders, and, most importantly, developmental modernisation per se have become the lingua franca of modernity following Europe’s long history of contact and colonisation, and that they are so immediately obvious to most people that they occlude any alternative modes of even imagining, let alone experimenting with, social organisation and political transformation, is the thrust of Chatterjee’s critique. Chatterjee was trying to lay out what the complexity of this experience looked like in India—where there existed, often simultaneously with Gandhi and Nehru, contradictory engagements with the colonial thematic and problematic. That Nehru’s vision emerges as a dominant state-led modernisation project, and hence must be situated in relation to the history of how colonial modernity and the legitimation of European scientific and industrial standards in the post-colony are co-constitutive, is precisely Chatterjee’s point.

For Chibber however, embracing modernization equals “escaping from, or loosening neo-colonial domination” (pg. 276). When Chibber basically recounts that how beneficial the welfarist project in India, China, and Russia have been, because their decision to modernise seemed rational and “made sense” as opposed to some kind of indoctrination in bourgeois western thought, he effectively proves Chatterjee right. In an exceptionally revealing moment, Chibber states that “the non-modernising models of governance for the postcolony (which have been around) are certainly unviable.” Chibber asks the reader to accept his authority on the literature on all the world’s possible “non-modernising models of postcolonial governance,” since he alone knows of their “viability.”

That Chibber replicates the language of viability, of a universal measuring standard and the principles of liberal welfarism which have been the most useful safety valve for capitalism since the early twentieth century, betrays his limited awareness of the dichotomies and transformations, the continuities and ruptures that the colonial intervention produced in the colonies. More importantly, Chibber represents precisely what Chatterjee meant. Chibber is so busy measuring viability out of thin air that it is impossible for Chibber to even think, let alone discuss or study the diverse forms of off-modern or non-developmental modes of cultural and political economy that exist around the world, in order to even begin to ask the crucial historical question—how did the “viable” alternative come to appear so viable in the first place?

In 1986, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World was a response to the works of Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner, who wrote their volumes on nationalism in 1983. Chatterjee was, at that point, trying to recuperate nationalism for the decolonising world from the historical inaccuracies of Anderson and Gellner, while also finding newer ways of criticising it. Chatterjee was also trying to probe the onset of developmental modernisation as the fundamental paradigm for post-colonial nation-states, which is where Nehru became a crucial subject. Both those projects fell into problems of structuralist binarism, as well as a residual nationalism, which has been repeatedly pointed out by historians since the publication of the book. (A selective list of historians who have engaged with Chatterjee on such questions includes Sumit Sarkar, David Ludden, Frederick Cooper, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Tanika Sarkar, and Benjamin Zachariah who have pointed out these issues, while both appraising and undoing the contributions of Subaltern Studies.) However, those critiques of nationalism and modernisation also shaped much of Chatterjee’s later insights on political society as a fundamental coordinate of postcolonial politics, where the increasing claims upon the ambit of the state frame the objectives of mass politics.

Chibber accuses Chatterjee of asserting that his examination of anticolonial nationalism in India is applicable across Africa and Asia. Undeniably, Chatterjee was building his own metanarrative, albeit a non-European one, but if we agree that every narrative is in fact, a metanarrative, then it is not difficult to see what Chatterjee was doing. Marxist historiography until then had done enough to analyse capital and the development of capitalism in India, but few historians had critically interrogated the limits of secular rationality which treated factors like religion and caste as vestiges of pre-capitalism or sociological tools of domination used asymmetrically by capital upon labour.

Besides the difference between capital and capitalism, or primary and secondary texts, Chibber also collapses the distinction between developmental modernisation of the statist variety and modernisation per se. (See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s review for the range of category errors.) In spite of Chibber’s repeated exhortation about how developmental modernisation, which Chibber repeatedly calls “modernisation,” seemed rational to Nehru, Chibber offers no examination of Nehru’s personal papers, let alone any of the 20th-century nationalists he cites. In fact, he comes across as substantially uncritical of the developmentalist nationalisms that pervaded the Third World and led to large displacements of human beings, flora, and fauna, among other hazardous outcomes. The history of displacement and contingent outcomes emerging from Nehru’s massive dam-building projects or Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa villagisation scheme, are two examples that remain beyond the pale of Chibber’s analysis.

Let me conclude by noting how Chibber’s responses to his critics have been remarkable in the ways in which he infantilizes the readers of Subaltern Studies. Apparently, Chibber’s critics say what they say because they occupy entrenched positions in a western academy whence postcolonial theory came and where it has been commodified. One could argue whether or not postcolonial theory has become quite self-referential today, but it is definitely not the reason why Chibber is criticised. What invites criticism is Chibber’s insistence on a resolutely anti-Marxist individualism and economic positivism, which forecloses a number of historical questions. His argument would have (hopefully) looked markedly different had it engaged with the work of Marxists elsewhere in the Third World, who have made, since 1930, several nuanced criticisms of orientalism, capitalism, and imperialism. Chibber frequently and arbitrarily invokes them, before disposing them off as he continues to read secondary texts to make tertiary arguments.

Subaltern Studies, despite its prolonged caste-blindness and gender-neutrality, was the academic response to the popular and insubordinate power of colonised subjects and revolutionary imaginations. Marxist engagements with Subaltern Studies need to work with the same spirit, as opposed to restating Enlightenment universals under the name-sign of a resolutely anti-Enlightenment thinker. Chibber’s insistence on situating Marx and Rawls in the same genealogy where liberalism and Marxism appear wholly compatible under an Enlightenment umbrella is indicative of how liberal rights-based leftism has pervaded the space of rigorous Marxist critique. This recourse to finding in liberalism and the Enlightenment, the complement to Marxism, is a worrying fallacy. By refusing to critically engage with the predicaments produced by the politics of colonial difference and colonial capitalism, and finding immediate resolutions in liberal thought, it forecloses possibilities of more radical departures from the inheritance of colonial difference towards politically insurgent communities of belief.

Thankfully, we are all not liberals yet.


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Spring 2014 Unit for Criticism Faculty Lecture, Lisa Cacho: "Criminalizing the Dead"
Response by Margareth Etienne

Monday, June 2, 2014


[On April 21, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a Spring 2014 faculty lecture, "Criminalizing the Dead." The lecture was delivered by Lisa Cacho (Latina/o Studies, Asian American Studies. The response by Margareth Etienne (Law) is published below.]

“Excerpts from A Response to Dr. Lisa Cacho’s ‘Criminalizing the Dead’”

Written by Margareth Etienne (Law)



A group of teenagers getting stop-and-frisked on
Seneca Avenue,  Bronx, on their way home from
school on September 2012. (Photo: Pearl Gabel)
As you are all surely aware, it has become a fairly common-place observation that our criminal justice system over-criminalizes black and brown people (and the spaces they occupy). There are many versions of this claim: driving while black or brown; selectively enforced stop and frisk rules; loitering ordinances; racial and ethnic profiling. Lisa Cacho does in her work, Criminalizing the Dead, is to take this observation further and documents its application well beyond the ethnic minority criminal defendant to the ethnic minority victim. She argues that even when underrepresented minorities and women are victims of violent crimes like homicide, they are viewed not as victims but as criminals or criminals averted. Cacho notes this is especially true with the murder victim who can no longer speak her or his own narrative but whose very persons become the new embodiment of a racialized stereotype. She shows how under current law, as applied, in many cases, death facilitates the criminalization of these individuals. Yes, this gives us much to think about.

There is a lot to be said about this work but I want to share with you today a few thoughts that have been churning over and over in my mind over the last couple weeks as I have been contemplating what I, as a criminal law scholar, could contribute to this conversation. Like much engaging scholarship, Cacho has leads us to re-envision old problems in new ways.

I want to invite you to think about the legal concept of proxies and how they elucidate a point that Cacho already makes quite forcefully.


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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.7
"Let’s Have Another Piece of Pie"
Guest Writer: Lauren Goodlad

Monday, May 26, 2014

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The seventh in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Let’s Have Another Piece of Pie"

Written by: Lauren M. E. Goodlad (Illinois).


The term pastiche has become synonymous with postmodernism and the reign of signifiers detached from deeper reference or history. But as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics reminds us, long before pastiche developed its postmodern connotation of using “recognizable ingredients” while offering “no new substance,” the word derived from the Italian for pasticcio “or a hodge-podge of pie containing both meat and pasta.” To say that “Waterloo,” Mad Men’s Season 7 "mid-season finale" is pastiche, is not to condemn a series that, back in 2010, I argued was anything but. For at that time the show—still embedded in the pre-counterculture milieu of the early 60s—turned on a masterful dialectics between historical events like the Kennedy assassination and our own turn-of-the millennium emergencies. Those early-60s stories (as I wrote last June), “in inflecting our imaginary with the ‘history’ we had forgotten to remember as such, added something quite distinct to what we could take for the history of our present.” Yes, Mad Men has changed as it nears its final curtain; and as Caroline Levine wrote two weeks ago, many once-ardent viewers have wearied of its charms. Yet, I, for one, was happy enough last night to pull up a chair and join Roger in the spirit of Irving Berlin’s Depression-era ditty.  “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee,” I say, with a nice hodge-podge of meat and pasta on the side.


Of course, Mad Men has always sported a playful self-consciousness, even during episodes of stunning high seriousness. Almost inevitably, the show has begun paying tribute to its own greatest moments: last week by staging an homage to Season 4’s “The Suitcase”and this week, on the occasion of Bert’s death, by recalling us to Joan’s promptitude in Season 1 when she joined Bert in alerting clients to what then looked like Roger’s imminent demise (“The Long Weekend”).

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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.6
"Living in the Not Knowing"
Guest Writer: Sean O'Sullivan

Monday, May 19, 2014

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The sixth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Living in the Not Knowing"

Written by: Sean O'Sullivan (Ohio State University).

The first notably long scene in this episode (running close to three minutes) shows Peggy running through a prospective version of a commercial for Burger Chef—a client that occupies the slightly awkward intersection of low class and national exposure. (It’s the opposite of Jaguar.) There is a lot to consider here, but I’ll spotlight three elements. First, there is the question we have had to live with from the very beginning of the show: namely, is this ad any good? Don will later tell Peggy that their job requires “living in the not knowing”—an inevitable uncertainty about whether any latest idea has intrinsic value, or if it will always be defined by some horrid combination of opinion, guesswork, and business imperatives.
Living in the not knowing, of course, is a defining aspect of watching a serial, even one that is approaching the end of its run. I’ll say more about that later, but for the moment I want to think about our quandary about knowing, or not knowing, whether “It’s toasted,” or Don and Peggy’s dueling Heinz ketchup billboards, or any of the other putatively brilliant ideas we’ve seen, are good only because other people within this fictional world seem to think they are. The core anxiety about the twentieth-century loss of fixed cultural values (inherited, in part from Mad Men’s parent enterprise, The Sopranos) affects every aspect of this environment. The Chevrolet XP campaign—which, we learn later, is apparently good enough to get SC&P to the threshold of Buick—has been entirely invisible. Our last sense of it came last season in that hotel bar in Detroit, when Don mentioned a sea of expectant faces, but no glimpses of the product itself, as the initial launch. Where is the thing itself? Later in the episode, Peggy will have an apparent epiphany about what to do with Burger Chef. Her first exclamation is, “That’s it!” Then she immediately modifies the discovery: “That’s more what it is.” We want yes or no, but we can only make do with more and less—a warning of a kind to those looking for satisfaction or resolution in this final season.

A second element has to do with the form of Peggy’s presentation here—namely, two large cardboard rectangles, each featuring six images. If you squint a little and think allegorically, this looks a little like the last “season” we’re getting of Mad Men: something broken into two parts, each part composed of six or seven pieces, with a narrative possibly flowing through the two big pieces. We can imagine this as a version of the whiteboard of writers’ rooms, with a season broken down into episode-sections. The story that Peggy tells here is a clean one of problem (“Mom” needs to feed the kids) and solution (Burger Chef, and the restoration of “family happiness,” in Lou Avery’s words). But what of the divided story of Mad Men’s last “year”? The 30-second pitch that AMC gives us at the end of the episode is not “Next on Mad Men” (despite the prominent tag line) but in fact “previously on Mad Men,” as already-viewed snippets, rapid editing, charged dialogue, and agitated music suggest that the following episode is going to be the conclusion to a teleological season from a very different show. (Boardwalk Empire?) We are told that the next episode is the “mid-season finale.” What the hell is a mid-season finale? It’s a device invented by the economic imperatives of a channel that pulled off the same dubious maneuver with Breaking Bad. It’s a fake destination point, as artificial in its way as the family in Peggy’s ad, an instance of the client dictating copy, of the corporation shaping art. That’s the fact of television, of course; but its display here, like the conversations throughout the episode about whether the Burger Chef ad is good for its authors or good for its paymasters, spotlights the fact that the old shop with which we’re so familiar is prey to the whims of a calculating multinational entity, a big humming computer. Who decided that the last season of Mad Men should be broken into two parts? Why, Jim Cutler did. Will the first part be a problem, and the second a solution—resembling not just Peggy’s ad, but all conventional scripts arranged to meet Hollywood formula? That’s a threat that this episode will itself seem to enact.

The third element has to do with who is in this room: namely, Peggy, Don, Pete, Harry Crane, and Lou Avery. The first four characters were introduced to us within the first ten minutes of the pilot; our sense of Mad Men in the seventh season rests heavily on the characters and interconnections we’ve known all along. Now, Harry has always been a bit of an outlier in the group. But if we entertain the idea of a character having agency (rather than being a victim of authorial whim), then we might go along with Don’s admittedly self-serving claim at the end of the episode, that Harry has been “very loyal”; he hasn’t abandoned us in the ways that Midge Daniels, Sal Romano, and Paul Kinsey did. Harry’s translation into partner—in the episode’s bracketing conference room scene—seems legitimate on a serial level as well. If he’s going to last, perhaps implausibly, as long as he has, we simply have to accept the fact that he has a stake in what Mad Men, deep down, is; like it or not, Mad Men is “more what it is” with Harry Crane than without him.

Peggy, Don, and Pete will have their big moment in the final scene. But what about the fifth character here—Lou Avery? His presence, in contrast with the four stalwarts, underscores not just a central challenge of late seasons but a recurring examination in this episode particularly: namely, the jostling and juxtaposition of people we’ve just met with people we’ve known a long time. How much can/should we invest in despising Lou Avery, who clearly exists to be despised? Peggy condescendingly refers here to Don’s contributions to the work on Burger Chef as “instrumental”—a term that could connote central importance or mere utility. How instrumental is Lou Avery to Mad Men? Until now, he has been a delightfully one-dimensional figure of sarcasm and obstruction. But in “The Strategy” he is much more like a gruff but well-meaning uncle, giving Peggy more than one look of approval and generally getting along with all and sundry. If Lou were important, if he were going to get a few seasons to “develop,” then such a shift might indicate that we need to live with him a bit longer to get a sense of his value—just as we have had to live longer with Pete Campbell, in particular, to move beyond his initial status as a one-dimensional figure of sarcasm and obstruction. But Lou, as a late-season character, is inevitably on a short-term contract. Does he matter—yes or no? The answer, as always, is more or less.

The two principal non-fast food storylines in “The Strategy” hinge on two latecomers to the populace of Mad Men, two immigrants whose uncertain value or impact put their own kinds of pressure on living in the not knowing. Who is Bonnie Whiteside? Is there anything more to her than the faintest sketch of character—“Mom,” “Jimmy,” “Katie”—that circulate in later versions of the Burger Chef ad? Until this point, and perhaps through this point, she has seemed simply the distillation of two primal delights: sex and real estate. She is a body, and she is free-market capitalism. Is that a character? She does the kind of thing, in this episode, that a character is reputed to do—namely, have an arc. She arrives in New York as California Woman, exhibiting her tan for Don and the rest of Pete’s colleagues; she is forced to cool her heels when Pete is waylaid by marital rancor and jealousy in Cos Cob; and she is angry to discover that she does not like Pete “in New York,” demonstrating that she is just learning the characters of the world we know. (“Then you don’t like me,” replies Pete, reflecting his typical obtuseness about nuance and context.) Has anything really happened to her? Has she changed? Perhaps more to the point, have she and Pete broken up by the end of the episode? (I say no; my wife says yes.) Would it matter if they have broken up? Does her run on Mad Men amount to another version of problem/solution—or perhaps solution/problem, a remedy for Pete’s adjustment to the West Coast followed by the rupture of that remedy?

Bob Benson gives us a very different instance of the late-season addition. He was a vague, comic figure throughout Season 6, only gradually working his way closer to the center of the show, culminating in the revelation that he was a Dick Whitman-like fraud. But he’s existed merely as exposition in this season, metonymically connected to “Detroit,” and best remembered on the Web as one of Mad Men’s favorite GIFs. Suddenly, in “The Strategy,” he’s front and center, rescued from the kind of exile that has overtaken poor Ted Chaough, alone on his desk on a perpetual conference call. My guess is that we all feel the loss of Ted—as Peggy originally saw him, as the optimistic and turtlenecked antidote to Don’s alcoholic misery.
But did we miss Bob Benson, other than as comic relief? Now, he’s not only back, but he’s definitional to the episode. His sexual identity becomes a plot point! He’s the first to learn Chevy’s plan to dump SC&P! He proposes to Joan! The sequence between Bob and Bill Hartley, the GM executive whom he bails out of jail for sexual misconduct, spotlights the potential peculiarity of Bob’s role. The likes of Hartley are legion in serial drama: the one-off character who exists to reveal a secret about a recurring, central part of the show. But when Bob himself works as a kind of cameo, what is the relative consequence of Hartley’s instrumentality?**

That unexpected marriage proposal operates as the middle event in a three-scene sequence that looks like the heart of the episode—a cluster nearly twelve minutes in length that begins with Peggy and Don first sitting down to re-think Burger Chef, moves to the high drama of Joan’s apartment, and concludes with That Dance and That Kiss. Bob’s suggestion that Joan serve as his beard in a rise to GM stardom stuns her, perhaps most pointedly in his last, surrendering remark: “I’m just being realistic.” Joan says that she wants love, and that she would “rather die hoping than make some arrangement.” Joan may have the smartest, no-nonsense business head in the office; but she apparently thinks she’s living in an opera, or at least a soap opera. Realism and romance, the plausible and the fanciful, have been the twin forces of Mad Men from its beginning—an apparently scrupulous commitment to showing how things are/were intertwined with “creative hijinks” (Jim Cutler’s phrase of a few weeks back) like Don’s secret family in Westchester—secret to us throughout the pilot—and Don’s secret past in the sticks.
As the show reaches its stopping point (and its mid! season! finale!), the tricky interplay between those core narrative strategies gets ever more focused on the stopping points of the show’s characters. Will we get a realistic or romantic cessation for Joan and the rest of the partners in the industrial project that is Mad Men?

It’s hard to imagine that it can ever get more romantic than in the longest scene of the episode, wherein Don and especially Peggy seem to crack the conundrum of Burger Chef (however temporarily), and where Sinatra’s “My Way” provokes him to tender, and her to accept, an invitation to bring their bodies together and sway.
Who ever thought that Mad Men would give us such a lurid piece of fan service? “The Suitcase” is one of the most beloved episodes, if not the most beloved, in the show’s run—the two-hander between Don and Peggy in his office on the night that Anna Draper died. Here we are once again in Don’s office—or, rather, we are in the office that late-character Lou Avery is renting, the office that seems destined to become Peggy’s. The power of “The Suitcase” (see also Michael Berube's post) was its melancholy, its affirmation that Mad Men was about the relationship between these two characters. The scene here gives us something much sweeter, a reconciliation that goes out, like a song dedication on an oldies station, to those who were there way back when--1960/2007. The central couple of the show asserted their longevity in the conversation that precedes their act of nostalgic entitlement—at one point, each of them says, about some date or past behavior, “I don’t remember.” Late characters don’t get to say lines like that; it’s the privilege of the core members of the show, those who make it more what it is—and of course it’s also the privilege of the viewers, who have been around long enough to forget. Take that, Bonnie Whiteside.

The end is near, Old Blue Eyes tells us. And we get what looks exactly like a final curtain, the camera tracking back to show us the couple in long shot—the image echoed mysteriously in a mirror that seems to have been installed for just this purpose, perhaps by director Phil Abraham. Meanwhile, the music switches from a distance—part of the overheard lived world of the show—to a place loud and present, metamorphosed into soundtrack. Followed, swooningly, by a dissolve. This fake-closure seems dangled in front of us by the show’s makers—perhaps a parody of fan service, or maybe just an alternative version (a flash-sideways) of what this show might be, indeed how the series might end, under a different aesthetic administration. But we will get a second ending, subsequent to a montage of Bonnie and Megan heading back to the Coast, and the plot revelations about Chevrolet and Buick. Doubles and multiples of conclusion have been a recurrent technique of Mad Men, although typically at the ends of seasons. The two versions of Don’s homecoming at Thanksgiving in the first year, accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “Don’ Think Twice, It’s All Right”; the strains of “You Only Live Twice” in the fifth year, as Don walked from the make-believe of a film set to a barely-believable bar; Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now” as an accompaniment to Don revealing his double identity to his children, last year. It seems curious to get it here, as almost a parodic, internal version of “next”—or more likely “much later”—on Mad Men.

Arguably, the actual ending of the episode is even more romantic. For the second week in a row, we are treated to a ménage-a-trois. Last time, it was a late 60s fantasy of Southern California seduction, as “Amy from Delaware” (a late-season avatar if ever there was one) visited the Draper marital bed. Now, it’s the three characters on which the show has arguably always been pitched. Two of them are parents of a child neither has ever seen; the familial relation of the third (Don) to these other two has never seemed more uncertain. But it’s a contained uncertainty—not an instability produced by new personnel from the outside.

The scene begins with what seems, at least to me, another installment of the self-conscious reflections on what this show has been, and what it can still become in the little time we have left. “Now we have nothing,” Pete announces, ventriloquizing the likes of Caroline Levine, “only weeks away.” This is the dead end of Burger Chef as the dead end of Mad Men. Don and Peggy, however, will have none of this. Don told Peggy earlier that his solution to artistic crisis is to “start at the beginning again, see if I end up at the same place.” The episode began at one kind of Burger Chef, and it ends at another. That first one—with Peggy and John Mathis desperately buttonholing customers in the anonymous Midwest—was Burger Chef as abject realism: a bedraggled mother, kids whose names (whose specificity) are of no interest to anyone, “convenience” rather than desire the operative term. In culinary terms, it’s the “arrangement” for which Joan would not settle—not the “love” that advertising absorbs as its currency, a word (Don told Rachel Menken in the pilot) invented by guys like him to sell nylons. Or, in this case, to sell fast food. Don tells Peggy, in the first ending of the episode, that her latest version of Burger Chef—in effect, the version she lived in the first scene of the episode—is “too sad for an ad.” And, apparently, too sad to conclude this episode of Mad Men.

Because what we get, in the second valedictory camera track-back of the episode, is a portrait of Pete, Peggy, and Don in as romantic a version of dispensable Americana as the show can muster. Don’s final scrutable gesture is to point affectionately toward Pete’s chin, showing him where he needs to clean off some condiment. Since when does Don Draper care that Pete Campbell has condiment on his chin? This is the “family happiness” incarnation of the show, and its principals, sealed behind the glass/screen of a simulacrum of communal delight. Will Mad Men really opt for romance at the end? Is that really more “what it is”? Is the cost of fractious relationships with late characters a suffocating, sentimental relationship with early ones? Bonnie Whiteside’s earlier, irritated rejoinder, in the hotel room, to Pete’s attempts to make nice may encode a possible warning to the creator of this show, as he makes his final moves. Matthew Weiner, you’re not going to fuck your way out of this.


**The third visitor to New York, along with Bonnie and Bob, is Megan Draper, one of the least beloved members in the category of “late” characters. Is she indeed “late”? Not perhaps by a purely mathematical accounting. But she followed Bobbie Barrett, and Suzanne Farrell, and Faye Miller. What makes her something other than a variation on a theme? We are perhaps no more sick of her than we would have been of Bobbie or Suzanne or Faye. But she may always seem to be an interloper, as far as strict constructionists are concerned—always a symptom of post-classical Mad Men.








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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.5
"Loyalty"
Guest Writer: Caroline Levine

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The fifth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Loyalty"

Written by: Caroline Levine (University of Wisconsin-Madison)


“The Runaways” was an episode that returned us again and again to questions of loyalty, and I found myself wondering whether the show might be referring in some way to the precarious loyalty of its audiences. Ratings have dipped over time. Lots of viewers have been willing to let Mad Men go, and if my acquaintance is anything to go by, many who have stuck with it are more disappointed than satisfied, their commitment to watching now brittle and strained.

Of course, the series’ slow pace has always been hard on those who are afraid of commitment. Critic Logan Hill says, “It’s a show that has always been built for the obsessive fan, and hasn’t really cared very much for the casual fan… It’s been kind of cocky about that.” Casual—like the worker who lounges on the sofa or like the boyfriend who would rather go back to jail than stick with the mother of his child. If Mad Men has always sought a loyal, committed relationship with us rather than a sequence of one-night stands, its characters’ stories, dominated break-ups and firings, haven’t given us great models.


Should we be more loyal? Should “guys like us” stick together, as Harry Crane says, because “we go back a long way”? Should we try to do our best to make sure that Mad Men is “still important,” even though we are really having trouble figuring out exactly how to do so? Certainly loyalty feels like a troubling value coming from a Philip Morris executive, who moralizes that his company “won’t turn on his friends as easily” as Don does. It’s tough to be inspired by those who stick to their friends precisely so that they can go on killing them.

Mad Men teaches us a lot more about falling out of love than about building loyalty. But then what, exactly, has happened to the relationship between the show and its audiences? Perhaps these days we are more likely to dally with Game of Thrones, to be excited by True Detective or Top of the Lake. But what was it that attracted us to Mad Men in the first place, and what’s turning us off or splitting us up now?

There were once many kinds of attraction. Some who loved the first seasons fell for the early sixties style, and dwelled happily on the elegant clothes and sleek furniture. The late sixties is now quite deliberately betraying that style. Don looks awkward in his sports shirt compared to Megan’s sexy dance partner, and beautiful Stephanie clearly needs a bath. The couch that used to be an object of desire is now in the wrong spot and too heavy to move.

Another group who loved Mad Men in its youth were drawn to its richness as historical fiction. From casual racism to littering to drugged childbirth, Mad Men invited us to imagine a time just long enough ago to feel distant, just close enough to feel familiar. Matthew Weiner is famously obsessed with historically authentic detail, and the show has always raised interesting, troubling questions about his glossy, glamorous version of an old boy past. These days, the show offers up a world that feels less gorgeous and less exclusive, and yet not ever radically disruptive enough. It’s a hodge podge of approaches to life—West Coast as well as East, hippie commune emerging out of suburban elite, behatted executives alongside beards and miniskirts—that won’t let us settle into a single, smooth vision of the past (nostalgic or critical as the case may be).

Some early viewers were just there for the plot. It started out a really good one: we were drawn into the precariousness of a life built on secrets. Would exposure of Don’s past unsettle his career, with his talent for seducing us with appearances? Would plotting blue-blooded Pete take down Don, the social impostor? That plot is distant, now. We’ve had some good dramatic tension since that has been organized around the success or failure of the company, and yet those moments too feel far away in this season. The narrative is not just slow but motiveless. Don seems to be sinking slowly, or is he rising again? Joan has climbed to the top and seems secure there. Peggy remains single. Roger sits perched pretty well in his own complacency. There’s no suspense here, no readiness for sudden crisis or revelation.

For many audiences, the series once did really well when it came to complex and richly rounded characters. Especially the white women who were trying to figure out how to live satisfying lives: Peggy, Joan, Betty, and Sally. Pete was also fascinating in his aspiration to succeed, and amoral Roger was disturbingly charming. All of them have receded into minorness now. The number of characters has expanded, but most are forgettable. Who is that Cutler, again? Who are the many boy creatives who laugh at Lou?

The show holds on, wrongly I think, to a loyalty to Don as its central character. Megan’s a frustrating figure, I believe, in part because she too keeps up her hungry adoration for Don. She holds him too much at the center, just as the show does. In “Runaways,” she’s first warm to Stephanie, and then suddenly jealous when Stephanie blurts that she knows all of Don’s secrets. Megan drives Stephanie away, despite her promise to hold on to her for Don. Megan then tries to make herself important to Don by making him feel important, at the center of a sexy threesome: will sharing him with Amy, whom he has continually tried to reject and dismiss, put Megan back at the center? Structurally, this seems like a strategy that can’t possibly work. It’s as though Mad Men both did and did not get its own message that it’s impossible to try to organize a meaningful life around a debonair professional ad man.

If the series has turned off audiences by failing to deliver up some of its earlier pleasures—pleasures of style, historical detail, suspenseful plot, and complex character—one place where it continues strong is in the complex interweaving of its themes. Advertising brings together seduction and work, social climbing and courtship, nostalgia and strategy. There are rich resonances in every episode.

In “Runaways,” for example, Lou’s absurd dream of a wholesome Saturday cartoon that upholds values of patriotism and loyalty finds intriguing echoes in both Megan and Betty, “who can take anything but an order.” Betty rebels against Henry’s authority, paradoxically, when she holds on to her right to speak up in favor of traditional authority and against youthful rebellion. “Leave the thinking to me,” Henry orders. This command never works in Mad Men, where women always refuse this particular model of loyalty. As Betty says simply, “I can think all by myself.” Meanwhile, the computer, which poor paranoid Michael is not entirely wrong to see as coming for all of us, hums away where the writers and artists used to work, literally taking the place of human thought.

Mad Men plants echoes in its smallest details. Two characters in this episode passingly exclaim that Megan’s apartment is “out of sight,” at once offering up a little pieces of sixties lingo and hinting at the distance between what is on view—Stephanie’s “obvious” pregnancy, exposed in a public phone booth—and what is protected from prying eyes. Betty and Stephanie both refuse to eat outside, asserting their will by remaining, each in her own way, out of sight.

This thematic interweaving is a very literary pleasure. As a literary critic myself, I was trained to notice such patternings, and I love to feel their richness, and to unravel the connections. Other television often fails at this, even when it does well on other grounds. And for this viewer, it is enough to keep me coming back to Mad Men.

I can’t imagine that simple loyalty—just “going back a long way"—will work for audiences in part because Mad Men simply doesn’t teach us loyalty as a value. It goes so far as to mock its characters’ demands for loyalty, and its plot thrives precisely where loyalty fails. Perhaps the show knows it needs to woo us in some other way. It’s no accident that Don spells “strategy” carefully in “Runaways” and concludes the episode with a surprising new strategy for the cigarette business. But then again, as Lou says, it may be too late for that now.

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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.4
"What's Next?" Part 2
Guest Writer: Dana Polan

Monday, May 5, 2014

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The fourth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"What's Next?"

Written by: Dana Polan (New York University)

Part 2

Please, dear reader, make sure to peruse Part 1 of this blog before you read this part. There, in Part 1, I talked generally about what we seem to think we know about any episode of a continuing TV serial before it airs, and I made some very tentative suggestions (the stronger word is "predictions") about what I imagined might happen in tonight's episode of Mad Men. I now, having actually seen the episode, want to go back to those predictions and then talk about other aspects of this installment of Mad Men.


In the very first lines of the episode, Pete Campbell out in Los Angeles--out, that is, in an entirely different world of narrative possibilities than the ones that Mad Men, whose title referenced, among other things, New York's Madison Avenue, had initially initiated--was telling his girlfriend Bonnie that there were essentially three choices. He was referring to the places they could go to for their vacation but, coming at the very beginning of the episode, his lines could also meta-narratively be a comment on narrative possibility and narrative logic itself: when an(y) episode of a show like this begins, there are any number of directions it could go in, and most of them are not predictable for the viewer even though most of them will in retrospect make sense for that viewer once he or she has gotten through them.

So, vanity aside (I'm generally not good at futurology), I think I'm batting pretty well in my guesses for this episode (and the baseball metaphor perhaps works pretty well itself for an episode that's about going to -- but never arriving at -- a Mets game but, even more importantly, is an episode that has an explicit discussion of metaphor and meaningful symbolism: TV shows like this can have depths of significance but it's particularly noteworthy when they directly tell us that):

1. I mentioned the dangling phone that we saw last week in the "Next on Mad Men" and suggested it might mean a lot but more likely would mean very little at all. In the episode as it aired, Don arrived at the office and found chaos reigning, including that phone off the hook, but the phone was then hung up and explanations for the chaos were proffered: that particular future which we might call the computer revolution was being installed. We might want to ask how that phone got off its base but really, ultimately it didn't matter.

It wasn't really a prediction but I did suggest that death wasn't something that tended to happen to the central figures of this series. No deaths occurred in this episode indeed but I do take it as significant that Pete Campbell learned that his wife's dad had had a heart attack: as I had noted, it's more likely in Mad Men that potentially fatal things happen to lesser characters and not to the Pete Campbells and such-like that serve as its narrative foci.

2. Dawn, the black secretary, had one line of dialogue (advising the white staff at the office as to how to deal with the disruptions of office space from the entry of a computer into it). That's it for Dawn. As I anticipated, blackness had gotten its token treatment a few episodes back and now we're back to the world of white people dealing with their white collar issues.

3. Wow, I really got this one right: I predicted that the all important question of Megan and Don might drop out, and it really, really did. (I also wondered if Betty might not disappear, and I'll claim brownie points for that guess too.)

Last week's episode put Don and Megan's marriage on the rocks but in today's episode, it was as if that marriage--and its breakdown--had no existence. Instead we got an emphasis on the slogging everydayness of repetitive work (for instance, how many tags, whatever they are, does Don and his co-workers have to come up with to satisfy the assignment?) and we also got:

4. Roger going upstate to Kingston, NY to try to rescue daughter Margaret (now Marigold) from a commune. This, admittedly, doesn't really count as confirmation of my prediction that very specific events of the time might insinuate themselves into the show. I had suggested that real history was overdue for an appearance on the show and wondered, among other examples, if 1969's Woodstock might not be ready to take a bow. We really didn't get that sort of historical imposition in any direct, concerted sense but I think Margaret's story comes pretty close. For what it's worth, Kingston is in fact not far from Woodstock (or from the Bethel farm of Max Yasgur that the rock festival actually took place at) and there's a way in which the entire subplot of Roger and his daughter is about a broader history insinuating its force into the lives of characters who are generally more defined by what goes on at the office...

5. And in that respect, the office is really where it's all at in this episode. We certainly think of the Roger-Margaret story as little else than a subplot and but for it and a few minor moments, everything else transpires at the workplace. This is that slog I referred to: I don't claim any special clairvoyance here since it's this slogging that is centrally what the show is about. Yes, there is a world outside the office in which there are (among other events) old people who die, unwanted pregnancies, real people who get assassinated, weird grandmas who weird you out, suburban alienation, renters who want their landlords to provide basic services, hitchhikers you can't trust, class trips that just go bad (see last week's episode), and on and on and on. But “The Monolith” (7.4) keeps coming back to the office and it's there that the really consequential things might be happening. On the one hand, Don does decide to tow the line and be the subservient drone. I don't want to push it too far but it might be worth connecting what is perhaps the most famous moment in the history of Mad Men--Don scoring a big win at the office by showing off the Kodak carousel--to the Hollies' "Carousel" song that plays over Don's acquiescence in the present episode: in the earlier case, Don had used repetitiveness and pastness (the Kodak carousel's cyclical spectacle of nostalgia) to move his career forward; now, like the rider on a carousel animal who in the Hollies song can't catch up to the figure ahead of him, Don seems to have little future and is just going round and round. (At one point, after one of the many slights he suffers in the episode, we see Don leave the office in what we think is a huff of storming off the job only to seem him check back into the job in the very next moment; for this episode, he's stuck there).

Just as Matt Weiner's previous show was pointedly titled The Sopranos in the plural, and not "Tony" or "The Tony Soprano Show" or some-such, this show is Mad Men in the plural--and not "Don Draper" or some-such. Both shows have a protagonist but within the fictional world and for the shows as televisual events, there is directly the question of how in control that protagonist really is. In the current episode of Mad Men, Don directly is treated as a menial and it might almost seem as if the series is not merely commenting on that but engaging in a transition from Don to other figures. Is it noteworthy, for instance, that one very common visual motif of Mad Men--namely, figures shot from the back, and thereby pitched into veritable silhouette, as they look blankly out from the office into the world beyond their window blinds--is in the current episode not accorded to Don (as it commonly was in past episodes) but to other characters such as Peggy and Lou (and when Lou is seen standing in this way at the window, it's commented upon as if the show wants us to think about this resonant visual motif)? Is Don really the center of this world any more?

The title of "The Monolith," seems a reference to 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (already referenced in Deanna Kreisel’s perceptive post from last week). There are fears about computers, references to psychedelic transport, a mention even of "The Dawn of Man." But there is no transcendence in this episode of Mad Men, just a brute wallowing in the mud for Roger, and a brute recognition of the fixities of identity for Don. Dave Bowman in 2001 shut down the Hal 9000 computer and then moved through various stages of being into new levels of existence. Don Draper in Mad Men watches impassively and even passively as a computer is fixed into place in his work world, and all he can do there is, as the Hollies intone, go "Round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round."

One wonders if that's his predictable future. And perhaps the future of this television series.

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