MAD WORLD, Opening Remarks by Lauren M. E. Goodlad

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On February 19, 2010, the Unit for Criticism's hosted a winter symposium called MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s. Over the next couple of weeks we will publish a series of guest posts on Kritik covering specific panels and speakers. Here, by way of beginning, are excerpts from Lauren Goodlad's opening remarks at the symposium]

Welcome everyone! It’s great to see you here this morning. I’m Lauren Goodlad, Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, and I thank you for joining us for what we believe is the first major academic event inspired by the AMC television show Mad Men.

If we are right, I think that the University of Illinois is a fitting location for this event for a number of reasons. For example, if you draw a line that begins at Madison Avenue around 42nd Street in New York City, and extend it to Anna Draper's sunny bungalow in Southern California, you will find that Urbana, Illinois—in fact, the Levis Faculty Center—is directly in between. (And I also have it on good authority that we are dead-on North of the Hilton Hotel in Roma.)

Geographic determinism aside, as many of you know, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory has been an epicenter for cultural studies since 1981, producing conference collections like the groundbreaking Cultural Studies, Postcolonialism and Beyond, Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University, as well as the forthcoming special issue in the Journal of Human Rights which derives from last year’s symposium, “Comparative Human Rights.” We hope the collection of essays that will come out of today’s event will nicely complement these precursors.

Of course, none of these things can be done single-handedly. The Unit is a collaborative venture in every sense. It’s been my great pleasure this year to work alongside Rob Rushing, the Unit’s new Nicholson Fellow Associate Director, as well as Carl Lehnen and Kathy Skwarczek, our two multi-talented Graduate Assistants, whose tireless work, infinite patience, and techno-aesthetic bravado made possible, among many other less visible things, our ultra-chic publicity materials and the slideshow you just saw which will remain on vimeo as a souvenir of the symposium.

For his generous support, I thank Gordon Hutner, whose Trowbridge Office on American Literature, Culture, & Society is, for the second year in a row, the primary co-sponsor of the Unit’s winter symposium. I also thank the School of Literatures, Languages, & Linguistics; the Center for Advanced Study; the department of Spanish, Italian & Portuguese; the English department; the IPRH; the College of Media; the Program in Jewish Culture & Society; and the departments of African American studies, Anthropology, Art History, History, Media & Cinema Studies; and Slavic Languages & Literatures.

So: why a symposium inspired by Mad Men? Twilight has a much larger (and probably cuter) fandom; The Wire a broader sociological range. Meanwhile, topics from social networking to the new modes of digital delivery anticipated for movie viewers could claim a wider impact on the popular media of today.

There is a palpable sense in which Mad Men—whatever it says to the world at large (over 3 million viewers by now)—seems to say something in particular to people like us: scholars and students in the academy. This affinity became especially apparent to me last December when I received a seasonal email from the Illinois Humanities Council, exhorting me to make humanities-friendly Christmas purchases that would benefit the organization. Why not regale the humanities-loving friends on my holiday list, the email suggested, with either the classic Orson Welles package, the Jane Austen package (which included the complete novels plus a Regency-style teapot), or the “Mad Men Madness package” which included the DVDs for the first two seasons as well as an authoritative volume on Classic Cocktails; volume 8 in a series entitled, Ultra Lounge; and, best of all, a 7-piece bar set, complete with sleek stainless steel martini shaker.

Now far be it from me—the host of tonight’s dance party at V. Picasso—to suggest that academics don’t sometimes deserve a cocktail. But I nevertheless seek a deeper explanation for why we are gathered here today (and maybe for why I am wearing a tie today).

When I first contemplated the enthusiasm for Mad Men, struck, last August, by the number of 30- and 40-something fans of the show in academia, I ended up writing—in an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education—that Don Draper, the central character, was an “icon of masculinity-in-crisis for the 21st century.” Don’s “hotness” I speculated—his ability to make the art of selling seem auratically attractive as well as tragic—was the aspect of his character which connected his existential crisis to an emergency in which we feel ourselves meditating today.

What was clear, therefore, both to Rob and me as we began to plan the symposium was the importance of focusing not only on what Mad Men says about the 1960s but also on what the 1960s might say about a range of topics including us and our interest in Mad Men. For as everyone knows, when we watch the show we are not watching “the Sixties” on our screen, but watching a particular projection of the 60s—indeed, thanks partly to the conceit of the credits sequence which we picked up for our poster, we are, in effect, watching a projection of ourselves watching a projection of the 60s—a motif that the show sometimes replicates.

Then too, it is not really “the Sixties” that Mad Men asks us to contemplate, but, rather, the early 1960s which the show constitutes as a slowly evolving pre-1960s. For when we think of “the Sixties” our usual habit is to join Terry Anderson in singling out a decade of “social activism”(xx)—what the editors of a recently launched journal on the topic describe as the era’s “transformative longing” for and belief in “the possibility of dramatic change and the mobilization of this hope.”

I suggest that what Mad Men is about is the deferral and sublimation of that transformative longing and mobilized hope. The show, so far, elongates the duree of the early 1960s almost indefinitely. If the social history it takes for its mise-en-scene is not wholly frozen, it is thawing very slowly.

Thus, the show knows that we know about the civil rights and feminist movements, but keeps them at the margins so as to keep us waiting. It knows that we know that the Beatles are coming, but it ignores an already existing American rock n’ roll; and when the British invasion finally arrives in season 3, it comes in the uncanny form of our own experience of corporate downsizing.

In a similar vein, the show plays with our expectation of a younger generation that will reinvent Ossining and Madison Avenue. Of course, who knows where Sally Draper’s anger may one day go, or if Peggy Olson will soon figure out that the Don-like plenitude she craves is an illusion. Still, the show’s first glimpse of the younger generation--the hitchhikers who party with Don and then bash his head and steal his money--hardly inspire us with the promise of youthful idealism.

No. If Mad Men invites us to believe in anything, it is not in the power of social movements, but of isolated feats of self-invention. Protean self-fashioning, a mode of self-advertisement we might say, enables Don to maintain his limited mastery over office politics, geopolitics, domestic and sexual politics. That is the secret to his having nine lives.

This is partly to make the obvious point that the show’s objective situation isn’t the 60s at all—early or late—but, rather, our own turn-of-the-millennium condition. We might even say that Mad Men is a nostalgic pastiche: that it fixates on the pre-1960s not by way of anticipating the radicalism to come, but because, in the words of Fredric Jameson (writing on “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in the 1980s), it is “beyond history” in representing a “pathological” inability to deal with time (117).

As a Victorianist, however, I myself perceive in Mad Men something more like a post-postmodernism: a neo-realism that evolves from episode to episode, recreating the tempo of 19th-century serial fiction in making experiences like Don’s or Betty’s stretch over time and, thus, in it. If these tortured interiors are clearly aesthetic constructions, bildugsromane without the bildung, the affects of loss and despair they evoke are much more than artifice—because they are ours. That is why Don can be heroic and anti-heroic; meaningful and soulless; lucky and doomed; transcendent and falling into the abyss. The fulfillment and failure of every masculine fantasy, Don’s performative contradiction faces down the changeless change that surrounds him, even while deferring our expectation of “the sixties.” For in palpably identifying ourselves with Don's experience we sublimate that unfulfilled longing for radical change.

Well: if I am right about any of this we have a lot of work to do today as our rich range of speakers—working from disciplines such as history, art, architecture, anthropology, literature and media studies—put Mad Men and the 1960s into dialogue. On that note, it is now my pleasure to introduce you to the very first of today’s introducers.


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Anonymous said...

This is really fabulous epitome of the series and its effects.

It does seem to me however that bildungsromane without bildung is an elegant phrase without being an exact one. Isn't the question of bildung, for Don, for Peggy, for Betty, for Sally (okay not for Roger) a perpetually open one, its outcome deferred, like the sixites themselves, but its unfolding as tantalizingly material as it is frustratingly chimerical? Isn't that the way this show turns its formal seriality into the viewer's addiction? [JV]

Lauren said...

Yes, I entirely agree, Joe. There are always moments of bildung--moments that, however fragmentary, really stand out in the series--and the possibility of them really "taking" is exactly what keeps us watching. I guess you might say that the act of watching Bildungsromane with just a hint of bildung makes us more Romantic than ever.

If I overstated my case it was partly because I wanted to do justice to the postmodern way of reading these characters, which is always worth thinking through. But I guess the other reason was that I couldn't resist writing "bildungsromane without the bildung." ;)

You caught me. Thanks for that and also for your kind words on the post more generally.