MAD WORLD: "The Color Blue: A Response to Lynne Joyrich"
Guest Writer: Claire Barber

Saturday, February 27, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The next in our series of blog posts from the Unit's 2/19 symposium, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, is a response to Lynne Joyrich's afternoon keynote lecture, "Media Madness: Multiple Identity Disorder in Mad Men"]

Written by Claire Barber (English)

Lynne Joyrich’s keynote piqued my interest as I read over the “Mad World” program, since I assumed from her title, “Media Madness: Multiple Identity Disorder in Mad Men,” that she would address disability (or its closeting) in Mad Men—a topic that has not received much analysis. As I listened, however, I was struck by the lack of attention to issues of disability, despite its explicit inclusion in the title. If Mad Men represents the era of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Lucky Strike cigarettes, then it also represents—although not explicitly—that of his sister Rosemary Kennedy, frontal lobotomies, institutions, and electric shock therapy. How, I wondered, did Joyrich understand the relation between disability and the rest of her presentation?

Joyrich’s most poignant analysis, where the specter of disability almost materialized, arrived toward the end of her presentation when she argued that “homosexuality [in Mad Men] appears in its closeting,” a claim she also applied to the series’s representations of race. Disability appeared in her presentation much as it does in the show, as specter. It loomed over and threatened to complicate one of the central arguments Joyrich presented, that Mad Men “demonstrates how media flows”— with flow being a television studies term for the techniques broadcasters employ to maintain viewership over the course of programming—“allow for a certain sort of playfulness with identities.” Accordingly, these identities “can be performed, transformed…ordered, disordered,” a Butlerian claim Joyrich pursued through an analysis of the characters presented in the show, the products advertised in its commercials, and the historical transformation of AMC as a media outlet. But, can this argument account for the actual disabilities evoked in her title?

Joyrich’s analysis of the manipulation of televisual media by both AMC and Mad Men raised two important issues. She argued at length that the show focuses on how advertising makes difference from sameness. Thus, in the very first episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don Draper, the creative director of the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper, shows how to distinguish Lucky Strike from its competitors by focusing on a product characteristic not associated with the health issues that threaten to cripple sales: “Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted,” says Draper. Joyrich described this move as “an attempt to mark brand” and represent quality, a process that she also explored in relation to AMC’s development as a channel presenting “quality television.” Its executives needed to differentiate it from TCM, TBS, and HBO, all media outlets offering similar products, just as executives associated with Mad Men must differentiate it from shows appealing to similar demographics.

The second challenge, one I wish Joyrich had pursued in greater detail, is how an ad man—or the show itself—deals with difference that cannot be reduced to sameness. She pointed out that “Mad Men does acknowledge differences across the flow” by representing issues of race and sexuality, though even these identities are reducible to “target demographics” and “market categories.” Joyrich referred to Pete Campbell’s investigation in season two of a new marketing strategy for Admiral Television as an example. Searching for information about an emerging market, Campbell confronts Hollis, the African-American elevator operator. When Hollis attempts to protest Campbell urges, “It’s just us, it’s just Hollis and—” “Mr. Campbell,” Hollis supplies.

Joyrich read this interaction as a conflict between the politics of identity and demographics, but her interpretation left me wondering. Yes, these ad men reduce difference to impersonal demographics, but aren’t there some differences they cannot reduce, and thus cannot sell? Think here about Horace Cook, Jr.’s desire to advertise jai alai as America’s new national pastime (Season 3, Episode 4); the creative team knows that even they cannot make this game successful because of its difference—it began in Spain, and players throw a ball around a three-walled court using wicker baskets— despite Cook’s claim that “in seven years, it’ll eclipse baseball.”

To push Joyrich’s argument further, I turn to an episode she did not examine, “The Color Blue,” as an even more powerful example of inassimilable difference in Mad Men (Season 3, Episode 8). Its title refers to a child’s question that Suzanne Farrell, the teacher with whom Draper is having an affair, repeats: “How do I know if what I see as blue is the same as it is to you?” Draper responds, “My job is about boiling down communication to its essentials. And that I know that there is a blue that at least 45% of the population sees as the same.” The viewer is left pondering the other 55%—and Farrell’s epileptic brother Danny enters the scene to provide an answer.

Draper later tries to counsel Danny, who has difficulty holding a job and supporting himself. He says, “I’m older than you are. It seems bad now, but you can still change things.” Danny scoffs at Draper’s naïveté, providing the following rebuttal:
How do I explain this: I can’t do anything that you can do. Everyone knows sooner or later that there is something wrong with me. They’re kind and they try. But then, when I come to with piss in my pants, they stare at me like I’m from another planet. I am afflicted, okay? It’s not a question of will.

Danny’s difference overwhelms Draper and, I suggest, Joyrich’s argument about the play of identity facilitated by media flow. Ultimately, Danny’s identity always returns to the signifier of his disorder. As an ad man, Draper assumes that all difference can be reduced to sameness, but Danny is part of the 55% who do not see the same color blue. Unlike Draper, who moves between multiple identities, Danny cannot closet his difference. It overwhelms his attempts to appear “the same” as those around him, a limitation also seen in Betty Draper’s depression, Gene Hofstadt’s dementia, and Freddy Rumsen’s alcoholism.

Ultimately, Joyrich laid out a variety of ways to think of Mad Men televisually. She demonstrated a wealth of knowledge about the history of television and introduced a persuasive argument about television flow as a way to make visible important discontinuities. Yet, as Joyrich’s brief attention to homosexuality suggests, some difference cannot be reduced to demographics and must be closeted or it threatens to overwhelm the “perfect” and homogenous world of advertising that the show depicts.

While the mad men of Madison Avenue ably manipulate 45% of the population to desire “a house, a car, a television, the American dream,” an objective Joyrich analyzed in depth, they ultimately lack a window into the minds of many.

For me, Danny Farrell represents just such a discontinuity—those imperfect figures only allowed to enter the world of Mad Men for a short time. The ability to perform or transform identity seems tempting, but some difference, like disability, speaks for itself—even when it is not spoken about.


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Anonymous said...

It is a measure of the strength of Claire Barber's response that it left me wondering whether beyond merely closeting disability, Joyrich was not in fact exploiting it. The phrase "multiple identity disorder," which has no diagnostic standing whatsoever, plays upon "multiple personality disorder," which clearly does.And "plays" in every sense of the term. It uses a disability category as a rhetorical figure in order precisely to assimilate the "inassimilable difference," to reduce the complex social reality of psychic disorder (undecidably pathologized difference and intractable impairment)to the forms of social identity, with their very different ratios of dis/entitlement. To put it most charitably, Joyrich's slant invocation of MPD does not serve to take psychic/cognitive disability especially seriously. To be less charitable, Joyrich has merely used the "specter" of disability as ad copy, a clever way to package an argument, one that gives Mad Men's recognizeably liberal ambivalence about the politics of identity the frisson of real psychic disturbance.

Unit for Criticism said...

I love Claire Barber's post and am very proud to publish it on Kritik. Thanks Claire! What I especially like is the way she has taken off from Lynne Joyrich's suggestive lecture and turned it into a launching point for her own fresh reading of a topic that Barber had thought Joyrich would address but which Joyrich did not. Anonymous: welcome to Kritik. With all due respect I think it's a bit ungenerous to criticize Joyrich for her "slant invocation" of multiple personality disorder--a term she doesn't actually use. As you yourself point out, Joyrich's lecture is quite explicitly titled "Multiple Identity Disorder" a term (in your own words) with "no diagnostic standing whatsoever." As Barber's post indicates Joyrich had a variety of reference points for her discussion of multiple identities in Mad Men: ones drawn from advertising, from her analysis of television "flow" and the invention of "quality" television, from her discussion of identities that the program depicts as closeted (Sal's homosexuality), and, not least at all, her analysis of the multiple identities of main character Don Draper (who in one memorable episode in season 3 performs the role of Dick Whitman pretending to be Don Draper, pretending to be the latter's brother-in-law). To be sure, Joyrich could think more about whether her title doesn't mislead, but I think we can join Barber in paying her the courtesy of not misunderstanding her intentions. On a different note, I find your reference to Mad Men's liberal ambivalence about the politics of identity really interesting; it's a topic I think will come up again including in the next guest post on the first panel of the symposium. At the event itself the show was characterized at various points as both liberal and postmodern but not, if memory serves, as neoliberal. I find that a ripe topic for discussion and hope it gets pursued. Thanks everyone (LG).

Anonymous said...

That Joyrich invoked multiple personality disorder without the slightest intention is precisely my point. By introducing the the term "disorder" into her study of multiple identities, she made winking use of a disability discourse she in no way proposed to engage. That, on a most "generous" reading, to use your term, is not to take the kind of disability she alluded to seriously. And nothing in the seriousness with which she might treat the multiple social identities anatomized in Mad Men can change that fact.

Unit for Criticism said...

Fair enough Anonymous, thanks for explaining further. I do see where you're coming from but I hope it's okay for me to note the multiplicity in your account of what Joyrich's title does. Has Joyrich "invoked MPD without the slightest intention"? Or has she knowingly "winked" at the latter? It's good work, IMO, to point out the real stakes of a scholar's use of the term "disorder" which, as you rightly suggest, Joyrich doubtless understands to be part of a disability discourse (whatever other meanings of "disorder" she may also have wished to invoke in her title). But all I'm suggesting (and you may certainly disagree) is that I think it's a little harsh to suggest that Joyrich did not and does not take disability seriously. Her title may have been the misstep of a first-rate scholar of television studies who has not (so far as we know) worked specifically on disability studies. And if Barber's analysis is right, as I think it is, disability haunted Joyrich's lecture on multiple identities, as a latent category of exclusion, but never materialized in the lecture, still less taking front and center (as the title might have suggested). To me, though, the lecture as a whole suggested that Joyrich would find much to admire in Barber's response. Do you disagree? More important, I think you're making a very interesting distinction between "the multiple social identities" in Mad Men and "the frisson of real psychic disturbance." I find two points worth following up here. As Claire's analysis of "The Color Blue" shows Don's advice to Danny (in essence, face down your problems by being a self-inventing ubermensch like me) is parried by Danny's insistence that his situation isn't a matter of will. This is something we see happen in the show again and again. Danny knows better than Don about what it's like to have a disability. Hollis knows better than Pete Campbell about what it means to be a racial minority cornered by an executive when your livelihood is at stake. Carla knows better than Betty Draper about the transformative potential of the civil rights movement and Sheila knows better than Joan about African Americans having the consumer power to shop at the supermarket. Now for some interpreters these moments are powerfully enlivening while for others they are mere liberal nods not least because at the end of the day the main characters are Don, Pete, Betty, and Joan, not Danny, Hollis, Carla, and Sheila. I'm interested in this question and would like to know more about what others think. Second, can we really be sure that Don's multiple identities merely represent the "frisson of _real_ psychic disturbance" (my emphasis)? That seems to me worth at least questioning. Thanks for the comments.

Anonymous said...

The phrase without any intention was supposed to be followed by the words "of actually addressing it," which would remove the "multiplicity" of which you speak.

And if you read the first comment more closely you will see that I never said Don's multiple identities represent the frisson of psychic disturbance; I said Joyrich's ablist appropriation, clear if indirect, of the diagnostic category Multiple Personality Disorder sought to GIVE Draper's conflicted identity the frisson of psychic disturbance.

Unit for Criticism said...

Hmmm... Here's what you wrote: Joyrich's packaging of her argument is "one that gives Mad Men's recognizably liberal ambivalence about the politics of identity the frisson of real psychic disturbance." That phrasing suggested to me that you thought that Mad Men's liberal ambivalence about the politics of identity required such packaging in order for it to benefit from such frisson; and further that, frisson apart, there was no _real_ psychic disturbance to be tapped. But now I gather from your latest comment that you think it possible that a non-ablist analysis of Don's multiple identities would or at least could describe actual psychic disturbance. I find that really fascinating. Could you please say more?

Rob Rushing said...

I'm perplexed by an apparent contradiction here, or perhaps I'm misunderstanding. The post begins by noting that "the show focuses on how advertising makes difference from sameness." It then goes on to ask, more than once, how the ad men in the show "reduce difference to impersonal demographics," noting that "there [are] some differences they cannot reduce, and thus cannot sell." Demographic targeting is not accomplished by reducing differences, but by exploiting those that exist and creating new ones ("I'm a Mac"—"…and I'm a PC") Moreover, it appears to regard the first—difference from sameness—as largely positive (Butlerian and playful), and the latter as oppressive. I thought Joyrich quite ably explained the complexities of this process, in which the creation of difference (on the base of race, sex and class initially—then other categories) was largely exploitive. Disability is "invisible" in the world of Mad Men because it has not yet been "cut out" into a purchasing demographic. I think the show quite ably demonstrates this invisibility, but Joyrich's point seemed to be that sooner or later some clever Pete Campbell or Peggy Olson would find a way to create "the disabled," and find venues to market to this new audience as well, creating the identity that they will then exploit. I'd also say that the phrase "multiple identity disorder" made me think less of disability than of psychoanalysis—but there, perhaps, we were both disappointed.

Anonymous said...

@Unit for Criticism,

One could equate Draper's multiple identities with psychic disturbance, of course, but to equate them with some recognized disability or disorder would be to succomb to the neo-ablist discourse Joyrich's own title advances. Whereas all modes of disability have at times been the object of toxic exclusion, cognitive disability in particular has lately become the site of a toxic "inclusiveness" that fails to accomodate difference and instead reduces in order to assimilate it. Current ideas that nearly everyone has some form of ADHD, that it is the zeitgeist or the product of our shared technologies is one version of this inclusiveness. So too is the idea that we all fit somewhere on the autistic spectrum or that we all have certain autistic characteristics. So too is the notion that Draper can at once be normative enough to represent an era and yet still participate in the marginalized condition of MPD owing to the myriad forms of "identity" he inhabits or performs.

One way of taking disability unseriously is to exile its subjects and the difference they embody from the social and institutional mainstream. Another is to suggest that the difference those subjects of disability embody is no difference at all because it is so endemic to the normative and norming community.

Lauren said...

Anonymous (assuming you are the same anonymous who has been posting comments all along), hello again. First, so you know for sure whom you're chatting with, I'm Lauren Goodlad, the "LG" of Unit for Criticism and now posting under my personal account. Second, I’ve had to break up my comment into two replies because it is over the word count for an individual reply. As you know, my remarks on psychic disturbance followed your cue. I asked if you might be foreclosing the possibility that Don's multiple identities represented "real" psychic disturbance rather than merely the frisson of it you replied: "I never said Don's multiple identities represent the frisson of psychic disturbance." You then wrote: "One could equate Draper's multiple identities with psychic disturbance...but to equate them with some recognized disability or disorder would be to succumb to...neo-ablist discourse." You explained that it is taking disability unseriously, when one suggests "that the difference those subjects of disability embody is no difference at all because it is so endemic to the normative and norming community." Thank you. I should make clear that I coming to this discussion as one who doesn’t regard herself as well-qualified to describe "real" psychic disturbance in a clinical sense. That said, it seems to me that you are implicitly assuming that Don Draper represents "the normative and norming community"? Does he (or does he always)? More important, it also seems to me that you are applying to a highly stylized fictional narrative a standard more appropriate to non-fiction. To me Mad Men is an allegory and Don is an archetype as well as a protagonist. (I do not mean by that that he "represents[s] an era"--though he represents a personality that is embedded in an era. To me what he represents most is our fantasy of a kind of masculine personality tied to our fantasy of a past that no longer exists--and this is what I mean in this instance by archetype. I do think that Don's character is marginalized in significant ways although he occupies the center of the narrative and is socio-economically successful. I agree with Michael Szalay that he is a figure who passes for the dominant norm rather than embodying it stably. He is marked by otherness in all sorts of ways although he wears nice business suits.) Although I'm not the best person to think about the character in diagnostic terms, I think that anyone who attempted that task would want to bear in mind that he is a fiction who operates at many levels of signification and through highly aestheticized forms. Is the silhouetted figure that we see in the credits, alternately plummeting and floating between modern office blocks covered with advertising, psychically disturbed in some clinical sense? If he was pushed or fell perhaps not. If he has jumped perhaps yes. The reason for the fall is left purposely ambiguous. He is falling and then he is smoking a cigarette on a couch and we are watching him from behind which perspective allows us to see what he sees. Does this make him normative or norming or does it, perhaps, make us so since we are now invited to watch someone who is clearly in some kind crisis? This kind of ambiguity about a fractured character was, to my mind something Joyrich's keynote handled very well (did you actually hear it btw?)

Lauren said...

I understand the ethical case that you are making for neither assimilating nor excluding cognitive disability. I think it likely that if we discussed the topic at length we would both agree that though Don is merely passing for normal, there isn't a great deal of justification, on aesthetic or empirical grounds, for reading his need to multiply himself as first and foremost figurative of a cognitive disability such as MPD. But I do think it's important for cultural critics to acknowledge the allegorical functions of realist narrative. I don't think (although some critics do) that realist modes of representation take upon themselves the naive task of making reality transparent. I give realism more credit than that: I think it gives us windows on reality and what we experience as reality which we wouldn't otherwise have, and windows which need to be addressed in terms beyond mere empiricism. So my reply is made on behalf of the complexity of realist form, but in sympathy with your overall ethical position on disability as I understand it. I merely want to think about questions in open-ended fashion and not judge books by their covers, keynote lectures by their titles alone, or questions about psychic disturbance by whether the questions themselves are or appear to be neo-ablist. It seems to me that there is always a respectful way of approaching a question. Will you perhaps take a look at the most recent post on the Mad World symposium? There are some interesting topics there for your consideration.

Anonymous said...

"I think it likely that if we discussed the topic at length we would both agree that though Don is merely passing for normal, there isn't a great deal of justification, on aesthetic or empirical grounds, for reading his need to multiply himself as first and foremost figurative of a cognitive disability such as MPD."

Perhaps we could further agree that while Mad Men and Drapewr in particular bear a powerful allegorical dimension that you have eloquently delinneated, that dimension does not, by your own account, extend to cognitive disability. If we can agree that far, I must further contend that the implication of cognitive disability, however allegorical, is the invention of the title that Joyrich chose to contour her talk (because that's what titles do). It is this contouring that Claire Barber has spoken to, quite brilliantly. And in my view the allegory that Joyrich implied and Barber unpacked is a distinctly neo-ablist in its assimilation of cognitive disability to what we might call "ordinary" traumatic dysfunction, otherwise known as (admittedly profound) neurotic formations.

Lauren said...

And the title MAD MEN? Is that also neo-ablist contouring I wonder?

I agree that Claire's analysis is great because she used the occasion of her disappointed expectations to offer her own compelling take on an interesting topic. I'm sorry Anonymous but I think you are making too much of the title of a talk that actually engaged many of the issues that interest you--and engaged them quite powerfully. The last word on this topic will be yours if you wish it though I do hope that you take your excellent thinking about Mad Men (Psychically Disturbed Men?) to the comment section of one of the other posts from the symposium.

Anonymous said...

MAD MEN is of course an historical reference. Ad men on Madison Avenue punningly referred to themselves as Madmen. Has Matthew Weiner cleverly used that designation to suggest psychic tumult? Undoubtedly. Does the title of the conference extend that vernacular play on "madness" by way of a similarly clever lateral reference to the famous movie of the same period, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World? Of course. But madness has not been a diagnostic category signalling specific modes of psychic, mental or cognitive dysfunction for a very long time. It's colloquial use to describe the excessive, the exuberant, and the exorbitant has long since eclipsed its clinical usage. Most important, being no longer the sign of a specific disability, it no longer designates or implicates a finite population with a defined set of political interests, demands, grievances etc. To yoke Draper and his world to the "mad" is, accordingly to assimilate nothing in particular. The same cannot be said for a diagnostic class like MPD.

As for "making too much of the title"--which is to say making too much of the framing power of the title--that is a judgment call, on which, like taste, there is no settling of disputes. I would only say that Claire Barber's excellent post, which we have all been enjoying and commenting upon, would not exist in its present form, or perhaps at all, were it not for the Joyrich's unfortunate title or frame and the inferences to be drawn from it.

Unit for Criticism said...

deleted post was spam.

Lynne Joyrich said...

It can be interesting to see how one's work might stimulate discussion in various directions besides its own argument, and I suppose that there is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that, if I've disappointed, I've managed equally to do so for those whose understandings of terms like "multiple," "order" (or "disorder"), "identity," etc. have different references and emerge from different discourses (diagnostic, psychoanalytic, demographic, etc.). One of the main points in my talk was to consider how, in a mass-mediated, consumer/commodity culture, the media themselves provide discursive categories and references with which to order (or disorder) identities in particular ways. Thus, while Mad Men, diegetically, concerns a character who, in a particular way, can be described as having multiple identities (and other characters too have secret and/or plural identities), my focus was less on the show's characters (and on how those might or might not compare to real people) but on the multiple identities of the very media forms invoked by the program (print advertisement, cinema, television, digital media) and the ways in which these media construct, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct identities and differences according to their own conventions and (commodity) logics (with the effect, then, of making some visible and marketable in particular ways while keeping others—like, in one of my examples, queer sexualities, or as brought up in this forum, and I would argue, not at all foreclosed as an equal example by my talk if one followed its argument, disability—more invisible or marked only in oblique ways). Yet because these media orders are shifting and multiple, the identities and differences they articulate (or fail productively to articulate) are also shifting. I didn't have time to get into this as much as I'd have liked, but, at the end of the talk, I mentioned the Twitter community around Mad Men (supposedly read by the show's own producers) in which fans take on the roles of program characters or make up their own, and there is a wider diversity of possibilities there, with roles that not only include the familiar ones from the program but less familiar possibilities as well (like various character doppelgangers, non-human characters like Duck's dog or the ants in the ant farm, even non-animate characters like a seltzer bottle who comments on the action). Still, I wouldn't want to suggest in some sort of utopian ways that digital cultures, with this fluidity of role playing and identity positioning, escapes a commodity logic (as is clear by the way that this active viewership itself functions as advertisement) or solves the problems of delimited identities and recognition in other media, since digital media cultures too have their own blindspots (including, very often, those of the body and its possibilities/impossibilities). But I hope that this does demonstrate my larger point about how identities might be variously brought into (or excluded from) the order of consumer/commodity culture by various intersecting and/or multiple media forms, which articulate/rearticulate those identities according to their own specific formations—formations with which we all (from our various positions and with our various interests and discourses) might get involved if we want to help produce the identities, discourses, references, and recognitions that will be operative in the future. Perhaps, then, the feelings folks have expressed here might be a spur toward participation in and thus change to those media worlds themselves. (For example, as far as I know, the role of Danny Farrell on Twitter is still open, just waiting for someone to take the part!).

Lauren said...

Thanks, Lynne, for taking the time to explain your use of the term multiple identities in your keynote. Anonymous and I did end up going off a tangent of ours and it's nice to be brought closer in to your initial focus.

The stuff about Twitter-ers is really interesting and I'm tempted to check it out though, as a non-Tweeter, I feel as though I'd be at a loss. Do these tweets take place while the show is being aired? Or are they perhaps sometimes framed in the context of a particular episode that can be called to mind? Or is one meant to maintain one's tweet personality as one goes through one's own day? (So that for example I might be commenting on this post in the persona of some favorite Mad Men character or object?)

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