Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.9
"Margins, Regressions, and Betty’s Little Smile"
Guest Writer: Eleanor Courtemanche

Monday, May 27, 2013

[The eighth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Margins, Regressions, and Betty’s Little Smile"

Written by: Eleanor Courtemanche (English)

It might be summer 1968 in the world of Mad Men, but it’s freezing cold outside. Nothing’s worse than being left alone, either at a breakfast table, on the balcony of your posh Upper East Side apartment, or in the middle of a sterile advertising agency. A thug might shoot you as you’re walking alone through Central Park!

We first hear the sirens when Megan fails to interest Don in dinner, and they sound louder and louder until the rock comes crashing through the window of Abe and Peggy’s apartment. Worst case scenario: you yourself are the midnight thug. You knife your boyfriend in the gut by accident, and then have him break up with you in the ambulance before he passes out. No, even worse: you tell your crushworthy boss about your sad breakup and he gives you the cold shoulder, disguised as a cheery admonition to get to work. At least you have your mentor … but then Don closes his door as well, leaving you—Peggy—stranded outside the empty conference room, in the episode’s last chilly image.

In scary circumstances (let’s not forget that Bobby Kennedy was shot in a hotel kitchen at the end of the last episode), people seek shelter. But relationships in this show are a game of musical chairs: someone always gets left out. So this episode is a series of frantic transactions as characters try to maximize their desirability to others while keeping their own choices open. Peggy starts the show as the fulcrum of the new hybrid agency SCDP/CGC: when Ted and Don can’t compromise between their competing margarine pitches, they both turn to Peggy to break the tie. Peggy wins, clearly—Pete’s protestations that he “agrees with Don” only emphasize his total irrelevance in the agency’s power structure. Nobody wants you, Pete! Pete, your only superpower is your massively receding hairline.

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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.8
"Leaving the Whorehouse"
Guest Writer: Todd McGowan

Monday, May 20, 2013

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The seventh in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Leaving the Whorehouse"

Written by: Todd McGowan (University of Vermont)

It is difficult to claim that someone who leaves his children unattended in a large city and cheats indiscriminately on his spouse is an ethical figure, but this is precisely the wager of Mad Men. This wager comes to the fore in this week’s episode, “The Crash,” which depicts the fragile construction of Don’s personal life and the aura that sustains his work life crashing down around him. Don Draper is an appealing character not due to his physical appearance, his sense of mystery, or his ability as an advertiser. The source of his appeal lies in the relationship that he has to trauma. The series makes clear that our ethical being emerges through an engagement with trauma, and with “The Crash,” Mad Men develops this conception of ethics even further than it hitherto has.

An advertising agency does not seem like the site where we would find ethical acts. Rather than act ethically, advertisers willingly prostitute themselves to sell whatever product their clients want them to sell, no matter how destructive that product might be. Mad Men emphasized this dimension of advertising in its first few years by highlighting the dependence of the agency Sterling Cooper on revenue from cigarette advertising. But there is another sense in which an advertising agency is the perfect site for the deployment of an ethical subjectivity. The advertiser, even more than everyone else in society, must constantly confront the emptiness of the Other’s desire and try to find a way to speak to that desire. Even if the series uses the backdrop of advertising as a metaphor for the world of unrestrained capitalism, it shows the possibility for the ethical act within this world. Of course, capitalism can make use of this act for its self-reproduction, but the act itself retains its ethical status. And despite his affairs, his mistreatment of coworkers, and his many other flaws, Don is the ethical center of the series. With “The Crash,” we see for the first time why this is so.

In earlier episodes, Don’s ethical status becomes apparent through his capacity to act against his own self-interest and abandon the assurances of his symbolic identity. He can, for instance, publicly highlight the dangers of cigarettes after establishing his name as the advertiser for Lucky Strike. This act requires an engagement with the trauma of abandoning the security of his reputation, and this public betrayal of Lucky Strike in Season 4 (“Blowing Smoke”) does have lasting repercussions for Don’s career. He acts as he does, however, because he recognizes that there is no ground for his identity, that one’s symbolic identity provides no ultimate foundation upon which one might act. But the series shows a stark contrast between Don’s life in advertising and his private life, where he uses a series of lovers to avoid the trauma that he confronts in the advertising world. He uses these lovers to avoid the ethical self-destruction that he welcomes at work.

This dynamic undergoes a radical change with the introduction of Sylvia and with the development of their relationship in “The Crash.” Unlike Don’s previous lovers, Sylvia embodies for him his fundamental exclusion: his relationship with her repeats the exclusion that defined him as a young boy. No matter how closely Don approaches Sylvia, he remains at a distance from her, and she refuses to allow him to broach that distance. The series highlights Sylvia’s importance formally at the very beginning of this episode.

The second scene of the episode shows Don eavesdropping outside Sylvia’s apartment, and it is soon clear how traumatic their relationship is for him. Though the series typically respects the rules of continuity editing, this scene begins with a direct violation of the 180 degree rule. We see Don in profile from the right side, and the show cuts directly to a profile shot from the left, so that Don seems turn around instantaneously, facing one direction and then facing the other. This disruption for the spectator suggests the traumatic disruption of Don’s subjectivity in his encounter with Sylvia. Rather than bolstering his sense of his identity in the way that Betty or Megan did, Sylvia returns Don to the trauma of his emergence as a desiring subject and forces him to exist within this trauma. This is why the episode that begins with Don traumatized outside Sylvia’s door returns him to his childhood and to his first sexual experience.

“The Crash” is the first episode of Mad Men to show Don’s introduction to sex. This introduction occurs thanks to a prostitute, Aimée, who works at the brothel where he is being raised. Aimée comes to the aid of the young Don when he is sick with a cough and cold and, as he recovers, she seduces him and provides him with his first sexual experience, in spite of his reluctance. As she lies down next to him on the bed, she asks, “Do you want to know what all the fuss is about?” Though he responds in the negative, Aimée continues and tells him that she’ll “do everything.” After she says this, the scene concludes with a close-up of the young Don’s face as he grimaces before it cuts to an image of Don in the present day in the archives of the agency where he has discovered an ad that he believes holds the key not just to the Chevy campaign but to the very problem of existence.

In this shot following his sexual initiation, Don stands holding an advertisement that he did for oatmeal that shows a mother standing over her son with the caption, “Because You Know What He Needs.” As the prior scene makes evident, Don never had a mother who understood what he needed. In contrast to life at a brothel and to Aimée who traumatically seduces Don, the advertisement promises a mother who will nurture the child and protect it from trauma while speaking perfectly to the child’s desires. Don immediately sees this ad as not just the answer to his own trauma but also the key to advertising as such.

After returning to his office, Don calls Peggy and Michael Ginsberg in order to announce his discovery to them. In the midst of describing his idea, he proclaims, “If this strategy is successful, it’s way bigger than a car. It’s everything.” Though Ginsberg plays along with Don in awe of his reputation, Peggy soon recognizes that this is a massive delusion and that, rather than producing ideas for a Chevy campaign, Don has spent the weekend in a drug-induced haze in which he created nothing but gibberish. He fails because he imagines a mystical union with a non-existent mother who would save him from the trauma that continues to mark his existence.

The absence of this mother is apparent in the seemingly unrelated interaction of Don’s daughter Sally with an intruder in Don and Megan’s apartment. The show emphasizes that this is a black woman not just visually but also when multiple characters describe her as a “Negro” and when Don’s son Bobby wonders aloud if he is himself a “Negro.” Many critics (including my colleague here at the University of Vermont, Sarah Nilsen and some of the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World) have taken the show to task for its depictions of race and racism. Despite taking place during a time of integration, the show remains relatively white, and the black characters often serve not as independent figures but as mere indices of the attitudes that the white characters take up toward the question of race. The death of Martin Luther King, for instance, inspires white characters to seek out black characters in order to display their anti-racism, but it also enables the otherwise unattractive Pete Campbell to express genuine concern in the face of this event. If prior episodes incidentally provided fodder for critics more through omission than commission, “The Crash” seems to go out of its way to employ a racist stereotype in the figure of Grandma Ida, a thief who presents herself to Don’s children as the woman who raised their father.

Viewers of the show are aware immediately that Ida is neither Don’s mother nor the woman who raised Don. And as her interaction with Sally goes on, it becomes clear even to the uninformed that she is trying to rob the apartment rather than visit Don. But she nonetheless plays an important structural role in the episode. She is a motherly figure—she immediately wants to cook for Sally—and claims to occupy the position of Don’s nurturer at the same time as Don is imagining the existence of such a figure. The fact that she is lying tells us that this nurturer doesn’t exist, that though some of us, unlike Don, may have mothers, none of us has a nurturer who knows what we need. Instead of the nurturer, we must confront and embrace the stranger who appears in this position.

Though she is lying, the woman posing as Don’s mother and robbing him is in another sense telling the truth insofar as Don shares her exclusion. She is the mother that he didn’t have. Her blackness is not merely contingent or a signifier of the show’s underlying racism. If Don didn’t have a black mother, that is only because such a narrative line would provide an easy answer for his exclusion. This sequence, which parallels Don’s own flashbacks to his upbringing, reveals that no one has the mother who offers what is needed. Both Don and Peggy share this absence.

Throughout the series, the link between Don and Peggy (discussed last week by Sean O’ Sullivan) provides one of the touchstones to which we continually return. On one level, their connection stems from their skill as advertisers, and it is clear that they have a mutual respect for this skill. But it is much more their ethical being that separates them from other characters on the show, and “The Crash” highlights this through their shared engagement with trauma.

After trying to seduce Peggy, Stan reveals to her that his cousin has just died in Vietnam. She tells him, “I’ve had loss in my life. You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex. It won’t get you through.” Though Stan is unconvinced, this statement makes clear the basic point of connection between Peggy and Don, especially as we see Don in this episode. He works through a continuing confrontation with the trauma of loss and exclusion, and every ad that he creates emerges out of this confrontation.

The episode ends with Don once again acting against his self-interest by abandoning work on the Chevy advertising campaign. Just two episodes ago, abandoned the agency’s most important client, Jaguar, when he refused to allow Herb Rennet, their connection at Jaguar, to involve someone from his dealership in the development of the advertising. In “The Crash,” after an unproductive weekend of nonstop work, Don decides that the agency resembles the milieu in which he grew up. He announces to new partners Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler that he will now only oversee creative work on Chevy rather than producing any. The final word of the episode, which Don speaks as he’s walking back to his office, is “whorehouse.”

With this word, Don makes the connection that many do between advertising and prostitution, but this is especially poignant for him since he grew up in a brothel. By dismissing the agency as a whorehouse and refusing to continue to work as a prostitute, Don displays once again the possibility for the ethical act that exists within the most ethically compromising spaces. One should not judge this act on the activity that follows it. If Don goes back to writing copy for Chevy in the next episode, here he nonetheless breaks for a moment from his enslavement to the Other’s demand and confronts the absence of anyone who knows “what he needs.” This break and this confrontation are the basis for every ethical act.

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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.7
"The Pause That Refreshes"
Guest Writer: Sean O'Sullivan

Monday, May 13, 2013

posted under , , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The sixth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"The Pause That Refreshes"

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

We have reached the doldrums. By this I do not mean some unexpected state of plot lethargy or ennui, since “Man with a Plan,” the seventh episode of Season 6, is full of hustle and bustle, and since 1968 is one of the least drowsy years in American history. Rather, I mean something structural, constitutional. I mean the seventh episode of what I have called the “sonnet season”*—that is, the 13-episode uninterrupted narrative unit inaugurated by The Sopranos in 1999, which has served as the template for much of the most prominent television of the 21st century.

The sonnet season has transformed not just how television is made but how television is discussed. It is a season that is more compact, more distinct than the typical network sprawl of 20-plus installments (or 39, in the case of a 1960s show like the fictional Grin and Barrett conceived in Mad Men’s second season). But it is a season that has more space for development and alteration than the six or eight hours of the British televisual tradition, where the beginning and the end are in such proximate conversation as to allow no room for a real middle.

In the middle of such a season, at the juncture of the seventh episode, we are potentially neither here nor there; far enough from the beginning to feel launched, far enough from the end to feel the tidal pull of conclusion. We are—to cite the Oxford English Dictionary’s most targeted definition of “doldrums”—-in “the region of calms and light baffling winds near the equator, where the trade winds meet and neutralize each other.” The terms and directions of the season have been put in motion, but we do not yet understand, or need to understand, the eventual place where we will land. Or, to use Ted Chaough’s description of air travel: it is where we are once we have leveled off, having navigated the clouds of turbulent ascent. It’s our chance to take in the wonder of God’s televisual majesty.

A seventh episode can emphasize its position as showstopper. See, for example, “The Suitcase,” everyone's favorite melodramatic two-hander. The midpoint of Mad Men’s fourth season operated explicitly as a break, a chance both to deploy a significant plot change—-the death of the original Mrs. Draper—-and to focus as intimately as the series ever has into the emotional particulars of the show's central relationship—-Don and Peggy. “The Suitcase” to some degree exists independently of its season's trade winds. Watching it, we may have sensed that everything had changed, suddenly—for Don and Peggy, for the show, for us. And yet in many ways nothing changed in the subsequent weeks, an illusory epiphany of the kind that featured so prominently in Mad Men’s ancestor series, The Sopranos. That simultaneous position of significant weight and significant weightlessness may perhaps be the privilege of an episode at the center of things.

We get a version of that intimacy here in the Don and Sylvia story, in a room that they temporarily agree to seal off from the rest of the world. But their story has always been an opaque one for us, since their middle was our beginning, our introduction to her in the Season 6 premiere, “The Doorway” (covered in this series by Bruce Robbins) an instance of in medias res. With the exception of Midge Daniels at the very beginning of the series, we had been there at the start of every one of Don’s extramarital dalliances. His relationship with Sylvia, like the sixth season more generally, has made the relative position of beginning and middle harder to map out.

“The Suitcase” was the fruit of an intimacy gleaned slowly, week after week; its story was, to a large degree, the story of two people shedding their guardedness, their roles, and enacting some possible version of their true selves. By contrast, Don and Sylvia indulge in elaborate make-believe, in artifice rather than exposure. In this way, “Man with a Plan” is almost the obverse of “The Suitcase”; if the final word of the earlier episode was “open”—a gesture toward doorways that also inaugurated this season—the corresponding threshold, or more precisely elevator, would appear here to be “closed.” Don wants to linger in the middle, in the suspension of space marked by room 503 of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Sylvia, a narrative traditionalist, finally insists on going home, in that most ancient of narrative drives, a journey that may take her toward episode 13 of this season, or somewhere completely outside our orbit.

Not every seventh episode can, or should, be “The Suitcase.” In some ways, the series’ first seventh may represent the most archetypal illustration of the possibilities of the middle. You may or may not recall “Red in the Face,” from Mad Men’s inaugural campaign. Sandwiched between the series-defining “Babylon” and the back story explosion of “The Hobo Code,” “Red in the Face” is a sardonic sketch of marital and workplace tension, featuring Pete's saga of the Chip ‘n’ Dip and Don making Roger walk up 22 flights after an oyster-swollen lunch, in revenge for flirting with Betty. It ends with a barf and a smirk, and it is less tethered to the large serial movements of the season than the preceding or succeeding episodes. If “The Suitcase” is the seventh episode as deep burrowing, “Red in the Face” is the seventh episode as lateral move; it is the kind of episode we get if we think of the 13-episode season less as a novel and more as a collection of short stories, in the manner of Winesburg, Ohio (a copy of which sits in Dick Whitman’s tent in Korea). It is Mad Men as anthology show, as an array of simultaneous options in a narrative universe, rather than a necessarily sequential logic of cause and effect.

There is too much going on in “Man with a Plan” to be as light on its feet as Season 1’s “Red in the Face.” But we do get a compressed version of the earlier episode’s investment in alpha men as sex and alcohol performers. The improvised flirtation that Roger directs toward Betty in the Draper kitchen coagulates here into the domination ritual that Don concocts for Sylvia. More directly similar is Don’s attempt to dominate Ted by out-drinking him. Don’s most prominent man-with-a-plan gambit in season one was that well-designed revenge in “Red in the Face”: bribing the elevator operator (an occupation that Don must assume for himself at the start of this week’s episode) to pretend that the lift is out of service. Here, all he needs is a bottle of Canadian Club and a new business partner who doesn’t want to get left behind. Unlike that earlier episode, Don emerges from these games as vanquished, or at least chastised, rather than merrily triumphant. “Move forward,” Peggy admonishes him, anticipating Sylvia’s demand that they leave the doldrums.

One thing that both episodes clearly share is a moment of throwing up. Indeed, prominent scenes of vomiting—-or preparation for the same—-occur in no fewer than four of Mad Men’s seventh episodes. This may be coincidental; but I choose to think of the phenomenon as a self-conscious recognition that seventh episodes may be necessary emetics, places to purge before we binge on the second half of the season.** In this instance we get Joan’s dry heaves, whose primary purpose appears to be to bring Bob Benson from recurrent, inscrutable background to something like front and center. I have thought of him throughout this season as something like the man in the macintosh in Ulysses-—the most minor of characters, who pops up here and there with no ostensible purpose or consequence, beyond the purpose of inscribing minorness as an interest of the narrative. Unless we are being aggressively misled, the prognosis for Joan’s ovarian cyst certainly seems better than the one for Frank Gleason’s pancreatic cancer. Why is this minor excursion here at all? This seems a deliberate design to move the storyline of Bob Benson—-prominently wearing a macintosh here—-from the edge to the center, mirroring to some degree the collision of peripheral and dominant characters in the chaotic hallways of the still-unnamed agency that Don and Ted created in Detroit.

There is no escaping the clash of beginning, middle, and end throughout the episode. It’s the first day of school, Ted tells Peggy, and we catch Bert Cooper in the middle of an announcement about the merger, but with no ending scripted yet. (Not to worry; they’ve got a lot of writers out there.) “Were in the middle of a merger,” Pete exclaims to his brother, even as his mother appears to be nearing her end. It’s worth recalling that the seventh episode of the third season, “Seven Twenty Three,” also marked a new business arrangement; at the behest of Conrad Hilton, Don Draper finally signed a contract with Sterling Cooper. We all remember how well that turned out. So the middle-as-beginning inversion is hardly a new one—as forecast by the very beginning of the season, where we found ourselves in a dark wood, in the middle of our life’s journey. The Inferno proved foundational for the season in more ways than one: Dante’s invented verse of terza rima is the most serial of poetic schemes, since each three-line segment explicitly triggers its successor. The aba bcb cdc ded structure, where the middle rhyme in one triad always becomes the beginning and end rhymes of the next triad, inscribes an interdependence of origin, center, and conclusion. (The rich relationships between epic and serial are the least examined branches in narrative genealogy.)

Perhaps my favorite scene in “Man with a Plan” has less to do, ostensibly, with matters of form; but it’s certainly about issues of limitations, and about the sense of closure that we think we can sniff in a seventh episode. It’s the hospital conversation between Ted Chaough and Frank Gleason—-the second of three hospitals in the episode, following Joan’s encounter with Nurse Finnegan (more James Joyce?) and preceding Bobby Kennedy’s transportation to the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. This scene may be Mad Men at its best. Here’s one character who until recently has existed more or less in the zone of caricature, as the prankster and provocateur rather than the complicated nemesis; and another character whose existence did not even register until last week, a character whose beginning for us is an end for him. We dip into a relationship that has clearly evolved for decades; these are characters that have existed, in their own drama, outside the selective focalization of Sterling Cooper and its successors. Mixed with the soapiness of introducing a character on what appears to be his deathbed, we also get a prominent maneuver of the realist tradition—-the sudden immersion in a world that exists independently of us, of what we think we need to know. We get banter between two men that is the froth of many days, weeks, years of association, the reminder of what was and the speculation about what might be. There may be a whiff of Tony Soprano’s vigil for the cancer-stricken Jackie Aprile, in the early days of that series, when a sidekick in a crime family suddenly had to become a protagonist. Ted Chaough may not have been a sidekick within the world of CGC, but he has certainly been a sidekick in the world of Mad Men. As Alex Woloch has argued, major characters in realist fiction always exist dynamically with minor characters, creating space for themselves at the expense of others who threaten to take their place. For Ted to become important to the narrative with which we’re familiar, Gleason’s minorness must be recorded, and then his character jettisoned. There are only so many chairs to go around.

*Kritik will soon be providing access to this piece on the Unit for Criticism's webpage.

** For those scoring at home, those four episodes are “Red in the Face,” “The Gold Violin,” “The Suitcase,” and “Man with a Plan.” And Sally Draper certainly felt like throwing up when she saw what she saw at the codfish ball.

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The Eighties in Theory and Practice: Gabriel Solis’s Opening Remarks

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

[On May 2-3, 2013 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted “The Eighties in Theory and Practice,” a conference. Gabriel Solis (Musicology) opened the second day of the conference. His remarks are below.]

Welcome, and it’s my pleasure to introduce the second day of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory spring conference, “The 1980s in Theory and Practice.” Let me welcome back those of you who were here yesterday, and welcome in those who weren’t.

I think of my brief remarks here as a kind of mid way check in, a bit of, as Johanna Burton put it yesterday, “taking the temperature of the room,” and hopefully providing a bit of further context for today’s further discussion. I’ll try not to go on at too much length, as we have a nicely paced series of talks to look forward to for the rest of the day today.

So, a little context. When we thought about this event in the first place, it was an attempt to conceptualize a broadly intermedia, interdisciplinary cultural history of the 1980s, with three main themes. Those were:

Spacialities: Geopolitics
Temporalities: Diachronic contexts, synchronic text

We have touched on all three threads, but it seems to me that of the three threads, technology has gone the directions I, at least, least expected. When we workshopped the conference proposal we imagined having a discussion of early digital technology and the emergent web--think War Games. But instead we have had a very interesting discussion, thanks to Chris Castiglia and Roger Hallas, of video, a technology that predates the 1980s, but which seems definitive of its cultural productions. Though we didn’t talk about it, the proliferation (and miniaturaization) of amateur video technology—hand-held VHS cameras and dubbing playback machines—in the 1980s ties all of our threads together. It is a fact of technoculture, and one that was surely part of the neoliberal pleasure of conspicuous consumption (whoever dies with the most toys wins, after all); and it is central to the creation of texts in the moment, the massive amateur documentation of events that seemed perhaps at the time to contribute to the postmodern sense of the flattening out of temporal experience, the twin senses that time was moving faster than ever and that its linearity was fundamentally disrupted (and that in retrospect gives us the remarkable archive from which we have crafted a sense of the 80s in historical, teleological time; but it was also connected to our geopolitical thread. As the American media anxiously noted at the time, miniaturized, personal video technology, like most consumer electronics of the time, was a product of late modern globalized capital, and part and parcel of “turning Japanese,” as the song said.

Video was also a critical part of the turn to the visual that we saw so powerfully in yesterday’s talks, and that was briefly mentioned, but about which I am inclined to go meta for a moment here. The turn to the visual was not just felt in the world of high culture—the art world, as it were—but in the world of popular culture perhaps even more. While graphic design and photography had been a consistent part of post-war (and in a smaller way early 20th century) popular music, and while bands had exploited film to build audiences and enhance the narrative shapes of their music going back to the 1920s, video was THE growth medium of popular music in the 1980s. I’m not sure that video killed the radio star, as Wooley and the Camera Club (and later the Buggles) had it, but it certainly altered the landscape.

In terms of diachronic temporalities, yesterday gave us a good deal to think about, as we try to periodize and figure out when we actually mean when we talk about the “long 80s” (or even a 10-year 80s, if we follow Howard Singerman and date them from 1977 to 1987). I’m quite taken with the early start date, because in addition to the reasons in politics and art that Howard gave us, it also allows me to think of post-punk, including Elvis Costello’s first three albums (My Aim Is True, 1977, This Year’s Model, 1978, and Armed Forces, 1979), early synth pop recordings (including “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which was recorded in 1979, though its video was the first broadcast on MTV in 1981), and so on all as part of our period. And because, looking to the South Bronx, as Howard encouraged us to do, it also takes in more or less the entire history of recorded hip hop, beginning with DJ Disco Wiz’s mix tapes in 1977 and the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. And because it encompasses more or less the entire history of hardcore in the U.S.—we don’t need the early start date to capture the San Francisco scene’s Dead Kennedys, whose debut, In God We trust, Inc. wasn’t released until 1981, but it does allow us to claim Black Flag in Los Angeles, whose first shows were in 1977 (under the name Panic), and the Bad Brains in Washington, D.C., who, admittedly started as a jazz fusion group under the name Mind Power in 1977, but who were playing hardcore shortly thereafter. The danger, I’m afraid, with pop music as a scholarly object, is that argument is all too easily substituted by lists, so I’ll stop there. Or almost—I also note that it allows us to claim Lauren’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which was initially released as a single in 1979.

That said, I do want to suggest that at least one artist at the time gave us a reason to think of 1980 itself as a fundamental turning point in American life. Gil Scott-Heron, responding to the first Reagan presidential election in the song “B-Movie”—the year from Shogun to Raygun—called on us to recognize the grotesqueries of postmodernity ascendant. Scott-Heron's meditation on the election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Presidency speaks specifically to the substitution of story in place of history.

I’m really not sure where our 1980s end. Nancy Condee’s paper suggested to me, at least, that we might see it ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union throughout 1991; or perhaps that we might think it is still with us, as we see the extended continuation of a Russian contiguous empire in the post-soviet era. 1991 is, of course, also the year of Desert Storm, which Baudrillard saw as the ultimate expression of the postmodern simulacrum, but which probably didn’t feel like that to people on the ground. This, I think picks up on Johanna Burton’s point about feeling uncomfortable with the turn to “fictionality,” even as she is—and we are—taken with its aesthetic and theoretical possibilities. The narratives that characterize the kinds of laterality she describes (and that Roger and Chris saw in another medium) can reveal different truths than history does; but they can also obscure and obfuscate in ways that are suspect. In whatever affective register, however, the Gulf War certainly seems like a fulcrum point, an end and a beginning, to me.

This makes a fine point to turn to the last of our three topics, spaciality and geopolitics. Yesterday’s talks focused on the myth of neoliberalism that has come to feel like the truth of neoliberalism: that the 1980s are characterized by the consolidation of the global phase of late capitalism, and in particular its celebration of the atomized, desocialized, disculturated individual. I want to suggest that while as cultural studies scholars we have had some references to the “end of history” at this conference, in the theoretical tradition I was trained in—anthropology’s social theory—the 1980s are better seen as characterized by the death of “culture.” The edited volumes Writing Culture (James Clifford and George Marcus, 1986) and Recapturing Anthropology (Richard Fox, 1991) showed a profound crisis in the discipline, as we came to grips with the fact that our communities of study could no longer be understood through the fiction of abject difference and should no longer be forced to occupy the “savage slot,” as Michel-Rolf Trouillot called it. While I am in full agreement with the work of those two groups of scholars, I note that those communities of study have been less excited about our discovery of their connections to the larger world (they already knew about them and quite probably wondered why we never asked), and have been far less willing to give up the idea of coherent communal identities.

In this, I see a useful and interesting pushback against the logic of neoliberalism. If I may, I will take just a minute to describe how Indigenous artists and musicians in Australia have insisted on cultural integrity in ways that have been very, very hard for the nation state to come to terms with, as a part of the story of the 1980s. Unlike the U.S., U.K., and Germany, the 1980s were a period of labor ascendant. Under the leadership of Robert Hawke, the labor party, among other things, worked directly with Indigenous communities, funding a series of initiatives, and making gestures in the direction of recognition and inclusion for Indigenous people in the national polity. Encouraged by this thaw, and working in dialogue with liberation movements from Africa, the U.S., and Asia, the period saw enormous growth in the Indigenous sovereignty movement in the country. 1989 marks a point of culmination that can be seen in art and politics. In the small Aboriginal community of Barunga, in the interior of the Northern Territory, a good day’s drive from Darwin, but not a third of the way to Alice Springs, leaders from the northern, coastal Yolngu peoples and the Central Desert Walpiri and Pintupi peoples came together to draft what has come to be known as the Barunga statement. The statement has a central text calling for the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, enclosed by representations of the Tjukurrpa and Rom (often called “dreamings,” but better translated as “law”). The presentation to Hawke marks a high point in some ways—a moment where the collective sovereign rights of a colonized people looked possible. Indigenous art was selling for huge prices in the international art world (as Howard Morphy and Fred Myers have documented), and Native Title was becoming law through the Wik and Mabo cases.

The ugly end to the story is perhaps the end to our 80s. Hawke was voted out; there is STILL no treaty; and while Indigenous artists, dancers, and musicians have become a staple of Australian “culture”—for locals as well as tourists—sovereignty is too disruptive for the neoliberal state to come to terms with. The government sends tanks into the streets in Aboriginal villages on the pretext of protecting women and children from the specter of half-animal Aboriginal men, in spite of the fact that the government fails to make a significant investment in programs that will actually address real, systemic, and devastating problems with domestic violence. The band Yothu Yindi’s expression of disillusionment, “Treaty,” from 1991 can be added then, as another part of our diachronic bookends.

I hope this provides some context for our further conversations today, and a way of thinking about the 1980s as a period.

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Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.6
"Get Your Wargasm On"
Guest Writer: Nicholas D. Mirzoeff

Monday, May 6, 2013

[The fifth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Get Your Wargasm On"

Written by: Nicholas D. Mirzoeff (New York University)

Last week my friend and colleague Dana Polan accomplished the astonishing feat of blogging Mad Men in the advert breaks. Watching him do this made me aware of the tension between a show about advertising and the advertising shown during that show. Mad Men’s drama is always doubled: between the present and the past it represents, the story the characters are involved in and the one known to viewers, and its aspirations to drama in a highly commercial environment.

At the end of the last episode, “The Flood,” an odd coincidence highlighted how fragile that balance can be. Right after the incomprehensible-as-ever “scenes from next week,” AMC cut to a title for its follow-up show Rectify, which happened to be “presented by Jaguar.” The once-British Jaguar that was sold by Ford to India’s Tata Motors in 2008 to increase its chances of survival in the financial crisis. The same Jaguar that boosted SCDP after Joan did her trade of sex-for-partnership last season. Which was valued by Pete Campbell for her at the beginning of this episode (the sixth in Season 6, “For Immediate Release”) at about $1 million: the size of her partnership if SCDP goes public as planned.

The coincidence reminds us of what we always know but try to forget—that the show about advertising exists to sell. In the new TV economy, it has to sell itself as much as it sells advertising. But sell it must.

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