The worst thing about hell is not knowing you’re there; Mad Men, pt 1

by zunguzungu

Naturally, you notice the smoking first, and the show never lets you forget it. And then you notice what a bunch of assholes the characters all are, something the show also never lets you forget. Every time you let yourself get caught up in the stories, like they’re normal people, you suddenly notice that three of the four characters in a scene are smoking, or someone’s joke or a reaction to it hits in a strange place. And it isn’t just the misogyny or the racism; those things exist in very familiar forms now and almost everywhere. We know about them, the same way we know about smoking.

What’s weird, in other words, isn’t the existence of these things, but that the attitudes of these characters towards such things are bizarrely alien, as bizarrely alien as it would be for a well-meaning mother to smoke while pregnant. Our standards for judgment, in other words, don’t match the social reality we’re witnessing. When one of the white ad men talks about a story he wants to write, after all, about how he hung out with “some Negroes” and that they liked him, it isn’t the fact that he uses the word in that way that strikes us as racist, or his desire to be accepted by black people as cool. Or at least what struck me was how constitutive his ignorance of my perspective is, how the thing that makes me experience him as a character is less that he is alien to me than that I am alien to him. In other words, it’s not that he says these things that is strange; it’s that the reasons why one would not say them would never even begin to occur to him.

It is in this very particular sense that I would call Mad Men anthropological, or that, at least, it is about the kinds of relationships that structure anthropology. While fiction is usually about making you understand and even empathize with a character who is different from you, there is nothing constitutively necessary to the form about that difference. I can emphathize with Chaucer’s characters or with David Foster Wallace’s in more or less the same way, and while talking about the Chaucer’s postmodernism is sort of silly, we are able to have that discussion because we presume him and ourselves to not be basically different. We are all human.

Anthropology, on the other hand, is torn by two conflicting impulses: while it is, in one sense, the study of humanity’s unity through its differences, that theoretical faith in a singular anthropos often tends, in practice, to go by the wayside as ethnographic anthropology becomes a discourse about “primitives” and “moderns.” For while moderns are supposed to be constituted by their mediated relationship with their primal (or often just “animal”) selves, anthropology has often become the very form of that mediation: we know we are modern, for example, because we study primitives. Yet this self-congratulatory gesture often comes at a very particular cost: by thinking about ourselves by reference to the way we are alienated from “our primitive selves,” we also tend conceptualize those primitive selves, in turn, by reference to their unmediated relationship with reality. Which is to say, because we are positively defined by our forms of mediation, we define the primitive negatively, by reference to their lack thereof.

Africans, for example, were said to live “closer to reality,” but you don’t need to think about it long to realize what an meaningless phrase “closer to reality” is, and how ideologically so. It can’t mean anything; there is nothing more or less “real” about meeting one’s requirements by salaried labor than by growing things with your hands, even if you put aside the fact that all “moderns” work with their hands in some form while all “primitives” abstract their labor into value of some sort. Instead, what a phrase like “closer to reality” is trying to evoke is the sense, on the part of people who thought of themselves as “modern,” that the people who they thought of as “primitive” were to be understood precisely not by reference to the things they did, thought, and were, but by reference to the things they didn’t do, didn’t think, and weren’t. We have “civilization”; they are primitive because they are un-civilized.

In Achille Mbembe’s words, then, “Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes” in its own right. And while he goes on to make the generalization that “Africa as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world,” his argument about this polemical difference is that it is Africa’s unmediated relationship to reality that makes it so different from “us”: while we understand our sentience and our modernity by the manner in which we are different from Africans, it is the very unmediated closeness (simultaneity) of Africans with their reality that prevents them from having any real consciousness of themselves. To put it another way, we are conscious of ourselves because we are critically detached from ourselves, a state of affairs for which the Freudian model is paradigmatic: while “moderns” relate to themselves as the conscious mind relates to the unconscious beast within, Africans are simply the unconscious.

I’m thinking about all this because it’s what I’m writing my dissertation about. But while Mbembe’s project is an attempt to dispute this anthropological (in the bad sense) “Africa”  so that it then becomes possible to recover what he calls African societies’ “relation to nothing other than themselves,” a show like Mad Men is precisely not where you go to recover a picture of what black people were like in the past. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it here and here, in fact, putting black people on Mad Men would take away the shop’s ability to describe its characters’ constitutive insularity. To show black people as anything but invisible in that world would be to un-think what Ralph Ellison understood so well in 1953, but which white people today still often miscomprehend (the same way, as I argued, it would make no sense to implant a sense of reverence for old-world patriarchs in Jerry Seinfeld’s world; you tell that story by showing the feeling of and reaction to its absence).

With all this in mind, then, I want to start to think about the difference between our ethnographic relationship with the characters (the extent to which we understand, say, Roger Sterling as “not us”) and the way it’s about his ethnographic relationship with women, black people, etc (a woman as “not a man”). These are not quite the same things. After all, if we think about the show — as I suspect we do — in terms of the past’s difference from us, and we think about that past difference as an absence of the attitudes and perspectives that past will eventually, inevitably, acquire as they slowly crawl through the years towards the position from which we now regard them, then we have, in fact, recreated the perspective by which “modern” Europeans looked down on “primitive” Africans.

Which is why I think precisely the wrong way to watch Mad Men (but which many people, I bet, do watch it) is with the telos of us in mind, as the story of how an unconscious people (who didn‘t know about the humanity of women, gays, black people, etc) came to be enlightened so as to become us. I’m not sure what the right way to watch it is, of course; I’ve only just finished season one, and I’m convinced that the show is aware of these sorts of things on some very interesting levels (Betty majored in anthropology, for example). But if the trap is being only able to see what these characters can’t see, the answer has to be thinking creatively about what they could see. This is a version of the Foucault move in La Volonté de Savoir: while a certain kind of historical narrative thinks of power as repressive, as only saying no and only preventing us from knowing, the discipline of sexuality is all about teaching us how and where and when and to who to say yes. And perhaps the same is true with advertising.