A New Blog For You To Read; Also, Mad Men and the Office

(x-posted to The Valve)

I utterly recommend the blog Blographia Literaria, if you aren’t reading it already. I just discovered it, courtesy of an interesting and kind (though ultimately critical) response to my previous post on summarizing theory.

Via that post, I found Andrew’s reflections on the television shows Mad Men and The Office, which, by incredible coincidence, I am watching concurrently while reading Andrew’s post on why one might watch them concurrently.

In response to a piece by Mark Grief in the LRB, tearing down the show for its vicariousness, Andrew writes:

Yet I would question whether Mad Men is as slyly exculpatory as those films, whether it truly activates little besides “Now We Know Better” and “Doesn’t That Look Good,” but I wonder if my reaction to the series isn’t predicated on the fact that for the better part of both seasons, I was watching it alongside another workplace series—the American version of The Office. This confluence of two cultural products is probably not uncommon, as both shows are tremendously popular, and, I believe, popular among the same demographics.

It would be difficult to watch these shows simultaneously and congratulate oneself and one’s society for all the progress we have made in many of those areas Greif singled out for the “Now We Know Better” category: “male chauvinism, homophobia, workplace harassment, nutrition.” The first three of those are self-evident if you’ve ever watched an episode, and, as for nutrition, obesity is a quietly integral issue for the show. And you can add racism, which as of the first season, Mad Men barely touched […]

But more than that, the arc of the story (and maybe I’m cheating a little bit because Greif only covers Season One) reinforces the disjuncture of self-congratulation and indulgence: a key motif (which Greif partly picks up on, and which I know is hinted at—by Pete—in Season One) is Freud’s theory of the Death Drive, thanatos, introduced in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Dr. Greta Guttman, the in-house psychological researcher (whom Greif refers to humorously as “a cross between Hannah Arendt and the Wicked Witch of the West”) offers Draper a report implying that ad copy subliminally encouraging a certain amount of self-destruction might be enormously effective. Draper bins the report, but Pete picks it out of the trash and tries to use it later, ineptly, embarassing himself and the company.

But that’s not the end of the Death Drive. Acts of self-indulgence are ruthlessly—even mechanically—shown to be acts of willful self-destruction. You can call this a cheapened form of tragedy; it probably is. But it’s pretty clearly evident, even if its name goes missing. And I’m not sure how the centrality of the Death Drive to the show doesn’t, in the end, break up the opiatic bliss Greif imputes to the series. “You’ll Love the Way It Makes You Feel,” sure, but not because it makes you feel good.

I won’t get into the Office here, except to say that many people find Steve Carrell’s character more human than Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, and I completely disagree. Brent truly doesn’t want to be in an office at all: he wants to be a rock star or comedian, and he wants to throw the normal runnings of the office into anarchy — or he would if he wasn’t simultaneously so worried about being a VIP. The key scene is the very last scene of the whole show, where Brent is fired, stands up in sorrow, only to have a giant yellow duck suddenly inflate around his waist. Carrell, by contrast, wants to be liked above all, and he can’t be fired because American networks don’t let shows die. So he is simply endlessly hurtful and clueless, as are many of the other characters. Even though the really smart characters look at the camera as if they’d like to escape by lunging through the screen, nobody can get away. The show is the greatest and most painful ritual of guilt and suffocating despair ever to air on television.

Back to Mad Men. Yes, folks, the old debates about The Sopranos are back, but thinner and wearing new vintage suits. (Not too surprising, since the show’s creator previously assisted with The Sopranos.) I’ve just begun making my way through Mad Men, and I do wish the women characters had more dimensions, but I’ll mention another compelling thematic that complements what Andrew’s saying about the death drive: advertising as a still where utopian dreams condense and gather, drop by drop. At the end of the last episode I’ve seen, Don Draper is getting nowhere building an ad campaign for Tel Aviv, something the show has set up by driving home the quiet omnipresence of anti-Semitism among the Gentile families. First, Draper has a lunch date with one of his conquests, a Jewish woman who tells him that although her life is in Brooklyn, and she resents being treated by Don as heir to some mysterious racial knowledge, she does think of Israel as a sort of utopia, a conception underscored by the foregrounding of references to kibbutzes and communism. She tells him the standard line about “utopia” meaning both “paradise” and “no place.” Then Draper is dragged along to a bohemian open mike by another woman, and is about to leave in repulsion when a magically good folk trio comes onstage to sing “By The Rivers of Babylon.” It is obvious that Don has found his answer. Tel Aviv will be the magical place of peace and harmony by the rivers of Babylon, and in good cinematic form the show ends with a montage of many different characters living their compromised lives as the song plays in the background. In the advertisement for Tel Aviv and the process behind it, Jew and Gentile, bohemian and suit, communist and capitalist, man and woman can live together and see their dreams touch earth. Meanwhile, in the shuttered rooms and desolate streets of the real city, it is almost night.

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you
I will show you fear in a handful of dust […]
–Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.