Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

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“Out of thin air” – Mask and Representation in “Mad Men,” by Marten Weise

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The American TV Show Mad Men, first broadcast in July 2007, has received a lot of positive critique and has also been awarded with many well-known prizes. In three consecutive years (2007, 2008 and 2009) it won the Golden Globe for The Best Television Series in the category Drama. Being called “the best show on television” by many reviewers on the World Wide Web, it is investigating many different topics on a televisual level: a simple search on Google reveals that film reviewers on the Net are, for example, interested in the politics of gender, sexuality and racism; the portrayal of alcoholism and smoking, and the depiction of advertising (a representation of representation) envisioned in the series.

According to my reading of the series, the most important aspect in it is another representation of (re)presentation itself, namely identity. Examining the main character Donald Draper and his development in the first season of the series (which aired in summer 2007) I want to look at how representation of representation becomes more than just a disclosure of the representation of the representation as a lie. Assuming that this ever-metaphysical “truth” has eventually been overcome, I want to suggest that we are rather confronted with the problem of a lack of what lies beyond representation, or the construction of an impossible presence opposed to its representation. This can only be transcendental given that it has to be represented.

Therefore I suggest that there are two different models of identity opposed to each other which depicted throughout the first season: one based on presence and the other based on the impossibility of the very same.


Donald Draper is a Changeling undergoing continuous metamorphosis, already as he is introduced to the viewers during the first episode of the first season of the show. In addition to loving husband and father, he is shown to us as a lover of other women, a cheat to his wife and serial monogamist, brilliantly creative and also an unscrupulous drinker. Later in the season it is revealed that he left his poor and rural parent’s house with his born name Richard Whitman, to fight in the Korean War, coming back as Lieutenant Donald Draper. After a bombing of their camp he exchanged their soldier dog tags after the real Draper had died. He is thus someone who has literally swapped his identity and is not willing to go back, even when he meets his brother after 10 years. His brother’s question during their meeting in the diner is both crucial to himself and to the viewer: “Who is Donald Draper?” His hesitation when asked if he did not miss his brother Adam tells us that he is very grateful for the exchange of identity he was effectively offered when he was in war. The name he adapted was his opportunity to create an imaginative world around a character who is the site of the above mentioned controversies. Draper did not make an effort as elaborate as Mattia Pascal makes when he invents his fictional character Adriano Meis in the famous novel The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello, creating a more or less functional back story and thereby a credible individual. Donald Draper’s back story on the other hand, being a mystery, becomes less important to what he is in the here and now. The different roles he is fulfilling are not anything that are built around his true character, but they together add up to what his true character is. While role is commonly understood as mask, in this case there is nothing beyond the mask, which makes the term mask very shady. More precisely, the question is: what is left of a so-called true self when character is all performance and our social circumstances give us several different models of how we are perceived and can thereby perceive ourselves? (Erving Goffman)


According to Guy Debord, advertising is a particular form of the spectacle. Spectacle has replaced life itself in all societies in which the modern conditions of production have become predominant. In a Society of the Spectacle (1968) all that used to be real life experience has now become representation. Direct social relations have been replaced by unification of social groups mediatised via images. The autonomisation of the non-living, the autonomised image, as Debord calls hit, is the literal inversion of the world as we used to know it, but it is at the same time successfully covering its lie, pretending to be society itself.

The happiness that Don Draper is talking about in the Lucky Strike scene in the episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is only possible in a modern capitalist world where we are all subjected to mass production. Quoting the dialogue here, it becomes clear how a connection can be drawn to how Guy Debord understands spectacle, and in particular advertising.

Draper: You can’t make those health claims, neither can your competitors. This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want. How do you make your cigarettes?

Garner, Jr: I don’t know.

Garner, Sr: Shame on you. We breed insect repellant tobacco seeds, plant them in the North Carolina sunshine, grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it…

[Draper writes on the blackboard: “IT’S TOASTED”]

Draper: There you go. There you go.

Garner, Jr: But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted.

Draper: No. Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes… is toasted.

Sterling: Well, gentlemen, I don’t think I have to tell you what you just witnessed here.

Garner, Jr: I think you do.

Draper: Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is … OK. You are OK.

Garner, Sr: Its’s toasted … [smiles] I get it.

[Cut to Draper’s office]

Sterling: You had me worried. I didn’t know if you were drunk or not drunk. But that was inspired.

Draper: For the record, I pulled that out of thin air. So, thank you up there.

Of course, Draper does not need to thank anyone ‘up there’. The slogan is an invention of his own, and the fact that he pulls it “out of thin air” is applicable to all advertising slogans. What a slogan does is use the fact that in a modern capitalist world we define our identity by consumption more than by anything else. We are what we consume. Living is consumption. The slogans fill up the empty signifiers with meaning. Debord is assuming that, although he doesn’t use this term, we don’t realise the signifier’s emptiness. Donald Draper, on the contrary, is very much aware of this aspect, which he emphasises in the words: “We can say anything we want. […] Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes’… is toasted.” He is basically saying that the signifié of Lucky Strike is not fixed, and by stressing the fact that it is toasted, it is overshadowing the fact that it is also poisonous. Toastedness becomes its primary quality. The happiness he is talking about shortly after is the result of the promise and/or the swindle of satisfaction which is closely linked to the promise of unity in identity. This must be understood in psychoanlytic terms: it is the promise that desire is dischargeable. The irony of advertising is that it forces us to integrate external influence into our personality. At the same time we are ignorant of the external character of these influences. We assess what comes from outside of us as something that we produce ourselves.

There is one very important thing to keep for the record at this point. It is not in the sense of an intelligent reading of Guy Debord to state that before modern capitalism there were no external influences and everybody knew that desire was non-satisfiable. The problem of the modern world is more precisely that it is has found mechanisms to cover – more successfully than any system before – its contingency. It states its reality as truth, further proclaiming the absence of alternatives.

Illusionary identity as well as illusionary community is the condition for disintegration and alienation of society. They are neither alternatives nor a status whose real form has been somehow left behind.

The spectacle incorporates everything that has been fluid as human activity, thereby fixing value. Commodity has expanded its rule over economics to the whole of the society. It was capable of becoming the driving force of modern society because its regime is repeated and re-arranged in every single action of the individuals in a society thereby becoming its unrepresentable totality.

“Omnipresence of power: not at all because it regroups everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced at every instant, at every point, or moreover in every relation between one point and another. Power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere.” (Foucault, La Volonté de savoir, p. 122.)

By using a somehow psychological argument, expressing that this condition is opposed to consciousness of desire and desire of consciousness, Debord suggests the possibility of contingency. With Foucault loopholes become difficult, one could even say impossible. For him a discourse without power is not imaginable. Advertising  in this correlation can be understood as advertising for the regime itself. Delivering images, thus creating the hope for dischargeable desire, it develops a life of itself in the ‘customers’ or human beings whereupon the latter deliver inspiration for the industry of publicity by repetition and re-arrangement, hence a circular movement.


Coming back to the main character of the Mad Men series, the key scene of the first season is to be found in episode 8 “The Hobo Code”. Draper visits his casual and irregular lover Midge Daniels in her Greenwhich Village apartment. He spends a night with her and her friends although he originally wanted to invite her on a holiday in Paris profiting from a bonus he received at work. The scene itself is amusing, because we have a Manhattan businessman in a perfect suit on the one hand and on the other a group of beatnik-bohemians, dressed like hippies will be only a couple of years later. In fact they represent what ‘hippie’ means to us now already, even though the term was only coined in 1965. The scene is situated in 1960, because the victory of Kennedy over Nixon in the presidential election is portrayed later in the season. They spend the night smoking marijuana, dancing and listening to music in Midge’s run-down apartment. The opposition; however, is not restricted to their style of clothing and the obvious differences in their way of life and social status. The beatniks are skeptical about Draper’s integrity. They call him ‘the ad-man’, ‘square’, ask Midge where she found him and tell him that he is ‘good with words’. The culmination of their contradiction is depicted with the symbol of the camera. It is a Polaroid Land Camera 400, one of the first instant camera models. Draper takes a photo of Midge and her friend Roy. When he looks at the developing photography he says: “Of course, you two,you’re in love.” Stating that he has a professional knowledge of how people look like when they are in love, because he knows advertising photographs where people appear to be in love, he awakens the beatniks’ anger on two levels. They reply that love is bourgeois. But, also they start confronting him about his profession. For them he represents a system of consumerism, creating want and fashioning lies. He is the enemy they need and have to fight, a solicitor of Wall Street. A sort of enemy that does not only lie to people but also to himself, as he tells himself that he is free.

Representative of the liberal lie. Soap flakes, spot remover and tooth paste are part of a machinery that keeps reproducing its subjects and thereby its own stability as shown above. What separates their point of view or their critique from the above mentioned Debord or Foucault is to be understood through considering Draper’s counter perspective. He counters that there is no system and the universe is indifferent while they seem to argue that there is an underlying morality/truth and the current status quo and its conservation is a violation of the ‘will’ of the universe. This is the clash which is being illustrated by the camera. Draper identifies what is ‘true’ in representation, in apparition – the photograph. The beatniks argue that the flow of life cannot be represented, the moment shown on a photo is no longer alive because it has become both dead and immortal at the same time. (Barthes) They plead for a real-life experience and they are trying to reobtain it by becoming autonomous from the obligations of the capitalist world and activating their subconscious by consuming drugs. For them Debord’s descriptions apply to reality.

The representational character of reality has become dominant over a deeper understanding, which would have to be called presence or co-presence. This is a deeply moralistic and metaphysical argument, drawing upon Platonic arguments: the banishment of art from the state in the 10th book of the Politeia and the condemnation of sophists, for example in Gorgias. Representation is introduced by those that either do not have access to truth or want to distract their listeners from truth. The beatnik’s arguments are by all means in the tradition of the rejection of apparition as mimesis and the claim of an antecedent reality or truth which has priority and/or supremacy. The camera as automaton is a death bringer that wipes out the human itself. The invention of the magazine is the fetishisation of human relations like the novel was the invention of romantic love when everything has actually become absolutely de-naturalised. What the beatniks are looking for is authentic experience by opposing the system. Their search for unity in identity must fail, because truth has and never will be independent of its representation. Moreover it does not exist beyond representation. The fact that Socrates spoke alone is witness to that. The failure of writing, its dependence on its father, is at work in every utterance, as Derrida has shown in “Signature, Event, Context”. Every utterance defers and enriches its content. Draper’s schoolmastery manner, saying “I hate to break it to you”, might be correspondent to this deconstructive voice. “Wait a minute!,” it seems to call. His politics of identity are iterative, serial.

There is no underlying truth, no attachment to a naturalised family, and no claim for authenticity. This does in no way mean that Draper is superior. On the contrary, he kind of represents a degenerated logic of ‘anything goes’. For him there are no undeconstructible constants like for the late Derrida. Although this meant a return to metaphysical terms for some, they need to be mentioned here: the other, the friend, the gift, justice, event. Draper has no ears for the voice of the other and the otherness in the before mentioned terms.

There is one last important hint, coined by one of the sidekick beatniks:

“We realise there is no music playing. Just click … click … click.”

This is very important. The record player is shown in the picture. The LP is still spinning, but the music is over. What they can hear is the clicking of the needle in the lead-out groove of the longplaying record. There is no content, no entertainment, no statement. Discontinuation itself is now the focus of interest. The moment is not filled up with music, it is the technology of the record player itself that comes to the fore. Materiality, mediality is in the center of attention. Might this be the moment when attention itself is becoming interesting, because its object has been rendered unclear? Its object has yet to be appointed. It is not already attached to a certain content. This is not the moment of a real experience but the moment when experience itself becomes a question. It is this relational approach which could be subsequent (not in the sense of a dialectical synthesis) to the clash of ideas shown in the contradiction between Draper and the beatniks.

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