In Feedback: Television Against Democracy, the art historian David Joselit explores the idea that all commodities, including works of art, are figured as commodities against the ground of networks, including media networks such as television and the Internet. In relation to works of art, that would be to say that the ground against which works of art are to be evaluated as units in a broader economy is no longer just the physical space of the art institution; e.g., the white cube art museum; but, instead the networks of interrelated flow through which both actual commodities and the capital surrounding those commodities now exist and disperse. For Joselit, art can no longer be thought of as a static object which one gazes upon, but instead as a “transjective” object, continuously networking between multiple fields of objects and subjects, which one follows. He brings up the fact that Wall Street quants have conceived of incomprehensibly complicated models for dematerializing and dispersing bundles of capital and, as such, it is incumbent upon anyone interested in the relationship between a work of art and the broader economy to appreciate the fact that works of art—as commodities–are also dematerialized and dispersed.
When viewed against this networked ground, Joselit discusses artworks which create viral paths, leaving trails of “feedback” between themselves and this networked ground. This feedback functions as noise, disrupting its own flow as a commodity and illuminating the ground upon which it circulates.
In what follows, I’ll discuss the television series Mad Men, suggesting that, on the one hand, the actual episodes of the series create a disruptive feedback loop between themselves and the television network; but, on the other hand, that the series’ branded image avatar, which is perhaps more widely culturally dispersed than the actual episodes of the show, lacks this disruptive feedback loop between itself and the Internet network.
Mad Men’s protagonist Don Draper is known to be ruthlessly effective at selling things to people. Time after time, the campaigns he engineers for a host of invariably silly products are able to exploit an emotion or a desire lurking beyond the product’s practical usage. And while these products may themselves be silly, the desires Draper creates around their advertising are often complex and psychologically astute. For example, an automated slide photo projector developed by Kodak is not the “Wheel”—Kodak’s name for the device— but rather—in Draper’s pitch—the “Carousel”; that is, it’s not an efficient way to display a loop of slide photographs, but a way to go around and around “and back home again” to something fondly remembered from the past.
However, Draper knows that these desires which people seek to satisfy through products like the Carousel are not ever going to be satisfied; desire is endlessly deferred—always trying to re-capture something which one thinks used to be there, but never really was and certainly never will be again. This principal is, through one lens, how capitalism operates: it depends on the endless impossibility of satisfying desire to keep selling ways to satisfy desire. In the finale to the series’ third season and in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (“the day America lost its innocence”), Draper explains this to his protégé, Peggy Olson. Here’s the exchange of dialogue between the two:
Don – Do you know why I don’t want to go to McCann?
Peggy – Because you can’t work for anyone else.
Don – No. Because there are people out there—people who buy things—people like you and me—and something happened; something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.
Peggy – Is it?
What he’s getting at is that there was a picture of what it meant to be a consumer in America, but the assassination of the President made even the pretense towards living that image even more absurd than it ever was. That absurdity, though, will not stop people from endlessly trying to be this image and this is what good advertising creatives understand. Olson’s “Is it?” at the end of this exchange, though, reveals the tension at the heart of these characters: their insight into the emptiness of consumer desire is “very valuable,” but it’s also their own tragedy. What Draper sees in Olson is the same emptiness he sees in himself. Indeed, “Don Draper” is not even the character’s real name. Through an accident in the Korean War, the actual Don Draper was killed and a fellow soldier named Dick Whitman took Draper’s dog tags and commenced pretending to be him. “Don Draper” is, thus, nothing—an outer sheen through which someone who used to be “Dick Whitman” haunts the world. This awareness of his own nothingness makes Draper/Whitman a great “Ad Man,” but makes it difficult for him to participate in the very rituals of capitalism he sells, including monogamous suburban love and the nuclear family. The same could be said for Peggy Olson. Her throughline is premised on the fact that she’s a lapsed Catholic who underwent an abortion in-between the first and second seasons of the series. This abortion (in extremely crude terms, an “emptying out”) traumatized Olson and, since then, she hasn’t been able to participate in the flow of sexuality and day-to-day, mindless chit-chat demanded by corporate-sanctioned urban existence. And, so, instead of living it, Draper and Olson sell it.
What is particularly powerful about the series’ explorations into advertising, though, is the fact that they are occurring on commercial television. The entire ground upon which this content rests is mass media advertising. When one watches the show and follows its explorations into the emptiness of desire, the mechanisms of advertising, and, in particular, the mechanics of television advertising, these thematic explorations collide with the actual television advertisements which allow for the show to exist in the first place. Some viewers, then, may view Mad Men and—armed with concepts provided by the series–reflect critically upon the advertisements which surround a given episode.
The result is a variation on “culture jamming” or the sort of “feedback” which Joselit discusses. As mentioned above, feedback, for Joselit, is an effect accrued through an artwork’s dispersion in which the artwork creates a disruption in the trajectory of itself as a commodity. He writes, “If a commodity’s meaning results from its circulation, it is possible to develop a politics whose goal is not to abolish or “critique” commodification (objectives that are utopian and inefficacious by turn) but rather to reroute the trajectories of things.” Joselit gives the example of African Americans feeding back images produced by their own community into television in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to develop a more accurate representative presence in the mediascape. He also discusses a television commercial created by Andy Warhol for Schrafft’s restaurant chain, the content of which is, in the artist’ words, “all the mistakes they do in commercials.” What one views in Warhol’s commercial is the image of a Sunday with a cherry on top which is drowning in video noise, thus selling the technological ground of the video image as opposed to the actual Sunday: it’s feedback, designed to reroute the trajectory of the commodity. The same could be said for Mad Men: by picturing the ground of advertisement and capital which it circulates in and out of on television, the series tangles up the clean circulatory flow of the series as a commodity in the television network.
However, the network Mad Men circulates through is not just television. In the 21st century, it lives and circulates on the Internet and myriad other forms of media, as well. For example, I’ve never viewed an episode on television, but, as a follower of the show, I’ve viewed every single episode released so far through a combination of DVD’s, iTunes, Limewire, and “Freemium” sites like megavideo.com. Additionally, the way in which the show is largely dispersed through culture is not even through these episodes, but rather through images of the show’s sex icons on blogs, magazines, online versions of magazines, Facebook chatter, banner advertisements on blogs, bus ads, gossip mills, and, in general, the branding of a full-blown retro-chic style which celebrates dapper young metrosexuals with slicked-back hairdos. That is to say that even though the episodes of the show create an interesting level of feedback distortion in relation to television, the way they circulate as a brand through the broader networks of interconnected digital ephemera is actually fairly harmless—it’s just another thing to sell.
As mentioned above, one of Joselit’s intuition’s is that commodities are not static, physical objects; rather, they are, in the wake of networked communication such as television, animated and in-motion media viruses, travelling through all avenues of life from the living room to the water cooler to the bedroom. Effective counter-culture, then, does not stand outside out of these animated commodities, but rather reroutes their trajectories through feedback.
With this in mind, the trajectory of Mad Men doesn’t stop on Sunday nights at eleven o’clock EST on the AMC cable network. In fact, that one hour a week is a small piece of the pie surrounding the show’s “social life” as a commodity circulating through the broader networks of digital communication. The episodes of the series could be Shakespeare or Thomas Mann, but it wouldn’t matter when the meme of Mad Men—the way it travels virally—has very little to do with a critique of advertising and a lot to do with developing a brand.
A final note: On the one hand, Joselit’s book, which is about television and sticks largely to examples of 1960s and 1970s art history and visual culture, would seem oddly out of place for an audience interested in understanding the relationship between works of art and digital networks connected through computers. However, the virus he’s trying to spread is relevant and challenging. Artworks and the evaluation of artworks in the wake of media networks, be they television or Internet networks, require one to refocus the entire framework through which one usually thinks of an artwork. Mad Men is not about the themes of the show, but the trajectories in which the themes of the show circulate.