Mad Men: A Foucaultian take


I previously offered a Weberian reading of The Wire. And now I’m equally convinced that Mad Men is an outstanding Foucaultian deconstruction of contemporary American capitalism. In some ways the two play off against each other very well. The Wire is concerned constantly with norms, rules, duties: to whom am I responsible? What are the uses and limits of public law? Should I uphold tradition? How can I live in multiple moral orders (family, community, city; public, private) simultanteously? How to overcome the ‘irrational rationality’ of bureaucracy’? The Wire is a sociology of Kantian moral questions. If one were being very high-minded, one might say it is another ‘answer to the question ‘what is – or isn’t – Enlightenment?”, certainly inasmuch as it appears driven by a tragic moral sense that society ought to be able to do better.

Mad Men, meanwhile, is concerned constantly with desire, egos, aesthetics: what do I want? Who can I fuck? How can I throw off morality? It is a sociology of Nietzschean ethical questions. Most importantly, in contrast to The Wire, it is empty of any moral hierachies (it lacks an Omar) or notions of Enlightenment, and in that respect is genuinely genealogical. The Wire confirms Walter Benjamin’s dialectical slogan “only to the hopeless is hope given”, whereas Mad Men has nothing to say about hope or hopelessness, only contingency and strategy.

The first Foucaultian trope is to perform a ‘history of the present’. Mad Men is self-evidently not about the 1960s, any more than Discipline and Punish is about the late 18th century. It is about us today and the contingencies through which we came to be so. One very smart way that Mad Men goes about this is to shift our habitual understanding of when a key historical break occurred. We typically equate ‘the sixties’ with the late 1960s, with 1968 as their epitome. But this is only what the self-important baby boomers want everyone to believe, on the solipsistic basis that they insist on having changed the world, not their parents.

Mad Men overthrows this assumption, with a similar disdain as Tony Judt pours on the Western boomers who think throwing rocks in Paris was …

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