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Television and the ancient greeks

Bring on the Mad Men and the Barbarians

Of Mad Men, Spider-man, Anne Carson, the Classics and Advertising

By Dave Allen July 25 2013

A preamble.
Lately I’ve taken to sitting down and starting to write an essay with no particular subject in mind. This is one of those, one that has moved beyond the digital version of crumpled up sheets of paper tossed in the wastepaper basket. Why that is so I have no idea, other than to say it kept writing itself – a cliché I know, but I’m going with it.

Should you begin the essay below, you might be inclined to scratch your head and ask “what the hell has any of this got to do with advertising?” Well, other than the obvious references to Mad Men, the answer might appear to be, not much. Yet if you get all the way to the end of it, I would hope that you’ll unearth a few relevant points of reference along the way, as I attempt to weave the Classics, Mad Men, shifts in the social construct, and the travails of “digital” advertising, into a single tapestry. (There are many clues throughout but I decided not to highlight them.) It has been two decades now since the beginning of the great shifts in our culture brought on by the advent of the World Wide Web (and now, Mobile,) and one can often find historical parallels to these cultural shifts everywhere if one cares to look: i.e. technology has been disruptive throughout the ages.

The essay’s underlying subtext, one that I hope meanders as an undercurrent throughout, also has contemporary inspiration – Iain Tait‘s idea of “shaping the connected-world,” of how, with his work at Google Labs he wants to get into “the shaping of products and services, showing people the life-enhancing potential of technology, and helping to get those things into people’s hands,” as outlined in his letter of farewell to Wieden + Kennedy. And Iain is not alone in understanding how society is gradually moving towards “products that do good” and away from standard advertising (we may soon have to find a different descriptor than “advertising”.)

Dan Hon who still works at W+K posted to Medium recently, The Tyranny of Digital Advertising, where he writes, “I’ve done a lot of doing, thinking and trying about what it means to be “interactive,” “digital,” or “non-traditional” at an advertising agency. And man is this shit complicated.” Reading between the lines of Hon’s post, it reads like a prequel to a goodbye letter, maybe he too wants to join Google Labs? Anyway, it’s easy to agree with his “it’s complicated” statement, but it shouldn’t be that way as agencies have had two decades of the Web to sort that shit out. (Dan actually gives a good example of “product thinking” when he links to what Russell Davies, formerly of W+K, is doing with the British Government.)

I’m not absolutely certain, but I believe one of the problems is still that anything that doesn’t look like marketing or advertising confuses marketers, and good digital “advertising” doesn’t always look right to brand CMO’s, who tend to want to see something that looks like a duck, and walks like a duck. Obviously we have seen some great digital work coming from all corners of the advertising world, but when you see advertising executives moving from their storied perches at ad agencies to “product” companies such as Google or even Facebook, you have to wonder what’s up. (Who will Yahoo! be hiring, for instance?)

In other words, Dan may be pushing the right rock up the wrong hill. It might be time for him to switch hills.

Ultimately, I’d say it comes down to three things: Are we asking the right questions? Can we make it better? What does the audience/consumer/user choose to use?

There are analogies to be had in what Google’s Larry Page said from the stage at the recent Google I/O conference: “As an engineer, a technologist, go to first principles and say, ‘What is the real issue around our power grids?’ or ‘What is the real issue around manufacturing?’ I think people don’t usually answer those questions, and as a result, most of the work done is very incremental and we don’t make the progress we need to.”

So, yeah, referencing Soren Kierkegaard in this essay may seem absurd, but at least he asked, and wrestled with, the right questions. So what is the real issue around digital marketing?

[A quick note about the essay's title: Daniel Mendelsohn points out that Barbarian was the ancient Greek word for people (mainly Persians) who didn't speak Greek, their language sounded like bar bar bar to them. So, language as barrier.]
_ _

It is Sunday evening and somewhere in the USA a TV is burning Mad Men into the retinas and synapses of an audience. I haven’t been watching for one simple reason: I never became attached to the series; I understand its appeal but I’ve never been a fan of soap operas.

As it happens, I am currently working through another book of essays, a book in which a review of Mad Men appears – Waiting For the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture by Daniel Mendelsohn. The book’s back-flap notes, his “reviews and essays on literary and cultural subjects appear frequently in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.” Let’s just say that he is an exceptionally smart man; after digesting the first six essays that incisively dissect the works of James Cameron (Avatar,) Philip Glass (Einstein On The Beach and Satyagraha,) Julie Taymor (Spider-man,) Aleksandr Sokurov (The Sun,) and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, and after re-reading the first essay inClassicaBattle Lines, a review of a “slimmer, faster Iliad,” one realizes rather quickly the breadth of Mendelsohn’s intellect, his lyrical prose, and his ability to avoid the unnecessary rancor and polemics of many critics.

Those first six essays I mention above fall under the rubric Spectacles and should you read them you might be reminded of the parallels of contemporary media culture and the writings of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. For decades, writers and producers of films and TV shows have written scripts that deeply reference and/or re-shape Shakespeare’s plays or the writings, epic poems and myths of the Ancients – nothing new there, in other words.

Hubris looms large in Mendelsohn’s telling of Julie Taymor’s failed Spider-man excursion, where working with two rock musicians to bring a super hero to Broadway turns out to be much harder than producing the circle of life. And Mendelsohn, in his critique of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, mentions Don Draper’s hubris often – this is my favorite passage from the Mad Men essay, a paragraph that delves into the “irrational reasons” for the show’s curious, magnetic appeal:

I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’ appeal – to which I will return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having myself been a child in the 1960s – because after watching the fifty-two episodes of Mad Men that have aired thus far, I find little else to justify it. We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before: as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire,with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, which among other things is a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, to my mind, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture.

Do you see what Mendelsohn does there? In one short paragraph we come across Aeschylus and by association, his contemporaries Sophocles and Euripides, then there’s reference to the Aeneid, Virgil’s poem that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans [reference], and all of this is before Mendelsohn gets to the Classics! In short, he challenges the very idea of Mad Men as a television show when it is held up against others, in this “new golden age of television…”

I’ll circle back to Mad Men but I’d like to stick with the Ancients (as it were) for a couple of paragraphs.

To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing
Meet Anne Carson, the renowned classical scholar, poet and sometime performance artist who also teaches ancient Greek. Carson appears in Mendelsohn’s essay “In Search of Sappho” where he discusses her book If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. She happens to have published a new book recently: Red Doc>. The author’s description on Amazon reads:

Some years ago I wrote a book about a boy named Geryon who was red and had wings and fell in love with Herakles. Recently I began to wonder what happened to them in later life. Red Doc> continues their adventures in a very different style and with changed names.

To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.

The poet Daisy Fried wrote a lovely review of Red Doc>:

Geryon and Herakles reunite in “Red Doc>,” middle-aged. Geryon is now G, still a cattle-herder (of sorts) if not much of an artist, though he reads Proust and Daniil Kharms, the Russian Soviet-era surrealist-absurdist. Herakles is now called Sad But Great — “Sad,” for short. Sad is a traumatized veteran of a recent war. This adds a welcome political dimension rarely seen elsewhere in Carson’s work. G and Sad take a road trip, ending up at a strange clinic in an icy northland. A handful of other characters derive — nominally — from Greek mythology. Hermes is a mysterious man in a silver tuxedo who shows up every now and then to guide them. Io — the nymph turned into a cow by Zeus, then maddened by Hera’s gadfly — is the loveliest member of G’s herd, a sexy musk ox:

She is a beast
constructed for smooth
striding. Now long pelvic
muscles organize her and
the vast loosejointed
shoulders glide forward
into movement.

I’m new to Carson’s work and I’m just now digging in to Red Doc> which is a delight, because, as Fried says: “Each new Carson project comes with new parameters [edit]. Here’s what else she gets away with: Most of the poems in “Red Doc>” are delivered in narrow strips of type, justified at both margins like newspaper columns. It’s a format that counterintuitively speeds you down the page, as if creating a chute for language. It also constricts in ways that put useful pressure on the poems’ wild music and wilder state of mind.” And also of what Mendelsohn points out in his In Search of Sappho essay: “There are other details in Carson’s rendering of Fragment 31 that show a praiseworthy sensitivity to the original: “puts the heart in my chest on wings” is a stunning solution for the Greek eptoaisen, a word that conveys both a fearful shuddering and the airborne intention of beating wings; [...]

Carson pulls from her deep knowledge of the ancient Greek culture and delivers her prose-poem in a new way, bound in an old format, a book, one that doesn’t scream “Look at me, I AM NEW, AND MODERN.” An aside: The artist Karen Green appears to have done something similar in her new book, Bough Down, where she tells of her four short years married to David Foster Wallace.

Don Draper as Antigone? [A stretch]
Once more to Mad Men, and here I refer to Emily Nussbaum’s recap of Mad Men, one that focuses on Don Draper as the show’s “anchor,” not as in foundational rock but this – “[...] Don, instead of being the show’s engine, has become its anchor—heavy, even in the sixties sense.”

To recap: Don’s real name is Dick Whitman. His prostitute mother died in childbirth; his dad, her john, beat him. His fundamentalist stepmother called him a “whore’s child.” Then his father got kicked in the head by a horse, and the stepmother moved in with her sister, herself a prostitute, living in a brothel. The stepmother, heavily pregnant with Don’s half brother, prostituted herself to her brother-in-law, as the teen-age Don knelt outside her door. He watched them, through the keyhole, have sex. C’mon, now. This is no longer the backstory of a serial adulterer; it’s the backstory of a serial killer.

We haven’t even got to the part where Whitman goes to fight in Korea, accidentally blows up his superior officer, Don Draper, steals his identity, forms a secret relationship with his widow (she’s motherly, yet also somewhat prostitute-like, since he pays for her upkeep), becomes a greaser, and seduces a model who is also concerned primarily with appearances. Eventually, he gets into advertising, and when his half brother, Adam, finds him, Don rejects him, and Adam hangs himself. It’s not that none of this makes sense, or could make sense; it’s just too much, overdetermined. None of the other characters has this sort of reverse-engineered psychology, and for good reason: it’s a lazy way to impose meaning. Nested among better scenes, the flashbacks feel like a high-school production of “The Grapes of Wrath.” (Back in Season 1, when Don was canoodling with the department-store heiress Rachel Menken and reading “Exodus,” I wondered if his dark secret was that his mother was a Jew. Life was so much simpler then!)

Well, Nussbaum holds no punches there; she makes Don sound like a male version of Antigone.

In an opinion piece recently, on the occasion of Soren Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday, Yale graduate student, Ulrika Carlsonn writes: “[...] the most central theme in Soren Kierkegaard’s religious thought is the doctrine of original sin: the idea that we share in some essential human guilt simply by being born.” Hello, Don Draper? Does Dick Whitman’s re-birth as Don Draper condemn him to the curse of heredity guilt, which, as Carlsonn points out, Kierkegaard translated to mean “inheritance-guilt,” that is“especially appropriate for his modern Antigone, who considers the curse on her father not so much a disease as a birthright.”

Don’s heredity guilt runs deep. Deeper than him.

Daniel Mendelsohn points to more of Mad Men’s weaknesses:

The show’s directorial style is static, airless. Scenes tend to be boxed: actors will be arranged within a frame – sitting in a car, at a desk, on a bed – and then they recite their lines, and that’s that. Characters seldom enter (or leave) the frame while already engaged in some activity, already talking about something – a useful technique, which strongly gives the textured sense of the characters’ reality, that they exist outside of the script. As for the acting, it is unexceptional in general and occasionally downright amateurish. (The baby-doll performance of the porcelain-beautiful January Jones, as Mrs. Don Draper, is an embarrassment.) I am not one of those critics who admires the performance of Jon Hamm as Don, which seems to me to emblematize the glossy inauthenticity of the show in general. There is a long tradition of American actors who excel at suggesting the unconventional and sometimes unpleasant currents coursing beneath their appealing all-American looks: James Stewart was one; Matt Damon is, now, another. By contrast, you sometimes have the impression that Hamm was hired because he reminds you of advertisements, and after all the show is about advertising – he’s a foursquare, square-jawed fellow whose tormented interior we are constantly told about but never really feel. With rare exceptions (notably Robert Morse in an amusing cameo as the eccentric Japanophile partner Bert Cooper), the other actors in this show are “acting the atmosphere,” as directors like to say: they’re playing “Sixties people” rather than inhabiting this or that character, making him or her specific. Coupled with the fact that most of them are so awful, your sense of the characters as mere types – the loner with a secret, the prep, the philanderer, the bored housewife – short-circuits any possible connection to them. I cared more about what happened to the people in Friday Night Lights after one episode than I did for anyone in Mad Men after four seasons.


In its glossy, semaphoric style, its tendency to invoke rather than unravel this or that issue, the way it uses a certain visual allure to blind rather than to enlighten, Mad Men reminds you of nothing so much as a successful advertisement. Indeed, the great irony of Mad Men may be that it functions the way that ads function, rather than the way that serious drama functions: it’s suggestive rather than discursive, juxtaposing some potent pictures and words and hoping you’ll make the connection.

Mendelsohn’s big takeaway after all of his digging, is very simple: the show’s viewers tend to be “in their forties or early fifties…” and “…it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children.

“The better a piece of art, the more rejection it will receive in its moment” – Seneca

Is Don Draper now living beyond his myth? Does anyone care? I think it’s worth noting that there is a bubble effect around this show – less than three million viewers watch Mad Men and according to Inside TV, it’s a modest hit. Compare that to Fonzie “Jumping the shark” – 30 million people saw that episode.

As a TV character we don’t really have to care about Don, (and I suspect a large part of the audience for Mad Men who may care, works in and around the advertising agency world anyway, and as Mendelsohn points out, given the timeline of the show, back to the sixties, those children on the show are actually us, today,) but is Mendelsohn missing something in his critique? Is the show not actually prescient about the future of advertising? Is Weiner looking backwards to move the plot forwards, showing us these heinous, unlovable characters as the dark side of advertising, a side that the children on the show see and understand, and in future would not want to be a part of an industry that doesn’t actually work toward “the shaping of products and services, showing people the life-enhancing potential of technology, and helping to get those things into people’s hands”? I can speak to this anecdotally, as each year I see a greater percentage of the students I teach in the SOJC at the University of Oregon, not wanting to join “advertising” companies.

Perhaps at the end of the day it all comes down to this: Hubris, also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβριςmeans extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities.

So, no more Bar bar bar – we should all be speaking the same language.


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