Heidegger and Mad Men

In the fifth chapter of Division Two of Being and Time, Heidegger addresses the question of Dasein’s historicity and how it relates to the academic discipline of history. He argues that authentic historical study must not content itself with a cataloguing of past factual events or even with an “aesthetic” appreciation of weird historical life-worlds long since past, but that it must somehow connect with the whole existential situation facing the once-but-no-longer Dasein of that era. In other words, it must somehow get at the possibilities that Dasein faced in past historical moments and the stakes of those possibilities for the people who, after all, had their one life to live in that historical world.

In class, I contrasted this with a “historical tourism,” which marvels at the weirdness of past eras’ customs without ever really getting “inside” them and understanding them as something with the people of the past could take seriously and stake their lives on. One might also think of the kind of “contextualizing” history that excuses past racism and sexism as simple facts of that historical era — “Of course Kant was a racist, everyone was back then!” As a counter-example, I put forward Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where we get a palpable sense of Nietzsche’s investment in the history he’s recounting, his genuine outrage that it didn’t turn out another way — and his hope that we might be able to “repeat” what was most promising in that historical moment today. More recently, one might think of Zizek’s reckoning with the October Revolution and Stalinism.

On a less philosophical level, however, I think Mad Men may be the best popular example of the kind of authentic history Heidegger is calling for. I rewatched the whole series this summer and have dipped into the first season again recently, and I’m struck by how fragile the 50s-era values seem. Everyone “doth protest too much” — from the frat-boy account managers to the conformist housewives outraged that a divorcee has moved into the neighborhood. In between, of course, is Don Draper, many of whose “cool” speeches have a note of desperation to them once we get past the smooth and seductive surfaces of that first season in particular. There are some gratuitous “oh, don’t we know better” moments, like the smoking pregnant woman or Sally running around with a plastic bag over her head, but those don’t really set the tone.

Most interesting to me is the question of adultery, which some have criticized as overly cliche. The characters we see aren’t merely expressing boredom or some vague dissatisfaction — they’re actively trying out different ways things could be. Some of them, like Roger in his relationship with Joan, seem to want a simple “reboot” of the same kind of exclusive, possessive relationship that they now find so suffocating, as though swapping a new person into the same role would solve the problem. Joan herself, however, is experimenting with a different model, trying to hold open a space for her own independence and for an enjoyment that wouldn’t be tainted by obligation. Don’s experimentation is also the expression of a hope that things could be different — that two independent people could form a partnership on more equal terms. It’s nothing like a coherent alternative, insofar as it’s predicated on his neglectful treatment of Betty, but even in that unhealthy relationship there’s a glimmer of hope when Don refuses to do business with someone who wants to use Betty as a pawn to manipulate Don.

Sometimes, of course, the dissatisfaction finds no real outlet. This is clearest in the first really great episode of the show, when Don walks out on Sally’s birthday party. He’s right to be disgusted by the whole scene, but he has no real alternative — and all he winds up doing is making a bad situation worse. The real star of the episode, though, is the disgraced divorcee Helen Bishop, whose self-assurance seems authentic and who saves the day by running to get her frozen Sara Lee cake. Here we already have the seeds for that moment in season 2 when the Kennedy assassination seemingly “breaks the spell” for so many of the women who had been carefully keeping up appearances — so that Betty can declare she no longer loves Don, Trudy can take a break from coordinating Pete’s social networking, and Peggy can finally level with both the cool young priest and with Pete — but not a predetermination. It seems like things really could go on forever, until suddenly they can’t.