Vanishing Point: Don Draper and the Desert of the “Real Thing”

May 19, 2015 at 8:23 pm | Posted in no-self, pop culture, simulacra, sincerity | Leave a comment

Smile, smile, smile . . . Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth. – Jean Baudrillard, America

The Mad Men series finale opened with an unexpected sequence of images: a dry lakebed, a car zooming by, and Don in dusty goggles behind the wheel. “We just saw Mad Max,” my friends and I joked. The scene was so very narratively improbable and so very narratively unnecessary that I immediately decided that it must be A Symbol, and this insight is what I will try to explain to you today. I did not set out to write comprehensive review of the series or even of the finale, but thinking through this scene has turned out to help me make sense of Don’s character arc, and I hope that it will for you, too.

For the last three episodes of the series, Don has been somewhat inexplicably driving west. This began in the middle of episode 12 of this season, “Lost Horizon,” when he walked out of a meeting with Miller in which their representative, in describing the ideal customer of what would become Miller Light, asked a room full of creative directors to imagine a man “of very specific qualities: he lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. Some call it the heartland, some call it the beer belt.” Don is the only one in the room who seems perturbed; he keeps looking around to find another eye to catch, and he cannot. The representative goes on to list some more “very specific qualities” about this man: he “has some college,” he “makes a good living,” he “wants a hammock,” and “he likes dogs, because they don’t talk.” Don is the only one who doesn’t laugh at the joke. It’s when the representative says “We all know this man, because there are millions of him” that the mysterious music starts to play and Don starts to look out the window, sees the airplane, and eventually gets up and leaves the meeting.

At the time, I figured Don was hitting the road because he saw through this guy’s bullshit and thought he would go see the heartland for himself to figure out how to market to a real person and not a bunch of stereotypes, and/or to try to track down Tragic Waitress Lady, a goal that might turn out to dovetail nicely with the project of understanding the real midwest. The other option was that Don was ditching the ad business forever, in order to undergo another identity transformation either backwards into Dick Whitman or forwards into somebody else (::cough:: D.B. Cooper ::cough::).

The racing-in-the-desert scene caused me to instantly abandon both those hypotheses, before anything else in the finale happened, because it reminded me so very strongly of Jean Baudrillard’s characterization of America in his book titled simply America. I understood immediately that what we would see would be neither the discovery of an authentic identity (Don’s or Mr. Heartland’s), nor the adoption of a new identity, but the obliteration of identity. Baudrillard, a French philosopher, published America in 1986, after exploring the country via its highway system and declaring based on this experience that “All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behavior. […] Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together” (54-5).* This might sound very much like the “discovering the true heartland” business that I was suggesting above, but in fact it’s quite the opposite: for Baudrillard, the essence of America is not in folksy encounters that one has with people along the road, but in “the excessive, pitiless distance, the infinity of anonymous faces and distances” (9), and the only logical way to traverse them: with unrelenting, dangerous, and delightfully freeing speed.

Speed creates pure objects. It is itself a pure object, since it cancels out the ground and territorial reference-points, since it runs ahead of time to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and obliterates that cause by outstripping it. Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire. Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind. Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesiac intoxication. The superficiality and reversibility of a pure object in the pure geometry of the desert. Driving like this produces a kind of invisibility, transparency, or transversality in things, simply by emptying them out. It is a sort of slow-motion suicide, death by an extenuation of forms – the delectable form of their disappearance. Speed is not a vegetal thing. It is nearer to the mineral, to refraction through a crystal, and it is already the site of a catastrophe, of a squandering of time. Perhaps, though, its fascination is simply that of the void. There is no seduction here, for seduction requires a secret. Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into emptiness: a nostalgic desire for form to revert to immobility, concealed beneath the very intensification of their mobility. Akin to the nostalgia for living forms that haunts geometry. (6-7)

Forgive me for the long quote, but we are deep in Don Draper territory here. This is a character who incarnates “the triumph of effect over cause,” whose past has been multiply erased, and yet who no longer has any secrets with which to seduce — everybody knows that he used to be Dick Whitman, and nobody cares. He cannot return to being Dick Whitman, he will never be the real Don Draper to his not-niece Stephanie Draper, and yet “Don Draper” is a well-established brand within the advertising world. “Don Draper” is the perfect embodiment of Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum: a copy of something that has become more real than the original, and/or that never had an original to begin with. I am hardly the first one to notice this; the literate blogosphere started making this connection at the end of season one, with Don’s masterful pitch of “the carousel” to Kodak, where his real pain at looking at real pictures of his broken family’s former happiness is packaged and sold as “a deeper bond with the product.” He seems to perhaps feel more emotion while putting on this performance than he did while these things were happening, when he was presumably cheating on his wife and feeling trapped by domesticity: this is Baudrillard’s version of nostalgia, which feels more real than the original experience.

The concept of the simulacrum is, non-coincidentally, bound up for Baudrillard with the concept of advertising: the ad promises more fulfillment than the product will ever deliver, and leaves us grasping for an imaginary wholeness like Leonard from the support group at the end of the finale: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize: They’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.” This resonates deeply for Don — bearing in mind that “to resonate” is to echo in an empty chamber. Don cries and hugs the stranger, but he has been coming to terms with his own emptiness for some time now. Megan’s mother stripped him of his furniture, he gave away his car, and when summoned to the race at “El Mirage” (a real-life racetrack with a deeply suggestive name), he drunkenly declares “I’m packed,” referring simply to an envelope of cash. He has been rejected as a father by Sally, who tells him correctly that she knows better than he does what should happen to her brothers after Betty’s death, and by Betty, who tells him that for the boys’ sake she “want[s] to keep things as normal as possible — and you not being here is part of that.”

If Don is to continue existing — and Peggy is not wrong to fear that he might not want to — he must embrace an identity that is fully uprooted: one Baudrillard would call quintessentially American. He writes, “America ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present. Having seen no slow, centuries-long accumulation of a principle of truth, it lives in perpetual simulation, a perpetual present of signs” (76). Don Draper as simulacrum is Don Draper as quintessential midcentury white American male: a product of late capitalism, postmodernism, and television. If the show has dealt too lightly with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and other upheavals of the 1960s, as some critics have claimed, it is perhaps because these movements are grounded in firmly-felt identities and are therefore relatively alien to Don and to this aesthetics of surfaces. (Which is not to say that the show wouldn’t have been more interesting if it had attempted more nuanced development of these things, particularly of non-white characters.)

I now believe that Don left the room at McCann not because he didn’t buy the Miller representative’s description of “a man of specific qualities” who somehow lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio simultaneously, but because it was the beginning of the vision of the emptiness at the center of identity that would lead him to both an acceptance of “Don Draper” as pure simulacrum and the Coke epiphany. “We all know this man, because there are millions of him,” the line that causes Don to get up and leave, is a paradox: the only way to really know someone is individually — “person to person,” to invoke the episode’s title. To claim that you know someone’s “specific qualities” because “there are millions of him” is either to generalize (and therefore to lie about the “specific” part) or to get the zeitgeist of late 60s / early 70s America exactly right: if sign has replaced substance, then there’s nothing under the surface to know.

That zeitgeist finds its perfect expression in the “I Want to Buy the World a Coke” ad that Don dreams up while — significantly — emptying his mind in meditation at the new-age retreat. He empties himself, after a long period of having aspects of himself stripped away, and has a vision of an empty multiculturalism, a smiling we-are-the-world montage that a post-“Summer of Love” America wants to be sold, a million people of “specific qualities” all coming together to share goodwill in the form of Coca Cola. NPR’s Eric Deggans sees Don’s epiphany as a mining of his personal experience for ad copy just like when he hit up a black waiter for ideas about how to sell Lucky Strikes in episode one, but I think this is actually the opposite of that. That was a “person to person” interaction, that was the equivalent of going out to find the real Mr. Heartland, and this is an utter rejection of identity: shiny, happy people with visually-marked “specific qualities” singing in apparently heartfelt harmony that “what the world wants today” is “the Real Thing.” It’s “Don Draper,” human simulacrum and ad man extraordinaire, who can give it to them.

*Jean Baudrillard, America. New York: Verso, 1988.

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The New Sincerity: On Daniel Bailey’s Drunk Sonnets

December 4, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Posted in contemporary, flarf, irony, poetry, sincerity | 10 Comments

Huge swaths of the American population have always been into sincerity: Christians. Truckers. Moms. Emo kids. But since the early 20th century, anybody who’s identified as “cool” — with the exception of emo kids and arguably of hippies — has thrived on ironic distance. But as anybody who’s been tracking hipster culture lately knows, we are currently going down a rabbit hole in which irony is trying so hard that it’s turning into sincerity before our very eyes. Case in point: Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets, recently out from Magic Helicopter Press, a triumph of postironic poetry and a harbinger, perhaps, of the world to come.

Now, the hipster ironists of the poetry world are the Flarfists, whose blog features a giant unicorn and the slogan “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world.” But of course, their poetry is anything but mainstream — it is assembled from the detritus of the internet as targeted through google searches, and it is nothing if not hostile to interpretation. Flarf poetry is extremely resistant to sincerity, and even to communication. It’s a parody of poetry, and a parody of the internet, and if sentiment does creep into Flarf poems it’s with invisible quotation marks around it, as in this excerpt from “Spanksgiving,” recently reposted for the holiday:

Now Ride! By now a lot of people are showing
up for their holiday weekend in the desert. A large
contingent at the retail store for “Leather Happy Hour.”

Spank hard…spank safe!

The only Turkeys I’ll be seeing this Spanksgiving are my dear
friends Brook, Katie and Baby Richy. I was very happy
to help them mark this moment in their family’s growth.

Spank hard…spank safe!

We got lots more smut in store for you all month long!
(And on a school night, nonetheless!) I had to kill
them to make them happy or some shit.

The middle stanza drips of sincerity and is probably a real excerpt from somebody’s blog except for the poet’s substitution of “Spanksgiving.” But the “spank hard… spank safe!” refrain and the bondage/smut references in the adjacent stanzas make it clear that we are supposed to smirk at the sentiment. The “mainstream poetry” Flarf slogan may be meant to indicate that the vapid and absurd internet material that the Flarfists draw from IS the mainstream now, and if their poems end up being more scatalogical and incoherent than most “mainstream” people can deal with, then maybe those people should learn to face up to the reality of their own culture. But slapping “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world” on your avant-garde poetry website might just as easily be read as hipster posturing — the equivalent of wearing a Journey T-shirt to an Animal Collective concert and challenging people to wonder about whether you really listen to Journey and whether you would be more cool or less cool if you did.

On the surface of it, Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets (and the multi-author blog on which they were first posted), have a lot in common with Flarf. All Drunk poems, both in the book and on the blog, are written in all capital letters — the international internet language of idiocy and/or assholery. Like Flarf poems, Drunk poems feature inanity, banality, and frequent topic shifts and interruptions. But unlike Flarf poems, there is real emotional content in Drunk poems. Bailey’s book consists of real live sonnets — most of them are Italian sonnets, with an octave and a sestet and a turn and everything — describing the speaker’s alcohol-drenched misery following a breakup. Here’s one of my favorites:

Sonnet 14

IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY
I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME
INFOMERCIALS HAVE STARTED AND I KIND OF WANT TO DIE
I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE

OK SO ACTUALLY IT’S FOR THE BIBLE OR SOMETHING
SO IT’S A COMMERCIAL FOR TRYING TO BE HAPPY OR SOMETHING
BUT I AM NOT HAPPY TONIGHT NO I AM NOT JUST HERE
IF HAPPINESS EVER WORKED THEN HOW — I DON’T KNOW

HAPPINESS IS A LIZARD IN THE SUNLIGHT GETTING WARM
AND THEN IN THE NIGHT BENEATH A ROCK EATING FLIES
AND SWALLOWING THE MEAT OF THE TRASH OF THE DIRT

AH, SO TONIGHT IS A LITTLE DRUNK AND OK OK OK
THAT IS GOOD SO LET ME BE — THERE IS NO LOVE TONIGHT
GOD IS LIKE BONO — SOME DICKWAD NO ONE WILL EVER MEET OR LIKE

The poem begins with a sort of open-ended plea that reflects the internet age in its very vagueness. Most Facebook and Twitter updates are not addressed to anyone in particular; they are just thrown out into the abyss and we hope that some of our friends will respond. This diminishes our responsibility for our own feelings as well as potentially diminishing the intensity of our relationships; instead of calling a friend to vent about a problem, you can just post a vague allusion to it on your Facebook and receive a bunch of vague support from whatever acquaintances happen to have logged on in time to see your post. In this poem, there is real pathos in this vagueness : “IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY / I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME.” This is a person who is lost and lonely. In the last line of the first stanza, the speaker appears to be able to laugh a little at his own misery — “I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE” — but in the next stanza his joking façade cracks, and he says straight out that he’s unhappy.

Then suddenly, in the first stanza of the sestet, there is a total change of tone from the banal to the imaginative. The lizard seems to be a figure for the banal — feeding, as it does, on the “meat of the trash of the dirt” — but it is at least a figure in a poem that until now has been aggressively anti-poetic. I don’t think it’s exactly a metaphor; I don’t think the speaker is saying that happiness is LIKE a lizard, but rather that only simple things like lizards are happy. It’s the same construction as “happiness is a warm gun,” and I think the use of “warm” to describe the lizard might not be an accident. After this little reverie, the speaker realizes he is drunk, makes temporary peace with his loneliness, and curses God. The tone switches back to banal rambling, but the God = Bono simile betrays a wry poetic sensibility that few drunks (who aren’t poets to begin with) are capable of.

What gets me so excited about Drunk poetry as written by Bailey and friends is that it breaks down the pervasive assumption that experimental form is incompatible with emotional content. That this assumption exists baffles me, since Joyce’s Ulysses stands as an enormous and wildly famous testament to the contrary, but I have observed it in many (though not all) of my students, my colleagues, and the scholars in my field. Most importantly, I have observed it in the experimental poets of today, many of whom seem content to be tricksters and treat “feelings” as counterrevolutionary.

That’s not to say that Bailey’s sincere moments are always delightful, however. The breakup theme gets tedious (and maybe that’s intentional?), and the poetry is frequently at its wretched worst when he is at his most sincere: “I LICKED THE SPOONS THAT WE HAD SCOOPED INTO OUR HEARTS / AND I GAVE YOU TWO SCOOPS EVERY TIME — I WASN’T CHEAP.” I mean, puke. Puuuuuke. But this is an interesting post-ironic moment. Is it a joke? When we puke at these lines, are we puking with him or on him? What about these lines?

I COULD PRACTICALLY RIP MYSELF APART
AND WHAT WOULD I EVEN FIND BUT YOUR LOVE
THAT I’VE SAVED UP LIKE CRUMBS

The hipster in me recoils at the naked sentiment — last night I marked these in my book as “puke” lines, but today they look kinda nice. And this oscillation, this indeterminacy, is precisely what is going to characterize the post-ironic age. I am not proposing that a return to Byronic levels of sincerity is imminent or even advisable, but that as we feel our way back from posturing in silly haircuts to occasionally being able to say what we mean, we are going to encounter a lot of weird situations that look a lot like Bailey’s poems. The trouble with foreclosing on the possibility of sincerity — as Flarf more or less does — is that you cut off a whole lot of interpretative possibilities. But if you do occasionally say something “real,” you open up the downright dangerous possibility that anything in your poem might be “real.”

It’s not an accident, though, that Bailey & friends have adopted drunkenness as their aesthetic banner. The speech of drunk people is frequently a fascinating blend of comedy and sincerity, and it moves in and out of self-awareness pretty fluidly. One minute your drunk friend will be saying something absurd, the next minute he’ll be telling you that you are truly one of his best and most excellent friends, and in another minute he’ll be laughing at himself and telling you how drunk he is and not to listen to anything he says. The fact that Bailey’s speaker is drunk allows him to be sincere with relatively little risk; we know that our drunk friends’ resolutions generally come from genuine feelings, but at the same time we’ve learned to take them with a grain of salt.

So it appears that the Drunk poets get to have their cake and eat it too, which leaves us with just one burning question: are they really drunk, or are they writing in “drunkface”? Fred Astaire claimed in his autobiography that he knocked back two shots of bourbon before the first take of the famous drunk dancing scene from the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, and one before each successive take — and they got it on the seventh take. This scene alone is worth the price of admission; Astaire achieves a balance of grace and sloppiness that could perhaps have only been executed by a legitimately drunk professional dancer. But what about Zui Quan, the form of Chinese martial arts known as “Drunken Boxing” popularized by Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films? Though Jackie Chan’s character is portrayed as actually drunk, real Zui Quan practitioners say that you need to be sober in order to have the balance and coordination necessary to perform the staggering, fluid motions that are merely meant to imitate drunkenness.

Here’s where I go off the conspiracy-theory deep end: Sam Pink, in one of the blurbs on the back of the book (which by the way are the two greatest blurbs I have ever read in my life), refers to “the midwest sadness embedded as deeply in [Bailey] as his Kool-Aid moustache,” and indeed, Bailey’s author bio claims that he is from Muncie, Indiana. You know who else is from Muncie? Tim Robbins’ character in The Hudsucker Proxy, a naïve midwesterner who accidentally finds himself in charge of a big-city corporation. When the femme fatale wants to gain his trust she claims to be from Muncie too, which involves an elaborate lie including singing the Muncie High fight song along with Robbins by following him a half-beat behind and being able to guess about the predicable rhymes. When her betrayal of Robbins is eventually revealed, he’s so naïve that all he can say is “I can’t believe I was betrayed by you….. a Muncie girl!”. So maybe — just maybe — Bailey’s alleged Muncie origin is a winking reference to an absolute sincerity that is, itself, ironized in the Coen Brothers’ film.

So is he really from Muncie? Is he really drunk? Does he sincerely want you to lick the spoon he has scooped into his heart? I don’t know, but I’m having fun trying to figure it out.

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