Finding a better word than “progress”

So I know I don’t need to explain myself, but if I did, I’d tell you that the reason I haven’t been writing here lately is because I’m working on a Very Important Paper. That is due in January. However, the stakes feel pretty high (I’m presenting it at MLA!), and it turns out that I have far less free time than I think I do. So a lot of the free time that I do have which might usually be devoted to, say, the pleasures of Proust, is now spent either watching, reading, or thinking about Mad Men. Specifically, I’m thinking about the relationships among addiction, recovery, and serial time, as it connects to Mad Men‘s relationship with history. (Got anything else you want to see thrown into the pot? I’m apparently open to any and all ideas!)

My argument is this: all serials cause us to engage with the narrative along a double timeline, looking forward (toward the end of the series, the resolution of its mysteries, etc.) and backwards (for characters’ motivations, for clues, for callbacks, etc.) at the same time. This makes time work in a really cyclical way in serials–Mad Men might be the best illustration ever of that relationship, especially in this last season, which returned so insistently to the first one even as it demonstrated the momentum of historical change more than any season to date. I’m thinking abut this in terms of recovery as well, which seems especially appropriate for Mad Men, since it’s so concerned with alcoholism (if not recovery). And the cyclical nature of this last season is particularly preoccupied with addiction, I’d say–there’s Don’s drinking spiraling out of control even more than it has in seasons past, obviously, but there’s also the compulsive nature of his behavior writ large, especially his relationship with Sylvia (that opening line when we first see them in bed together, “I want to stop doing this,” even as we know full well that he can’t.)

This all becomes particularly interesting when we’re looking at the show through the lens of its relationship to the question of historical “progress.” Most of the critical takes I’ve seen on the show’s relationship with history tend to fall on one of two sides: either the show’s real purpose is to make contemporary readers feel good abut how much the world has changed since the 1960s (aka how much better we are now than we were back then), while still getting to enjoy (and even revel in) the style that characterized the era. So the complaint is that the show allows us to have our cake and eat it too. On the other side of things is the idea that the show’s real purpose is to show us how little progress has in fact been made, and perhaps how the idea of progress itself is the same kind of sad fiction that we see Don handing himself all the time.

(It’s quite possible that these two perspectives aren’t so much the “critical consensus” as they are my dueling reactions to the show, for the record).

But the thing that’s struck me lately as I’ve been trying to cobble my thoughts together for this paper is that neither of those responses fully account for the show’s complicated relationship to history, and I think a lot of that is because of the way that both readings are limited to an understanding of historical change that works on a strictly linear model. In popular discourse about social justice, words like “progressive” and “regressive” are thrown around a lot, but that doesn’t really account for the way social change works. In my observation, change follows more of a quantum model than a linear one. Something happens, and suddenly everything looks different, and I’m reevaulating everything that came before.

Mad Men seems to lend itself to this understanding of social change in particular since so much of its plot hinges on these massive seismic shifts–even as it’s constantly reminding us of the differences between Now and Then (the pilot is particularly intense along these lines, if you haven’t seen it in a while). Since the way we experience time is linear, it only follows that we’d understand social change along a linear model, but one thing following another in time doesn’t also indicate “upward” or “downward” movement (or forward or backward or whatever model makes more sense to you). It’s not that things get better or worse, they get different.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think that social changes don’t impact groups of people in significantly positive or negative ways–it’s just that these changes don’t break down in as binary a fashion as the idea of “social progress” would indicate.

I’ve been thinking about this a ton lately in the wake of the recent devastating nature of the news. Each of the branches of the US government seems devoted currently to pulling the rug out from under any understanding of the forward movement of history as “progress.” And I’m not excluding the overturning of DOMA from that analysis. Obviously, I’m glad for myself and my family that my marriage is now federally recognized, and I do think this will make a big difference down the line re: gay and lesbian families being seen as equal and legitimate, but I also think that gay marriage is an issue for “winners” in the LGBT movement–people who are in a position of relative privilege especially re: race and class. With the judiciary rejection of the Voting Rights Act, the defunding of food stamps, and the obscenity that is the Trayvon Martin verdict, I am finding myself more skeptical than ever that the arc of history tends toward justice. At the same time, I’m more motivated than I’ve been in years to work toward social justice in whatever way I can. I can feel, though, that if I keep my focus on a concrete definition of “progress,” I’ll get even more disheartened–to the point of despair. The “cost of knowledge” of an intersectional understanding of social justice is that there’s always something that counterbalances any progress that does get made.

And this is where I come back to Mad Men (I’d wager you were wondering how I’d get back here). The shape of the plot over the years often revolves around huge and unexpected shifts, and then following the fallout of the characters’ reactions to those shifts. The clearest example of this is the creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, of course, but I think it extends to their reaction to historical events as well. When it comes to Big Historical Moments, characters on the show are often blindsided by events that we’ve seen coming, or even been anticipating–singular ones like the Cuban Missile Crisis or MLK’s assassination, but also larger social shifts like the strengthening of the Civil Rights movement (for instance, the real response to SCDP’s insincere publicly chastising a rival firm for racist pranks) and the social divide re: the anti-war movement (I’m thinking of the appalled response to Don’s attempt to build on presumed anti-war sentiment among clients).

I hope it’s clear without my saying so that the last thing I’m advocating here is a model of social action based on the behavior of the characters in Mad Men. But what I do think we can see is how what we think of as “history” is often experienced as a quantum shift rather than a progressive line. While it’s often retrospectively clear where things have been headed All Along, big historical shifts often feel like a gut punch. I was naive enough to be shocked by the Trayvon Martin verdict, even though in retrospect it should have been obvious–but even for people with a more realistic perspective on the relationship between the judiciary and young black men, the way that the news was experienced and distributed seems to have hit like a ton of bricks. We get a piece of terrible news, and then watch as reactions (including our own) fall into place.

Ultimately, there’s something simultaneously invigorating and terrifying about this conception of history. How does one advocate for justice without a utopian vision of the future to which you get attached? BUT, the more attached we become to a specific vision, the more shut down we are to new possibilities, and the less able we are to respond thoughtfully to moments of historical surprise.

This is what I love about the way Mad Men is constructed. Even in a show where we by definition know what’s going to happen (it is, after all, a kind of historical fiction), we’re constantly thrown for massive narrative loops. The one that gets at the show’s model for thinking about history most interestingly, I think, is the finale of the most recent season, and that’s where you can see how the theoretical framework of alcoholism and recovery might offer a new way of thinking about narrative progress. It’s clear that Don is “hitting bottom” in this episode, and that he’s on the verge (or in the midst) of experiencing a massive narrative shift. He’s lost his job (potentially permanently) and is coming clean for the first time about the impact of his own history on the shape of his life to date. As a reader, one of the most exciting things about this season finale is how little sense I have of where the story is going, even in the short term. I’m tempted to assume we’re on some kind of narrative trajectory toward redemption, but it seems extremely unlikely to me that the show would go in this direction, given where it’s been so far. The end of the season right at this point of a massive narrative shift (and this is the third time a season has ended like this–I’m thinking of the creation of SCDP and Don’s marriage to Megan) makes us live in that moment of surprise, extending the part where you’re waiting for the next thing so that you can’t just react right in the moment. We’re waiting for the narrative “payoff,” but also knowing that it won’t deliver whatever imaginary pleasure we think it contains, because whatever it is will be different than what we’re currently envisioning. And in this way, we’re forced (or at least structurally encouraged) to take the narrative “a day at a time,” even as we’re reminded how difficult, or even impossible it is to achieve that perspective.

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