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All that is solid melts into air – Mad Men & Late Capitalism

In Postmodernism, Television on 23 August, 2011 at 00:59

As we watch the opening sequence of Mad Men we observe a silhouette of New York’s finest, Don Draper, standing in his 1960s office. Suddenly, as he puts down his briefcase the walls surrounding collapse, the pictures on the walls come crashing down and the floor beneath him evaporates, sending our protagonist into a free-fall between the epic skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto that under the unparalleled dynamic of capitalism ‘all that is solid melts into air.’ The aforementioned sequence visualises this issue as Draper’s world collapses around him as if the unreality, the sheer illusion presented under capitalism is revealed.

As Draper plummets from the sky he drifts past a series of billboards that compose the construction of American life. There is this sublime wall-to-wall prostitution that envelops Draper as he plunges. Cascading down he is contained by this series of images and each advertisement seems to react to his presence. The glass facades of the skyscrapers reflect each other. The infinitely mirrored images create an endless space, the illusion of illustrious capitalism at its finest – a world of infinite possibilities.

But this infinite reference is destined to create its own problems. Advertising absorbs cultural norms and modes of expression for its own gain; what then happens to the original? It inherently loses its value; the depth of its meaning disappears as the simulation repeats itself infinitely.  If something can be copied then original is no longer the only version and thus its value is lost. So as Don Draper is trying to figure out how to sell one of a plethora of cigarettes brands, he has to find a way to individualise it. “It’s toasted!” he says.

The social is incorporated into a form of supply and demand; in other words, the American lifestyle is created order to be sold. There is a total liquidation of meaning, which is later re-absorbed into the depthless surface of advertising. This transfers to the audience an intoxicating hyperreality. The 1960s are given another chance to exist. It is reborn as simulacrum, as Mad Men. Existing not merely to exist but to generate capital. Despite being a virulent critic of the advertising industry it seeks to retell American history and capitalise on it.

it seems as though the world is full of pre-packaged materials destined for reproduction into the world of simulation. Mountain ranges for photography, women for pornography and events for the television. Mad Men is incredibly aware of this fact and exploits it

If we expand this theory it seems as though the world is full of pre-packaged materials destined for reproduction into the world of simulation. Mountain ranges for photography, women for pornography and events for the television. Mad Menis incredibly aware of this fact and exploits it. The incredibly authentic reproduction of the 1960s is a perfect simulation.

As we watch Mad Men we see that the reality for the characters looks like little more than an advertisement; it features all of the necessary components of television advertising. If we take Baudrillard’s procession of the simulacra there is no real discernable difference between the 1960s in Mad Men and the real 1960s. It is the 1960s. Whose 1960s? It is ours, a contemporary superficial construction that refers back to a time of innocence. This was before Kennedy’s assassination; it was before the Watergate scandal. This is a Utopia produced for the screen, produced to distract us from the banality of the present.

The billboards that Draper falls past represent something that is to be consumed with desire, an alluring facsimile. As they continue to appear around him they slowly become more transparent, as they do it is as though we can see through the simulation. As the opening sequence continues it appears as if Don Draper is falling, but as the frame widens we can see him sitting in his chair. ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ Late capitalism disguises this process, covering up its inertia with the veil of the simulacrum.

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