I just finished watching the sixth season of Mad Men. My ex worked for Harrington, Righter, & Parsons, based in Manhattan, the first TV sales rep firm, so I was familiar with the industry and its players. My wife became an account exec after programming fragmentation was well underway, which diluted the crazy amount of money handed out when advertising meant advertising on three networks only. Still, she made enough in profit sharing that, even if we never saved a penny of her income, we’d be set for life, and yearly bonuses were enough to buy a nice boat–more than I made in a year as a teacher.
She was on the sales end as opposed to the creative end (like Sterling/Cooper), doing what is called national spot sales, selling advertising time (spots) for the networks, but it gave me a sense of what it must have been like to be one of the major players drilling into all the advertising money when it was nothing but gushers.
I was something like Peggy’s counter-culture boyfriend, so most of my friends looked very critically at a life in advertising (in Buddhist terms, not ‘right livelihood’). Interestingly, my wife was, in many ways, Don Draper. She came from a poor, working class family in South Buffalo, with an alcoholic father and a crazy, physically and sexually abusing mother. When she left Buffalo she, like Don, changed her last name (she did it legally). Like Don, with determination, brains, balls and raw talent, she remade her life. I was enormously proud of her. But, like Don Draper and Roger Sterling, she found the brass ring to be elusive–behind the door to the American Dream was always just another door.
And I pursued ‘enlightenment’ in the same manner she pursued worldly success; for similar reasons and with similar results. Imagining I had left my ‘ego’ behind, I discovered it was just another way the ego has of legitimizing and rationalizing its existence–just another door leading to another door.
End of story?
Is it all and always about the ego?
Is there ‘something else’?
I think there is, but that’s the story of Mad Men, and the series denouement begins in the last episode of season six…
What we see as we watch MadMen depends on our view of our self. If we haven’t thought much on that topic, we’ll still react to the show and its character’s, but our response will be mostly reflexive and instinctive—like Don Draper.
So, what is this ‘self’?
From the Freudian perspective, the ‘self’ is the ego which lives in a no man’s land between the conflicting demands of the id (instinct) and the superego (societal dictates). This echoes the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s argument that the psychological ‘bottoms out’ in the human version of animal instinct. But the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell pointed out, I think accurately, that the animal is the biological which, in turn, bottoms out in chemistry, or what he called the ‘edict of carbon’—
Every living thing is a sort of imperialist, seeking to transform as much as possible of its environment into itself… When we compare the (present) human population of the globe with… that of former times, we see that “chemical imperialism” has been… the main end to which human intelligence has been devoted.
Bertrand Russell, An Outline of Philosophy, (New York 1960) 31-32.
More on this from the internet…
Chemical imperialism and the edict of carbon.
What is chemical imperialism? It is the need for matter to assimilate other matter into itself. The octet rule, remember? An atom wants to have eight electrons within its valence shell, right? Well as a side effect sometimes an atom gains a negative charge, or the atom that lost the electron(s) is left with a positive charge. Other times atoms have to share electrons. These actions in turn produce even more side effects: cations are attracted to anions thus we have ionic bonds, atoms which are forced to share electrons become covalent (covalent aren’t perfectly neutral, polar covalent bonds: water anyone?) from this we have the entire cacophony that makes up the awesome orchestra that some would label ‘creation’.
Some atoms can’t easily be satisfied due to the level of positive or negative charges within them. Some form incredibly complex polar covalent bonds, large chains… seigoy. One such atom is particularly expert at doing this: carbon, to carbon we are all bound slave to its ever-enduring will.
The edict of carbon
Thou will collect all substances unto me.
Thou shall battle the dreaded death entropy and store further information unto myself.
Thou shall become more complex to store more information.
Thou cannot break my commandments; to do so is death… or stagnation within entropy.
Go fourth onto the land and be fruitful and multiply and I shall be thy shepherded and lead you to the promise, freedom from death, eternally.
Understand this: our evolution and our civilization are nothing more than chemical imperialism in effect. Chemical imperialism and its implementation in carbon’s edict is nothing more than matter wishing to make other matter into, or rather part of itself.
Civilization is inevitable, it like evolution, like life is nothing more than a drive or an engine of chemical imperialism.
…From this point of view, everything in Mad Men makes perfect sense. Those who are the very model of unblinking, ruthless fascism (the Ford Motor Execs) rule the roost as they embody the carbon edict most fully.
Don takes what he wants when he wants it, that is, exploits every situation for the maximum benefit of Don.
For me, the series denouement happens in that seminal scene in season six where, after inexplicably doing something decent (getting the draft card burning son into the National Guard), he then exploits the mother’s gratitude by stuping her (that’s my boy) and is caught in the act by his daughter.
The pain of being ‘witnessed’ by his daughter, of his daughter seeing him in a way similar to the way he saw his mother, was breaking point. The pain of seeing himself passing on his pain to his daugher as his mother passed on hers to him, was too much.
This was, to me, the best moment of the best show ever on television, and up there with any drama ever written.
I was in a college classroom with other literature majors and opined as how we were here because we were good at analyzing profound themes in literature as if we stood outside them, but the truth was we lived in the shadows of those profound themes, and it was a different task entirely to locate our self where it lived, in those shadows.
We are Don Draper—Don Draper is us.
The world is, and has been for a while now, falling down around our ears; not because we have failed to follow the program, the edict of carbon, but because we have, like Don, been wildly successful at implementing it.
Ironic, isn’t it?
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is—Is that all there is?
Will we have the courage, as Don did, finally, to say enough is enough, to commit economic and social hari-kari, not because we know what happens next, not because we know there is something more, but because we can’t go one more step in the same direction.
The edict of carbon has carried life a very long way, been behind the wheel a long time, allowing us the conceit we were actually making real choices—to go faster or slower, left or right, forward or back, up or down, decide between right and wrong.
I grew up in Santa Clara Valley, which is now Silicon Valley, where they are developing the Google Car—the car that drives itself. This development has run into a glitch. It turns out the Google Car programming can handle about 98% of the contingencies it is likely to encounter. The glitch is this: when the rare situation turns up the programming can’t handle, the driver must take over. But it must be assumed the driver is now very inexperienced and probably in the middle of some task he is attending because he doesn’t have to drive.
…but now he does…
We have, for a long time now, been driven; the sixty-four thousand dollar question is—can we drive?