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review of 'Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style & the 1960s'

"Mad Men" returns to cable television this coming Sunday, continuing its saga of mutable identities and creative branding at a New York advertising firm during the 1960s. Or at least one assumes it will still be set in the ‘60s. How much narrative time lapses between seasons varies unpredictably. Like everything else about the show, it remains the network’s closely guarded secret. Critics given an early look at the program must agree to an embargo on anything they publish about it. This makes perfect sense in the context of the social world of "Mad Men" itself: the network is, after all, selling the audience’s curiosity to advertisers.

A different economy of attention operates in Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style & the 1960s, a collection of 18 essays on the program just published by Duke University Press. It’s not just a matter of the editors and contributors all being academics, hence presumably a different sort of cultural consumer from that of the average viewer. On the contrary, I think that is exactly wrong. Serialized narrative has to generate in its audience the desire for an answer to a single, crucial question: “And then what happens?” (Think of all the readers gathered at the docks in New York to get the latest installment of a Dickens novel coming from London.)

Of course, the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World write with a host of more complex questions in mind, but I don’t doubt for a second that many of the papers were initially inspired by weekend-long diegetic binge sessions, fueled by the same desire driving other viewers. At the same time, there’s every reason to think that the wider public is just as interested in the complex questions raised by the show as any of the professors writing about it. For they are questions are about race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, money, happiness, misery, and lifestyle – and about how much any configuration of these things can change, or fail to change, over time.   

Many of the essays serve as replies to a backlash against "Mad Men" that began in the third or fourth season, circa 2009, as it was beginning to draw a much larger audience than it had until that point. The complaint was that the show, despite its fanatical attention to the style, dress, and décor of the period, was simple-mindedly 21st century in its attitude toward the characters. It showed a world in which blunt expressions of racism, misogyny, and homophobia were normal, and sexual harassment in the workplace was an executive perk. Men wore hats and women stayed home.  Everyone smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish, often at the same time. Child abuse was casual. So was littering.

And because all of it was presented in tones by turn ironic and horrified, viewers were implicitly invited to congratulate themselves on how enlightened they were now. Another criticism held that "Mad Men" only seemed to criticize the oppressive arrangements it portrayed, while in reality allowing the viewer to enjoy them vicariously. These complaints sound contradictory: the show either moralistically condemns its characters or inspires the audience to wallow in political incorrectness. But they aren’t mutually exclusive by any means. What E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity” tends to be a default setting with Americans, alternating with periods of maudlin nostalgia. There’s no reason the audience couldn’t feel both about the "Mad Men" vision of the past.

See also a comment by the late Christopher Lasch, some 20 years ago: “Nostalgia is superficially loving in its re-creation of the past, but it invokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history’s hold on the present.”

At the risk of conflating too many arguments under too narrow a heading, I’d say that the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World agree with Lasch’s assessment of progress and nostalgia while also demonstrating how little it applies to the program as a whole.

Caroline Levine’s essay “The Shock of the Banal: Mad Men's Progressive Realism” provides an especially apt description of how the show works to create a distinct relationship between past and present that’s neither simply nostalgic nor a celebration of how far we’ve come. The dynamic of "Mad Men" is, in her terms, “the play of familiarity in strangeness” that comes from seeing “our everyday assumptions just far enough removed from us to feel distant.” (Levine is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.)

The infamous Draper family picnic in season two is a case in point. After a pleasant afternoon with the kids in a bucolic setting, the parents pack up their gear, shake all the garbage off their picnic blanket, and drive off. The scene is funny, in the way appalling behavior can sometimes be, but it’s also disturbing. The actions are so natural and careless – so thoughtless, all across the board – that you recognize them immediately as habit. Today’s viewers might congratulate themselves for at least feeling guilty when they litter. But that’s not the only possible response, because the scene creates an uneasy awareness that once-familiar, “normal” ideas and actions came to be completely unacceptable – within, in fact, a relatively short time. It eventually became the butt of jokes, but the famous “Keep America Beautiful” ad from about 1970 -- the one with the crying Indian -- probably had a lot to do with it. (Such is the power of advertising.)

The show's handling of race and gender can be intriguing and frustrating. All the powerful people in it are straight white guys in ties, sublimely oblivious to even the possibility that their word might not be law. "Mad Space" by Dianne Harris, a professor of architecture and art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a useful cognitive map of the show's world -- highlighting how the advertising firm's offices are organized to demonstrate and reinforce the power of the executives over access to the female employees' labor (and, often enough, bodies), while the staid home that Don Draper and his family occupy in the suburbs is tightly linked to the upper-middle-class WASP identity he is trying to create for himself by concealing and obliterating his rural, "white trash" origins. A handful of African-American characters appear on the margins of various storylines -- and one, the Drapers' housekeeper Carla, occupies the especially complex and fraught position best summed up in the phrase "almost part of the family." But we never see the private lives of any nonwhite character.

In "Representing the Mad Margins of the Early 1960s: Northern Civil Rights and the Blues Idiom," Clarence Lang, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas, writes that "Mad Men" "indulges in a selective forgetfulness" by "presuming a black Northern quietude that did not exist" (in contrast to the show's occasional references to the civil rights movement below the Mason-Dixon line). Lang's judgment here is valid -- up to a point. As it happens, all of the essays in the collection were written before the start of the fifth season, in which black activists demonstrate outside the firm's building to protest the lack of job opportunities. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hires its first African-American employee, a secretary named Dawn. I think a compelling reading of "Mad Men" would recognize that the pace and extent of the appearance of nonwhite characters on screen is a matter not of the creators' refusal to portray them, but of their slow arrival on the scene of an incredibly exclusionary social world being transformed (gradually and never thoroughly) by the times in which "Mad Men" is set.   

There is much else in the book that I found interesting and useful in thinking about "Mad Men," and I think it will be stimulating to readers outside the ranks of aca fandom. I’ll return to it in a few weeks, with an eye to connecting some of the essays to new developments at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. (Presumably the firm will have changed its name in the new season, given the tragic aftermath of Lane Pryce’s venture in creative bookkeeping.)

When things left off, it was the summer of 1967. I have no better idea than any one else when or how the narrative will pick up, but really hope that Don Draper creates the ad campaign for Richard Nixon.

 

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Mellen Press continues its legal maneuvers against critics

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Edwin Mellen Press, under fire for a now-dropped lawsuit against a university and librarian, threatens more legal action after a website wrote about the case.

CourseSmart Grows, Looks to Analytics

CourseSmart, a company that provides online course materials, said it has now partnered with 100 campus learning management systems and campus portals to provide content to students.

That, officials at the six-year-old company said, makes it the industry leader in this space. The company offers 40,000 electronic textbooks from more than 50 publishers, including Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education. Cindy Clarke, the senior vice president of marketing at CourseSmart, said the company’s online offering plugs right into different learning portals, including Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Pearson LearningStudio, Moodle and custom software created by some universities. By integrating its offerings with such portals, the company can give students at the different institutions immediate access to the course materials it sells alongside other class materials posted by instructors and used by students.

Now, the company is beta testing an analytics package, Clarke said. The goal is to produce a program to track how and if students are using materials to let educators see how engaged students are.

Simba, which analyzes publishing trends, predicts the overall market for digital course materials will account for 14 percent of the textbook market by 2014, CourseSmart said.

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Winners of Bancroft Prize Announced

Columbia University on Monday announced two winners of the Bancroft Prize for books about history. The winners are:

  • W. Jeffrey Bolster, associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, for The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).
  • John Fabian Witt, Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale University, for Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 2012).

 

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Company to help institutions embrace open educational resources

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Open education advocates launch Lumen Learning, which aims to help institutions replace expensive textbooks with open-source solutions.

Anthropology journal will convert to open access format

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American Anthropological Association announces that one of its journals will be converted to open access.

Interview with the author of new book on Mexican-American students

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Author discusses new book on the challenges facing Mexican-American students.

Mellen Drops Suit Against Librarian

Edwin Mellen Press is dropping a wildly unpopular libel lawsuit against a university librarian, CBC News reported. Mellen sued Dale Askey, associate university librarian at McMaster University in Ontario, where he’s been working since 2011, over a blog post he wrote in August 2010, when he was at Kansas State University, that was highly critical of Mellen. The press says that it wants to focus on its authors and books and so is dropping the suit. Many scholarly and library groups were furious about the lawsuit and criticized Mellen for filing it.

 

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Colleges try to beat textbook costs with book reserves

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To lessen the impact of rising textbook costs, three institutions have created programs that allow students to borrow course materials.

Review of Jeremy Bernstein, "A Palette of Particles"

Intellectual Affairs

At the end of "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957), our unfortunate hero -- having survived encounters with a house cat and a spider on the way down -- finds himself smaller than an atom, with no end in sight. We see him awaken on what looks like a planet, made up (one reckons) of even tinier atoms. Which in turn contain worlds, containing atoms, and so on.

A mystical epiphany seems totally appropriate under the circumstances. "Smaller than smallest,” he says in the closing voice-over, “I meant something too. To God there is no zero. I still exist!" A galaxy fills the screen: vaster, and more infinitesimal, than the viewer can possibly imagine. A psychedelic moment, with the 1960s not even started yet.

It works, in part, because the audience has seen the standard textbook drawing of an atom, with electrons orbiting the nucleus like planets around the sun. (A lumpy sun, to be sure, made of protons and neutrons.) All of the particles are little spheres. The obvious parallel to a solar system feels sublimely appropriate. To use the maxim alchemists once learned from Hermes Trismegistus: “As above, so below.”

But the parallelism, while convenient, is misleading. Electrons resemble clouds more than they do the billiard-ball planets in a science-fair exhibit. Protons and neutrons are waves as much as they are particles. And there’s scarcely any point to attempting a visual rendering of the still more elementary components of matter that Jeremy Bernstein writes about in A Palette of Particles (Harvard University Press). Apart from vintage photographs in which scientists discerned the trails left by a positron or an Omega-minus particle on the move, most of the entities Bernstein writes about are best “depicted” as mathematical formulae.

A professor emeritus of physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Bernstein is a prolific author of books on science for the lay reader -- and he brings to this popular history of particle physics the advantage of having been around when some of that history was being made. Bernstein, now in his 80s, knew Wolfgang Pauli, who hypothesized the existence of the neutrino in 1930, a quarter-century before it could be confirmed. (He also came up with two devastating remarks sometimes appropriated by people who haven’t heard of Pauli. One was to say of a theory that it “wasn’t even wrong.” The other was to refer to a colleague as “so young and already so unknown.”)

Particle physics has become staggeringly expensive (the search for the Higgs boson or “God particle” cost more than $13 billion) but Bernstein entered the field when budgets, like computation speeds, were a lot lower. He mentions being “the house theorist for the Harvard Cyclotron from 1955 to 1957,” when the machine and the building to house it “cost something like half a million dollars.”

And the old venues had their charm: he expresses a certain fondness for the Cosmotron, a particle accelerator that went into operation at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the early 1950s. “I was on the theoretical staff at Brookhaven for a couple of years in the 1960s,” he writes. “When the machine was down I used to go into the building at night to practice my trumpet. The acoustics were wonderful.”

His personal observations help ground what can prove a mind-bending tour of the infinitesimal. Physicists have discovered a whole menagerie of subatomic entities since James Chadwick identified the neutron in 1932. Some of them have hard-to-grasp qualities such as zero mass, or power that increases with distance. The distinctions among them involve terms such as “spin” or “color” that bear little or no relation to what they mean in ordinary usage.

Furthermore, particles are related to one another in various ways, and there are symmetries (and anomalous asymmetries) between them as well. Keeping it all straight is like remembering who’s who in a Russian novel.

Not a complaint, let me hasten to say: Bernstein covers the material in a sprightly manner, with only the occasional equation that will reveal the beauty of it all to the reader who can grasp it. And he takes a quick look at hypothetical particles that sound like something out of a sci-fi flick. One is the graviton: a gravitational quantum with no mass that moves at the speed of light. Another is the tachyon, which cannot move slower than the speed of light.

If tachyons do exist and could be used to transmit information (so goes the speculation) it might be possible to reverse cause and effect – to go backward in time. Bernstein does not sound optimistic about anyone proving the existence of the tachyon. Even so, the search is on. (Imagine the day that breakthrough is made. What could possibly go wrong?)

A Palette of Particles ends by comparing the domain of subatomic particles to “a series of nested Russian dolls: inside each one there is another.” Add to that the estimate by physicists that 85 percent of the matter in the universe consists of subatomic particles we don’t recognize or understand yet…. It turns out that Bernstein’s sober and lucid introduction to particle physics has an almost mystical quality, even if the author shows no interest in that kind of cosmic thinking. We’re back to what the incredible shrinking man tells us:

“So close, the Infinitesimal and the Infinite. But suddenly I knew they were the really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle.”

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