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“There is no big lie”

I didn’t watch Mad Men when it first started, which in hindsight is surprising, as I’m a big fan of both the advertising industry and the style of high Fordism. However, all the buzz I heard at the time amounted to a shocked “OMG THEY SMOKE AND ARE SEXIST,” and there are few things less interesting than minor differences between contemporary and past mores, the ruffs and fardingales of the past.

On the strength of Adam’s recommendation, I’ve been making my way through the show over the past month. Although from the beginning it was clear that the show looked beautiful and was marvelously acted, some of my initial concern remained: was the show’s 1960s setting anything other than window-dressing?It wasn’t until eight episodes into the first season that the thematic significance of the 1960s advertising industry became clear. The crucial scene comes when Don Draper drops in on his bohemian mistress and argues with her beatnik friends, who tell him that the adverts he creates are merely lies. Don’s response, that “there is no big lie, there is no system,” is quite correct. Advertising doesn’t simply lie about the world, on the contrary, as Don’s practice throughout the show makes clear, it tells, or rather constructs, a particular sort of truth, a kind of dream image of capitalism. In Mad Men, however, this accusation of lying strikes Don particularly closely, because he is a liar, who has been passing himself off under an assumed identity, that of Don Draper, which is not his own. Don has used this name to “make something of himself,” to recreate himself as a different person, but the falsehood leaves a stain of uncertainty, perhaps only visible to himself, in his identity.

Žižek argues that contemporary capitalism is not based around demanding that subjects conform to a specific identity, but rather demanding that they answer the question, “what do you want?” While the classical liberal subject was based on identity defined in relation to a structure of authority, the contemporary subject requires a continuous self-questioning based on a fundamental insecurity. Don Draper is precisely this subject, involved in the dream-construction of capitalism at precisely the time when symbolic authority was eroding and the subject of fixed identity was being replaced by the flexible subject. Mad Men is, in part, a dramatization of this transformation, and so is not about how different the 1960s were, but about how similar they are.