Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mad Men "The Crash": Of Doctors, Mothers, and Lovers

In the episode before "The Crash," Don treats Dr. Rosen's wife, Sylvie, as an object, dictating his desires to her as if she were a common whore. Although Don tends to treat women with less than full respect, this time it seems as though he's gone much further. Sylvie seems to trigger something in him when she says on the phone "I need you and nothing else will do." An innocent enough phrase, but this drives Don crazy, as he tells Sylvie to wait for him, takes her book away, buys her a dress and tells her "you are mine." His possessiveness is very disconcerting and came off as strange to me in the episode.

However, "The Crash" moves toward explaining Don's behavior.

I want to suggest that in this episode we get a glimpse into Don's Freudian 'primal scene', in which Don's virginity is taken away by a whore and then he is subsequently punished for it. The episode does not revolve around a linear plot, but rather an endless interpenetrating series of doctors, mothers, and lovers. Don has difficulty telling them apart.

The series of figures begins with Don being called out of a meeting room to take a call presumably from Dr. Rosen, Sylvie's husband (doctor #1), but we find that the call actually is from Sylvie (lover and, as we shall see, mother). Doctor becomes lover, but Sylvie is calling to chastise Don for smoking cigarettes outside her door at night. She tells Don that she wanted to make him know what it feels like to be on the brink of her husband finding out. Although Sylvie at first finds Don's demands arousing, she breaks it off at the end of the last episode and confirms her decision on the phone with Don.

But Don's secretary saying that Doctor's on the phone, sets off another chain of events. Jim Cutler (or Cutter, I can't remember) says "That's a great idea, Don! I'll call my Doctor (doctor #2) and we'll get everyone fixed up." The viewer is at first confused -- is Cutler sick? No, the doctor, it turns out, Dr. Hecht, gives Don and the other creatives a shot of vitamins and some sort of amphetamine. It remains unclear what exactly the drug is -- and this only contributes to the freedom that the director and writer take with the effects of the drug. Drugs have become increasingly more prevalent in Mad Men as we move from the 50s and early 60s to the late 60s, mirroring the development of the drug culture. Roger, for instance, ends his marriage after a particularly powerful LSD trip administered by none other than Tim Leary. However, this episode pushes the trippiness further than the LSD episode, as it seems to operate in an associational way that was not shown in the LSD episode (limited to an outside perspective of Roger and Jane, the occasional blurring of the camera, and Roger's report that he is at a baseball game when he's really in the bathtub). This makes "The Crash" even more disorienting for the viewer.

The drug is supposed to allow everyone to be more creative for a long period of time so they can work on Chevy. While the other creatives (and the sober Peggy) are rehearsing lines from Alice in Wonderland and coming up with ideas, Don has his own experience. After Sylvie hangs up on him, he coughs and this throws him back to a moment in his childhood when he was told to go sleep in the cellar by the woman (not his mother) who gave him a place to stay. This place, however, is a whorehouse (we found this out in an earlier episode).

Then he goes to take Dr. Hecht's drug -- witnessing the other creatives running around like Mad Men (haha). As Don descends the stairs, he coughs again, and flashes back to a moment when a particular whore decides that he should stay inside rather than the cellar, in her room. He sees a picture of a baby on the mirror and asks "Is that you?" and she says "No," changing the subject, and says "It's a chest cold." I suspect that this may have been a daughter of the whore, whose name is Aimee (mother/doctor, lover, as we shall soon see). As he comes back to the present, he looks at a secretary and asks if they knew each other -- the vision not quite fading. As the camera pulls back, we begin to hear loud typing and noises -- including phones ringing -- then a sudden silence. The pharmakon begins to take effect.

The camera cuts to the creatives where one of them says "The strategy is about some sort of love transaction between a parent and a child involving the greatest gift of all, a Chevy." It seems as though they are thinking about fathers and sons, but we shall soon find out that the episode revolves around another love transaction between mother and son. The creatives rattle off ideas and Peggy hits upon "The child is the father of the man" -- a cliche, but one that also works well with the idea of Freudian primal scenes.

After Peggy's statement, we cut to Don running into Ken Cosgrove. Don says that he has to speak to the Chevy people in the flesh. As Don says this, Ken begins to tap dance. Don asks who taught him that and Ken says "My mother. No, my first girlfriend." -- This statement turns out to be more foreshadowing as Don's 'first girlfriend' can be figured as Aimee, who is also in the position of the mother.

Don then arrives at the creative office asking how's it going (they are repeating lines from Alice in Wonderland). He gives a cryptic and vague speech,

"I know your all feeling the darkness here today. But there's no reason to give in. No matter what you've heard this process will not take years. In my heart, I know we cannot be defeated because there is an answer that will open the door. There is a way around this system. This is a test of our patience and commitment. One great idea can win someone over."

We suspect that there is more going on here than a Chevy advertisement. Even at this point, we might suspect that Don is indirectly speaking of Sylvie (a test of his patience and commitment and the idea that he might be able to use to win her over -- how can he seduce her again). Flashing back, Aimee feeds young Don soup and Don has an epiphany that there was a "soup account" that is the answer to his question (not the question of how to sell Chevy): "I've got it." He goes back to the creatives where Wendy (who? We find that it is a Frank Gleeson -- a man who just died from cancer-- daughter) is doing the I Ching. Don asks Peggy to find the soup account, but someone else had already looked.  Don says to Peggy, again, cryptically, "You'll know when you see it and its gonna crack this thing wide open."

When Don returns to his office (presumably he already returned, but the drug's effect is taking its toll on cinematic time as there is no transition from Friday to Saturday), Wendy is there. She is wearing a stethoscope (doctor #3). When Don asks where she got it, she said it was in one of the offices upstairs (potentially Dr. Rosen's office). She tells him she's there to make him "feel better" and asks if he wants to "get it on." He ignores the question and Wendy listens to his heart, which is silent: "I think its broken." Who broke is heart? Sylvie? Megan? Betty? All the other women? The very first woman? (Aimee?).

At the same time as Don's drama, the creatives are throwing pens at Stan and one gets stuck in his arm. The camera cuts to Don listening to a song through Sylvie's (?) door ("Going out of my head over you/out of my head over you/out of my head . . ."I must think of a  way into your heart"). The song sets Don's project and gives further significance to some of Don's more cryptic speeches earlier in the work: he must find a way to 'get his foot in the door' as Ginzberg will say (more on this later), find an idea that will convince Sylvie to listen to him.

But then it cuts back to Stan and Peggy, who has become doctor #4 ("You have a great bedside manner"). Peggy moves from doctor to lover (Stan kisses her), to mother, as Peggy recalls the pain of her abortion ("I've had loss in my life") to comfort Stan, whose 20 year old cousin has died in Vietnam. Peggy says that you can't dull the pain with drugs and sex.

A musical interlude is called for at this juncture.


While all this is going on at the office, Sally has been put in charge for caring for her little brothers in the place of Megan, who is going to audition. She thus plays a kind of "motherly" role (that she is not ready for). Earlier in the episode, we also find hints of Sally's burgeoning sexuality through Betty's comment on Sally's short skirt. We may also remember the episode where Sally has her first period. Sally's transition into a young woman is further suggested by the book she is reading: Rosemary's Baby. The satantic undertones of this book is reinforced by a seemingly meaningless comment by Stan in the creative room earlier who says "I did it! I've got 666 ideas!" The book sets the tone for the sinister scheme about to unfold.

Sally hears a noise outside her bedroom and investigates. A large black woman is rummaging around the house. She says she's her grandmother visiting, claiming that she raised Don (mother (?)). The ensuing scene is awkward, as the viewer is suspicious (like Sally), but also find it plausible that we may learn of yet another twist in Don's past. Alternately, the woman says "Your dad is Donald Draper?" We might think that this woman raised the real Don Draper, whose identity was stolen by Dick Whitman.

But this mother is not a mother (or at least not Don's mother). She robs the house although, fortunately, does not hurt the children.

Meanwhile, Don is searching for the soup advertisement. The advertisement turns out to be an oatmeal advertisement with the words "Because you know what he needs." A mother holds the shoulders of a young boy about to bite into oatmeal. The image of the mother, however, has a beauty mark or a mole on her cheek and this causes Don to flashback once again.

Aimee is doing her makeup, but with a pencil, marks her cheek, in the exact same spot as the woman on the advertisement. She says "do you like this?" Don says, "I do." Aimee begins to seduce Don "You like my bosom." This is clearly Don's first sexual experience.

This dot, this mark, even though it is not 'natural' is the mark that links Aimee to Sylvie, who also has a dot on her cheek. If Don doesn't realize this, the viewer does. We can now begin to guess at why Don treated Sylvie like a whore: she reminds him of his mother/lover ("My mother. No, my first girlfriend" says Ken) Aimee.

After a cut to Grandma Ida, Sally, and Bobby, which increases her and the viewer's suspicion of her motives (Sally calls the police), we cut to Don in his office to perhaps the most significant scene in the entire episode:

Don (reading to himself): "This may be hard to believe, but the history can't be ignored. The history should not be ignored. Look, I don't want to waste your time, but. . ."  (calls for Peggy, resumes reading) "I don't want you to shut this door. Just let me say a few things. You and I both know. . ."

He tells them that he's "got it," showing them the oatmeal advertisement, saying that "it says it all." 

Don: Ok. I've got this great message and it has to do with what holds people together. What is that thing that draws them? It's a history. And it may not even be with that person, but it's. . it's like a. . .well, it's bigger than that.

Peggy: And that makes them buy a car?

Don: If this strategy is successful it's way bigger than a car. It's everything.I keep thinking about the basic principle of advertising. There's entertainment and then you stick the ad in the middle of the entertainment like a little respite. It's a bargain. They're getting the entertainment for free all they have to do is listen to the message. But what if they don't take the bargain at all? What if they're suddenly bored of the entertainment? What if they don't-- what if they turn of the tv? 

Ginzberg: You gotta get your foot in the door. 

Don: Exactly! So, how do I do that? Let's say I get her face to face. How do I capture her imagination? I have a sentence, maybe too. 

Peggy: Who's her? 

Ginzberg: Promise them everything. You know, you're gonna change their life. Your gonna take away their pain. [. . .] Then you hit 'em with the one two punch. What's the answer to all of life's problems? A Chevy. 

Don: No, it's not. 

First, note the slippage between the abstract notion of advertising and shared history (even if its not with that person) and the pronoun "her," which is clearly Sylvie. Is Don planning on telling her this history? Her strange and almost arbitrary connection to his first fuck? We are not sure.

So how do you do it? You become a doctor -- I'm gonna take away all your pain. Don goes home, rehearing what he's going to say to Sylvie: "Don't close the door on me. When in the course of human events. No. . .You haven't heard everything I have to say. Don't shut the door on me."

. . .But these plans are spoiled as he realizes he's been robbed (and that he left the backdoor open). Betty is there and call the city "disgusting." Don  faints. We flashback.

Aimee is charged with robbing/withholding money from selling herself on the street and is kicked out of the whorehouse. Just before she leaves, she tells him "Considering I took that boy's cherry for 5 dollars we'll call it even." Don is then beaten by the woman of the house -- called "filth" "disgusting" "shameful" "You're trash."

Don wakes up in the middle of the night. Briefly talks to Megan, who says "Sally seems so grown up, but she's really still a kid."

Cut to the morning.

Sylvie and Don ride the elevator in almost total silence ("How are you?" says Sylvie, "Busy"). Why, we should ask, has Don changed his mind about Sylvie (has he? Or is he just keeping up appearances?). What is it about the robbery and the flashback that make him realize that they should not be together? Does he realize that he was treating her like a whore? Or is he afraid of getting caught? Perhaps further episodes will shed light. Was it the drugs that cured him of his desire?

But for now, its important to see where this particular episode ends.

He calls Sally, telling her that he left the door open and that she did everything right: "Sally, I left the door open. It was my fault."

What seems to be a relatively straightforward remark becomes incredibly significant when we attach it to the many references to doors in the episode. Ginzberg: "Gotta get your foot in the door" and Don's repeating to Sylvie: "Don't shut the door on me." Its as if his obsession with Sylvie and his obsession with keeping the door open (keeping his options open?) led to the robbery.

Don goes to see Ted to tell him that he can only serve as creative editor rather than come up with advertisements for Chevy. We find that Wendy is Gleason's daughter (and know that Stan fucked her after a failed attempt with Peggy) and Ted chastises Don for the gibberish produced over the weekend: "Chevy is spelled wrong."

The last line of the episode: "I'm sorry Ted, but every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse."

A brilliant clincher to the episode.

But where will they go from here? Has Don's creativity dried up? Or is he directing his creativity toward winning Sylvie back? But if that were the case, why wouldn't he have tried to talk to Sylvie in the elevator? Is that over? Where is Don, and Mad Men, going from here? I will patiently await next week's episode.

Monday, May 13, 2013

On "Writing Studies" and recent projects

"Writing studies," is a somewhat hypothetical discipline (insofar as we still don't see research positions in "writing studies," but rather "new media," "communications," "composition,"  "rhetoric") mentioned in Sid Dobrin's book Postcomposition, as a way to mark a form of disciplinary research apart from "composition," traditionally associated with First Year Writing and 'research' on pedagogical methods. In Dobrin's own words,
Thus, the primary agenda of Postcomposition is to argue for a move
beyond the academic work of composition studies in favor of the revolu-
tionary potential of the intellectual work of writing studies, specifically the
work of writing theory, an endeavor likely best removed from the academic
work of pedagogy and administration." (Postcomposition 24). 
Too often in composition, 'writing' is tied to a subject, usually a student subject. Writing as an expression of that subjectivity or writing as constituting that subjectivity. For Dobrin, 'writing' should be the focus of a 'writing studies' such that the subject cannot be torn from the inscriptional practices themselves. I like to think of this as thinking each inscriptional practice as a performance of a subjectivity, one that can only be described through that particular assemblage of inscriptional practices. That is, "subject," is no longer an expression of a human being or a consciousness, but the particular moment of inscription. The human and nonhuman actants work together to inscribe a 'subject' (if we still even want to preserve that term, so as to preserve a sense of agency). Byron Hawk gets at this through Deleuze and Guattari's ideas of the 'molecular' and the 'molar' in A Counter History of Composition:

"Meaning, purpose, and intention all are molar and separate subject and object, but the desire and the force behind them are molecular and collapse subject and object [. . .] The subject is a molar residual, off to the side, a side effect of desiring-machines, not a single center from which desire is born" (165).

 Raul Sanchez argues in his 2012 article, "Outside the Text: Retheorizing Empiricism and Identity," that the subject is neither an 'effect' nor an origin or something that precedes a moment of inscription:

"Identity names this singularity, which is neither a precursor to the act of writing nor merely its effect. If we no longer say that identity is expressed through writing, but rather that identity names the moment of inscription-the intrusion or emergence into Judith Butler's "grammatical time of the subject" (117)-yet is only available in and after writing as writing's condition of possibility, then we can also say that identity manifests, at once metaphorically and materially, in both the figure and the body of the writing-subject. These claims make it possible to recognize that there is neither an origin story for the "moment" of inscription nor an aporetic limit at which one must hover perpetually. They make it possible to name the act of writing, the moment of inscription, as that which marks a convergence of time, space, and linguistic code at the production of a text. More important, they make it possible-necessary, actually-to use this very convergence to embody, figuratively and empirically, the convergence itself. They make possible the writing-subject as both thing and word, object and concept."

The writing-subject in this sense is an event -- an event that draws together all of the actants, human and nonhuman. As Latour puts it in We have Never Been Modern, "History does something. Each entity is an event" (81). 

Ok, so the writing subject is linked to an act of inscription. Is writing simply any act of inscription? In broad terms, yes, it is. Every event leaves traces -- I would be tempted to say irreversible 'traces'. "Writing" ever since writing scholars' took notice of Jacques Derrida, has been refigured as 'the trace' in general. "Writing" is not necessarily about conscious invention and arrangement of an essay, but writing could be as simple as a mark on a wall or an animal's tracks. 

If this is truly the case, then scholars of "writing studies" are able to study practically anything as writing, as acts of inscription, of traces. My question, however, is what do we get by understanding in terms of 'writing' rather than 'rhetoric'? Are there not rhetorical limitations to the word 'writing'? Although his tone bothers me, I can't shake Ian Bogost's point in Alien Phenomenology that, "writing is only one form of being" (90). Of course, the problem with his statement is how he slips from 'writing' to "language" and then proceeds to deny the medium of writing and even language of a certain materiality, so brilliantly traced by Derrida. Bogost writes that in contrast to philosophical works (with the exceptions of Derrida, Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein) "philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books. The carpenter, by contrast, must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy" (93). Here Bogost makes two mistakes: 1) seeing Derrida's form as a "book," when Derrida explicitly attempted to subvert that very medium, and 2) denying the inseparable bond between medium/form and content. 

In other words, Bogost makes no meaningful distinction between writing/carpentry outside of the fact that carpentry seems to lead us to 'doing philosophy' with objects other than the pen and paper. But if we understand writing as any trace, then these 'carpentry' projects of philosophy are just as much 'writing' as they are carpentry. Furthermore, the 'designation' writing, given its rigorous deconstruction by Derrida, avoids some of the baggage that 'carpentry' contains -- an emphasis on the 'hand made', for instance. 

Thus, carpentry just becomes a better metaphor for describing the practice of 'philosophy'. But what exactly is 'philosophical' about Bogost's projects? Of course this depends on our definition of philosophy, but if philosophy is the "invention of concepts" as Deleuze and Guattari contend, then Bogost's projects are not philosophy, even if they contain an 'affect' or a 'percept', which is the domain, according to D&G of ART. 

Within Derrida's understanding of writing, however, such art works would be considered "writing." But what do we get from describing artworks within a general system of writing? Does it erase the specificity of it being art or does it put into question the boundaries of what constitutes the art "work" (does it include all of the 'writing' and 'responses' that take place because of it? . . .and any possible future response?). 

Currently, I'm trying to adapt a significant piece of my writing on BioArt to a writing posthumanism. In my original piece, I framed the project in terms that would preserve these works as art, even if, at the same time, the artwork is always within a complex system of writing events, which will affect the function and efficacy of the artwork (critics reviews, theoretical statements from the artists, etc.). 

The question I have for myself is: what is it about BIOART that makes visible art as entwined within a writing system of human and nonhuman actants? My hunch is that by using 'life' materials as their medium, there is an increased probability of the artwork to not simply be the subject of writing surrounding it, but 'writes us' in some unique way. There is an unpredictableness, a propensity for failure that can be made visible through Bioart that reveals the general conditions of artworks: the possibility of their 'failure'. However, it is precisely the failure of BioArt that gives it's significance for biotechnological practices because the force of this failure is to recognize our inability to simply program and control life through genetic coding or otherwise. We can substitute "writing" for genetic coding, since there is no real way to control, in this age, the effects of our writing practices. What is the fate of this blogpost? What videos go viral? BioArt also is potent example of how our best laid plans can be foiled by nonhuman agency. 

But then, does BioArt simply become a stand in for any "writing?" Indeed, could not the same point be made with other artworks or even other inscriptions? Is there something that BioArt adds to our understanding of 'general writing' (that is, 'writing studies') or is the point of writing studies to show the very specificity of this writing practice? But then would we not succumb to the temptation of 'rhetorical analysis'? What words, what concepts does BioArt suggest that would be an essential supplement to our understanding of writing-as-system? 

These are the issues I am struggling with as I attempt to integrate some very specific research on an important group of artists and artworks in the biotechnological age.