Monday, April 4, 2016

Mad Media: Some Thoughts on the 9/11 Imagery of AMC's 'Mad Men'

“Despite everything, we’re still America, you’re still Europe.  You go to our movies, read our books, listen to our music, speak our language.  How can you stop thinking about us?  You see us and hear us all the time.  Ask yourself.  What comes after America?”
~Don DeLillo, Falling Man

            In the early months of 2012, the AMC series Mad Men endured some unsurprising controversy – that is, unsurprising for those who were already attuned to the hit show’s apocalyptic undertones, its subtle flavors of marketing mania and the meaning of postmodern America.  Of course, I’m speaking in vague terms that other critics might swiftly disagree with.  Is Mad Men a show about postmodernism?  Is it a show about American consumer culture?  Is it a show about the meaning of “America”?  I think the answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES, but I readily admit that it’s about much more than all of this too.  Specifically, and most importantly, Mad Men is in many ways not at all about the historical period on which it focuses (namely the decade of the 1960s): it is about today, about the post-9/11 world in which we live.  I emphasize “post-9/11” in this description for several reasons, not least of which is the controversy with which I began this paragraph.  For those unaware, or who have forgotten, in the early months of 2012 Mad Men suffered criticism for its increasingly explicit invocation of 9/11 imagery.[i]
            Once again, this controversy is likely less surprising for those who perhaps already sensed something of an apocalyptic current spreading throughout the show since its first season, and even less surprising for those who had already picked up on the imagery itself well before it received any criticism:
The show’s famous “falling man” opening sequence is not only a nod to conflicted protagonist Don Draper’s less-than-productive life choices.  It also recalls a similar image, captured on the morning that terrorists crashed two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York:
Richard Drew’s photograph is known as The Falling Man, and the figure depicted in it was never definitively identified.[ii]  The image quickly became a source of controversy well before Mad Men premiered in 2007, and the unidentified man came to signify an element of the experience of September 11th and the communal sense of loss, hopelessness, and homelessness in the wake of the tragedy.  In this manner, the figure also nearly perfectly encapsulated the tragic narrative of Mad Men’s Don Draper.
            Mad Men took its appropriation one step further, however; as a hit television show, there was no way to avoid the promotional moves necessary for selling its product to the public.  Quite consciously, Mad Men participated in the very behavior that it simultaneously critiqued, which was part of its artistic merit.  Inevitably, the stenciled figure falling through the show’s opening credits (unidentified, anonymous) became a marketing icon; and equally inevitably, it pulled Drew’s haunting photograph along with it:
And this:
Understandably, these advertising techniques drew heavy criticism from individuals and families most directly affected by the events of 9/11.  AMC denied any referential ties to either the tragedy or Drew’s photograph.  Yet it feels increasingly difficult to believe that the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, and its writers did not have the imagery of 9/11 in the back of their minds, despite anything Weiner might say about the opening sequence being an homage to Hitchcock (after all, can’t these two things overlap?).
            The show sealed the deal, in my opinion, with “Lost Horizon,” its twelfth episode of the final season.  While in a meeting, Don turns his head to glance out the window and witnesses the following scene:
The vision prompts Don to leave the meeting, sending him impulsively out West, through Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Utah, and finally to California.  Critics and viewers have interpreted the ambiguous ending in various ways, with some seeing it as an optimistic and hopeful moment of authentic rediscovery for Don, as the finale depicts him meditating at a spiritual retreat before smash-cutting to the famous 1971 advertisement for Coca-Cola.[iii]  Others (myself included) view the ending more cynically, as the clear entanglement of a peaceful collective and consumer culture forecloses the possibility of true authenticity in any traditional sense.  However, no matter how one chooses to read the show’s conclusion, the scene of Don witnessing the plane fly past the Empire State Building raises some unavoidably foreboding conclusions.  I for one see no way to dissociate this image from the terror attacks of 9/11.  At the time the “Lost Horizon” episode is set, in June 1970, the Empire State Building was still the tallest structure in New York City.
            It was surpassed in October 1970 by the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
What inspired Don to get up and leave the meeting?  Was it some kind of spiritual yearning?  An anti-corporate impulse?  Or was it something darker?  I don’t believe in prophecy, so I’m not trying to claim that Don saw 9/11 coming or anything so supernaturally poignant.  I do want to suggest that we read the show not purely from within, however – that is, not as though all we have to work with is the historical moment of the narrative itself, the trials and tribulations of its characters.  As critics, we have more at our disposal.  We have the conditions in which the show itself is produced, the conditions in which its writers are living.  We have the entire cultural history from 1971 until now, the ‘80s and ‘90s.  And we have something else: literary history.  It is from this final angle that I want to take a stab at Mad Men’s enigmatic imagery, its dark and foreboding 9/11 undertones.  Specifically, I want to consider another text that was published in 2007, the same year that Mad Men premiered on AMC.
Don DeLillo’s 9/11 novel, Falling Man.
In a conversation about halfway through DeLillo’s novel, two characters discuss a fictional manuscript that appears to predict the 9/11 attacks, producing “‘statistical tables, corporate reports, architectural blueprints, terrorist flow charts’” (138).[iv]  The prediction of disaster is a paranoiac fantasy, something that DeLillo flirts with in earlier novels such as White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), and Underworld (1997).  The issue is not so much the actual prediction of disaster itself, but the accumulation of information in the digital age, the expansion and permeation of society by data.  When so much data accumulates to such an extent, patterns become almost ubiquitous, and the unsurprising response to the mass of data manifests in conspiracy theories: the attempt, according to Fredric Jameson, “to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system” (38).[v]  In DeLillo’s Underworld, one character refers to this “impossible totality” as dietrologia, “‘the science of what is behind something.  A suspicious event.  The science of what is behind an event’” (280).  In the years to come, Underworld, published in 1997, would prove a source of minor paranoiac awe for even DeLillo’s intelligent readers who perceived the uncanny anticipation of the first edition’s cover art:
Conspiracy, of necessity, is always retrospective.  It makes sense out of enormous pools of data, words, images, and organizes unrelated or disconnected points into meaningful constellations.
At the moment of 9/11, the world is entering into a new phase of global information with the rise of internet.  In more ways than one, DeLillo’s fiction addresses the filtration and consumption of massive global events through the lens of technical systems, namely mass media.  Television is nothing new at the turn of the twenty-first century, but the obsessive media fixation on the next big story is relatively new, with networks such as FOX News and CNN providing 24-hour coverage like fishermen trawling for anything they can find until their next major catch.  In this scenario, 9/11 was the biggest catch anyone could imagine, and the response from viewers was unprecedented.  In this moment, terrorism found a mass media outlet in a way it never had before, and it affected people on a visceral level: “Every time she saw the videotape of the planes she moved a finger toward the power button on the remote,” DeLillo writes of one character; “Then she kept on watching.  The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin, the fleeting sprint that carried lives and histories, theirs and hers, everyone’s, into some other distance, out beyond the towers” (134).  Out toward, to borrow from Mad Men, some “lost horizon.”
The relation between media and terrorism has not gone unnoticed by perceptive writers.  William Gibson writes about it as early as 1984 in his seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, demonstrating that science fiction more often accurately forecasts not scientific developments, but cultural ones: “‘There is always a point at which the terrorist ceases to manipulate the media gestalt,’” a character intones; “‘A point at which the violence may well escalate, but beyond which the terrorist has become symptomatic of the media gestalt itself.  Terrorism as we ordinarily understand it is innately media-related’” (57).[vi]  In other words, modern terrorism may seek out media platforms on which to stage its atrocities, but at some point the attraction reverses.  At some point it is no longer only the terrorists who look for media platforms, but the media platforms that seek out terrorism.  This seeking should not be misconstrued as a conscious effort, an intentional search for atrocious acts.  It is rather an effect of global mass media.  Like a gravitational attraction, media finds itself compelled toward disastrous events.
DeLillo’s Falling Man does not ignore this relationship between terrorism and the media, but actively stages it.  The novel’s title is not only a reference to Drew’s photograph, but also to a character within the novel: David Janiak, a performance artist who repeatedly hangs from public structures in clear imitation of the actual anonymous falling man.  A media sensation, the novel’s fictional falling man is treated as a quasi-terrorist by law enforcement in the novel, having been “arrested at various times for criminal trespass, reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct” (220).  Learning of Janiak’s death, another character (Lianne) attempts to track down an image of one particular performance that she witnessed near an elevated train track: “She tried to connect this man to the moment when she’d stood beneath the elevated tracks, nearly three years ago, watching someone prepare to fall from a maintenance platform as the train went past.  There were no photographs of that fall.  She was the photograph, the photosensitive surface.  That nameless body coming down, this was hers to record and absorb” (223).  In this moment, near the novel’s conclusion, media platforms are replaced by a maintenance platform.  Lianne can discover no media trace of the act she witnessed, causing her to think of herself, of her own body, as a kind of media form.  She becomes the photographic record of the performative/terrorist event.
As a media expression, the terrorist event occupies a strange and unsettling place in our contemporary cultural unconscious.  As an event of extreme violence, it enters the physical realm, wreaking havoc on bodies and flesh, spilling blood and causing pain.  As a media image, however, terrorism concerns us at another level: the level of representation, of spectacle, a form of engagement that is quite nearly filmic, popular, marketable.  Slavoj Žižek elucidates this point when he describes “the fundamental paradox of the ‘passion for the Real’:
it culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle – from the Stalinist show trials to spectacular terrorist acts.  If, then, the passion for the Real ends up in the pure semblance of the spectacular effect of the Real, then in an exact inversion, the ‘postmodern’ passion for the semblance ends up in a violent return to the passion for the Real.”[vii]
Žižek’s argument is a troubling one, namely that the media fascination of contemporary American culture desired, to some degree, the tragedy of September 11th.  Whether or not we agree with Žižek’s suggestion, his analysis of the conflicting position of modern terrorism has the ring of truth.  Even if what we desire is not real, visceral horror but the representation of horror, this desire partakes of a strange trajectory back toward reality.  Fantasies exist because at some level we desire them, even if we do not really want them.
            Ultimately, this is what Mad Men is all about.  Advertising appeals to our fantasies and desires.  Even if it sells us products that we want, even need, it does not succeed in selling these products by reminding us that we want them.  Advertisement works by reminding us what we desire: “‘Nostalgia,’” Don Draper says in a pitch for carousel projectors,
literally means, “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again... to a place where we know we are loved. (“The Wheel”)[viii]
The Kodak carousel projector doesn’t actually change one into a child again, or allow us to travel through time, but gives us something of an experience we once had while preserving the material structures of our current lives.  This is the fantasy of advertising, particularly in the age of mass media.  Don knows how to pitch products because he knows how to identify and amplify the desirable attribute of an object – the fantasy it can fulfill.  Desire isn’t about re-experiencing an experience, but about the longing that separates us from the experience.  It is a means of reimagining the experience, of projecting it, just as memories are always revisions of the past as well as recollections of it.
            Somewhere in its aesthetic unconscious, Mad Men recognized the fantasy of disaster lurking at the dark heart of American consumerism, and projected this fantasy back to its viewers in images of post-9/11 horror.  Whether we are meant to see the finale as uplifting or as a cynical concession to the throes of postmodern globalization (no matter what Weiner himself insists),[ix] I think we have to contextualize its falling-man imagery and “Lost Horizon” sequence within the post-9/11 atmosphere of contemporary America, and as dark acknowledgements of the link between the expansion of media platforms and the explosion of twenty-first century terrorism.  I do not intend to suggest that we should continue to privilege authenticity in an era of absolute media saturation, an era of “semblance,” as Žižek claims, in which the “place where we know we are loved” is always partially a projection of fantasy.  Perhaps this is one of the costs of living in a network society, positioned globally within matrices of data (hence the other paranoiac obsession of getting “off the grid”).  And perhaps there is an unrealized expansion of our current virtual state in which technology and media forms may yet provide knowledge of the human condition as yet unavailable to us.  One in which love is more than just an invention by men like Don Draper to sell nylons.
"The World Trade Center was under construction, already towering, twin-towering, with cranes tilted at the summits and work elevators sliding up the flanks.  She saw it almost everywhere she went."
~Don DeLillo, Underworld

[i]              Interested readers might look to Mallory Russell’s piece in Business Insider (, or Michael Dooley’s piece from Imprint, reprinted in Salon (
[ii]             Richard Drew, The Falling Man, 11 September 2001.
[iii]             For example, Tim Goodman’s reading at The Hollywood Reporter:
[iv]             Don DeLillo, Falling Man, 2007, New York: Scribner, 2008.
[v]             Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
[vi]             William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984, New York: Ace Books, 2000.
[vii]            Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates, London: Verso, 2002.
[viii]            Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith, “The Wheel,” Mad Men, AMC, 18 October 2007.
[ix]             “Cultural harmony,” …?  Maybe, but I’m not so sure:

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