Sunday, April 27, 2014

Unicorns, Don Draper, and Capitalist Realism

Reading Fisher’s great little book this past week, I found myself returning again and again to examples more current than his references to Children of Men, Office Space (which I’d love to read along with A&H’s culture industry ideas to unpack the class dynamics of office workers and 90s gangster rap) and the hedonic depression of kids these days. I ended up thinking about a cartoon blog that “went viral” this past fall and Madmen.
            I’ll talk about Madmen first, because I think the issues that show focuses on are symptomatic of the “structure of disavowal” that is necessary to the mode of capitalist realism (11). Because of the historical complexity of the Madmen—it is set in the 60s but written and viewed in the past 7 years—the viewer can read the imprint of both eras on the shows events and structure. To a superficial reading (Jameson’s first horizon?), we see a representation of the business world of the 60s; a world of chainsmoking, hard-drinking, racism, and sexism. In fact, the first episode of the show is famously heavy-handed in its foregrounding of the historical gap between then and now. Of course, this gap is itself the knowing ironic distance (2nd horizon?) which allows the show to unfold as a seeming critique of the era, while also embracing its sexy, powerful, sleek instantiations of desire. We judge Don, Joan, Peggy, and Betty, but we still want to be them on some level. We are given the capitalist realism narrative that embraces both a possibility of glamorous individual achievement even within a something as bureaucratic and immaterial as the production of advertisements (literally the production of desire as a commodity) while simultaneously patting ourselves on the back for our wise disassociation with that type of control society—we know better but we do it anyway (3rd horizon?). This Zizekian ideological dilemma is a theme for the shows many sexual encounters; and what is Don’s moral squishiness or Peggy’s near breakdowns if not mental reactions to the contradictory pressures of their capitalist situation?
            While I won’t go much into here, I also think the show is perhaps our best narrative of work in a post-Fordist economy. We see the experiential phenomena of merger tactics, communicative and collaborative production (and the questions of intellectual ownership that arise from it), the despair and mendacity that are symptoms of the this effort to constantly capture oneself for capital, the dissolving of boundaries between work and home, and the impossible contradictory pressures put on the family arrangement. Don and Peggy fill the roles that Fisher defends of “artists and media professionals” who can present the public’s desire to itself (as Peggy describes when trying to hire an avant garde photographer who won’t be bought). But that’s for another project.

            The other example I thought of was the post “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” on the blog waitbutwhy. I loathe this comic.
            The reason I loathe this post is that it performs exactly the ideological operation that Fisher describes when he talks about “reflexive impotence” (21).  If you haven’t seen it, the comic is an intentionally amateurish MSPaint stick-figure and clipart cartoon which purports to explain why people born between 1970 and 1990 are unhappy: because we don’t have shiny unicorn careers at 25. Aside from its reductive formula for happiness (reality minus expectations =happiness—in other words, happiness is entirely about desiring less then you own/consume) and broad brush abstractions (vanishing, really) of labor, this comic has the insidious effect of pathologizing dissatisfaction and atomizing responsibility while presupposing a static economic mode of production over the past 50 years.
            But what I find really interesting about the comic is its performance of Zizek’s “the big Other”—the naïve imaginary subject of the sort that was convinced that believes propaganda. This big Other is used to foster the sort of reflexive impotence that shuts down political subjectivity and organization—it precludes alternatives. In this unicorn blog the author locates the source of social anxiety about achievement in social media: tidy and successful personalities that we are incentivized to provide online to maintain social capital, but which serve the additional function of undermining our own self confidence, the very platform for the dissemination of this propaganda. In the comic, the “big Other” is presumably the audience for this comic: those who read it and say, “Yes, that’s me!” and begin to punish themselves for their overactive ambition and bring a dose of “realism” to their lives. It is what we mean when we speak of Facebook as if it were a subject: I have to tell Facebook. Unlike the former socialist states of Eastern Europe and as Fisher points out, Capital (“the ultimate cause that is not a subject) is so good at this game that many of my friends fell into this category, eagerly reposting this drivel and blaming themselves for unemployment, underemployment, and being shut out of access to capital. wtf?
            Maybe the problem is what Fisher describes when he talks about a lack of a collective consciousness (akin to H&N’s modally opposite hope in the multitude). This comic does perform a sort of suspicion of grand narratives (you’re not special)—it blames all the individual subjects and not a public sphere or systemic injustice, despite data showing real stagnation in wages, political power, and opportunity for a majority of the population (like this). To overcome it, we need an action akin to Fishers suggestion to resist auditing (teaching evaluation strike, anyone?) which in turn requires organization. Hopefully we’re all creating a tiny tear in the fabric of capital with this class and blog. And NOT buying into that comic.



  1. I’m glad you framed your response in this way—your explanations mirror several of the thoughts that crossed my mind while reading Fisher’s work. He present a tidy summary of some of the discussions we’ve had throughout the semester and prompts us to ask “so now what?” I was particularly interested in Fisher’s notion of reflexive importance, especially when put into conversation with his explanations of individual solvency. In the same way that individuals will solve world hunger through small pledges (p.15), they will, through audits and targeted feedback improve the everyday systems with which we interact. (One of my students just told me quite explicitly that the theory we talked about in class has no use whatsoever, so I’m on board with your evaluation strike). The system/the man/capitalism, (I suppose) pushes us to engage in reflexive importance, placing systemic evolution onto our individual shoulders and blocking the formation of collective consciousness.

    As a side note, this is the example brought to mind throughout parts of the book. It provides a nice counterpoint to the comic you suggest, but perhaps presents a more tolerable presentation/perspective?

  2. Mad Men certainly does a bit of work for me when it comes to picking out some of Fisher’s narrative from other cultural texts. Peggy & her flirtation with a Beatnik lifestyle really fashion the process (not just people involved) of reflexive impotence. She so badly wanted to be a revolutionary (& feminism-wise, she isn’t doing too shabby), but at the end of the day, she can see that the entire patriarchal-capitalist system cannot be swayed—it cannot be magically changed on the basis of her input being valued about lipstick or being picked up by an rival agency. She remains in the same position, no matter how hard she works & how bad she knows it is. As viewers, there’s a sense of identification & abstraction, as you point out. It’s supposed to be the late 60s & early 70s… but this all rings a little too true today.

    It’s amazing how comics like the one you’ve posted or Buzzfeed articles heralding the ’23 things 20-somethings need to hear’ so easily (re)inscribe the faults of the system on the individual or even the collective group. The intermezzo of a generation is a fine target for scapegoating, but looking too far out is impossible & impractical. The middle area then becomes the place of assessment too—middle management in academia, business, whatever. How do we break out of this cycle/pattern/control, though? It frights me to put all of my revolutionary eggs in the environmentalism basket (which has been a constant Lack in theorizing for me this semester), but Fisher makes a compelling case that greenwashing won’t be a suffice device to keep us from questioning what’s going on with this Big (M)Other (Nature).


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