On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism

A few weeks ago, Jason Mittell published a provocative essay on his blog, Just TV, which sought to explain why he dislikes Mad Men, an essay which he framed through reference to the concept of the Aca-fan as cultural critic. The fact that Jason dislikes Mad Men and I like the series is not that significant in and of itself, but Jason uses the essay to challenge some preconceptions about how taste formations work and to trace the trajectory of his relationship to the series. Here are a few excerpts from what he had to say:

Mad Men is lodged squarely within my habitus: along with other cable series from channels like HBO, Showtime and FX, it's part of the wave of "quality television" serial dramas that has raised the medium's cultural value in the 2000s (as Lynne Joyrich discusses in this volume), and served as the object of much of my own scholarly research and personal fandom over the decade (see Mittell 2006). The show is steeped in cultural references that resonate with my own background as a media scholar, flattering my otherwise esoteric knowledge of U.S. advertising and media history. Nearly every television scholar and critic with whom I interact loves the show, making it required viewing for people in my professional and personal taste circles - in fact while I was writing this essay, Facebook encouraged me to become a fan of the show, noting that 61 of my friends had publicly declared their allegiance. In short, it's a show seemingly designed for me to love, and I have tried to fulfill that prediction by giving myself over to it.

Why did this predicted affection fail to take hold? In exploring this question, I highlight my own aesthetic response to shed some light on the mechanics of taste and televisual pleasure. In looking closely at Mad Men, I'm trying to avoid becoming an anti-fan, as I respect too many people who like the show to actively lobby against or condemn their pleasures. As Jonathan Gray has explored, anti-fans are affectively invested in their own dislike of a cultural object and enjoy sparring with its fans, rather than passively ignoring the existence of the object of their distaste (Gray 2003). Yet simply by expressing and explaining a negative attitude toward something beloved by some, fans often rise to defend their tastes and attempt to argue against critics. In discussing my own reactions with my many Mad Men-loving friends, we quickly engaged in arguments as to whose experience and judgement was more valid and true to the show, and typically ended in an awkward and unsatisfying détente of agreeing to disagree.

I found Mittell's essay enormously valuable -- both in sorting out my own complex and often unsettling relationship to the AMC drama and in terms of raising important questions about the place of the autobiographical and subjective in academic criticism. Game designer and theorist Ian Bogost, on the other hand, was disappointed with the essay, seeing it as illustrative of bigger problems he has with the stance of the Aca-Fan in debates about culture. (I should note in passing that I consider both Jason and Ian to be gifted critics and good friends.) Here's part of what he wrote at his blog:

A critic's job, in part, is to explain and justify his own tastes, and to act as a steward for those tastes on behalf of a constituency of readers. People tend to circle around the critics we respect and, more so, agree with because we come to trust their taste. There are pros and cons to such a tendency, the most obvious downside being that we can avoid stretching our minds by surrounding ourselves with only like-minded ideas.

But for the academic critic, I think the stakes are higher. One can like or dislike something, but we scholars, particularly of popular media, have a special obligation to explain something new about the works we discuss. There are plenty of fans of The Wire and Mad Men and Halo and World of Warcraft out there. The world doesn't really need any more of them. What it does need is skeptics, and the scholarly role is fundamentally one of skepticism.

Thus, the only thing that disappoints me about Jason's essay is that I didn't learn anything new about Mad Men.

Both Jason's original post and Ian's critique of it have sparked extensive discussion and comments, involving many of the top thinkers in the space of fan studies and cult media, and if you did not follow them, you probably should take a look. As often happens, the discussions devolved a little as they went forward with side issues taking over from the central concerns, but there was still much at both forums that should spark thoughts about criticisms.

I weighed in enough at Ian's blog that I don't need to repeat all of my thoughts here. I should note that I was engaging there with the larger issue of aca-fan criticism and had not at the time had a chance to read Jason's essay fully.

Having done so, I must say that I disagree with Ian's central claim that the essay is too self absorbed and doesn't teach us much about the series. The discussion the piece generated at Jason's blog suggests otherwise. Many people there found themselves testing their own embrace of the series against Jason's critique in a way which helped them to better understand their own relationship to the series. Much of the discussion centers on how we are supposed to feel about these characters and thus what kinds of pleasures one derives from the series.

Much like Vic (on The Shield) or Tony (on The Sopranos), I find my feelings towards Don Draper and the other characters shifting almost scene by scene. One scene may cause me to admire Don for his creative vision and intuitive understanding of the culture around him, the next may lead me to despise him for his lack of self-consciousness about how he treats the people in his life. He charms me and he repulses me. Part of that fascination has to do with how closed off he is from intimate emotional expression.

Much of my own interest in the show comes in trying to make sense of my parent's generation. I was born in 1958 and was a child, about the age of the Draper offspring, at the time the events depicted on the series took place. My life was deeply shaped by the cultural forces the series tries to capture, including the shifting values around race, gender, and sexuality, which represent the most loaded moments on the series. I respond to the series often as if I was eavesdropping on adult conversations after they thought I had gone to bed. My father couldn't have been more different from Don Draper on so many levels and yet, I do recognize the forces of emotional containment and stoicism that shape this character in my relations with my father (now deceased.) So, as I watch the series, I find myself drawn into both a search for traces of my parents and their friends in the program's character and in a search for signs of the dramatic changes which the culture underwent in the 1960s. Read in this way, I do not have to have sympathy for a particular character or even for any of the characters in order to be emotionally engaged by the series. For one thing, the characters are drawn with sufficient complexity and nuance that I find myself drawn towards them or repelled almost scene by scene. For another, I have enough affection for the people from Don's generation who have touched my life that I will watch the series out of respect for them and out of a desire to cut through the emotional wall that sometimes blocked me from fully knowing why they felt and acted the ways that they did.

Of course, I recognize that the series represents an interpretation of those times, one seen through a modern lens, but the references to smoking early in the series aside, I don't think the point is simply to express the superiority of our current values but rather to understand the values and behaviors as part of a social system. The series has a strong sense of the ways characters are performing for each other, suggesting how the set of values and practices were mutually reinforcing and thus extraordinarily difficult to change.

Yet, I do see in some of the characters the potential for growth as they respond to the changing cultural environment around them. And that's why, for me, it is very important to watch more than one season of the series in order to understand the evolving nature of the characters (as well as to see the brittleness of some of the characters, such as Roger, who seem charming and dominant in the beginning but show limited capacity for growth.) That said, one of the more interesting strands on Jason's blog has to do with how much of a series one must watch in order to be able to cast a judgment about it, given the almost impossible challenge of doing justice to the complexity of a long form drama such as Mad Men, as well as the obligations of the critic in relation to works they do not like.

In the course of the discussion at Ian's blog, I referenced the manifesto which Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc, and I wrote as the introduction to our book, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, "The Culture That Sticks to Your Skin." When we published this book in 2002, we saw it as building the case for newer perspectives in cultural studies -- including but not restricted to those coming from the then emerging aca-fan community. We used the introduction to sketch out the defining traits of this new mode of cultural criticism and then used the thirty something essays published there as illustrations of these approaches in action. I will say that I would have been proud to have included Mittell's Mad Men essay in the collection because it speaks to many of the central concerns of that book and the current debate seems to me to suggest that the issues Hop on Pop posed are far from resolved.

I wanted to sketch here briefly the traits we saw as identifying this alternative cultural perspective, since I think they might provide a vocabulary which could inform some of these discussions:

We began the essay with reference to the Cyberpunk movement and Bruce Sterling's suggestion that they were writing in response to a shift from monumental technological achievements to technology that was everyday and intimate, that "stuck to your skin." We drew an analogy between that and the position of a generation that had grown up in a world where writing about popular culture had gained a certain degree of academic acceptability and we had the freedom to write about forms of cultural expression which were central to who we were and how we saw the world.

"Like the cyberpunks, we are interested in the everyday, the intimate, the immediate; we reject the monumentalism of canon formation and the distant authority of traditional academic writing. We engage with popular culture as the culture that 'sticks to the skin,' that becomes so much a part of us that it becomes increasingly difficult to examine it from a distance. Like the cyberpunks, we confront that popular culture with a profound ambivalence, our pleasures tempered by a volatile mixture of fears, disappointments, and disgust. Just as the cyberpunks intervened at the point where science fiction was beginning to achieve unquestioned cultural respectability, we are the first generation of cultural scholars to be able to take for granted that popular culture can be studied on its own terms, who can operate inside an academic discpline of cultural studies....The hard fights of the past have won us space to reexamine our own relationship to the popular, to rethink our own ties to the general public, and to experiment with new vocabularies for expressing our critical insights."

We then outlined a series of identifying traits of this "emergent perspective" in cultural studies:

1.Immediacy -- a trait we associate with "intensification (the exaggeration of everyday emotions to provoke strong feelings or a release from normal perception), identification (strong attachments to fictional characters and celebrities), and intimacy (an embedding of popular culture into the fabric of our daily lives, into the ways we think about ourselves and the world around us.)" We offered these trait as a critique of "objective" or "distance" scholarship as blinding us to many defining characteristics of popular culture.

"The challenge from our emergent perspective is to write about our own multiple (and often contradictory) involvements, participations, engagements, and identifications with popular culture -- without denying, rationalizing, and distorting them....We can draw on our personal experiences and subjective understandings to critique the popular as well as to embrace it. Even fans are far from uncritical in their relations to cultural producers."

We linked this concept to shifts in women's studies and queer studies that had embraced the "intimate critique" or "writing from a standpoint," which acknowledged the subjective in exploring cultural issues.

2. Multivalence -- Here, we were arguing against either-or perspectives, insisting on writing that acknowledged the complexity of the popular. We noted, for example, that for some groups which have been consistently marginalized in our culture, they may not be able to describe themselves as fans of dominant cultural productions.

"Their engagement with popular culture cannot be dispassionate, disinterested, or distanced. The stakes are simply too high. Their writing acknowledges the pleasures they have derived from engaging with popular culture as well as their rage and frustration about its silences, exclusions and assualts on their lives. These writers express contradictory responses to the materials of everyday culture and their own dual status as avid consumers and angry critics."

While I have chosen to frame my own perspective of culture in terms of being an aca-fan, because the fan communities within which I have participated for almost 40 years have helped to define how I see the world, and while I often embrace others who share my vantage point, this discussion was intended to signal the validity of many different vantage points from which to frame cultural critique. It simply insists that the writer be honest both about their stakes in their object of study and about the contradictions that they see within the works they are examining. For me, there is nothing "comfortable" or indulgent about taking seriously these two demands. And Mittell's essay demonstrates an ongoing process of self-reflection and self-questioning, exploring contradictions in the text and in his own relation to it, while offering respect for those who differ with his perspective. Not everything written under the "aca-fan" banner does so, to be sure, and so I see Bogost's critiques as a challenge to re-examine our own critical practices and theoretical positions.

While these two traits arose in the course of the discussion at his blog, the remaining traits we identified did not and they also help to round out our expectations about what would constitute quality scholarship in this tradition:

3. Accessability -- We challenged our fellow scholars to take the steps needed to open up their cultural analysis and critiques to a wider public, recognizing that academics are not the only ones who are concerned with the place of popular culture in their lives and suggesting that there is a political stakes in creating resources that are valuable to readers beyond the ivory tower. In a sense, both Mittell and Bogost, along with many other academic bloggers, embody this challenge to expand the address of cultural criticism so that it might engage with fans, policy makers, journalists, industry insiders, artists, and a range of other publics. I am proud of how much progress our field has made along these lines over the past eight years.

4. Particularity -- We summed this up quickly as "details matter" and went on to explain why overly generalized criticism and the sweeping dismissals of whole sets of cultural practices of the previous generation was no longer adequate to the new contexts in which popular culture was produced, circulated, and consumed. We saw the push away from broad theory and towards specific case studies (and within that, case studies that were attentive to as many details as possible) as embodying this shift in the nature of criticism.

5.Contextualism -- Here, we sought to counterbalance our focus on meaningful details with a recognition of how they illustrated and embodied large trends in our culture. As we wrote,"

we view popular texts not as discrete entities that stand alone but instead exist in relation to a broad range of other discourses, placing media production and consumptions witihin a social and cultural configuration of competing voices and positions. Rather than cannonize a text for its intrinsic or inherent value, we try to understand and articulate more fully the framework within which individual texts are produced, circulated, and consumed."

6. Situationalism -- Basically, this trait calls for attention to the contexts within which we are writing, recognizing that we write from a perspective of local knowledge and within our own historical moment, rather than seeking criticism which is universal and timeless.

I am not doing justice to the complexities of this essay, which examines a broad array of different scholarly, critical, and intellectual projects, and would urge you to track down the book and look through its contents. There are many essays there which illustrate the complexities and challenges of creating this kind of criticism. Many of them, I suspect, would embody the kinds of cultural criticism that Bogost has called for at various points during this exchange. These traits set exacting standards which we impose upon ourselves as critics. I don't always meet these standards in my own work, either on the blog or in my publications, but these are the criteria by which I judge my own performance and by which I measure the quality of other people's writing.

Like Bogost, I'd love to see more ongoing discussions about the goals and roles for cultural criticism in the 21st century. If nothing else, Jason's Mad Man essay has helped open up such a conversation and that's more than it's reasonable to expect from any given piece of critical writing. Thanks, Jason and Ian, for the provocation. I am going to be traveling this week and so my ability to respond will be circumscribed, but I would be happy if this post might serve as a fresh start to get out of the entanglements caused by competing understandings of what a fan is and to focus instead on competing ideas about how and why academics should write about popular culture. We received surprisingly few reactions to our own 2002 provocations along those lines, so I would be happy if we could restart the conversation now.