Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pounds of Flesh: Mad Men and Greek Austerity

Char Roone Miller
George Mason University

The black silhouette of a well-dressed man falls through the opening credits of Mad Men, cascading through a cityscape displaying advertisements for the program's world of desire: cigarettes, booze, and women.  As if it lacks even a pound of flesh, the silhouette lightly lands on a couch facing, like the viewer, the television and the products it advertises. Don Draper, the lead character, an advertising executive exceptionally skilled at selling fantasy, occupies the position of male desire that many characters in the program wish they could occupy, a perspective from which all the objects of his desire are easily attainable.  Like the silhouette in the opening shot, Draper is mostly a shadow; the demands of family, friends, and his own body scarcely register.  Nothing he desires costs him very much, yet, no one, it often appears, could ask for anything more. 

(Note: this post contains Mad Men season 5 spoilers - ed.)

Draper embodies an inhuman lightness concerning human problems and responsibilities; he cheats on his wife, neglects his children, smokes continually, receives awards for the work of other people, drinks Old Fashions throughout the day, and denies knowing his brother. Rarely do commitments and promises weigh very heavily on this character. He remains the physical embodiment of the fantasy products he so skillfully sells.

Behind the office doors at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, doubts about this way of life and the costs of doing business pile up.  Set in a center of American capitalism, Madison Avenue in New York City, Mad Men consistently portrays the lack of satisfaction faced by the Don Draper’s of the world. Even Goldman, Sachs, the show seems to promise, can’t sleep at night.  Heavy casualties pile up in the wake of these very successful business people; the sacrifice of family, friends, and colleagues so that people like Draper can make and remake themselves in the interest of making money. 

In the penultimate episode of this season Draper confronts a partner’s appropriation of money from the agency.  Lane Pryce, a junior partner confronted with large bills, forged Draper’s signature on what he thought would be an early Christmas bonus. Pryce took the money in order to maintain family obligations; responsibilities generally neglected by Draper.  The partners, however, give up their bonuses, leaving Pryce holding $7,500 in fraudulently appropriated funds. This crime could have played like so many others on the show, the kind of thing that white straight men easily forgive one another. When Draper discovers the fraud he fires Pryce, not so much for the money as for a loss of trust.  The issue, as with many accounts of the current economic crisis—from American mortgages to Greek sovereign debt—isn’t the money, but rather some perverse demand for trust.  Bankers in Greece, for example, only stand to have their levels of profit lowered by forgiving and restructuring debt; they are not in danger of actually losing money. Draper and the firm will be fine; in fact Draper offers to cover the debt for Price as he asks for his resignation. In the final episode the firm begins to make so much money the partners don’t know what to do with it all.  Just as Draper, flush with enough wealth that he never has to worry about such things, fails to understand the monetary pressure on Pryce, banks and corporations demand trust from workers in an uneven exchange that treats the worker’s demands for money and power as a morally suspect type of selfishness. Pryce, according to Draper, broke that trust and must pay the price. 

Currently, European and American banks demand that Greece pay a similar price. Money piles up in Greek, German, and American banks, even as the extraction of that money costs so many people in Greece so much: unemployment at 20%, a health care system cut by 25%thousands dropped from disability support, and major sources of public revenue sold to private companies. One symbol of the price of austerity is the 22% increase in suicide since 2009including a 77-year-old retiree who shouted “I don’t want to leave debts to my children,” just before pulling the trigger in front of the Parliament building in Athens

In Mad Men’s first season, viewers learned that Don Draper was an identity assumed by Dick Whitman, when the real Draper was killed next to him in the Korean War.  Draper is long dead; Whitman just acts like him. In effect, every time Whitman claims to be Draper, it’s a crime mirrored to a minor degree by Pryce’s forged check. The position that Draper occupies in order to condemn Pryce’s crime was made possible by a much larger but essentially similar crime.  In the case of Greece the debt that Greeks are being forced to pay was produced through, in many cases, criminal financial exploitation. Goldman Sachs, for example, helped Athens hide its debt by hiding loans as currency trades and by setting up financial arrangements to take over the profits from the airport of Athens. While this may have been criminal the demand for payment still weighs heavy. The ethical demands of money and capital take on a reality lacking in other social relationships (especially for the Draper’s out there). Money’s demands are high for Pryce: the body falling through space in this episode has more weight than a mere shadow; the weight of a hanging body, the weight of Pryce hanging himself behind his office door.

The dapper Draper resembles in style and privilege Christine Lagarde, the managing director of IMF, who the Guardian recently described as elegantly serene, even as the fiscal demands she forces on Greece inelegantly fractures Greek serenity. Ignoring the damage and violence that austerity inflicts on the bodies of living Greeks, she advocates for cuts in education of Greek children, cuts in medical support for the old, and the privatization of public resources. Sounding like Draper’s response to Pryce, she points out the ways that ethics demands that Greeks pay their debts and that money be treated as the preeminent marker of fairness. Debts (to banks) must be paid. “Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.” German Prime Minister Merkel, The Wall Street Journal reported, also asserted the ethical status of paying debt at the cost of great suffering. “It is more important that the new (Greek) government stick to the commitments that Greece has made to the international community and its partners in the European Union.” Forbes Magazine called the renegotiation of the debt by the Greeks 'disgraceful.' “Greece committed a grave injustice,” Richard Salsman argues. “Contrary to convention, morals and money go hand-in-hand.  The Latin root of ‘credit’ is trust.”

Christine Lagarde
The camera's attention to Pryce's dead body does more than symbolize the hypocrisy of the banks and the human costs of financial demands. The very sight of the bloated body provokes a visceral response to the abstracted violence of money and forces a confrontation with the values and flesh excluded from monetary systems of value. Pryce's dead body, moreover, like the sovereign’s material body, confronts the viewer with the equality and immanence of animal flesh.  

The financial crisis is about money but it’s never really about money. It’s about the trust, faith, and belief that people put into money. It is about the production of value in the human body. Gilles Deleuze writes in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation about novelist K. P. Moritz’s description of the execution of criminals and the affect of their meat: “the horror of sacrifice he feels when he witnesses the execution of four men, . . . . ‘thrown on the wheel’ or over the balustrade; his certainty that in some strange way this event concerns all of us, that this discarded meat is we ourselves, and that the spectator is already in the spectacle, a ‘mass of ambulating flesh’; hence his living idea that even animals are part of humanity, that we are all criminals, we are all cattle . . . . This is not an arrangement of man and beast, nor a resemblance; it is a deep identity, a zone of indiscernibility more profound than any sentimental identification: the man who suffers is a beast, the beast that suffers is a man.” Pryce’s flesh in Mad Men makes visual an affective response to the abstract suffering produced not by torture on the wheel in the name of a political sovereign but by the costs of money, credit, and debt to notions of popular sovereignty and equality. The “we” that is concerned here is a “we” made flesh in the body through which money circulates.

Even though it invites a response to the world in abstract, non-sensual, and immaterial terms, money is not an escape from life.  Money moves in relation to life and bodies, establishing the value and meaning of matter.  Money is one of the factors involved in our affective response to the universe, effecting how we see, what we see, and the meaning of those physical responses.  Money receives its value in relation to flesh even as flesh, weighed in pounds or kilograms, priced in dollars, euros, yen, and pounds, receives its value in relation to money.

I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?

1 comment:

  1. This is an extremely shallow and ultimately backwards comparison. Lane is in debt to the British government because of his tax evasion, not because he is being squeezed by corrupt banks. Far from symbolizing the victims in Greece, this embezzler much more closely represents the parasitic capitalist class that is exploiting the Greek people. His suicide is less a result of tragic circumstances than the inevitable outcome of the character's petty pride and personal spitefulness (as you can tell from the fact that his first attempt was in a location intended to spite his wife for embarrassing him with a car he couldn't afford - spiting his coworkers was only his second choice).