edge archiving.

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”
September 11, 2010, 7:12 pm
Filed under: edges of television

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

My project with the “edge” began as an experiment with sixties historiography. The “edge,” in this sense, provides a method by which to narrate the sixties, as a site of both radicalism and the end of radicalism – a narrative currently problematized by a memorial edge which operates at times divisively between generations connected to the left through a sixties ‘history.’

The hypothesis of this experiment was over the proliferation of the “edge” as a self-constructed narrative / mythology of the counterculture, and the mainstreaming of the “edge” in sixties youth through commodity culture. In this sense, the “edge” is unexceptional to the broad-stroke history of the sixties: the idea of the “edge” (Hunter S. Thompson’s “edge,” or Ken Kesey’s “edge city,” or The Diggers’ “planet edge,” etc.) is yet another figure of what might have been lost after a perceived saturation point of capital. However, the idea of the “edge” is precisely the site of eccentricity which yields a world of paradox: at this saturation point, the eccentric becomes encircled.

In tracing this idea of the edge through this history of its encirclement and mainstreaming, Mad Men provides a steady stream of material for gauging and evaluating iterations of the sixties narrative from our current historical situation.  The failure of the sixties project has been the dominant narrative of the left, with ’68 marking the event of a “tragedy.” Now, the sixties is imagined from the crisis point of the right, which is perhaps the transparent – almost gimmicky – appeal which Mad Men offers us.

Throughout the series, the “edge” works on multiple registers, as a geographical, historical, and metaphysical figure. This first culminates in an episode from the second season, “The Mountain King,” in which Donald Draper and his employee, Peter, go to Los Angeles for an Aerospace convention, looking for potential clients for their New York-based advertising firm (which is in the process of internationally merging / “going global”). Draper has an apocalyptic vision during his meeting with potential clients, and he imagines the advertising and promotion of MIRVs as the horizon of the sixties – a horizon of global catastrophe. Leaving Peter behind, Don escapes the convention and goes to Anna Draper (whose significance should be clear, to an extent, without my use of a “spoiler alert”), in a setting of his past which conjures memories of his life before advertising, New York, and his new wife and children. The episode ends with Don walking into the ocean (a familiar act of edge-crossing), with George Jones’s lyrics “a new life to begin.”  The scene is a gesture — if gestures may be unsubtle — toward a larger narrative of western salvation: Don looks to the Pacific, seeking the pilgrim’s progress, and can only go so far before he returns to New York, the firm, and his family in a moment he later declares a “crisis.”

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” a more recent episode, begins with Peter reporting back from a dinner at the Asia Society. When Peter proudly announces that he has booked a meeting with Honda representatives, Roger Sterling, a WWII veteran, interrupts him: “I don’t expect you to understand this,” Roger tells Peter, “because you were a little boy, but I used to be a man with a lot of friends, and then World War II came, and they were all killed by your new yellow buddies.” Despite Roger’s outburst, the rest of the partners decide to pursue Honda while keeping Roger “out of the loop.”

Between Peter and Roger, the edge is the Pacific “rim,” or, the edge of temporal and spatial erasure between Tokyo and New York / San Francisco / Los Angeles. For Peter, this is a historical edge: Roger represents the ruins of WWII, whereas, he explains, “the rest of us are trying to build something.” The logic of Peter’s history is determined by market expansion, while for Roger, the “rim” is an aporia of forgiveness – to which he responds with a sense of (self-righteous) loyalty. The edge here might be described as the axis of forgiving and forgetting history, or, the generation gap of memorial history.

Peter, and the rest of the partners, proceed to meet with the Honda representatives – with the primary interest of a three million dollar account. After their first meeting – which prompts Peter’s reflection that “everything they do is inside out” – the partners are certain that they’ve lost the opportunity, due to Roger’s attempt at sabotage. “We beat you, and we’ll beat you again, and we don’t want any of your Jap crap,” Roger tells them, once he’s discovered that he’s been tricked into an extended lunch during a secret meeting.

Despite the presumption of failure among the partners, Don continues to pursue the deal with Honda, and meets with the representatives alone. Notably, Don is described in this episode as “always thinking on the edges of where you are.” Don performs yet another self-transformation – in this instance, an act of self-orientalizing. He starts to drink sake, he brings a date to a Japanese restaurant, he learns to use chop sticks; while he also decides to withdraw the company’s bid, because he did not follow the rules of proceedings, after reading Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and The Sword. As a result of what Peter calls an “inside out” tradition, Don manages to secure the account, and Roger ultimately surrenders.

In the larger narrative of the series, this episode is one of many glimpses at a sixties history which begins at another edge – that is, it begins with the figures of the end. It is in this sense that, through Don, the idea of the sixties becomes a project of ending in 1960. When Don, as a figure of advertising, encounters the sixties counterculture, he is frequently in the position of explaining the primacy of the youth market. The characters who represent youth culture, or radicalism, in the series are in these instances oblivious to their own development from commodity culture. Whereas this is a familiar narrative, what is perhaps historically specific to the series – as our most recent popularized attempts at sixties historicity – is the vantage from which it is narrated. In these terms, this is the more fundamental ‘edge’ of the series: it is not a post-sixties narrative, but a post-financial crisis narrative.

As a site of this new periodization in popular culture, Mad Men is constructing a history which – following the experiment – features this ‘edge history’ in its backdrop, beneath its surface, between its stories and characters. The series is “thinking on the edges” of where we are, rather than the edge of the sixties. Yet in these instances, such as the edge of the Pacific “rim,” the edge is now a different kind of figure. It is not the edge of revolutionary potential, but the edge of the market, the edge of globalization, and, for Donald Draper, the edge of a metaphysical loss of self. Self-transformation is not the salvation he seeks, earlier in the series, in his encounter with the ocean. “Forgiveness,” for Roger, is reached over an account bidding. These edge-crossings are compelled by a single logic, which is the logic that compels the larger narrative’s periodization. Whether or not this avails historical possibilities, this is certainly a new way of ending the sixties.


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