The Comeback of Construction

What do you see in this photograph? If you’re a fan of AMC’s period piece hit “Mad Men” you might recognize Don Draper and his wife Betty out for an evening of dinner and dancing. But you don’t have to be a fan of the show to look at this photograph and take in the dense layers of meaning and exquisite constructedness of this scene. This is more than a man and wife at dinner, it’s a picture of a vibrant culture in progress. Take some time to study this picture. Everything in this frame is loaded with connotation, a plethora of cultural information coded into visual symbols. This is the true genius at the crux of “Mad Men’s” high brow appeal – it takes us back to a culture that valued and communicated with these symbols. A pre-post-modern culture where signifiers had a clear association to signified. A culture of meaning.

In many ways “Mad Men” traces the fall of this perfectly constructed 1950’s society, reminding us as it nostalgizes that this straight-jacket society was far from perfect. “Mad Men” never forgets to show us that this culture was socially and behaviorally homogenized, racist, sexist, and severely limited opportunity for many. But it was something. A shared something hanging over everything, inflecting life by its mere presence, inescapably shaping you by your relationship to it. It was constructed and agreed upon and provided a stable narrative and worldview based on shared mythologies, dreams, and values.

And in the midst of our aggressively egalitarian politically correct efforts to erase society as our grandparents knew it, people are finding that they miss something about the good old days. The sophistication of a man in a suit and top hat, the elegance of a lady in an evening gown, the chivalry of a traditional date. The cultural codes that shaped our world for so long have been replaced by a one-size fits all code of jeans and whatever-you-want. A deconstructed, post-modern, supply-your-own meaning culture.

And it works. To an extent. Because it offers people ample freedom to do their own thing. But people are finding that they miss some of the benefits of construction. We are living in an age of overwhelming and disorienting freedom. Freedom is a great thing, but like music without measures there comes a point when the absence of structure leads to the dissolution of meaning. Music becomes noise.

And as a society we’re getting tired of the noise. Young people shaping culture today are making important efforts to bring back rhythm and meter from the void. Costumes, customs, ways of standing and moving and speaking, a return of construction is in progress all around us. In entertainment the recent popularity of pageantry flaunting shows like “Gossip Girl” and “Mad Men” remind us of the good and bad sides of construction. But there’s no denying there is a fascination with these shows, in large part because the worlds they take us into are heavily constructed and an appealing fantasy in a time when no such layers exist in most of our everyday lives.

I see this fascination as the early stages of a movement to re-embrace the construction of society, one that will hopefully learn from the mistakes of cultures past, respecting the importance of freedom and individual choice while steering away from the dangers of mindless, culture-less, Wal-Mart shopping sweat-pants wearing apathy.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Comeback of Construction

  1. phalanx

    Great stuff. I’ve often mused about this phenomenon myself, why is it that we’re so intent on breaking down high culture? My hunch is that as baby-boomers leave the positions of power in this country (they were the anti-establishment bunch that tore down but never bothered to restore the institutions they destroyed in the 60′s) the comeback of culture will continue. Once again I find the CultureWharf ahead of the curve on this one, great writing.

  2. Nora

    Excellent blog..music as noise-perfect! I have been a fan of culture for some time…where are my Fred Astaire movies? You are brilliant with this observation. I have hope now…excuse me, I must get into my flannels and hit CVS!

  3. Jeff R.

    Its a logical progression because of the infringment of work and mounting pressure on our leisure time. The fabulously wealthy or family-less professionals might still have time for this kind of culture, but the rest of us just hope we get time for an hour of TV a night between getting home from work, shuttling the kids around, making dinner and falling into bed.

    “Highly constructed cultures” as you call them take time and money most of us with kids don’t don’t have.

  4. While you make a very good point about the modern destruction of the class and ways of the “Mad Men” era, I have to point out that these feelings are nothing new. Nostalgia for the “good old days” has been common in every era. Whatever is happening currently seems fast, exciting, new, while looking back at the past is always classic, safe and seemingly better than it probably was. No doubt, there was a more traditional feeling for many aspects of life in the ’60s, and yet, those who lived it also looked back 40 years and wished too for the simpler ways of their fathers. Every generation yearns for the past while being overwhelmed by their present. I guarantee you, decades from now, we’ll look back at the 1990s and 2000s and wish we could go back to a “simpler time.” That’s the beauty of a show like “Mad Men” – you get a calming and beautiful glimpse of what was that’s easily comparable to today’s what is, but you’re not nearly getting the full picture.

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  6. Guy

    We’re all still like children. As parents we know we must discipline our children for their own good. The rules we set for them are their actual security whether they like them or not. As a human they will try to “push the envelope” as is nature, however the rules are something they cling to when they are in a situation they’re unsure of. As adults we’ve not allowed ourselves to be “trapped” in rules because we’ve been told freedom is ours, society nor your “friends” will admonish you…so we’re all wondering about wishing there were some rules again we can cling to in order to get off this freedom ride and slow down.

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