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 The cultural codes that shaped our world for so long have been replaced by a one-size fits all code of jeans and whatever-you-want.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.