Sunday, June 10, 2012

Slate Writer Doesn't Know How Language Works

 On the always contrarian website,, Tom Scocca takes aim at those who drop references to the critically adored television show, Mad Men.  His argument is…well, I’m not exactly certain.  He’s angry because people keep on talking about this show, and he hasn’t seen it, and this makes him upset.  At one point towards the end of his article he suggests that using pop culture allusions don’t always fit the topic at hand, which would have been a legitimate argument, but it only comes up once and it is in reference to a journalist making use of the show The Sopranos, not Mad Men.  The title of the article is “Don Draper’s Shocking Secret: He Doesn’t Exist: Why do Mad Men fans and the New York Times mistake the show for reality?,” which suggests that, at its core, his argument is about semiotics, or the study of signs, like language, and what they mean. 

Semiotics first arose from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 20th century, but it really flourished in the work of French theorists in the decades following World War II.  Perhaps one of the most accessible introductions to the use of semiotics is Roland Barthes’s collection of essays, Mythologies.  In Mythologies, Barthes attempts to uncover the underlying meaning of a whole series of cultural signs.  For him, everyday objects like children’s toys or Greta Garbo’s face are representative of something deeper, hidden underneath the play of surfaces.  In his introduction, Barthes explains his purpose in the following manner:

The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the “naturalness” with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history.  In short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse, which in my view, is hidden there. (11)
Barthes seems frustrated that ideas and concepts that are culturally made are being treated as absolutely natural or “true.”  Most of how we view the world is in fact constructed for us, and Barthes is hoping to uncover and tease apart these culturally made ideas.

But back to Scocca’s article.  While it is difficult to fully determine what he is trying to say, at least part of his argument hinges on the fact that there are “true” signs and there are “false” signs.  Scocca seems upset because characters like Don Draper don’t exist.  He writes, “He [Don Drapper] is a pattern of lit-up dots moving in front of your eyes for one hour, on Sundays, during the season run of the Mad Men program, which mercifully ends this weekend.”  (Part of Scocca’s apoplexy arises from the fact that a lot of people talk about this show, and he doesn’t like it, except that he admits that he hasn’t watched it, which means that no one has strapped him into a Clockwork Orange like contraption and forced the show on him).  Obviously, Don Drapper isn’t a real person.  Instead, he is a signifier for a whole host of social and cultural issues: capitalism, the generation gap, existential malaise, masculine constructs, etc.  But Scocca doesn’t seem to understand one thing: everything that he writes is also a sign.  When Scocca writes about the 1960s, they do not just immediately manifest themselves before us.  Like the television show Mad Men, he is using a series of signs (in this instance, words) to stand in for the decade in question.  In other words, Tom Scocca’s argument doesn’t exist.  Everything he writes is a pattern of lit-up dots on our computer screen.  (In fact, we might ask Scocca what he thinks of other terms that come from fiction, like quixotic or Kafkaesque). 

But Scocca appears to believe one set of signifiers is greater than another.  He seems to think there is some “true” 1960s out there that we can grasp in our hands.  One signifier is tangible and the other signifier is not.  He writes, “In the collision between the actual and the simulacrum, the simulacrum is winning.”  But everything he just wrote and quoted is in fact a simulacrum.  Like I stated, Mad Men is also a signifier for a whole number of things, most often the culture of the 1960s. But a "history" of that time is also just a signifier. If you open a historical reading of the 1960s, you don't open the book and enter into the thing itself. You read an interpretation of that era, which, funny enough, is exactly what Mad Men is.

You might argue that Scocca is concerned with the accuracy of Mad Men’s interpretation of the world—that there is a good deal of evidence about the decade that we can latch onto in order to determine cultural mores, dress, music, etc.  But this doesn’t seem to be the case.  There will always be competing versions of the 1960s.  Even well educated historians will differ on how best to interpret that decade.  A sign, after all, may be read in multiple ways.  Besides, perceived “accuracy” never enters into Scocca’s argument.  Let’s take the quote he uses about the turtle neck, taken from a New York Times article:

Francesca Granata, an assistant professor of art and design history at Parsons the New School for Design, traced the garment's high-fashion roots to the '60s, when, she said, ''Pierre Cardin and YSL reinvented the men's suit with a turtleneck instead of a buttoned shirt and a scarf instead of a tie.'' (Think more Paul Kinsey than Don Draper.)

In the above excerpt, the academic being questioned suggests that the turtle neck symbolized the changing cultural mores and generation gap of the 1960s. The author then uses Mad Men as a point of reference, a show that happens to use clothing to symbolize the changing cultural mores and generation gap of the 1960s. It is unclear why it is okay to rely on the language of the "expert" and not the television show, especially since they seem to be saying the exact same thing. One means of signifying the 60s is more "true" (the academic's words) where the other means of signifying the 60s is "false" (the images on a television show), even when signifiers are coming to the same conclusion.  For Scocca, any sort of fictional art is a false signifier, even when it happens to be accurately representing the world.  Scocca is falling into the old trap that Barthes observed about fifty years ago.  He thinks that there is a natural world he has access to that is not built by an interpretation of various signs.

Of course, as someone who is interested in fictional narratives, I have pony in this race.  It is an old discussion that goes back at least as far as the novel itself.  People seem to think that just because something is a fictional retelling, then it can never tell us something “true” about the world.  Just this year, the Pulitzer Prize awarded no prize for narrative fiction, despite having some well regarded books in the running.  Many have argued that this is a result of a culture that denies that fictional stories can tell us something true about the world.  But while the form is certainly different, the same arguments that take place out in the “real” world also occur in the fictional universe created by authors.  When Charles Dickens wrote about work houses and orphanages, he did so after learning about these places through his own experiences and through newspapers (which happen to be made up of a series of signs).  He then made arguments about the dehumanizing effects of these places, but he did so through characters, dialogue and narrative.  

The true difference between fiction and non-fiction texts is that fictional texts take work.  In order to uncover what a novel is trying to say, you must first engage with it, determine what argument lies underneath its entanglement of metaphors.  A non-fiction text, by contrast, is didactic.  It comes right out and tells you what it wants you to know.  This can be useful, but it can also be problematic.  A work of non-fiction is always trying to convince us that it is absolutely “real,” when it is always an interpretation of the world.  Besides, the difficulty inherent in the novel is also why it is useful.  In a world where information is presented to us in small bites, there’s something to be said for the exercise of deciphering a text and engaging with its argument.  The world is a complicated place, and fiction never lets us forget how much of a tangled mess we live in. 

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