Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Month: June, 2012

ONANism: Infinite Jest and the Potential Political Value of Masturbation

I’m writing about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this week, since it’s what I’m reading right now (and will probably be reading for the next several months) and what’s most readily available. Infinite Jest is like one-thousand pages, making the first three or four hundred, proportionally speaking, an introductory throat-clearing. And so we’re aware of the strange geopolitical configuration within which the novel’s action takes place for many hours of reading time before learning the political origins of the Organization of North American Nations.

Reading Infinite Jest at times feels like an elaborate exercise in hearing someone out, as DFW’s style sends us careening through a relentless series of dependent clauses and footnotes. Structurally, too, the absence of chapter divisions (the author often separates narrative episodes with nothing more than an exaggerated paragraph break) gives the novel a ranting quality. In the foreword of my edition of the book, Dave Eggars likens reading DFW to “being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin”; and it’s satisfying enough inhabiting DFW’s world—letting him talk and seeing where he goes with it. After all, moving forward, from page to page, given the near futility of re-locating already-read passages without chapter mileposts, is our most convenient option while reading Infinite Jest.

And yet hunting for confounding earlier passages after reading the parts of the novel providing focused description of the context underwriting characters, state institutions, and private companies, is essential for making sense of them. The early scenes between Rémy Marathe and Hugh Steeply are dramatic occasions for retroactive sense-making: seemingly abstract philosophical dialogues before the revelation of how O.N.A.N. formed (on like page 450), post-revelation they become the thematic linchpins of the novel.

Here’s the setup: It turns out O.N.A.N. was originally a ruse to cede the northeastern United States to Canada, evacuate its territory (the U.S. NE), and use as a vast waste (displacement) land. Hence American “experialism.” Marathe is an agent with Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (“wheelchair assassins”), a Québecois separatist-nationalist group violently opposed to the geopolitical collective. But he works as a triple agent (betraying the AFR by pretending to be their double agent), cooperating with Steeply, of the United States “Office of Unspecified Services,” in exchange for his sick wife’s medical treatment—although it’s unclear at this point whether or not he is really a quadruple agent. The U.S.O.U.S. is looking for an absurdly lethal “film-cartridge” the A.F.R. has been suspected of unleashing on the American public. A symbol which condenses and hyperbolizes Infinite Jest’s representations of the ubiquity of entertainment in our lives, the film-cartridge’s video overstimulates its viewers’ pleasure centers to such a degree that it reduces them to a drooling vegetative state upon watching.

Though ostensibly helping the U.S.O.U.S., Marathe’s Canadian prejudice cannot be dissembled away. He believes the video merely exploits the American consumer’s solipsistic pursuit of gratification, and would not present a problem if the American consumer were capable—or perhaps simply conscious—of choosing his attachments. He tells Steeply,

You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.

His own surrender to the “love of a woman” notwithstanding, Marathe’s stated philosophy challenges the entire system of global capitalism of which O.N.A.N. forms a part. Two years after legislation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (in 1994, Infinite Jest being published in 1996), Wallace uses him to articulate—if not exemplify—an anti-free-floating-circulation-of-capital-and-commodities-at-the-expense-of-national-sovereignty position. Steeply, in response, points to the unconscious nature of desire, its unchosenness: “But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision. This isn’t just a little naïve, Rémy? What if there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed?” That desire is largely unconscious rings true, but the suggestion that it is random, epiphanic, and independent of anything as earthly as political economy does not—which suggestion is belied by the U.S.O.U.S.’s intervention in the marketplace that has produced a demand—a desire—for the lethal entertainment.

The irony that if Steeply and the U.S. government succeed in destroying the film-cartridge in question they will have undermined their consumer’s sacred freedom to choose to acquire it, is not lost on Marathe, as he asks, “All other of our you say free choices follow from this: what is our temple. What is the temple, thus, for U.S.A.’s? What is it, when you fear that you must protect them from themselves?” The temple for the U.S.O.U.S., at least, more closely resembles a statistician’s office (“statistics,” etymologically, as the science of the state), a place where means and ends are tirelessly calculated. Such calculation addresses the apparent contradiction between the state’s reification of the market and its attempts to obstruct consumer behavior: the state must act in the interest of “public health/safety,” and a product which, immobilizing once-active consumers, threatens to destroy the very advanced consumer capitalist system which produced it, must itself be destroyed. This model of governance may reflect Foucault’s observation that government, once constituted as the power to “take life and let live,” is now the power to “ ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die,” where life is measured in buying potential.

Final thought: since other of Infinite Jest’s fictional organizations are named to create meaningful acronyms (e.g., the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed,” which encourages its members to veil themselves = “U.H.I.D.”), it’s probably not coincidence that the Organization of North American Nations’s O.N.A.N. is also the name of Judah’s son who, in Genesis 38, lets his “seed” spill to the ground rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife and extend a lineage not his own. “Onanism” is today another word for coitus interruptus or masturbation; and from the standpoint that O.N.A.N. enhances its peoples’ pursuit of self-indulgence and gratification by dissolving barriers to trade, the organization is appropriately named. But the acronym also suggests something else. Infinite Jest is too complex a book for its thesis to boil down to “consumption, entertainment, and capitalism are bad.” Perhaps onanism serves as a possible model for protesting the purposeful circulation of people, capital, and merchandise it seems to fuel—in the biblical Onan’s meaningless act, his refusal to participate in a given system’s determination of family, wealth, prestige. 

Submitted by the editor.

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Shaken and Stirred: Chasing Phantoms in the Season Five Finale of Mad Men

Editor’s note: Every week, our resident free-market apologist, Harlan R. Teller, offers his unique perspective on the most recent episode of Mad Men.

So, is Don Draper alone or unavailable?

Evidently, we’ll have to wait until Season Six to find out, but given the sly look on the aging ex-lothario’s face when season five faded to black, we’re not going to lay two-to-one odds that he turns his back on the comely “wing-woman” at the bar and heads home to await Megan’s recap of her triumphal star turn in an ad based on the “Beauty and the Beast” story.

Evidently, the “phantom” that Don has been chasing most of the season is a semblance of his past. The previous several episodes have seen the chief Mad Man get his creative groove back and revive his competitive spirit, both early casualties of the moony torpor that marked his earlier happiness with his tempestuous second wife (or third, counting the estimable Anna). Now, with the agency minting money with the same ease that the Federal Reserve prints it and the prospect of expanding into plush new quarters one floor above the current Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices, perhaps it’s time for those competitive Draper fires to direct their flames to the opposite sex.

For those of us who truly wanted to believe that Don had reformed and was determined to make a life with Megan, we’ll be sincerely disappointed if that last scene is as straightforward as it seemed, and will be pleased if it was all a misdirection play. But the warning signs have been there. Megan, so successful as a fledgling ad woman, had been failing as an actress, leading to some brutal advice from her mother (the beguiling Julia Ormond)—namely, to stop chasing a phantom (in this case, the hope for a productive acting career). Don sees a vulnerability and desperation in Megan that he had never seen before, and it’s neither becoming nor attractive to him. And when she drunkenly tries to seduce him—in essence, landing on his “casting couch” for a shot at an ad being produced by the firm—he is disappointed and a bit repulsed.

So, against his better judgment, Don relents and tees Megan up for the job. The victory may be Pyrrhic—she may have won the part and lost Don in the same bargain. As long as Don and Megan were a team at the ad shop, all was good between them, at least as long as they didn’t trek to a distant HoJo’s. They were the advertising “Drapers,” a twosome both at and away from work. Now, with Megan as the actress “Miss Calvet,” a gulf may have opened that will grow over time, leaving them two isolated people occupying the same space.  Don may see his gift of a role for Megan as his “get out of jail free” card for future transgressions.   It doesn’t look promising for the formerly fun couple.

Professionally, pride may go before the fall, as there are cracks in the SCDP façade, even as new partner Joan Harris continues to open envelopes with large checks from both clients, and in the case of a death benefit from Lane Pryce’s sad demise, insurance companies alike. The Topaz client is unhappy with the creative; Michael Ginsberg has taken to flying off the handle when his creative is questioned; Stan is diffident as always; and the male-dominated culture of the firm—somewhat submerged as long as the redoubtable Peggy Olson held sway in the creative department—may be a liability, as products designed with newly emancipated women in mind (e.g., Virginia Slims) begin to attract huge advertising budgets. Can anyone seriously envision the frat boys from the SCDP creative team putting together a credible pitch for a woman’s cigarette?

The other notable subplot was Pete Campbell’s continued dalliance with the sad, forlorn, and ultimately, as we find, emotionally unstable Beth Dawes. This episode provided more evidence that Pete is going to have to take up karate or tae kwon do if he plans to live past the age of forty, as he continues to pick fights with people who can beat him to a pulp. And are more than happy to do it, I might add. Fortunately for the Long Island Railroad conductor who turns the side of Pete’s face into a swollen blotch, the year 1966 is long before the trial bar has turned incidents like this into six- and seven-figure lawsuits. All Pete wins is more wounded pride and a longer trip back to his suburban purgatory.

The scene with Beth in the hospital after her electroshock therapy was one of the most touching, disturbing, and fully realized scenes of the year, as Pete sheds his self-absorption and self-pity, realizing that whatever the issues he has with his own life, they don’t hold a candle to what is in store for her, imprisoned not only by a loveless marriage and manipulative husband but her own demons of depression. It is a grace note that redeems a season of insufferable behavior from Pete, and handled with heartbreaking grace by the remarkable Vincent Kartheiser.

Finally, there are those final five thrilling, riveting and visually stunning minutes of the season, beginning with an amazing shot of the profiles of the five principals of the firm looking out of the window of their new digs, following with shots of Peggy watching two amorous dogs going at it (a metaphor, but what kind, I can’t say), and Roger alone in his naked, hallucinogenic glory. The highlight is of course Don Draper walking off Megan’s commercial set, out of the studio and possibly back to the future of his former life, while the opening orchestral strings of the theme song to the James Bond movie, “You Only Live Twice”, reverberate.  As Nancy Sinatra’s painfully thin vibrato begins the song, the debonair Jon Hamm as Draper, only lacking a tuxedo to look like the next 007 (which he has sometimes been rumored to be), saunters up to the bar and orders a drink. I half expected him to ask for a martini, shaken not stirred.  And then, the question is asked, and possibly answered.  Meanwhile, we consider the two lives of Dick Whitman and Don Draper, and think that at least for Don, the song may have it right. Unfortunately for his dead brother, showing up as a phantom in Don’s guilt-ridden daydreams, there was only one life.

As to whether the Draper marriage has just been stirred up a bit or shaken to its roots—well, we’ll have to wait until next year.

Writer’s note: So what of the persistent toothache that is so central to the plot of the finale? Does it represent the decay at the root of Don’s life—his guilt over his dead brother and dead colleague, his grief about Anna’s death, the subtle deterioration of his marriage to Megan? Or is it that the root of his life and his success is built on a dead soldier, killed those many years ago in Korea? We can consider these parallels, as we wait for Season Six.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

This Girl is a Woman Now: Rites of Passage on Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Twelve

Editor’s note: Every week, our resident free-market apologist, Harlan R. Teller, offers his unique perspective on the most recent episode of Mad Men.

Throughout this dark and ominous year of Mad Men episodes, there was an air of domestic foreboding about so many things—Don’s tempestuous second marriage, Pete’s profound discontent in the suburbs, Joanie’s shaky hold on her Army captain (and world-class jerk) husband, Betty’s continuing battles with her weight and her tweener daughter, Roger’s attempts to remain relevant and needed in a firm where he had increasingly become simply a name on the door.

For many in the blogosphere, suicide was in the air, but it was generally the smarmy Pete Campbell who most of us saw buying it, probably taking the place of a basted turkey in Trudi Campbell’s oven, or some other appropriately suburban way out of life. But in a classic bait and switch, it’s actually CFO Lane Pryce, done in by his own fraud in an act of desperation, who finally pays off on our expectations, only after first trying  (to no avail) to use the product that supposedly will change the fate of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) as his weapon of self-destruction.

We should have seen it coming. A stranger in a strange land, Lane never quite fit in.   First as an interloper from a conquering agency, then as simply an Englishman in New York, always as one of those “bean counters” the creative types and account men look down upon, Lane had the aspect of a guy who wanted to be with the other guys, but didn’t quite know how to do it. You get the sense that if he tried to snap towels at people in the shower after a rugby game, they’d just fall limply to the floor.

Last week, we found out Lane felt he was undervalued and underpaid; in essence, the “Pryce’ for Lane’s services was wrong. Rather than come to Don or one of the partners for a loan to pay off Her Majesty’s taxman, his pride led him to the ultimate fall. When Don learns of his perfidy (from Bert, no less, who has only recently roused himself from a semi-comatose state) and tells him that he has to resign, Lane loses whatever tenuous hold he had on his dignity and self-esteem, and with his wife continuing to believe he is the superstar adman who the agency couldn’t live without, he decides he can no longer live with himself. The fee that Lane pays in this episode, titled “Commissions and Fees,” is his life.

So, first Lane tries to do himself by suffocating himself in a Jaguar, but in an ironic turn that is part and parcel of the Mad Men universe, he can’t get the engine to turn over. His tinkering with the engine is reminiscent of the financial tinkering that he did for several years to keep the struggling agency afloat. A much lower tech solution—hanging himself from the rafters of his soon-to-be-vacated office—becomes a much more effective option, to the horror of his co-workers who find him there.

One wonders, by the way, who’s now going to mind the store, given that the senior partners need to have a tutorial at the beginning of the episode about how ad agencies make money in order to deliberate over Jaguar’s request that they pay the firm on a fee basis. I’m assuming that Pete and Lane’s explanation of the commission and mark-up system is more for our edification than Don’s, but one can never be sure, given how little Don seems to care about that side of the business.

While Lane’s rite of passage is out of life, Sally’s more predictable rite is that of passing from girl to “woman,” as Betty characterizes it. I could almost hear Gary Puckett and the Union Gap singing one of those creepy sixties paeans to (very) young womanhood when Betty pretentiously tells Megan that Sally “became a woman today.” In perhaps the most obvious, telegraphed plot point in the show’s history, Sally realizes that while she likes to act like a woman around Megan, she needs her mommy when she begins to menstruate. Her reversion to a childlike state in the face of her period and coming home to Betty for some motherly attention (which Betty triumphantly provides, for once) is heavy-handed and obvious. As is Betty’s not-so-subtle way of sticking it right in Megan’s face.

Perhaps the most entertaining rite is that of Glenn, still creepy and no less weird as a teenage prep schooler, being allowed (by Don) to drive back to school at the end of the episode. Complaining to Don after his ill-fated sojourn in the big city that “everything good turns to crap,” Glenn might be rewarded for coming up with what is possibly the tagline and epitaph for the entire season. Maybe Don sees future ad stardom in the kid. Or perhaps by this simple gesture he wanted to give the lie to Glenn’s pronouncement, in the process expiating his sins, most recently being the trigger that brought on Lane’s demise. Or, maybe he just didn’t want to do four hours of driving to and from Hotchkiss.

Whatever the motivation, he now has to live with yet another lie, to layer onto all the other lies forming the tapestry of his life. The difference is that this lie—the fiction that Lane went out on his own steam and at his own volition—is an honorable one. Lane heeded the advice that Don gave Peggy those many of years ago after giving up her baby: he “moved on.” And now Don has to live with the tragic consequences, no matter how defensible his own position was with regard to Lane’s conduct.

Writer’s note:  In 35 years in the PR agency business, I’ve used a variety of stratagems for winning business, but “pissed off and angry” has never been one of them.    This is, of course, dramatic license, somewhat like the end of the famous Carousel pitch in season one, when, rather than asking questions (like about the creative approach, the budget, who’s going to work on the business, will Don be in charge of the creative, why did you use your own wife and kids in the slide show, where can you find the best deli in the neighborhood), the Kodak clients left the office in an awed trance.    Whether Don is exercising reverse psychology with the Dow Chemical people at a much higher level than I know how to exercise, or simply Don being “Don on Steroids” (not much different than the day-to-day Don), I don’t know, but if I were the client I would have been tempted to call security.     However, since this is Don, and it’s Mad Men, I fully expect the gang to be working on the napalm business by the end of the season finale.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller