Book Review: Mad Men and Philosophy

 Posted by on November 10, 2010 at 8:47 am  Books, Mad Men
Nov 102010

Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing is as It Seems edited by Rod Carveth and James B. South

Mad Men and PhilosophyThe Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series takes us on a journey through a pop culture phenomenon (usually a TV show) via a philosophical lens. Each chapter written by a different well-credentialed person (usually an academic) means that the book will have the varied tone of its various authors. Sometimes an essay applies philosophical insight to the series or characters, sometimes it uses the characters as object lessons for teaching philosophy. In the best cases, it’s an extraordinary marriage, in the worst, it’s a character or shoehorned into a Philosophy 101 class.

Mad Men and Philosophy, then, is mixed, but for the most part succeeds in bringing insight and even light to Don, Peggy, and the advertising game. (I’m going to say it’s much better, for example, than James Bond and Philosophy.)

About a third of the way through the book I was wondering if anyone was going to get past Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Everyone, it seems, wants to discuss “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons,” and/or “Advertising is about one thing—happiness.” Eventually, though, the book becomes more varied, and the philosophical approaches are varied as well. Obviously, it being Mad Men, Ayn Rand and Objectivism are discussed, and every one of these books seems to dig deep into Nietzsche, existentialism, and Plato. But this one also gets into epistemology, Kant, Aristotle, race, feminism, and economic philosophies.

Some of the best chapters are “The Existential Void of Roger Sterling,” which is better on existentialism than most, and picks the right character, “Is Don Draper a Good Man?” which is really about the character instead of just about the theory; it’s quite quotable, and “”And Nobody Understands That, But You Do”: The Aristotelian Ideal of Friendship among the Mad Men (and Women).” Actually, a lot of chapters are quite good, albeit flawed. “Pete, Peggy, Don, and the Dialectic of Remembering and Forgetting” misreads Peggy so profoundly that any intelligence it has is kind of erased. I found “Egoless Egoists” a yawn, but I usually find Objectivism a yawn so that’s not a surprise. “An Existential Look at Mad Men” is weak, and “In On It” starts great but peters out when it comes to drawing a conclusion.

I think the book will appeal to Basketcases, who like chewy things to think over, but the truth is, we think more deeply about Mad Men here, these are essays by people who think deeply about philosophy and sometimes think deeply about Mad Men. Recommended, but not forcefully. I will recommend other review site at Top9Rated when you can find products and other reviews.


  6 Responses to “Book Review: Mad Men and Philosophy”

  1. Excellent blog. I have this book in my car, and I have begun to read it while I wait on line for children car pool pick ups. (ten minutes here and there.) It’s an entertaining filler for my Mad Men withdrawal. However, I agree, that there are much more insightful commentaries right here among Basketcases.

  2. I haven’t read it and don’t have a firm opinion myself yet, but could you expound a bit on why you prefer Roger as the right character for the existential discussion? isn’t Don more right?

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  4. less of me, I don’t have the book in front of me to quote from, but the short answer is that Roger truly is existential, with no moral center, and a purely situational approach. Many quotes from Roger (“What do women want?” “Who cares?”) support that. Whereas Don, despite his incredible dishonesty in his marriage and about his identity, does have a moral center. He values loyalty (as to Mohawk Airlines). Despite what he says in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, he really isn’t living like there’s no tomorrow.

  5. Don’t forget a HAPPY HAPPY 11th BIRTHDAY to little Kiernan Shipka a.k.a SALLY DRAPER! 🙂

  6. Deborah, I’ve just skimmed the first few pages of that chapter at das googleBooks.

    True, I’ll concede it’s more likely than not to say Roger has no moral center, but Sartre and Camus would argue that particular feature would make him a failed existentialist, if anything; a negative example by way of being inauthentic. Negatives can useful and interesting but . . . Plus wasn’t the amorality tag used more as a slur by the early theologically inclined philosophers to marginalize rather than define existentialism in their time?

    In contrast, as you point out, Don does appear to have an internally determined ethical structure (such as he uses it), and his choosing of taking personal individual actions to define himself (and re-define himself, especially this season) make him a relatable, positive example of The Existentialist Work-In-Progress; an inconsistent but damned handsome grand transcender wannabe role model for us navel gazers. I think this is a good thing. After the rise of the Me generation, Facebook, personal bloggery, quad-venti-half-decaf-skinny-vanilla-lattes, etc. ad nauseum – imo – we are all Existentialists now.

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