Daddy, What Did You Do in the Age of Late-Capitalist Decadence? or, Some Thoughts on Cultural Criticism for a New Generation of Mad Men

A few weeks ago, my former Campus Progress colleague Ned wrote a blog post which he titled, “The Left’s Poverty of Good Cultural Criticism.” I commented on the post in a state of some bemusement: after all, I waste vast quantities of time reading a lot of very good cultural criticism coming more-or-less from the left on a weekly basis. What do the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Observer, Harper’s, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, the Village Voice, the Paris Review and countless other publications do, after all, if not showcase the best of popular left-leaning criticism in the U.S. and Britain today?

It seemed to turn out, however, that Ned and I were disagreeing at cross-purposes. Ned’s post was spurred by his dissatisfaction with criticism of the TV show Mad Men, which he and others of my generation of writers/journalists find narrowly focused on the show’s historical accuracy at the expense of more literary criticism of its narrative, its character development, etc. Now, Mad Men is not a show which interests me; I stopped following it partway through the first season, and so haven’t read much of the discussion of the show which proliferates on the Internet. But Ned’s and others’ objections to that discussion, irrespective of the rest of the state of modern general-audience cultural criticism, leads me to wonder if there might possibly be a generation gap at work here. Sean Wilentz’s forthcoming book on Bob Dylan, for example, while promising to be a masterful piece of cultural, musical, and historical writing, seems as if it will speak primarily to those who have inhabited a certain set of historical moments beyond the ken of those of us in our early twenties. Prof. Wilentz’s book will serve an educative purpose to we GenY-ers, not entirely dissimilar to what we might get out of the late Tony Judt’s series of memoirs for the NYRB, or a Paris Review author interview. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but these are the sorts of writing I will read for their specifically educative purpose: they inform me about a middle-to-highbrow intellectual culture in which I am neither old enough nor educated enough nor sophisticated enough to participate, and they stand apart from, say, the Guardian’s attempt to explain Katy Perry to its readers, or particularly last week’s NYT Magazine article about “emerging adults”—that is, us. Those of us who are still in college or have recently graduated from it, who don’t have the critical soapboxes our elders do, turn to the culture pages of newspapers and magazines to find our elders helpfully explaining to us the cultural world of their youth and young adulthood, or striving to explain the lifestyles and cultural touchstones of a new generation of young adults in ways which can unfortunately wind up merely alienating those very same young adults, so sure are we that those of our parents’ generation have fatally misunderstood our world.

I am inclined to think that these generational gaps are at times overstated, because I am firmly wedded to the belief that culture moves in cycles; I also believe that by striving to understand the cultural context of previous generations, we can help them to understand ours. I am also pretentious, and a bit retro, and perhaps I myself live in too much of a bubble to really engage with the cultural context of my generation and see why members of our parents’ generation might not be getting it. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to see why the perspective of someone who lived through the era which Mad Men aims and claims to depict might have a very different reaction to it than someone slightly younger who grew up when identity politics and the culture wars were at their height; and that someone my age, reaching adulthood in a cultural context which aims both to synthesize and to reject entirely these two preceding milieux might find frustrating a reading of Mad Men which focuses predominantly, say, on the show as a concretized version of memory; or on the race, class, gender, and sexuality politics of the show’s world; or even on the classical Marxist critique which I think the show most desperately demands. It’s not difficult to see, I think, that any of these frameworks might be unwelcome in the eyes of a younger generation of critics—a generation which learned historicist, Marxist, feminist, queer, etc. critical methodologies in its English or philosophy or gender studies or cultural studies classes in college, and is understandably looking to find its own critical stamp to leave on the popular culture—the online meritocracy making this a more urgent task, since none of us require entrée into academe to need or to want to do this.

What, however, would such a critical stamp look like? I have to confess that I’ve no idea—perhaps I am too much of a historian-in-training, and too much of a traditionalist, to be the person to consider this. My attempts to engage with criticism of the popular culture have not really departed dramatically from the techniques I’ve learned in my classes; my own ideas for an article to submit to my Journal of Popular Gaga Studies don’t particularly deviate from the much-trodden ground of a standard queer-theory framework. I know, as I lightly said to a friend when ze told me that ze was confused about hir sexual orientation (gender-neutral pronouns to preserve confidentiality ftw!), that we’re all supposed to be post-labels nowadays. But I’m not sure what that means, actually—other than an apparent lack of interest in devoting one’s discussion of Mad Men entirely to its gender politics.

Whatever form this post-labels, forward-thinking criticism takes, however, I hope that it will only shape itself after due consideration of its predecessors, of history, and of the culture highbrow as well as popular. I hope that it will be shaped by young critics who read, in addition to blogs and Twitter, the NYRB as well as Rolling Stone, and I hope that it will prove capable of engaging with written as well as visual media. I also, as always, hope that it will do its work both inside and outside the academy. My generation presently bears the burden of forging a new intellectual left which can grapple with the problems which presently plague our states, our communities, and our cultures, and it can do that neither solely from within the ivory tower nor without the ivory tower’s help at all. I hope, too, that out of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of undereducated idiots like me writing blog posts about Criticism as if we know what we are talking about (news flash: we don’t), the media circus will find it within itself to highlight views considered and informed rather than sensationalist and needlessly polemic.

Yesterday, I finished reading Tony Judt’s valedictory book, Ill Fares the Land, and so I find myself thinking about these matters of generational succession, and of the task now set before we “emerging adults” to create not just the political, social, and economic, but also the cultural and intellectual world we want to live in. Perhaps this was not at all the intended takeaway of Ned’s post about Mad Men, but I find myself thinking, this morning, that we can and should listen to the advice of our elders—about how to rebuild social democracy, or about how to watch a television show. Before too long, however, this will be our world, and so more importantly we must begin to build the intellectual framework which will best allow us to take our place in running it. As to how to do this? Well, I certainly hope the strategies will evolve organically, because I don’t think it’s a question any number of years of higher education, or any number of vote-with-your-mouse pageviews, could answer.

3 thoughts on “Daddy, What Did You Do in the Age of Late-Capitalist Decadence? or, Some Thoughts on Cultural Criticism for a New Generation of Mad Men

  1. A thought experiment involving how building upon the intelligence of a culture hypnotized by the Television, Role Playing Games, and an over-burdened public school system. Or maybe not.
    Nice article. Thanks for presenting your thoughts gently and consicely.

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