I previously offered a Weberian reading of The Wire. And now I'm equally convinced that Mad Men is an outstanding Foucaultian deconstruction of contemporary American capitalism. In some ways the two play off against each other very well. The Wire is concerned constantly with norms, rules, duties: to whom am I responsible? What are the uses and limits of public law? Should I uphold tradition? How can I live in multiple moral orders (family, community, city; public, private) simultanteously? How to overcome the 'irrational rationality' of bureaucracy'? The Wire is a sociology of Kantian moral questions. If one were being very high-minded, one might say it is another 'answer to the question 'what is - or isn't - Enlightenment?'', certainly inasmuch as it appears driven by a tragic moral sense that society ought to be able to do better.
Mad Men, meanwhile, is concerned constantly with desire, egos, aesthetics: what do I want? Who can I fuck? How can I throw off morality? It is a sociology of Nietzschean ethical questions. Most importantly, in contrast to The Wire, it is empty of any moral hierachies (it lacks an Omar) or notions of Enlightenment, and in that respect is genuinely genealogical. The Wire confirms Walter Benjamin's dialectical slogan "only to the hopeless is hope given", whereas Mad Men has nothing to say about hope or hopelessness, only contingency and strategy.
The first Foucaultian trope is to perform a 'history of the present'. Mad Men is self-evidently not about the 1960s, any more than Discipline and Punish is about the late 18th century. It is about us today and the contingencies through which we came to be so. One very smart way that Mad Men goes about this is to shift our habitual understanding of when a key historical break occurred. We typically equate 'the sixties' with the late 1960s, with 1968 as their epitome. But this is only what the self-important baby boomers want everyone to believe, on the solipsistic basis that they insist on having changed the world, not their parents.
Mad Men overthrows this assumption, with a similar disdain as Tony Judt pours on the Western boomers who think throwing rocks in Paris was historically important. By focusing on the exit from the 1950s and the early sixties, it reminds us that the decade was about a shift from one model of middle class conformity to another, from one model of capitalism to another. The supposed abandonment of conformity and capitalism was a hippy delusion or, at most, a sideshow (Thomas Frank's Conquest of Cool is also brilliant on this point; see also this smart piece by Alex Petridis on the nineties reinvention of the sixties).
Then there is the subtle questioning of liberation. The historical constant in Mad Men is libido, which empowers and dominates in equal measure. The shift from one epoch (of sexism, domesticity, formality) to a new one (of equality, self-fulfillment and informality) is not represented as progress in any way whatsoever, but simply what Foucault might call a reconfiguring of the economy of desire. In this respect Mad Men - and this is the genius - is a satire of both conservative and liberal America, showing the choice between the two as arbitrary.
The era that is arriving in Mad Men, which is implicitly the present, is one in which the rhetoric of freedom and self-actualisation is simply a new strategy of power, particularly as mobilised by capital. There is no inner subjectivity being freed by the dawn of the 1960s, just a new one being constructed and then pampered to. It's not as if nobody was unruly, hedonistic, sexual or selfish prior to 1963 (Philip Larkin is also dispatched by this revisionist history), they just exercised these impulses via different means. Therapy may be a new arrival on the scene, willing to unleash a new rhetoric and analysis of self-actualisation, but the notion that repression was otherwise the norm in the 1950s appears utterly ridiculous, as everyone happily drinks, fights and fucks their way through their careers. The arrival of a new, post-1950s question 'but what do I really want' is, as Foucault would see it, simply another force for control.
These issues are there in every scene, making it utterly captivating. Every individual is a bundle of desire, and the society at large is simply an aggregate of desires that needs to be understood and then tapped for personal monetary and sexual gain. The fact that Mad Men looks aesthetically magnificent is entirely necessary for it to take effect, for this then plays on the viewer's own desires also. Note how there is never any representation of actual sex going, and yet the entire show feels faintly sexual, making it pornography without nudity. The idea that 'very little happens' (an oft-reported criticism) is risible. It is staggeringly good.