The Universe is Indifferent

Theology, Philosophy, and Mad Men

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Ann W. Duncan, Jacob L. Goodson
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , November
     428 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The essays collected in Ann W. Duncan and Jacob L. Goodson’s edited volume think big. Authors meditate on the institution of marriage in the United States, the ever-present relationship between sex and power, and the possibilities for authentic community in corporate workplaces. Their object is not a current historiographic turn or new philosophical treatise, as these lofty themes might suggest, but a popular cable television show, recently syndicated on Netflix. The Universe is Indifferent: Theology, Philosophy and Mad Men joins a chorus of scholarly interest in Mad Men, AMC’s seven season prestige drama about the fast-paced world of New York City advertising firms in the 1960s. As the authors in this volume make amply clear, Mad Men is a period drama extraordinaire. Its characters experience the social changes of the 1960s (most saliently the relative loosening of gender norms, the civil rights movement, and corporatization of the counterculture) with human complexity and ambivalence, offering viewers and scholars a wealth of material to examine and unpack. The interdisciplinary array of authors featured in The Universe is Indifferent plumb Mad Men’s depths with ambition and enthusiasm. The variety of theoretical lenses applied to Mad Men’s central conflicts and the diversity of arguments that ensue are testament to the show’s kaleidoscopic quality.

The volume’s seventeen essays are arranged into three thematic sections. The first, on “Business Ethics,” takes Mad Men as a resource for considering the moral dilemmas posed by the advertising offices at the center of the show, and modern workplaces more generally. These authors use Mad Men as a springboard to reflect on how advertising work can enable or inhibit authentic creativity, and the specific challenges faced by the growing number of women who began to work outside the home in the 1960s. Sarah Conrad Sours’s “Mad Manners: Courtesy, Conflict and Social Change” straddles both of these themes. Through a careful study of the main character’s micro-gestures of courtesy and rudeness throughout the seasons, Sours observes how the show used workplace politesse to depict social change. The essay demonstrates how the conventions of professionalism in Mad Men’s fictional advertising agencies perpetuated gender, class, and racial hierarchies and charts how they changed over the course of seven seasons, relishing in Mad Men’s attention to historical minutia.

The essays occupying the volume’s middle section, “Who is Donald Draper?”, all address themselves to the section’s titular question. Mad Men’s vexing protagonist, Donald Draper, is interpreted using vocabularies provided by Thomas Merton, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jean-Luc Marion, among others. The volume’s final section, “History and Social Theory,” looks at the institutions that structure the lives of Mad Men’s characters. The first three essays use philosophical lenses to examine the characters’ marriages, taking Mad Men as an opportunity to think about how the institution of marriage changed during the period depicted and how it might look in the future. These are followed by Susan A. Frekko’s “Mad Men, Bad Parenting: Representations of Parenting in Mad Men,” which argues that the impulse to see Mad Men’s mothers as “bad parents” is informed by contemporary neoliberal assumptions about what good parenting is, and Heidi Schlumpf’s “’I Can’t Believe That’s the Way God Is:’ Sexism, Sin and Clericalism in Peggy’s Pre-Vatican II Catholicism,” which looks at one character’s shifting relationship with the Catholic church. Together these pieces on marriage, the family, and the Catholic church use Mad Men as an opportunity to reflect on how individuals experience large-scale cultural change via historic institutions. The book’s concluding chapter, Jared D. Larson’s “We Don’t Really Know What’s Going On: Mad Men as a Bellwether of Politics to Come,” details how the political events depicted in Mad Men resonate with contemporary hot-button issues and concludes with suggestions for other historic epochs that could serve as equally rich backdrops for televised drama.

The Universe is Indifferent treats Mad Men’s seven seasons as a rich parable that can be mined and decoded to reveal compelling moral adages. This exercise effectively makes a case for treating high-brow television as a source of philosophical and theological meaning. The studies collected here could all have been deepened, however, by more attention to how the show’s televised form constructs the messages conveyed. Mad Men’s narrative arcs and immersive quality are the product of the particular ways in which a television show can create a mood through careful choreographies of dialogue, music, and mis-en-scène. A serialized drama like Mad Men is uniquely poised to allow conflicts to unfold gradually over hours and years. If decades of media studies have reminded us that oftentimes “the media is the message,” how are Mad Men’s moral and theological messages contingent upon their particular mediation? Many fans of Mad Men will recall enveloping themselves in Mad Men’s world via continuous hours of sumptuous and indulgent online streaming. If, as the authors collected here suggest, we were consuming philosophical and theological content, then more could have been made of how that content was structured by this historically novel mode of consumption.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eden Consenstein is a doctoral student in religious studies at Princeton University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ann W. Duncan is Associate Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the coeditor of Church-State Issues in America Today (2007).

Jacob L. Goodson is Visiting Professor of Religious Ethics in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of William & Mary. He has published scholarly essays in The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy and Contemporary Pragmatism.

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