Don Draper, the Devil and Democracy: An Interview with Adam Kotsko

by Tom Cutterham

Adam Kotsko is a professor at Shimer College in Chicago. He has written both academic theology and books on pop culture, including Awkwardness, which uses works including The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Knocked Up to examine the fundamentally social – and fundamentally awkward – nature of human existence. Kotsko is also the translator of Italian philosopher and historian Georgio Agamben, a regular blogger, and tweeter of sardonic quips.

In Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths, you use television as a way into social and cultural criticism. It seems important that you're not just interpreting TV shows – what they mean – but also analysing their social, cultural, political effects – how they work. How do those two questions fit together?

I'm glad you asked this, because it's a question a lot of readers seem to have in some form. Generally speaking, I try to take an ‘inductive’ approach to the pop culture material. My first question is to ask what kind of viewer the show or film in question seems to presuppose. In Sociopaths, for instance, it seemed to me that all the shows treated, regardless of their level of sophistication, presupposed a viewer who gains some satisfaction from watching scheming, backstabbing, rule-flouting characters – and the fact that people will normally binge on these shows in long marathon sessions indicates that the shows are not missing the mark in that respect.

For me, the attempt to explain why that kind of fantasy would be so appealing at this particular historical moment is secondary to figuring out how the fantasy works and how the more sophisticated shows like Mad Men or The Wire push that fantasy to its limit in interesting ways.

How would that figure in terms of the relation between critic and 'ordinary' viewer? Is there such a thing as an ordinary viewer, and what distinguishes her or him from the critic?

I think the best critic will start out as an ‘ordinary’ viewer and never completely let go of that position. It's probably clear from my books that I really enjoyed most of the shows I discuss, and for me analysis and interpretation are ways of deepening and extending that enjoyment. If there's anything that distinguishes an ordinary viewer from the critic, it's that the ordinary viewer resists taking that next analytical step of reflecting on their own enjoyment and the ways the show expects them to enjoy – though I don't think that any viewer of a sociopath-themed show can help but reflect on the characters’ schemes and how they might have worked better, etc.

Of course, there's also a separation from the other direction insofar as some critics can act like they're neutral assessors who can see right through the shows, but I think that kind of attitude is becoming less and less prevalent. The historical moment when you'd brag that you don't even own a television has passed. Everyone who's in a position to write criticism has surely spent a weekend addictively watching a full season of Breaking Bad or what have you.

When we talk about, for example, the ‘thought experiment’ of sociopathy that you describe – are we talking about something going on, usually, unconsciously? Or have we all learned to become conscious critics of what we watch? Perhaps inadequate critics.

There are definitely psychoanalytic presuppositions underlying what I'm doing – in particular, I've been deeply influenced by Žižek's practice of ideology critique and the way he reads popular culture. What I like about the way he practices his psychoanalytic interpretation is that he isn't reductionistic or pathologizing. He trusts that popular culture is popular because it's telling us something true, even if unintentionally. It can't help but reflect the contradictions in our present situation, and – this is particularly important for my approach – it can't help but reflect our genuine hopes as well. Even with something like the sociopath trend, where I find a lot to object to, I still had to find my way to a redemptive element before I was satisfied that I had really grasped what was going on.

Now as for whether we're all conscious critics, I do think there's a grain of truth to that idea. Shows today always seem to include an element of ‘knowingness’, a periodic wink at the viewer to reassure everyone that we're all in on the joke. Sometimes that can be really interesting, but other times, I think those kinds of moves inoculate against authentic criticism that includes a self-critical moment.

Take something like Family Guy, for instance. In the early seasons especially, there was a certain use of racist or sexist tropes that included a wink at the audience – it was kind of a meta move where we're reassured that it's not ‘direct’ racism or sexism, but a reference to the unthinkability of the idea that anyone could think like that. In a relatively short period, though, it devolved into increasingly direct racism or sexism, and I think that reveals what was so insidious about their self-consciously ‘edgy’ humor before: the viewer gets to have his cake and eat it too, he gets to have the subversive thrill of indulging in racism and sexism without having to take ownership of it.

This idea of interpretation and critique is where I suppose you'd draw the link between the popular culture criticism and what you do as a theologian. Are they part of the same intellectual project? Do you see religious texts or experiences working in similar ways to popular culture?

I always tell people that I view my work in theology and my pop culture work as fundamentally part of the same project, though they often seem to think I’m joking. Obviously there are really huge differences between religious and pop culture texts, but in terms of my approach, there's a fundamental similarity. In both cases, I take the text seriously in the sense that I assume that it's telling us something true about the world (even if it's not what the author consciously intends to be telling us) and I assume that it speaks to some kind of genuine hope.

Given that Christianity started out as an apocalyptic movement that looked forward to the complete overturning of the world order in which it operated, there is always a strong critical element that even the biggest ‘sell-outs’ in the Christian tradition can't totally get away from. And for that criticism of the world to be convincing, it has to get at something that is true, that people will recognize. In Paul's letter to the Romans, for instance, he starts off with a diatribe against the Roman culture of the time and their failure to live up to their own standards – and more broadly, he fed into a widespread sense that 'things can't go on like this forever.'

In Politics of Redemption, I treated several different attempts to make sense of the way in which Christ's death is supposed to be redemptive to us, and I argued that all the texts – albeit sometimes in spite of themselves – depended on a view of humanity as a fundamentally social and interconnected reality in order to make sense. That project is obviously closely parallel to my attempt in Awkwardness to demonstrate that the phenomenon of awkwardness shows the irreducible sociality of human existence. And I'm currently planning a follow-up to Politics of Redemption, a study of the devil, which I believe will have a similar parallel to Sociopaths.

The way you describe these connected projects, it sounds like you want to describe in some way how the world really or fundamentally is, perhaps a kind of phenomenology, as you set out in Awkwardness. So politically, my question would be what's the role of democracy here? Would it be right to put you in a camp with, say, Jodi Dean, where democracy is less important and less useful, ultimately, than the idea of communism?

I don’t think of my project as phenomenological, though perhaps you're right. That's something I need to think about further. The question about democracy is an interesting one. In my previous research in theology, I was struck by the ways in which the early Christian writers’ way of thinking about the devil's illegitimate authority as ‘prince of this world’ resonated with liberal democratic theories about the consent of the governed – in a sense, the devil becomes the ruler we deserve. From this perspective, Christ's intervention is about more than just dethroning the devil and seizing us back for God. He also does that, but the more important effort is to develop a way to create the kind of people who would ‘fit’ with God's justice rather than with the devil's power-hungry manipulation.

I think that there are a lot of paradoxes in democracy, but the question of how democracy functions as a vehicle for change when the people have been so deeply formed by ideologies that legitimate oppression and inequality is the biggest one for me. Communism might be a more useful point of reference insofar as it forces us to think about the possibilities for more thorough-going ‘bottom-up’ changes in the people themselves, whereas democracy can sometimes seem content with whatever the actually-existing people happen to want, without asking how they came to be the kind of people who want that.

Adam Kotsko’s latest book, We Why Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television, is published by Zero Books.