Recently I’ve been engaged in a small guerrilla email action about some promotional material that’s gone up around my workplace aimed at encouraging our clients to participate in career development programs and make themselves a plan about their money making future. None of which I particularly object to, though all marketing essentialises its audience and renders the facts of their lives a flat earth (especially when you stick posters on trees) and who can say if this approach is valid or not.
My guerrilla action has focused on a number of aspects of those posters on trees. Firstly the poster is an acknowledged rip off of the Mad Men opening credits and more recent promotional material:
But nowhere on the posters is the copyright of this image acknowledged. Nowhere is there concession that the image belongs to some other multinational corporate entity and may, or may not, be used with permission. For an institution that puts a capital Q on its qualities this is sub par.
Sub par but not awful. No, what’s awful is the fact that it’s a joke about suicide. Great jobs don’t fall from the sky? No, they don’t, but the image suggests that people who have great jobs do throw themselves from buildings. And, in fact, this is exactly what Mad Men is aiming at, Don Draper is a failure. A suicidal failure too, and therein lies the critique of corporate America. As Gary Edgerton notes:
on the surface, Mad Men’s mise-en-scene and iconography may appear nostalgic, but it comes with an attitude towards the past that exposes the workaday sexism, racism, adultery, homophobia, and anti-Semitism of the era—not to mention all the excessive smoking and drinking.
So I can’t help but think using this image of decline and fall to promote a careers service is not just ironic but alienating. I mean this in a Debordian sense in that it produces the space into which we can fall. Careers are trajectories through spaces constructed for the benefit of absent others, some of whom we might choose to assist, others who we might not. The absence of choice is our falling.
The poster is also an image of a falling man and links inextricably to Richard Drew’s 9/11 photograph of the unidentified falling man which I have reproduced without permission here:
Obviously this falling man doesn’t end up in a comfy chair with whiskey and cigarettes, kissing someone else’s wife, not at all. That man went to work. That man found himself in mid air. That man never came home. You don’t need to be a US citizen to see something awesome about that flight. In a postscript to his astonishing essay on the photo Tom Junod wrote:
We’re all falling men now. Drew’s photograph became a symbol both specific and universal because it dared to tell us that 9/11 was not the beginning of something but rather the end, that it didn’t constitute the “victory of the American spirit,” as presidents and pundits tried so hard to tell us, but rather a loss, final and decisive, with which we’d always have to reckon.
And it is not the first time a final and decisive loss has been depicted or described in this way. Here’s a photo of Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s 1915 sculpture, The Fallen Man:
And here’s Ernest Trove’s Falling Man from the early sixties:
Both of these are representations of fallibility, of a certain kind of pessimism made solid, an abjection in the face of all the things being alive means and might mean and might fail to mean. The man in Richard Drew’s photograph is the same. His vulnerability is our vulnerability. His capacity for loss is exactly our own. Our risk is no different to his. Our trajectory can take the same turns as his. His descent presages our own. Putting an image like these up on trees to promote the glory of career planning, of how to most profitably make ourselves useful, is not just insensitive and awful, it’s a denial of mortality, a lie.