I read a review of a Weird Al Yankovich record several years ago (i.e., eons past Al’s 1980s prime) that pointed out that his schtick had become commonplace. When irony and parody become the norm, the edges move toward the middle. When culture jamming becomes culture, there’s nothing left to jam. When the news is just another reality show… After many binges on the fringes, learning the edge, culture jamming, and cyberpunking during the 1990s, chronicled in his books Culture Jamming (Open Media, 1993), Flame Wars (Duke University Press, 1994), Escape Velocity (Grove Press, 1996), and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium (Grove Press, 1999), Mark Dery is back with a collection of essays from the meantime: I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). It’s been twelve years since our last virtual sit-down, so I thought it was time to check in again.
@futuryst “Singing from the same hymn sheet” is a crap metaphor. “Examining the same entrails” is way better (Tweeted March 9, 2012).
I cracked open Dery’s first book in over a decade, and landed on the story about blogging, which, with an adept analysis of all-over-the-map, curiosity-collecting blogs like bOING bOING, explains further the plight of cultural criticism as Dery does it. Realizing I was getting ahead of myself, I backed up to Bruce Sterling‘s foreword, which coincidentally references the one piece I’d read. “This is prescience in conditions of historical inevitability,” Sterling writes about Dery’s blog piece (“World Wide Wonder Closet: On Blogging”). “I learn useful things like this by paying close attention to Mark Dery–not just to his writings, mind you, but to his career” (p. xii). Dery describes the situation himself, writing in 2003,
Years of tabloid media, reality TV, attacking heads, and, more recently, nightly news nightmares of doomed workers leaping from the World Trade Center, hand in hand, or journalists beheaded in your living room by jihadi or the slapstick torture at Abu Ghraib–home movies from hell that employed the visual grammar of porn–have cauterized our cultural nerve endings. Little wonder, then, that ever greater subcultural voltages are needed to shock us (p. 161).
The same laser-focused interrogation and machete-sharp wit that made Dery’s earlier books critical touchstones is here in rapid-fire form. Where his earlier work honed in on one subject or one genre of subjects, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is all over the place, a sniper-perch on the cultural sprawl where no one and nothing is safe. There are too many stand-out, entrails-examining moments to name, but his outing of HAL 9000 (“Straight, Gay, or Binary: HAL Comes out of the Cybernetic Closet”) is likely to become one of the most talked-about essays. No matter the topic, no one puts together a sentence like Mark Dery.
Appropriately, I believe, Dery’s next project is a biography of gothic artist and writer Edward Gorey for Little, Brown, but I’ll let him tell you about that.
Roy Christopher: Not to be impertinent from the beginning, but where have you been?
Mark Dery: Impertinence will get you everywhere. In 1999, I published The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, a portrait of fin-de-millennium America—paranoid, violent, economically stratified, ideologically polarized, demographically balkanized—as reflected in cultural phenomena that hyperbolized the zeitgeist: Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, the Heaven’s Gate cult, dug-in survivalists, fear-sick suburbanites circling the wagons in gated communities, jittery celebrities installing secret “safe rooms” in their mansions, Disney’s experiment in privatized governance and white-picket nostalgia (Celebration, Florida), apparitions of the evil clown in our media dream life, and the branding of everything, ourselves included. Like Escape Velocity before it, it was generally well-received, critically, although it suffered some critical brickbats, most notably from Pre-Cambrian feminist and professional bean-counter Elaine Showalter, who tallied up my references to women’s issues (whatever those are) and found the book wanting, and Michiko Kakutani at the Times, who had a fit of the vapors over my tendency to name-check Donna Haraway, which upsets the mental digestion of the paper’s readers.
But, contrary to popular belief, the rich pickings of the writing life fall somewhat short of a hedge-fund manager’s annual bonus, so I joined the professoriat, teaching courses in creative nonfiction (“The Popular Essay”) and media theory (“Reading the Media”) in the Department of Journalism at NYU. I toiled in the fields of corporate academe until 2009, when I returned to writing full-time. Teaching has its rewards, chief among them the privilege of rubbing brains with some of the brightest minds around and the unimaginably gratifying experience of hearing former students confess some small debt of gratitude for the writerly wisdom you’ve imparted. And it has its more dubious pleasures, notably: faculty meetings, committee meetings, the territorial threat displays of colleagues of very small brain, and the scenery-chewing hysterics of my department’s resident diva, an aspiring Sontag who dyed her hair an unconvincing magenta and who, in dead seriousness, once compared the department prohibition on holding her class in a communal study room to Nazi regulations in the Warsaw ghetto. Oh, and seeing yourself compared, on some RateYourProfessors-type site, to Snape. (Actually, that last was pure awesome, since Snape is my favorite character in the Potter movies—the only thing that makes them watchable, really. I’m always rooting for him.) In all seriousness, though, I couldn’t manage the trick of balancing the demands of classroom and writing desk. Some of my former colleagues were brilliant in the classroom and productive as writers; I respect them immensely. But teaching ate me up, leaving little time or energy for my writing. And, since my writing is at the heart of my sense of myself—it’s not just what I do, but who I am—there came a point when I had to choose between the financial security of an academic sinecure and the less tangible rewards of the writing life. Full disclosure demands that I say, too, that the politics of the institution conspired against me, but I’ll spare you the petty details of academic bloodletting. Anyway, I’m happy to be back where I belong, scribbling for a living.
RC: Since your books in the 1990s, the odd subjects you covered then have become the everyday. Where does that shift leave your current work? Are you headed further out into the cultural hinterlands?
MD: Well, it leaves The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium looking eerily prescient, I’m immodest enough to point out. I’ve been gratified by posts by apparently young readers, on GoodReads and Amazon, noting how contemporary that book feels. For example, the free-floating paranoia and anti-government conspiracy theories and anti-immigrant nativism of the ’90s militia movement is alive and well in the Tea Party and out on the survivalist fringe. As well, that late-’90s sense of American mass culture as a media-mad Tilt-a-Whirl spinning out of control, and of American society as a place where the center cannot hold and the worst are full of passionate intensity, is still with us, although it waxes and wanes, to be sure.
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts collects essays from the past decade or so, and in a plot twist I never would have imagined, some of the more recent pieces mark a turn toward a more personal style, by which I do not mean what back-of-the-magazine American essayists typically mean, which is soppy confessionalism, but rather the use of myself as a prism for refracting the cultural dynamics and historical events around me, as, say, Montaigne did in Essais or Didion did in The White Album or Luc Sante does in Kill Your Darlings or Richard Rodriguez does in nearly all of his books. So I’m lighting out for the territories within as a way of making deeper sense of American dread and American dreams, to quote the book’s subtitle.
RC: Unlike other books of its kind, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a strangely cohesive examination of America’s viscera over the past fifteen years or so. How much of it was written with the collection in mind?
MD: None of it. Each essay was what McLuhan would call a probe—a nomadic rover, wound up and let loose on the terrain of a media event, a cultural trend, an idea whose time has come, a historical premonition of our moment, the collective unconscious of America, whatever. But as its subtitle—”drive-by essays”—suggests, it’s an armchair version of the philosophical travelog, a tradition that stretches from de Tocqueville to Henry Miller’s Air-Conditioned Nightmare to Baudrillard’s America to Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo.
RC: Tell me about the next book project. It seems a perfect pairing of subject and sensibility.
MD: It’s a biography of the writer, illustrator, and inimitable eccentric Edward Gorey. More than that I can’t say, since it’s still in the research stage. I haven’t put pen to paper, but must start soon, since I’ve got to deliver the manuscript sometime next year. Just saying that (“sometime next year”) inspires a thrill of terror so debilitating I may have to go lie down for a while, with a cold compress on my forehead.
RC: What else is coming up?
MD: I’ve just contributed a short essay to Hidden Treasure (Blast Books), an incomparably beautiful compendium “showcasing astonishing and rare” oddities and arcana from the National Library of Medicine: chromolithographs from the Atlas of Skin Diseases, magic lantern slides, Stereoscopic Pictures for Cross-Eyed Children (1942), Health and Hygiene Puzzle Blocks from the Number 10 Shanghai Toy Factory in 1960s “Red China,” an 1839 lithograph illustrating the postmortem examination of a man (?) with sexually ambiguous genitalia, a 1924 German tract extolling the virtues of nudism. It’s a simply breathtaking, a cabinet of wonders between two covers: 450 unforgettable images, accompanied by brief essays, ranging over the intimately alien landscapes of bodies rendered monstrous by injury, disease, or congenital deformity. Also, I’ve got a personal essay-cum-cultural critique of the Rorschach test in the works for The Believer, something for The Awl on Young Americans-era David Bowie as white negro and postmodern minstrel, and an essay on the future of the human body for a museum exhibition catalog.