For the last couple of decades Mark Dery has been investigating the cutting-edge of American culture and counterculture with an eye at once empathic and horrified, thrilled with the creatively liberating possibilities of the future and dismayed at the still-powerful sway of the forces of corruption and bigotry. His original takes on such familiar fodder as Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey and his revealing accounts of his youth and the cultural and political milieu in which he grew up, a lonely kid made an outsider by his intellectual gifts and lack of sympathy with the mainstream (the introduction, Gun Play), show how the political and the personal, the sign and the hidden ideology, are inextricably interlinked, whether we realise it or not. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a collection of his essays, published online and elsewhere, ranging chronologically from the late 90s up to 2010, chronicling his take on American Gothic: ‘…the stomach-plunging drop from reassuring myth to ugly truth – the distance between our dream of ourselves and the face staring back at us from the cultural mirror’; and ranging in subject matter from the ‘resurrection’ of Mark Twain to the disturbing imagery of online snuff movies.
Dery is a postmodern Ancient Mariner who has plied the vast and depthless oceans of contemporary American culture and politics and come back to buttonhole us all, just as we’re on the way in to the party, to show us that there is unimaginable darkness and insanity Out There. It would behove us to heed his warnings, because it looks like the Late Capitalist/Liberal Democracy party may be soon over.
Well, ok, he may not be quite as apocalyptic as that star of the ‘what do we do in the post-ideological era’ essay Slavoj Zizek (who wins my award for World’s Twitchiest Philosopher), but he’s a damn sight more readable. There is, however, a tinge here and there of Frankfurt School pessimism about mass culture which, to my mind, is a little one-sided. (Culture, mass or high, is always a mixture of curse and blessing, in my view – but enough of my cheery Anarchist digressing), but even in his philippics against Web culture (World Wide Wonder Closet, Face Book of the Dead) he puts forward a view that has been seriously considered and should be taken account of. Anyway, that being said, he’s an astute plumber of the semiotic depths hidden beneath the surface of the meme pool. Every chapter, indeed almost every page, adduces evidence that we are heading inexorably towards the Post-American Century. Decadence abounds – how fast this mighty nation has fallen from burgeoning postcolonial republic, through ne plus ultra of empire builders, to fading power upon which the sun of global domination is ineluctably setting. That, depending on your point of view, is either something to bemoan or celebrate. Dery, being a good Neo-Marxist-influenced critic, I suspect adheres sensibly to the latter view.
There’s at least one zinger on every page, some penetrating aperçu couched in a piece of ROFL wordplay. But the puns are layered, condensing two or three ideas into one quotable nugget, linking disparate images to underline their connectivity in the contemporary imagination. Dery certainly knows how to create an effectively condensed heuristic – which is just a fancy way of saying he’s pithy and informative, I guess. In fact, I have the impression that humour has become a more significant element in his style over the years. I went back to my copy of his early work Escape Velocity: Cyberculture and the End of the Century and my perusal confirmed this view. His prose has taken on a swinging, grooving cadence, a lightness, that is nascent in the earlier book and pretty much fully blown in the earliest essays in IMNTBT.
But the humour, often mordant in tone, is only part of Dery’s critical armoury. The moral seriousness underlying everything he writes is shown up most perspicuously in a startling switch he pulls off at the end of Shoah Business, a controversial but unflinching essay on the commodification and ideological misuse of the Holocaust and the discombobulating experience of eating in the cafeteria at the State Museum of Auschwitz. (This particularly chimed with me as someone who has undergone the severe cognitive dissonance of receiving a postcard from Auschwitz sent by a family member. It is impossible to adjust one’s mind to such a monstrous juxtaposition of ideas.) He subverts his apparently final judgement with a peripeteia that reminds us, to paraphrase the Situationist dictum, that there is a sleeping Nazi inside every one of us. A chillingly salutary reminder indeed.
Dery is a highly adept semiotician, writing with a rock ‘n’ roll swagger (the book’s title is from a song by LA psychobilly post-punk band X) but working within a dauntingly wide scope of scholarly reference, channelling culture both high and low, showing us new things in the familiar tropes of mass culture (the Super Bowl) and opening up the marginalia of American life too (the suicide note as literary artefact). Indeed, I am indebted to Dery for introducing to me the work of psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna, tell-it-like-it-is zoologist Gordon Grice and whacky Christian pamphleteer and cartoonist Jack Chick, inter alia. I’m also grateful for the final word on that putative tool of the Bavarian Illuminati Lady Gaga. I could never make up my mind whether she was a force for good or evil or just another pop singer. Well it turns out she’s A Bad Thing. And it’s always good to see Madonna and her high priestess Camille Paglia (do people still read or listen to her?) get a lambasting.
The fact that the book opens with epigraphs from JG Ballard and Don Delillo is a welcome clue that this is not going to be some ponderous collection of theory-heavy, nigh-unreadable academic prose but a forward-looking, accessible-but-not-dumb journey through the good, the bad and the ugly of that great simulacrum called the USA. And that word ‘simulacrum’ is apt: Dery more than once references Baudrillard, another of the presiding spirits, in company with Ballard, Delillo, Mencken, Adorno, Horkheimer, Orwell, David Lynch and Lester Bangs, watching over Dery’s shoulder as he gets all Ciceronian on Postmodernity’s ass. That these wits, thinkers and dreamers inform Dery’s worldview is all to the good; his spirit (sorry to flout Mark’s materialist ethic here) is at one with theirs. I can’t put it any better than Bruce Sterling, who in his thoughtful preface describes Dery’s work as ‘an intellectual insurgency against the friendly fascisms of right and left, happy bedfellows in their prohibition, on pain of death, of thoughtcrime.’ In short, Mark Dery is my kind of public intellectual.
More relevant than Mythologies, funnier than Travels in Hyperreality, more readable than Simulacra, less gloomy than Living in the End Times, smarter than Hitchens and without the pomposity, Dery’s dazzling collection will, I unhesitatingly predict, become a classic of cultural criticism.
Mark Dery is online at http://www.markdery.com
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is published by University of Minnesota Press: www.upress.umn.edu