Millennial maverick

Ashley Crawford talks to Mark Dery about the gothic, the grotesque, ideas vs theory, and America

Mark Dery

Mark Dery

Mark Dery has built a remarkable reputation as one of America’s leading cultural critics. With a vocabulary that would terrify Barry Jones, Dery happily dives into realms that most critics avoid like the plague. He roams the cultural landscape like a geigercounter searching for radioactive material. As J.G. Ballard has put it, “the ever growing pathologies of millennial America show up clearly on the X-ray screen of his penetrating analysis.”

His first book, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century remains a watershed work and one of the only ‘cyber’ texts to retain its relevance as the seconds tick by to the end of the millennium. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, 21*C, World Art, Suck, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone and his latest offering The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, American Culture on the Brink (Grove Press) is a tome of collected and reworked magazine essays. Its bizarre meanderings have caused a storm of debate. He has been both savaged and lauded with many mainstream critics obviously left wondering where the hell he is coming from or going to. Meanwhile Howard Rheingold, Andrew Ross, J G Ballard and Bruce Sterling have lined up alongside Dery, with Sterling writing in Bookforum that, “Given its utterly bizarre terrain, this is a very lucid book—I can only imagine the effect of these essays on, say, some bright but sheltered 17-year-old male Southern Baptist. It would likely cause the kid’s skull to spontaneously rupture. The book is also extremely funny. Mark Dery has a hammerlock on the Zeitgeist. He may be the best cultural critic alive.”

There is no doubt however that the range is bizarre; from cloning to clowns, from degeneration to digerati. There is a distinct aesthetic running through these subjects and it is decidedly morbid. According to Dery, he is “using millennial memes like the psycho killer clown, disposable archetypes like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and media mythologies such as the horror stories about flesh-eating bacteria and ‘hot’ viruses as prisms to refract the social, economic, and philosophical trends that are shafting through American culture at the fin-de-millennium.”

Talking to Dery is spell-binding. His vocabulary is no affectation, just the expression of an individual who truly loves words and ideas. However his ideas are far from average.

“I chose the exhibits in my postmodern Odditorium (P.T. Barnum’s name for his famous museum of monsters, marvels, and patent fabrications) because they seemed like the best examples of the media freakery, postmodern fakery, tabloid grotesquerie, and increasingly gothic social conditions all around me, here in the Evil Empire,” says Dery. “For example, Damien Hirst’s cut-up meat animals, floating in formaldehyde, seem to embody our ambivalent attitude, a sort of contemptuous nostalgia, toward the melancholy ‘meat’, as the body is derisively known in our ever more virtual world. Of course, Hirst is British, so his pickled cows can’t help but remind us, as well, of mad-cow disease, the Cronenbergian horror that has become cultural shorthand for all our dearest fears of airborne pathogens and invisible contaminants in our age of product tampering and toxic Coke, multiple-chemical sensitivity and anti-bacterial scrubs.” More and more, says Dery, public space, from our drinking water to pay telephones, “teems with microbial menaces in the paranoid imagination. At the same time, the body itself is increasingly seen as a septic nightmare, its unseen contaminants exorcised through the New Age ritual of colonic cleaning. On my dissecting table, Hirst’s pickled animals become a way of talking about these things.

“As for the ‘morbid’ aesthetic you mention, it’s a conjunction of individual temperament and Zeitgeist, I suppose. We live in gothic times, as Mark Edmundson points out in his marvellous book, Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic. He sees American culture as fraught with Gothic assumptions, Gothic characters and plots, from The X-Files to the O.J. Simpson trial, recovered memories of satanic ritual abuse to right-wing conspiracy theories. I’d add that we’re also witnessing the resurrection of the Gothic’s conjoined twin, the grotesque. The grotesque is the Gothic with a sense of humour. We see the grotesque in the carnival-midway mix of horror and hilarity that is a personality trait of the late 20th century—the endless replaying of R Budd Dwyer’s on-camera gunshot suicide for laughs on the web, for example.”

In an era when New York City has gone from Gotham to glisten, when President Clinton gets away with personal mayhem and announces the healthiest economy for many a year, Dery’s position, if anything, has become more extreme. It is not difficult to perceive Dery’s cultural reading in part as a reaction to political correctness.

“Don’t you mean a reaction to political in-correctness?” says Dery in response. “Namely, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ongoing transformation of the ‘mongrel metropolis’ into a gated community for the mega-rich, a police state ruled by Michael Eisner, while quietly shipping the homeless off to suburban holding pens, turning a blind eye on police brutality, and cutting tax breaks for the real-estate barons pricing the lower classes out of Manhattan?

“As for the ‘extremism’ of my critique, what’s the alternative? A playful slap on the wrist for a nation rotten with power and bloated with wealth that prizes B-2 bombers over prenatal care, corporate welfare over public education? A homily from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues for a country that subverts democratically elected governments and coddles dictators, rewarding the nightstick justice meted out by pariah governments like the Suharto regime with arms shipments, the better to drive striking sweatshop workers back to their posts? I may be an egg-eating rat gnawing on the tail of a Tyrannosaurus, but as a politically engaged intellectual, speaking truth to power is part of my job description.”

Dery’s approach to cultural criticism is remarkably inclusive. He scans popular culture as comfortably as high brow theory, from Disneyland to Deleuze. In this he shares a number of qualities with such writers as Mike Davis in City of Quartz, Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces, Erik Davis in Techngnosis and McKenzie Wark in Virtual Geography.

“I think we’re beginning to see the faint footprints, in mainstream and alternative journalism, of the first few graduating classes to cut their intellectual teeth on postmodern philosophers like Baudrillard, Foucault and Deleuze,” says Dery. “Erik Davis is an exemplar of these smart, young, incurably informed academy hackers. McKenzie Wark, who began as a rock critic and is now a card-carrying member of the professoriate, represents the trajectory from the opposite direction, namely academics who stage-dive into the mosh pit of popular culture and media exposure.”

There’s a precedent for this trend, says Dery, in 60s pop intellectuals such as McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Susan Sontag, Norman O. Brown, RD Laing, Leslie Fiedler and Herbert Marcuse, “all of whose stock-in-trade was typically ideas, not theory, as Andrew Ross points out in No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture. (Interesting to recall a time, not so long ago, when the “critical theory” trust didn’t have a Microsoft tm monopoly on the operating system for intellectual discourse!) I think this sort of mental miscegenation is all to the good. Inbreeding, whether literal or intellectual, is a recipe for monstrosities.”

Dery comfortably hops around the cultural terrain, jumping from comparatively ‘mainstream’ subjects as the Unabomber and Heaven’s Gate to the far less publicised Mutter Museum and the grotesque comic books of Renee French.

“I’ve always been interested in unnatural history and unpopular culture,” says Dery. “It’s an obsession that springs, I suppose, from the implicitly political assumption that what’s removed from the official version, the eloquent holes left by the censor’s scissors, is more informative than what’s left in. I’m interested in the repressed truths, whether visceral or political, buried in the Freudian boiler room of mass culture: the unconsidered, like the ‘Doll Hour’ on the Home Shopping Network; the unspeakable, like the wax models of venereal horrors in medical museums; the unacceptable, like the statistics about runaway personal bankruptcies and credit-card debt downplayed by the media, lest these sour notes clash with the received truth that we’re all rewarded by the Long Boom, not just the top 20% of American families.”

Dery begins Insanitarium with the brilliant metaphor of crumbling Coney Island. It is incredibly apt for millennial culture. However one could argue in the opposite direction, that rather than the lights going out and a healthy rot setting in we are seeing the creation of soulless citadels; the cleanliness of New York, the puritanical vigilantism of Los Angeles, the plastic re-make of Singapore. It is impossible to escape the gigantic hamburger M almost anywhere on the planet and if anything the lights seem to be going on, making the ghosts and freaks scuttle away so the tourists are safe.

“Well, as your comments imply, the waking nightmare of America, late in the 20th century, with its media feeding frenzies and its copycat killings, its urban pathologies and its exurban desolation—what James Howard Kunstler calls our strip-mall, convenience-store ‘geography of nowhere’—can be every bit as scary as the night terrors of the Gothic imagination. Baudrillard hints at this in America, in his ontological vertigo in an air-conditioned Hell that exults in ‘the liquidation of all culture’ and rejoices in ‘the consecration of indifference’, an Audio-Animatronic dreamland so ghastly that even ‘dreams of death and murder, of suicide motels, of orgies and cannibalism’ offer blessed relief. Baudrillard’s fits of the vapours are a little hard to take, sometimes, but he’s hilariously on target when he suggests that nothing is spookier than the hysterical fear of nature and the body, the mysophobic sterilisation of the unconscious symbolised by the Disneyfication of public space and the creeping corporate monoculture you mention.

“I chose Coney Island at the turn of the last century as my master metaphor because it’s a janiform symbol, embodying the dualisms that are a hallmark of fin-de-siecle moments such as ours. As I note in the book’s opening essay, turn-of-the-century Coney was 20th century America in miniature, a carnival of chaos whose trademark blend of infernal fun and mass madness, technology and pathology was quintessentially American. It was transgressive, a mad, Dionysian whirl of emotional abandon and exposed flesh, speed and sensory overload that mocked the hidebound proprieties of the vanishing Victorian era and signalled the rise of a new mass culture no longer deferential to genteel tastes and values. Steeplechase, Dreamland, and Luna Park were, in today’s parlance, ‘temporary autonomous zones’ where genders, classes, and ethnicities commingled more freely than they did outside its gates.

“At the same time, Coney was also a machine for mass-producing masses—the workers and consumers of the coming age of mass media and mass consumption. Like today’s Disneyworld, the Burning Man festival, and body piercing, it was a safety valve for proletarian energies that might have been channelled into less playful, more political outlets. It instructed the immigrant working class in the machine-age pleasures of conspicuous consumption, guilt-free waste, gadget worship, and the push-button gratification of infantile desires. This is the ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ that inspired Henry Miller’s literate, liberal shudder of revulsion, the peeling pasteboard temple of cheap thrills and vulgarian pleasures. So there was a Foucauldian mechanics of transgression and repression at work in Coney that is still in effect in the millennial America it helped beget, a pyrotechnic insanitarium torn between escapist simulation and social reality, democratic promise and corporate oligarchy, the restless rabble and the power elite.”

Mark Dery, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, American Culture on the Brink, Grove Press, USA, 1999

RealTime issue #32 Aug-Sept 1999 pg. 26

© Ashley Crawford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1999