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Guitar Wank for the Smart Set: Mark Dery's 'I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts'

Mark Dery’s central assumption is that beneath the surface of contemporary American culture, strange and unsettling narratives are playing themselves out with largely unrecognized consequences for our shared social and political life.

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Length: 304 pages
Author: Mark Dery
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-04

In the final essay in the collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays On American Dread, American Dreams, Mark Dery offers a brief but largely accurate description of his prose style and its effects, thereby doing some helpful work for the harried book reviewer:

"...for much of my life I’ve been gnawed by the neurotic suspicion that my idiosyncratic use of language (rarefied vocabulary, arcane illusions, Proustian syntax, poetic metaphors), coupled with a fondness for 'intellectual' subject matter, creates the illusion of intelligence in a society with a pronounced logocentric basis."

One might quibble with a couple of the adjectives here—what exactly makes a metaphor “poetic” as opposed to un-poetic? And if “Proustian” is meant to imply convoluted or impacted or complex sentence structure, why not use one of those words? Is it because “Proustian” glosses Dery’s writing style with a patina of literary elitism even as it seems to offer a self-effacing admission of insecurity and self-doubt? Yes, probably. But it’s still a brave admission in a more or less engaging meditation on how and why intelligence gets quantified and categorized by IQ tests and other diagnostics—brave because there’s some truth in it, though maybe not in quite the sense that Dery intends (more on that below).

The title of the essay is “Cortex Envy” and it’s the final installment in the collection—and one of the better ones. Like each of the thirty-one other essays, this one appeared previously—in 2009, which puts it toward the later end of the spectrum in terms of publication range (1996 to 2011). There is, then, nothing exactly new here, though it’s certainly possible that even enthusiasts of Dery’s work will have missed some of the contents the first time around since the venues of their original publication, both online and print, are impressively varied: Las Vegas Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Bookforum—nothing too far off the beaten path here but the list also includes several obscure websites.

I note the eclecticism of publication venues because it’s commensurate with the eclecticism of Dery’s interests, which defy any attempt at categorization. Not that the volume pretends to traffic in general or conventional categories. The title of the first of the four sections of the volume is “American Magic, American Dread” (it derives from a passage in Don Delillo’s White Noise that serves as one of two epigraphs for the collection). The section includes (but is not limited to) essays on zombies, the homoerotic undertones of the Superbowl, and the complexity of Mark Twain’s vision of America.

The section titles are, in other words, not classificatory in any way but simply provocative. There’s nothing wrong with this. Dery self-identifies as a cultural critic, which this reviewer takes to mean: not exactly a journalist, not exactly an academic, not exactly a book or film reviewer but not exactly not those things either (since Dery is a journalist and academic and reviewer of sorts). Maybe it’s best to think of him as someone who sorts through some of the more unusual products of contemporary American culture—be they books, music, graphic novels, or what have you—and holds up particular objects for scrutiny and analysis.

How successful is that analysis? It depends. Dery’s central assumption, and it’s an intriguing one, is that beneath the surface of contemporary American culture, strange and unsettling narratives are playing themselves out with largely unrecognized consequences for our shared social and political life. To Dery’s credit, he is willing to tackle some tough and controversial subject matter—the Holocaust “industry”, for example—and examine it with rigor and willingness to upset conventional or comfortable opinion and piety.

So why the “depends” in the foregoing paragraph? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that all too often Dery’s subject matter falls into one of two categories: tired or so obscure as to be utterly inconsequential in terms of indexing larger cultural realities in a very meaningful way. For example, “Stardust Memories” meditates on the impact of David Bowie’s androgynous weirdness on youth of the '70s. Presumably, the impetus for the piece was the publication of Mark Spitz’s Bowie: A Biography in 2009 (from which year the essay also dates) since Dery several times cites it, but the essay never makes any especially new or insightful claims about the significance of Bowie’s glam-rock persona.

On the other hand, some pieces engage phenomena that are so trite it can only be concluded that Dery, whether he knows it or not, is satirizing the potential for ridiculousness inherent in hyper-intellectual academic analysis of pop detritus. To wit, “Toe Fou” uses a Versace ad featuring a sandal-wearing Madonna as the jumping off point for a meditation on podophilia and the appropriation of a phallic signifier by the pop icon—among countless other topics. Dery himself signals a lack of faith in the essay’s value by framing its more razzle-dazzle conjectures as rhetorical questions, as in “Is Madonna using Versace’s ad to do some covert signifying of her own... a retort to the Vatican, which recently issued a maledictum decrying New Age spirituality, Eastern mysticism, and the ‘Kabbalah as espoused by ‘Madonna’?” The banality of the essay cannot be overstated, despite—perhaps because of—its Proustian style and arcane references.

Which is to say that Dery’s prose is problematic, a conclusion he anticipates, if he does not articulate it, in “Cortex Envy”. Here’s another example from “Dead Man Walking”:

”Zombies... are trade unionists from beyond the grave, a Heritage Foundation wonk’s worst nightmare of collectivism on the march, the downsized and the disenfranchised jolted into action by class consciousness.

This is intriguing and the style distinctive, but Dery does not pursue the argument. Rather, he piles up sentence after sentence of pyrotechnic prose, each offering another spin on what zombies signify. The essay winds up being almost wholly inchoate. In short, Dery is certainly a talented and skilled writer but he’s not always a particularly interesting or disciplined thinker. To offer a possibly “poetic” metaphor, he is a guitar-player endlessly producing show-off, virtuoso riffs but at the expense of what makes for a compelling or enduring song.

Indeed, Dery seems almost to acknowledge as much in the tendency, evidenced throughout the volume, to rely on the insights of other thinkers and writers to provide whatever substantial claims or insights there are to be found in the essays: Susan Sontag on the relationship between fascism and fashion; Steven Heller on the shared strategies of advertising and Nazi propaganda; Julian Dibbell on blogging and internet culture generally; and so on. Certainly, the assimilation of others’ ideas is central to the task of criticism (cultural or otherwise) but it’s not often clear what new or original contribution Dery offers.


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