If you're familiar with the writing of cultural theorist and freelance critic Mark Dery, you already know he writes in loop-de-loops and mazes, often embedding the meanings of his sentences in elaborate spirals of prose. His new essay collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, follows that pattern, bringing together subjects such as Holocaust profiteering, Lady Gaga, Madonna's big toe, Facebook and Mark Twain into a complicated but deliberately choreographed waltz.
Dery reads and signs copies of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts tonight at Skylight Books at 7:30. Check out our Q&A after the jump.
As a writer whose following, of late, has mostly developed online, do you find anything ironic about the fact that you're putting out a book?
I don't think you have to be a Kazynscite luddite or a Shoot-Your-Television-Rear-Guard-Activist kind of fighting the digitalization of everything to both savor the web's virtues, and also, at the same time, enjoy this sort of time capsule from the past. The book is a commodity fetish, yes, but it's also still one of the best most searchable, portable technologies. Besides, more and more, I think people are getting phobic about curling up with their screens. People are worried about the neurocognitive effects of it, and some of the other kind of concerns that have been raised about screenal reading, especially right before bed. I think the book really has its virtues. Too, this book is designed to be read as a pillowbook, you know, curled up with a tall glass of absinthe for a nightcap.
In these pages, you cover Lady Gaga, Facebook, Madonna, suicide notes, David Bowie, alternative presses, the insidious worthlessness of New Age philosopher Daniel Pinchbeck and everything in between. What drew all these subjects together for you?
This is really a very deep core sample of the national unconscious or the national psyche. And in that sense, it follows in the footsteps of other anatomists or “forensic pathologists of American diseases of the psyche” like H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain, and, to a lesser degree, Tom Waits, Gore Vidal, plus foreigners like Jean Baudrillard, de Tocqueville, Michel Houellebecq and other Gallic cultural critics who come to sneer and not to praise. It fits very generally in that sort of historical continuum of sort of darkly sardonic meditations on the American mind.
Because many of these essays were adapted from or inspired by cultural trends of the early 2000s or so, did you worry at all that the book might become dated, or have a shorter shelf life than other works of cultural theory?
I think it's perfectly valid for cultural criticism to anatomize a moment, and for that moment to be lodged on the shelves of our minds as a useful historical steadying. I think that's what some of the pieces in this book do, but it bears pointing out that many of them are as up to the second as you can possibly get — with the caveat being that this is a Gutenbergian fossil, the book. It's a record of this charming anachronism, which, as you point out, has at least partly receded into the rearview mirror of our cultural moment.
As I read through the book, I kept picturing it as a sort of collage — a series of seemingly unrelated images thrown together to create something new. It also felt a bit as if, in form, the book was imitating the experience of reading online. You jump from subject to subject, ultimately putting totally unrelated topics in strange, unexpected dialogues with one another. Was this purposeful?
Well, the brain is kind of a connection machine. And [Marshall] McLuhan — who was wrong about many things but was thumpingly right about a lot of other things — once said that when information is rubbed up against other information, the results are startlingly effective. I think that that really is true of — and I shrink from this word zeitgeist, it's impossible to say it without being fresh bait for the snark monkeys at Gawker — but there's something about our zeitgeist that seems to rub up against our notion of ad hoc-ism and collage and the mashup and cut-and-paste, and it's both very timely and very of the moment, but it's also age-old. The classic modernist paradigm, the classic signifier of modernist avant-gardism, is the collage, whether you're talking about Dadaists or John Hartfield or James Joyce. And yet, weirdly, that also seems sort of embedded in the human brain.
Hm. Right. That makes sense.
And, at the risk of sounding like a genetic determinist, I have to say that I think that associative logic — dreamlike, free-associated leaps from idea to idea — or, equally validly, image to image, are kind of what the human brain does maybe best. Certainly most intuitively or most reflexively. I think the Web is perfect for that style of mind. … If you think about it, the hyperlink is sort of an exteriorized synapse — again to go with the McLuhanesque paradigm. So I think this notion of leaping from image to image, forging these connections on the fly or in freefall, is something the Web is all about. I think writing on the Web is sort of felicitious to that style of thinking and perhaps even that style of writing, which tends to be more associative, more collage-like, or mashup if you will. Which doesn't mean I am not at pains to forge careful argumentation solidly buttressed with evidence. But there is a style that moves away from that, which I think is dominant as well.
So basically you were aiming for the Internet in book form?
Don't you think that there's a place in the culture for a genre that is neither fish nor fowl? That is perversely and hilariously this Gutenbergian artifact emulating the hypertextual logic and consciousness of the web? Really, in some ways, you can think of this project as a book that went to sleep and dreamed it was the Web.
Mark Dery will read from and sign copies of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts tonight at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, at 7:30 pm.