Mark Dery’s I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams is not as unconventional as built up in either the forward or introduction. In the foreword Bruce Sterling attests to reading “every Mark Dery book ever written” adding,
Mark has exotic tastes, but he’s a thinker of consequence, ever keen to deflate fraud and to combat superstition. He scouts the terrain of counterculture-he’s a botanist of countercultures, really, always unearthing new species in unlikely niches-and he takes careful notes.
Having found the cult, he judiciously sips the Kool-Aid. He’s an oenophile in those matters: you can witness him sniffing he Kool-Aid, rinsing his molars, extracting the full bouquet. Then he spits.
In his own introduction, Dery unfurls his approach to countercultural botanism:
Thinking bad Thoughts is above all else a refusal to recognise intellectual no-fly zones. In America, that translates as the rejection of bred-in-the-bone Puritanism; bourgeois anxieties about taste; the self-censorship routinely practised by academic, fearful of offending tenure committees and blinkered by elite assumptions about what constitutes “serious” subject matter and “scholarly” style; the craven capitulation of Hollywood and the news media, phobic of truly controversial content that might scare off advertisers or upset Middle America’s mental digestion.
Appetite whetted, it was by the end of the second section that I flicked to the front pages to check whether it was a reprint of a book originally published in the early nineties. This check revealed a publication date of this year. Perhaps the internet, by offering admittance to every possible permutation of counterculture, has neutered the impact of Dery’s curation of truly controversial content, but the subjects of his essays seemed rather mild. As to his sipping of the Kool-Aid, Dery’s essayistic approach seems more voyeuristic than participatory; emailing sexologists is as close as Dery gets to participating in the counterculture.
As it happens, though Dery’s interpretation of counterculture is less extreme than suggested, the essays are first-rate, written with sharp-wittedness and elegance. My favourite essays are mostly in the first section, that takes a broad sideswipe at American culture. Manhood, American-style, comes under scrutiny in two exceptional essays decoding suppressed homosexuality in American football and men’s fear (homophobic and misogynistic) of labels like wimp or wussy. (As someone who took a beating in school for writing about the suppressed homosexuality of football and rugby culture in the UK I chortled all the way through ‘How Gay is the Superbowl’.)
Curiously the essay subtitled On Blogging, in the second section on making sense of the digital future, starts off with promise. I expected to squirm as Dery put under the microscope “those self-declared Masters of Their Own Domain whose ponderous prose, comic sense of self-importance and weird refusal to use contractions makes them sound like the genetically engineered offspring of Ted Koppel and Galactus”. The argument is valid, if not original, but to offer up Boing Boing and Kottke as torch-bearers of idiosyncrasy or ‘beautiful’ alternatives to mainstream media is feeble.
In the last two sections Dery turns his analysis to religion and the grotesque. As far as I can tell, these are the essays written to shock. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head stands out with its paean to the guillotine. Apparently thirteen-seconds is how much consciousness remains after your head is cut off. Again the essays are erudite and executed with wit and beauty, but disappointingly I failed to be shocked.
Bloggers have ponderous prose, to the extent they do, because there’s no meaningful feedback process. No editor, no way of telling what worked and what didn’t save crude metrics (which I suspect are more likely to reflect interest in the subject matter than quality of writing in one piece against another). Blogging is writing in the dark, with no mechanism for stylistic improvement.
Seeking to nauseate or shock is all very well, but it smacks of a lack of seriousness.
Interesting that Bruce Sterling likes him though, he’s an interesting writer and from the sound of this perhaps more interesting than Dery (though Dery sounds like he has by far the better prose style).
By and large I enjoyed the essays, those that weren’t written for shock value were exceptionally good with a serious argument at their core.
‘Nauseate’ was a poorly chosen word, not what Dery was intending. He clearly likes to attach himself to what he terms counterculture, though only if you consider Boing Boing at the heart of that counterculture. It is far too tame to shock. As a result the essays supposedly on subculture are the weakest. But well constructed.
I’ve struggled with Sterling’s novels, finding them in great need of meticulous editing. Of the several I’ve started, only The Artificial Kid was finished.
I would tend to think of that as one of his less interesting. For me I’d reach for Islands in the Net, Holy Fire, Schizmatrix of course.
What is the counterculture now? Is he clear on what that term means to him?
I started each of those with gusto but faded before I got to the end.
Dery uses the term counterculture to refer to exotic and/or fetishistic sexual practises, barbarity (i.e. beheading) and eccentric religions. The sort of areas considered counterculture when they proliferated on BBS in the early and mid 90s. So much of this territory has been absorbed into the mainstream in milder forms (heroin/anorexia-chic on the catwalks etc), or is freely available on the internet (beheading videos etc), or practised by government agencies (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo etc.)
I’m not certain what qualifies as counterculture today. Perhaps variants of the Occupy and anarchist movements, extreme fascist groups?
To criticize Dery’s work on the basis of its ability to shock the reader is nonsensical. The essays themselves present valid and well documented arguments that pierce the dark underside of American culture. It seems that you missed the point of the book entirely.
I agree that, by and large, the arguments are valid and impressively documented. We could debate how deeply they pierce their targets. From the hyperbole of the foreword and introduction (which includes an allusion to Chomsky) I expected more penetrating analysis.
Given the grandiose claims made in the introduction (I quoted one paragraph but could have gone on) I expected to be shocked. You appreciate, of course, ‘shock’ covers a broad range; would you have preferred unsettled, disconcerted, astonished? A book that suggests “truly controversial content” should surely provoke more than mild indifference?
I still say that Mark Dery’s new book is great and fun to read. People who do not like it or parts of it are dip shits. They should go back to comic books and jerking off at night.
Unfair as it may be, Mark’s fans (or fan possibly, posting under more than one name) put me off the book more than your review did.
Personally of course I can’t go back to comics, as I never stopped reading them.
There’s a lot of traffic coming to that post from Facebook where I don’t have an account. I’m almost tempted to start a dummy account out of curiosity, but not quite tempted enough. It isn’t as though there’s an interesting debate to be had with the traffic it is generating.
Anthony: Since I’m being hoisted on the petard of one or two of my more devoted readers’ overenthusiastic defenses of my book, I wanted to say publicly how much I appreciate your taking the time to read and thoughtfully review my book, and how much I deplore ad-hominen attacks on you rather than skeet-shooting with your ideas (especially when so many targets present themselves). Of course I find much to disagree with in your critique: I believe you misunderstand my intentions profoundly, and as a result measure the book with a warped ruler. I will confess, too, to being at least a little baffled by your whimsical redefinition of “subculture” (a term in common use in sociology and ethnography) to include terrorist cells, a definition that would leave scholars of subcultures such as Dick Hebdige and Henry Jenkins scratching their heads in bemusement. In any event, flattered as I am by my more ardent readers’ willingness to gear up and go to war on my behalf, I was at pains to point out to them on Facebook that it *is*, after all, a critic’s prerogative to file a minority report. In fact, that’s the book’s thesis, in a manner of speaking. Thus, I defended on Facebook, as I’m defending here, the right of any critic to take up his scalpel and anatomize a book without being smeared as a “dipshit.” You’re obviously a close and thoughtful reader; in an age of shuttered book reviews, I’m grateful for your attentions. I’m grateful, too, for what has now slipped into the lead for possible epitaphs on my headstone: “Unconditionally Refulgent.”
Thank you for taking the time to respond. I’m perfectly willing to accept that I misunderstood your intentions. To my mind, the foreword and introduction established a set of expectations different from what was subsequently delivered. My expectation (from the foreword and introduction) was for a collection of essays that delved into alternative and independent lifestyles (practises etc). I thought the essays very finely written and, in many cases, profound, but there is, I feel, a disconnect between a hyperbolic introduction and your chosen topics. I expected to be educated and unsettled by “truly controversial content”. Instead, I was amused and, in some cases, enlightened by essays that would be quite acceptable in many mainstream publications (unlike Chomsky’s work for instance). I read little that would “scare off advertisers” but perhaps the US media is more phobic of countercultures than here in the UK?
In turn, I am baffled by what you call my whimsical redefinition of “subculture” to include terrorist cells. Is it my question in response to Max’s post: “I’m not certain what qualifies as counterculture today. Perhaps variants of the Occupy and anarchist movements, extreme fascist groups?” Without wishing to get into a debate about the use of the label ‘terrorist,’ my statement was raised in the form of a question (with a degree of irony) because I struggle to identify targets that genuinely qualify as counterculture (the mainstream so successfully absorbs countercultures), a situation, for instance, that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana also struggled with.
Thanks for the considerate words and defence. As you will have guessed I am an amateur reader and writer, prone to misinterpretation and occasional ponderous prose which can lead to clunking phrases like “unconditionally refulgent”. As Max, points out above, we bloggers lack sufficient feedback so I am delighted that you have taken the time to respond.