I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams
Mark Dery (April, 2011)
University of Minnesota Press, 304 pages
“I do believe it's the political business of the cultural critic to poke the sharp end of his pen into the buried truths and dirty secrets, fringe subcultures and borderline personalities that often reveal more about the American scene and our cultural psyche than the mainstream does,” says Mark Dery, author of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams.
No critic delves into the dark recesses of American consciousness quite like Dery. And perhaps at no time in recent history has national disillusionment been so primed for such critique.
Consider, as examples, the Wall Street crash of 2008 and the housing foreclosures that spread like rolling blackouts in the years that followed; the Occupy movement’s sick-of-it-all civil disobedience or the hacktivism of groups like Anonymous and LulzSec. In so many ways, the public’s once-idyllic vision of personal prosperity achieved through blood and sweat has eroded, leaving a hard truth in its wake: The American dream is not all it’s cracked up to be.
That theme is a dominant refrain in nearly all of Dery’s work, which lends itself well to his hybrid role as a sharp-witted writer with the mind of a highly attuned scholar — a reality which often leaves him straddling the line between mass-market author and full-fledged academic.
The American dream is not all it’s cracked up to be
After coming to prominence in 1993 with the publication of Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs — a book that laid the groundwork for an entire generation of politically minded media protesters — Dery piqued his own curiosities about American culture at the dawn of the internet age. He followed that thread by publishing a stream of critical tomes throughout the 1990s — Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, and Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink — each with a keen focus on not only technology’s growing presence in our daily lives, but the way that it influences culture. It’s an interest he often pins to a specific influence, science fiction novelist J.G. Ballard, who Dery tells me he reads as "a postmodern philosopher, [who] believed that the future was being annexed by the ever-encroaching present."1
With the publication of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, his first book in over a decade, Dery strays (somewhat) from his interest in technoculture, the interactions and politics of technology and culture. Dedicating only a quarter of the page count to the topic, he takes on a dizzying new array of cultural memes and altered realities. From the growing national fervor over 2012 as mankind’s endpoint, a study of Mark Twain’s dark side, and the rigidly defined masculinity of the American male, to examining the suicide note as a literary genre and exploring the obscure pleasures hidden in medical libraries, no topic is too sacred, macabre, arcane, or even outlandish. Granted, the essays in I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts are a collection of previously published writing for a host of print and digital publications — Boing Boing, Nerve, Cabinet, The Village Voice, Bookforum, and others — but that fact does little to diminish their cumulative impact or cultural relevance.
In fact, Dery uses the book’s title, borrowed from a song by Los Angeles punk band X, as a clever way to package this new volume. Dery tells me that to "think bad thoughts," or plunge into society’s taboo or undesirable topics as a means of deep and necessary investigation, is a writer’s mandate.
1. Q&A with Mark Dery
Check out a full interview between Matt Newton and author Mark Dery in our forums.
Newton: I'm curious, though: just as national politics have veered further to the right over the last 50 years, what do you imagine "normal" American life will look like in the not-so-distant future?
Dery: I never know quite how to answer this sort of question, which seems to require a cross between Carnac-the-Magnificent mentalism and neo-Marxist Jeremiad in the Mike Davis mode.
Truth to tell, I’m uncomfortable in the visionary role. I think of myself as an archaeologist of the future present, excavating the last five minutes. (In his introduction to the book, Bruce Sterling calls me the guy "who predicted the past." I like that.)
The SF novelist J.G. Ballard, whom I read as a postmodern philosopher, believed that the future was being annexed by the ever-encroaching present. In a world where terrorist cabals have PR departments, cubicle warriors remotely pilot predator drones, and we digest, over breakfast, headlines about face transplants and bioengineered pigs with human hemoglobin, Ballard’s claim that the world around us is increasingly indistinguishable from science fiction, and that it is therefore the novelist’s job to invent reality, makes Surrealist sense.
2. The book’s title, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, is derived from a song of the same name by Los Angeles punk band X. But you also suggest that to "think bad thoughts," or plunge into society’s taboo or undesirable topics as a means of deep and necessary investigation, is a writer’s mandate.
But seriously: I do believe it's the political business of the cultural critic to poke the sharp end of his pen into the buried truths and dirty secrets, fringe subcultures and borderline personalities that often reveal more about the American scene and our cultural psyche than the mainstream does. Of course, I write in the shadow of the American Gothic, which owes much to an unforgettable encounter, at too early an age, with Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and Melville's Ahab raving (long before Baudrillard, we should note) that "all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks." Sunday school drummed home the notion that deeper truths lie behind the smoked glass of our benighted perception, through which we see darkly; Watergate sharpened that point, leaving the inescapable impression that most concealed truths are dark ones. John Wayne Gacy, L.A. punk, Didion's White Album, Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and David Lynch's Blue Velvet opened the trap door to crawlspaces in the American unconscious, dark rides whose tableaux are at least as reflective of who we are as those dreamed up by Spielberg and Disney. As well, my '60s childhood and '70s adolescence might have had something to do with my embrace of the American Gothic as aesthetic sensibility and philosophical worldview; those times, especially the have-a-nice-daymare '70s, were a catechism of cynicism: the murder of JFK, Martin, and Malcolm, of course, but closer to home, in the California where I grew up, the Manson killings, the Zodiac Killer, the Hillside Strangler.
Just as Ballard acts as a science-fiction-meets-reality influence on Dery, his own notion of what he refers to as "the American Gothic" is equally crucial, and plays an integral role in the frame and focus of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.2
In the book’s introduction, Dery outlines the concept, offering readers a disclaimer of sorts: "I believe the American Gothic is as revealing about who we are, as a nation, as our noblest moments," he writes. "By the American Gothic, I mean 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."
Illustrating that divide in lucid detail — essay-by-essay, section-by-section — Dery depicts an America that’s both deeply strange and endlessly enthralling.
In "Dead Man Walking" for instance, the book’s lead essay, he suggests that our growing fascination with zombies may actually "embody displaced rage about gut issues like food, shelter, and health care." Consider the viewership numbers for AMC’s zombie apocalypse series The Walking Dead — 10.5 million people tuned in for the season 2 finale this past March — and Dery’s premise doesn’t sound at all far-fetched. In truth, it smacks of rational thought — a simple explanation to give meaning to the hours spent watching as fellow humans are disemboweled by mad packs of "walkers," or as their brains are devoured like the heat-lamped chicken at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In short, we can empathize with the plight of the undead.
Connecting ideas like this — sometimes seemingly disparate, other times not — is at the core of what Dery does best, and the essays in I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts are no exception. More often than not, he produces conclusions that offer readers a fresh vantage point on whatever topic he’s unlocked. Take, for example, "Jocko Homo," in which Dery tackles the homoerotic subtext of the Super Bowl by exploring jock culture and masculinity, and at times injecting personal observations from his own high school phys-ed experience. Or "Gun Play: An American Tragedy in Three Acts," in which Jared Lee Loughner’s deadly shooting spree in Tucson in January of 2011 is invoked to explore the mythology of firearms as national birthright. "In a country where the gap between the power elite and the politically impotent millions, frantically bailing out their underwater mortgages, yawns wider by the minute," Dery writes, "owning a gun is the closest many downwardly mobile Americans will ever come to any sense of immediate empowerment."
Dery evokes nostalgia for the halcyon days of the web, before SEO-optimized headlines and pageview counts mattered most
In the section dubbed "Myths of the Near Future: Making Sense of the Digital Age," however, Dery truly hits his stride. "World Wide Wonder Closet," an essay on blogging originally published in Revista Cult in 2007, evokes nostalgia for the halcyon days of the web, before SEO-optimized headlines and pageview counts mattered most: "There are echoes, here, of the go-with-your-instincts, follow-your-obsession logic that gave rise to book publishing’s heyday, before the multinational conglomerates moved in, with their marketing teams and their profitability experts." It’s an observation that’s still eerily familiar today, especially with the recent dust up over SOPA and PIPA still fresh in our minds.
In "(Face)Book of the Dead," one of the book’s brightest moments, Dery mines his own experience to tell a dark-humored, cautionary tale of social networking — a story littered with the familiar highs and lows so many of us have encountered through the site. He recalls stumbling upon "someone I hadn’t seen since his last day at the college we’d both attended, an afternoon curling and bleaching in my memory like an old Polaroid, tinged by one of those apocalyptic L.A. sunsets, not to mention the Maxfield Parrish colors switched on by the magic mushrooms we’d eaten. A lifetime later, the rapport was instant, as if we never left that lost world…" But as quickly as their friendship had been rekindled, it faded away, which left Dery scratching his head, at least for a moment: "If that sense of connection was genuine, why did it tail off?"
In contrast, "Word Salad Surgery" is a tongue-in-cheek look at the spambot-generated poetry that arrives each day, by the terabyte, in email inboxes across the globe. Even though spam is machine made, Dery says, writers who have long mourned the dead art of letter writing are "missing the riches under their noses."
Though Dery sometimes embraces topics that might traditionally be viewed as lo-brow — Satanism, zombies, pop music, and more — his work is anything but and demands attentive, well-versed readers. His choice of subject matter reflects his background as a writer with one foot in academia and the other firmly planted in the trenches of American subculture. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, which places the nation’s infinite oddities and dark undercurrents in full display, is a perfect example of his tinted worldview. Cracking open the book shows a willingness to go down the rabbit hole into a fantastic world of absurdist reality — where no author pokes around, attempting to extract the hidden truths of our cultural identity, in the way that Dery does. And it’s no accident, it turns out, that his black comedic sense of humor is pervasive throughout.
"I do believe humor is a distinguishing characteristic of intelligence, as well as the fixed bayonet of effective polemic," Dery says.3 "I debate my friends on the academic left about this, all the time. The left, in America, needs more Lenny Bruces in the same way that classical music, to quote Erik Satie, needs less sauerkraut."
3. As much as these essays shine a light on the nation’s dark undercurrents, whether its gun violence, the absurdity of pop icons, or otherwise, the writing is also laced with threads of humor. It’s as if there’s a winking acknowledgment that we’re all guilty of the overindulgence Americans have become known for.
Dery: Either that, or maybe just a kick, under the table, to social satirists like H.L. Mencken, William S. Burroughs (especially the Burroughs of the mordant "Thanksgiving Prayer"), Twain (of Huckleberry Finn's darker passages), the Hitchens who rejoiced at Jerry Falwell's death (best. atheist.zinger. ever: "if you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox."). I do believe humor is a distinguishing characteristic of intelligence, as well as the fixed bayonet of effective polemic. I debate my friends on the academic left about this, all the time. The left, in America, needs more Lenny Bruces in the same way that classical music, to quote Erik Satie, needs less sauerkraut. Emma Goldman had it just about right in her quote on revolution and dancing. One might add humor. To touch on a point dear to my wizened heart, the chloroform prose and humorectomy-at-birth dourness of the Socialist Worker left—as opposed to, say, Cockburn at his best or Hitchens before he cut cards with the neocon devil—dooms it to political impotence and cultural irrelevance. Is it any accident that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are more profoundly influential in shaping public opinion than everyone on the left (except maybe Noam Chomsky) or, for that matter, most beltway pundits?
Read the full Q&A here.