Mark Dery has long been one of my favorite writers: a critical thinker whose razor sharp attacks on American idiocracy are always leavened by dry humor, colorful but precise language and an amused dissection of human perversity. In a better country, Dery would be widely recognized as one of our premier essayists. Indeed, one reviewer, Jim Lawrence, raved that his recently released collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, is “… more relevant than Mythologies, funnier than Travels in Hyperreality, more readable than Simulacra, less gloomy than Living in the End Times, smarter than Hitchens and without the pomposity…” Suck it in, Dery. You deserve it.
Mark will be appearing at the 2012 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, at the University of Southern California, on the “Nonfiction: Creativity & Imagination” panel on Saturday, April 21, at 3:00 P.M. Mark will also be doing an in-store talk and signing at Skylight Books in Los Angeles on May 29 at 7:30 P.M. (http://www.skylightbooks.com/event/mark-dery-reads-and-signs-i-must-not-think-bad-thoughts). More at markdery.com.
I spoke to him via email on the occasion of that recent release.
R.U. SIRIUS: Among the things that are evidenced in your writing is a fascination with some of the more perverse, sometimes morbid aspects of human behavior and the human condition combined with a fairly strong sense of moral outrage. Is there a sort of intellectual or literary legacy for this sort of thing that influenced you? Do these interests integrate sort of seamlessly for you or is there a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on?
MARK DERY: Funny thing: at dinner, the other night, a friend turned to me and pointedly asked, apropos of nothing, if I was Jewish. (She’s Jewish, so we shouldn’t assume any anti-semitic subtext, I suppose.) Perhaps she was struck by the table-thumping zeal of my philippic about Whatever It Was. (When I’m in my cups, I do tend toward the Menckenesque — sardonic critiques of something or other that veer at times into gonzo kvetch: Alvy Singer channeling Swift.) Or maybe she found my hermeneutics of pop culture, my close readings of even the most seemingly throwaway social texts, so Talmudic that I merited honorary membership in that tribe that occasionally refers to itself as the People of the Book.
But my guess is that my dinner table fulminations were kindled by some sort of moral outrage, as you call it, and that my friend lept to the assumption that anyone possessed of such “moral seriousness,” to quote Sontag, must be Jewish. (As it happens, I’m the usual Anglo-Irish-Scottish mongrel, with a stunted French branch or two struggling for life on the far side of the family tree.) Truth to tell, I’ve always bridled instinctively at the first proposition in Sontag’s thesis, in “Notes on Camp,” that “the two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.” Not only does it imply that Jewish intellectuals hold the copyright on moral gravitas, the essentialist implications of which I find odious, but I believe Jewish thought and culture are ill-served by the sort of humorless rectitude Sontag insists on.
As a moral animal with a conscience, not to mention some species of lapsed democratic socialist with a devout belief in social and economic justice, I’m moved by moral outrage. I see what I do as intellectual activism; every time I dip my pen, I’m trying to change the world. If that sounds soul-crushingly self-important and just too Bono-esque to live, remember that, some days, my idea of Change We Can Believe In is a world free from the scourge of Gaga mania.
Anyway, moral outrage notwithstanding, I also believe that humor is the first casualty of the culture war. I had a colleague, once, whose aspirations to Moral Seriousness stopped just short of dying a skunk stripe in her hair, in emulation of Sontag. In nearly every essay, she wept hot tears about war-crimes tribunals and human-rights abuses and other instances of Man’s Inhumanity to Man, kicking up a thick cloud of Hannah Arendt quotes in the process. Of course her writing was pure chloroform on the page; its terminal humorlessness robbed it of the rhetorical deftness and intellectual nimbleness that make for good writing, especially on serious subjects. Sure, nobody wants stand-up comedy in the middle of a killing field. That way lies Robin Williams in Jakob the Liar. But humor, even if only black humor, is essential to getting at the truth of things, because like irony it implies a kind of double vision: seeing things as they truly are, behind the facade of appearances. Lenny Bruce, Roland Barthes, Mark Twain, William S. Burroughs, H.L. Mencken, Vidal, and Hitchens (the fundie-baiting Good Hitch, not the Bad Hitch who distinguished himself as a noxious apologist for the Iraq war) are instructive on this point.
As for my fascination with the extremes of human behavior and the human condition, and the perceived tension between my presumably prurient tourism in those forbidden zones and my “fairly strong sense of moral outrage,” well, subcultural scholars like Dick Hebdige and historians of consumer culture like Stuart Ewen and semioticians like Barthes and postmodernists like Baudrillard and neo-Marxists like Mike Davis sold me on the importance of cultural politics — the million little revolutions happening all around us in everyday life, as opposed to the inside-the-beltway politics of official culture.
Fringe ideas, “perverse” practices, transgressive lifestyles, and even beings who stand at the boundary between Us and Them, Normal and Abnormal, and male and female, for example, often have things to teach us about our unconsidered presumptions and prejudices, and about the historically contingent, culturally contextual nature of what we take to be irrevocable givens. A bizarre example: I once found myself debating, via e-mail, an unapologetic zoophile who called me to account for my Moral Outrage™ at bestiality. He argued, with some heat, that a world where eating animals is condoned, even celebrated, yet people who sexually pleasure animals are legally prosecuted and socially persecuted is morally depraved. Oddly, he wasn’t swayed by my argument that, as with a pedophile and a child or a necrophile and a corpse, there can be no consent between a human and an inarticulate animal, and any perceived consent is the merest anthropomorphization. (I should note that he was later convicted of running a bestiality ring that was so undeniably abusive to the hapless creatures involved that they would surely have chosen a more merciful fate at the hands of Purina.) Even so, I owe him a debt of gratitude for that thought provocation. How rare is the truly new thought? Every one expands our minds just that little bit more.
RU. Do you consider writing as a craft and profession to have become utterly degraded? If so, by capitalism, democratization, or both?
MD: If by “writing” you mean intelligent forms of public address, in print, directed toward a popular audience, the Imp of the Perverse is me is dying to do the contrarian thing and say that writing, as a craft, has never been better. Of course, it’s silly to generalize; I mean, what age was the Golden Age of what we now call public intellectualism? The age of pamphleteers like Paine and editorialists like Ben Franklin? Or the age of wits like Addison and Steele? Edmund Wilson’s epic reign over American letters? The gonzo ‘60s, when Hunter Thompson disported himself at Rolling Stone and Tom Wolfe gamboled through the pages of Esquire? That said, not a day passes that I’m not astonished by the snark-monkey brilliance and hard-swinging verve of something I’ve read on The Awl or in New York magazine or Bookforum or some weird little review in some unlit corner of the Web. If memory serves, more Americans than ever before have college degrees, and the fruit of that historical trend is a bumper crop of kids who are both media-literate and fluent in critical theory and who, as Joan Didion might say, have an Opinion About Everything. The result is a kind of renaissance of the “little magazine” — I’m thinking of publications like N+1, The Verge, The Quietus, HiLoBrow, The L.A. Review of Books — and an efflorescence of writerly exuberance, some of which is amazingly smart and stylish.
The downside, of course, is the Arianna-ization of the profession. The surfeit of unemployed former American Studies majors from Brown, or whatever they are, may be a boon to the craft of writing, but that demographic trend is converging with the collapse of the news media as we know them and book publishing as we know it to create a cultural landscape in which publishers, whether of content farms or boutique ‘zines, don’t need to pay anything because overeducated, unemployed David Foster Wallace wannabes are hurling themselves into the breach, resumes in hand. As my friend and former colleague Adam Penenberg likes to say, there’s never been a better time to be a publisher — or a worse time to be a writer, if by writer one means someone who is able to earn his daily crust, however meager, by making QWERTY noises on a keyboard. Then again, nowhere is it holy writ that the marketplace owes writers a living. Still, students of bohemia — Hemingway’s Paris in the ‘20s, the Beats’ Tangiers in the ‘50s — are astonished by how easy it was, back in the day, to hold themselves up in thin air, with no visible means of support, while pecking away at the Great American Whatever.
RU. My education is admittedly fairly spotty, but after 27 years in the business of writing and editing, you’re one of the few writers that still sometimes tosses off a word that makes me reach for “the dictionary.” (Well, Google, of course.) Can you say something about your love of elegant language and do you think it might get in the way of finding a popular audience… and do you care?
MD: Ah, the Politics of the Polysyllabic, a subject dear to my heart. Or, better yet, the Politics of the Sesquipedalian, itself one of those words that is just too preposterous to live, like “defenestrate,” and “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Their meaning is so ridiculously arcane and the words themselves are so jawbreakingly polysyllabic that they collapse, under the weight of their silliness, into self-parody; you can’t use them without sounding like the kid who swallowed the O.E.D., unless you’re using them with a knowing wink, to ironic effect. Linguistically, they’re evolutionary follies, like those Gertrude-McFuzz tails some tropical birds drag around.
Obviously, no writer devoted to the craft of writing would deny that clarity and concision are essential to good prose style, especially in a form of public address like the popular essay.
That said, there’s something endearing about Big Words and Weird Words — their giddy delight in ornament run riot, their sublime uselessness in any everyday context.
It’s this exuberant uselessness that makes such words political, in the culture-wars sense. Their extravagance violates the canon law of modernism — form follows function — and, at the same time, mocks the Protestant virtues of sober restraint, thrift, homespun simplicity (Quaker plainness, Shaker furniture, “’Tis a Joy to be Simple,” etc.).
As well, Big Words and Weird Words rouse the Anglo-Saxon suspicion, which runs deep in the American grain, of poetic excess (hence British analytic philosophers’ dismissal of Gallic theorists such as Foucault and Derrida as just so much “French fog”).
Poetic excess takes the devil’s side, in the Anglo-American mind, of the Artificiality/Authenticity binary, and thus is highly suspect. In the same way that English fiction used the polymorphous perversity of gothic ornamentation in Italian architecture and art, as well the operatic excesses of the Catholic mass, to signify decadence and depravity, Anglo-American culture, from Samuel Johnson through Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and on, into Strunk and White, and those “Rules for Writing” manifestos from bestselling novelists that get handed around the Web, views with deep-dyed suspicion prose style that embraces arcane vocabulary, self-conscious wordplay, linguistic experimentation (for example, neologisms), complex Proustian syntax, lengthy Jamesian paragraphs, arch or ironic tone, and a discursive, flaneur-like approach to getting from here to there, rather than the shortest distance between point A and point B preferred by our age of time famine, Twitter attention spans, and corporatist, PowerPoint pedagogy.
Of course, the embrace of the artificial is allied, historically, with the subversive, specifically the gay aesthetic (from Wilde and the Aesthetes to Sontag’s camp ironists to Bowie’s appropriation of gay tropes), which is why Anglo-American culture insists on the muscular prose style popularized by Hemingway and shrinks from epicene, “purple” prose. (Have we ever stopped to wonder why it’s purple? As in lavender?) The emerging field of what’s called lavender linguistics looks not only at the affective ways in which gay speakers signal their queerness through tone of voice, rising/falling cadences, the storied lisp, and so forth, but also at normative masculinity’s recoil, in America, from overly “refined” speech — vocabulary that sounds “literary,” an arch or knowing tone, the use of figures of speech and allusions — as effeminate. In his book Psycholinguistics, Peter Farb examines the widespread idea, among American men, that eloquence — what you call “elegant language” — is inherently queer. (Hemingway was gnawed by the fear that the act of writing, or at least writing fiction, was innately queer, an anxiety I explored in some depth in my essay on the gender politics of Hemingway’s style, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Beard,” on Thought Catalog. Thus the tough-talkin’, g-droppin’ style affected by male politicians like serial-malapropper George W. Bush and self-styled Grizzly Mom Sarah Palin and even Obama, who should know better — does know better, but is attempting to manipulate to his own ends the pugnacious populism of our times.
RU: You pierce my heart by singing praises of excessive language and artifice.
I wonder how you manage the boundary or justify the distinction between the exuberant word play and excess that you (and I) love in contrast to your hatred of the irrationality of the stupid and reactionary. Or put another way, Burroughs, surrealism, and so on — assaults on the edifice of rationality… and Burroughs, particularly, believed in some pretty out there stuff… Reichian orgone, UFOs, etcetera. Does great languaging cover a multitude of sins or does it create its own sort of transcendence or…?
MD: Languaging! A solecism, as Paul Bowles would say (and a galumphingly unmusical one, at that). In fact, did say, in one of his letters to me, in taking me to task for some grammatical misdemeanor. Which brings several points to mind, which somehow went unaddressed in our earlier improvisations on this theme: first, that my defense of what you call “exuberant wordplay” has at least partly to do with my devout, almost innate belief that a writer is, above all, someone in love with language —someone passionate about the erotics of language, so to speak: the music of words, the internal rhymes and rhythms of sentences, the sheer deliciousness of words like sesquipedalian, or, say, Brobdingnagian, which, silly as they may be, seduce the ear with their euphony, the drum roll of syllables rattling off the tongue.
At the risk of sounding self-serving, I really do believe that the birthmark of the writer is the ability to remember where he or she first encountered a word — its provenance, so to speak. For example, Bowles (whom I interviewed in Tangier in 1980, on a college fellowship to Morocco) taught me the word “solecism” as well as the word “divagating” (instructively!). More important, his punctiliousness regarding language terrorized the self-indulgent adolescent writer and, crucially, the sloppy thinker in me — the two go hand in glove, of course — impressing on me the importance of linguistic and literary exactitude. Every word has its own, unique (though not always precise) meaning; the moral of the thesaurus is not that one synonym is as good as another, but just the opposite: that no two words mean exactly the same thing.
So, going further, a writer, to me, is someone who, consciously or unconsciously, believes there’s a word for everything — that nothing is truly ineffable; that everything can be effed, if we can just find the word for it somewhere in the trackless wastes of the O.E.D. or, failing that, make up a suitable word. Of course, I don’t really believe this; rather, I “believe” it, in the poetic sense. I take Derrida’s point about the self-referentiality of language — the absence of what he calls a Transcendental Signified on whose desk all those passed bucks of linguistic signification finally stop. But I also believe that poetic language—the Surrealist metaphor, the Burroughsian cut-up, and so forth — can vault over the epistemic walls of language as we know, giving us a glimpse of something that might not be effable but is at least imaginable, especially to the unconscious. The trick, linguistically, is to drill a borehole into the unconscious in order to bring the black gold of its insights and visions back, into the daylit world of the conscious, rational mind. This is Surrealism by any other name, of course, and the fingerprints of Surrealism are all over my mind and writing.
But I see I’ve dodged your bullet again. Regarding the ostensible tension between my defense of “exuberant word play and [stylistic] excess” and my “hatred of the irrationality of the stupid and reactionary,” or between my affinity for “Burroughs, surrealism” and other “assaults on the edifice of rationality,” we have to distinguish between the unconscious and the irrational. Surrealism, remember, was about the conquest of the irrational — harnessing it, dragging it stumbling and blinking into the overlit world of everyday reality, the better to exploit it to aesthetic and political ends. The paradox is that the most effective exploitation of the unconscious and the irrational, in my opinion, involves an almost surgical precision, stylistically — the jeux des mots, to be sure, but an exacting, almost clinical insistence, nevertheless, on le mot juste. Burroughs may have had his flaky side — a lifelong insistence on the efficacy of Reich’s Orgone box, an early fascination with Scientology, an apparent belief in psychic phenomena, and so forth — but on the page he is the unequalled master of a kind of button-down excess: the depraved ravings of a man in a Saville Row suit who looks for all the world like a taciturn banker. And his style of mind, even when he was swallowing New Age bunkum that would choke Madame Blavatsky, was always rigorous; he espoused Orgone therapy because he claimed to have empirical evidence for its efficacy. This is poles apart from ayahuasca-peddling New Age charlatans like Daniel Pinchbeck maundering on about the limits of rationalism. I like Burroughs’s quote about Timothy Leary, after observing at close hand the shambles that passed for Dr. Tim’s “clinical” tests of hallucinogens: Burroughs sniffed that Leary possessed “the most unscientific” mind he’d ever encountered.
RU. Would it be fair to say that you are somewhat tormented by American anti-intellectualism?
MD: Well, no less so than Twain in his day (Huckleberry Finn: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”) or Mencken in his, lambasting the “booboisie,” or Hofstadter in his masterful historical survey, Anti-Intellectualism in America, a book that will take the place of the Gideon bible in every Motel 6 in the land when the scourge of evangelical Christianity is finally put to rout (any day now…).
“Tormented” overstates the case just a little, but I am righteously outraged, at a moment when econopocalypse and ecogeddon demand desperate measures, by the amount of cultural space and precious time being wasted by the criminally clueless. I’m talking about historically and culturally and scientifically illiterate irrationalists of every stripe: the Darwin-denying flat-earth fundies of the religious right, to be sure, but equally the anti-vaccination nutjobs and New Age 2012-ers at the liberal end of the political spectrum; no-nothing nativists; and the Truck-Nutz, rifle-rack lumpen of the Tea Party and the survivalist fringe (cynically enflamed against the “liberal elite” by conservative pundits and politicians who are, of course, millionaires to a man).
By the way, the irrationalism I’m decrying very much includes our national faith in the state religion of unrestrained capitalism, a faith that brooks no mainstream critique even at the very moment that neo-liberal capitalism is utterly corrupting our little experiment in democracy, decimating the working class, criminalizing poverty, monetizing criminality (through the rise of the prison-industrial complex), and threatening to exhaust the planet’s resources and poison its ecosystems to the point where even a posthuman life form like Dick Cheney will find it uninhabitable. Yet never is heard a discouraging word about capitalism as a system, even in the wake of the Occupy movement, on the Sunday-morning political talk shows and mainstream news programs like All Things Considered or The PBS Newshour.
Seriously, people: the sands in the hourglass are running out. We can’t afford the wetbrained maunderings of Rick Santorum or Sarah Palin or the craven capitulations of most Democratic pols, either, nor the Hobbesian ethos of Wall Street’s predatory lenders and parasitic CEOs, “doing the Lord’s work.” The world is burning. Global weirding is here to stay, and not just in terms of the bizarre tornados and quakes and tsunamis ripping through the least likely places but in economic and social terms, too. Anti-intellectualism is a threat to species survival.
RU: I loved your essay on the Super Bowl (“Jocko Homo”), which I happened to read on the evening before the very event itself. You seem to note a lot of latent or closeted homosexuality in the American brand of machismo. Do you think you ever go overboard?… cigars sometimes being just cigars?
M.D.: Except when it isn’t. Or when it is and it isn’t. The age of tidy binaries, black-and-white philosophical dualisms, is receding in the rear-view mirror. A cigar is just a cigar and it’s a phallic symbol and it’s a self-parodic signifier of the obsolescence of Freud’s overheated theology and an inescapable reminder of the Viennese devil’s maddening persistence, in the pop unconscious, and… and… Where were we? Right, Hysterical Masculinity, as I call it, in America. No, I don’t think I’m pushing the envelope of overinterpretation too far, in the essay you mention. The argument speaks for itself, I think. I’ll quote from another essay in Bad Thoughts, “Wimps, Wussies, and W.: Masculinity, American Style”:
The trouble with manhood, American-style, is that it is maintained at the expense of every man’s feminine side, the frantically repressed Inner Wussy. And what we lock away in the oubliette of the unconscious we demonize in broad daylight as a pre-emptive strike against any lurking suspicions of wussiness. … In his book The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity, the clinical psychologist Stephen Ducat argues that American manhood is gnawed by “femiphobia”–the subconscious belief that “the most important thing about being a man is not being a woman” (which, for many straight guys, is another way of saying: not gay). … It’s a masculinity founded not on a self-assured sense of what it is, but on a neurotic loathing of what it is not (but secretly fears it may be): a wussy.
RU: As someone who is writing something that is partially a memoir, your discussion of Ballard’s criticism of introspection in literature sort of freaked me out… or maybe it just liberated me to return to my Warholian roots and let the surface (and other people) tell most of the story. I’m glad Ballard made these joltingly contemporary works and sometimes I think I’ll never read another novel since he’ll never write one… but at this stage of the game, couldn’t these young’ ‘uns use some gritty blood and guts novelists exploring the presumed depths of what we used to call “the unconscious” or something like that?
MD: Neither I nor Ballard were decrying “introspection” but rather the obsolete model of human subjectivity still hobbling its way through the pages of most mass-market fiction — the solipsistic, inward-turning, sharply bounded ego of modernist consciousness, as opposed to the liquid subjectivities born of the postmodern media landscape, the sorts of media-addled, psychologically polymorphous beings we glimpse in the theoretical fictions of Deleuze and Guattari, the SF of Ballard and Philip K. Dick, the more mainstream lit of Don Delillo, and in the movies of David Cronenberg. Critical theorists call this movement away from the centripedal subjectivity of existentialism — the lone, craggy figures in Giacometti’s sculptures; the alienated beings in Beckett’s plays — to the centrifugal subjectivity of the media phantasms in Andy Warhol’s silkscreened paintings and Burroughs’s cut-up novels the Posthuman Turn. I believe you can have deep introspection in a novel or memoir written in our moment, for our moment, but that, peering inward, you’ll find a landscape colonized by media myths and memes and apparitions, and looking outward, you’ll find social networks where the most intimate information is disgorged for any passing stranger to see or hear. The polarity of personal and public has reversed, to some degree.