Apr 08 2012

Bad Thoughts & The Politics Of The Polysyllabic: An Interview With Mark Dery


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. ( More at

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, flaneurlike 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.

Aug 22 2011

Combining Extreme Distrust and Spastic Bursts of Blind Faith… What New Edge Culture has to say about Today’s Schizophrenic Information Society


“This magazine is about what to do until the millennium comes. We’re talking about Total Possibilities. Radical assaults on the limits of biology, gravity and time. The end of Artificial Scarcity. The dawn of a new humanism. Highjacking technology for personal empowerment, fun and games. Flexing those synapses! Stoking those neuropeptides! Making Bliss States our normal waking consciousness. Becoming the Bionic Angel.”

If it is the task of a magazine editorial to inform readers in clear language what to expect in the pages to come, this editorial of the first issue of Mondo 2000 in 1989 didn’t quite live up to its promise. It bent the minds of the readers in an uneasy twist: while making far-reaching claims about the promising, even spiritual nature of technological futures to come, its hyperbolic style begged the reader not to take such claims seriously. Critics have often tried to unveil the “real message” underneath such New Edge double-sidedness. Yet, I argue here, the paradoxical style of New Edge shows us exactly what it means to live with the unresolvable tensions of today’s information society. And the 1960s hippies were there to see it first.

Oxymoronic Futures

The editorial of the first Mondo formed the overtures of a magazine that baffled through its irony, incomprehensible language, screaming images, and particularly through the collision of many different, oppositional modes of thought. It flirted, for instance, with the utopian idealism and spiritual longings of the 1960s as well as with the technological entrepreneurialism of the 1980s; and it was nostalgically romantic at the same time that it was futuristic and high-tech. So one ad recommended digital image enhancement software as a tool for conveying “the shamanic experience;” and Mondo contributor Timothy Leary claimed that  “spiritual realities for centuries imagined” could perhaps now “finally be realized” through the “electronic-digital.”

Such a fusion of  New Agey spirituality, tribalism and nostalgia with an entrepreneurial, futuristic and technology-loving attitude was not unique to the magazine, but was part of a larger Californian culture some key members came to think of as “New Edge.” One element of this New Edge culture was electronic dance events — raves — wherein Earth Goddesses were worshipped while geeks spun electronic music and beamed fractal-shaped artificial life forms onto the walls. In flyers for such events, as well as in magazines, manifestos, cyberpunk fiction and conferences, information technology was both advertised as a clever tool for individual empowerment, and was seen itself a self-evolving higher form of consciousness. Today, such a blend of attitudes still characterizes the annual Burning Man festival, and tech-psychedelic events like the Mindstates conferences.

Not surprisingly, scholars and other commentators who have looked at this confusing blend of attitudes and worldviews have struggled to interpret it. Regarding Mondo 2000, the art critic Vivian Sobchack wondered — in a 1990 article for ARTFORUM International: “What was being enacted here, what was really being sold?” “At first sight,” Sobchack answered herself, M2 seemed “somehow, important in its utopian plunge into the user-friendly future of better living not only through the chemistry left over from the 1960s, but also through personal computing (…).” Yet Sobchack eventually judged the magazine “the stuff of a romantic, swashbuckling, irresponsible individualism that fills the dreams of “mondoids” who, by day, sit at computer consoles working for (and becoming) corporate America.” “Combined with an ‘unabashed commitment to consumerism,’ its political idealism leads to an ‘oxymoronic cosmology of the future,” she wrote.

Sobchack’s reading of Mondo 2000 belongs to a broader line of commentaries that look with suspicion at the way in which Silicon Valley technologies have acted as vehicles for “countercultural” utopian and liberal messages. Most of such critical writings treat the hippie rhetoric with which Californian technology enthusiasts promise the latest high tech invention to offer individual empowerment, social unity, a clean environment and democratic freedom as no more than a smokescreen; shielding from view the actual selfishness, greed and exploitative nature of high tech practice. Often these critiques have been accompanied by nostalgic looks at a countercultural past where intentions were “pure” and products of liberation were “untainted” by corporate cooptation and mainstream hype.

Differences are often noted — for example — between the ethos of open sharing that characterized hacker culture in the 1970s and the secretive sphere of nondisclosure and patenting that characterizes technology development today; or between early 1990s Virtual Reality where people were actively and creatively involved in interactive online worlds and later VR theme parks where the technology was now used for quick consumption and entertainment; or between the creativity of the first websites and the standardized sites today. In similar fashion, one might reflect on post-countercultural communal experiments such as Burning Man. Each year, participants and organizers of this desert city go through cycles of anxious self-criticism. Can a festival that attracts 50.000 participants still be called subversive? Despite the ethos of radical self-expression and creativity, don’t the majority of visitors come to passively consume the scenery? What about the pollution caused by the festival… and what does the fact that most of its visitors are caucasian say about its universalistic, inclusive ethos?

Such questions, I believe, are important. Yet, if they lead only to the cynical conclusion that we are here dealing with coopted and contrived forms of once authentic cultural practices, we forget something crucial. While critical thinkers scrutinize New Edge culture for how it is actually conservative, mainstream and selfish rather than progressive, subversive and socially responsible, they don’t take into account that New Edge positioned itself at the pinnacle of a cultural environment that cannot adequately be accounted for in such familiar binary terms. Starting from this point of view, in my recent dissertation “New Edge. Technology and Spirituality in the San Francisco Bay Area” I have sought to understand this dimension of New Edge: the extent to which it gives voice and form to a cultural moment that is still ill understood in all its tensions and experiential contradictions.

Taking Control Over Perception and Evolution

My study of New Edge begins in the 1960s and ’70s, amidst a network of people, ideas and organizations, all of which cannot easily be characterized in terms of distinctions between counterculture and corporate culture, spiritual or scientific orientation, and technological or rustic-romantic focus.

Take the Human Potential Movement at Esalen, inspired by Aldous Huxley’s notion that there are “still a great many potentialities — for rationality, for affection and kindliness, for creativity — still lying latent in man.” Huxley believed that “since everything has speeded up so enormously in recent years, that we shall find methods for going almost as far beyond the point we have reached now within a few hundred years.” In their pursuit to “produce extraordinary things out of this strange piece of work that a man is,” therapists and intellectuals at Esalen were inspired by Eastern spirituality as much as by cutting edge science and technology. As Esalen historian Walter Truett Anderson writes, they even turned “the flowing together of East and West, the ancient and the modern, science and religion, scholarship and art” as a guiding principle.

Or think of the entrepreneur Stewart Brand, who initiated the famous Whole Earth Catalog as a compendium filled with tools and intellectual baggage  — both rustic and high tech — with the intention of helping “hippie” communards in their pursuit for self-reliant living. Although the Catalog supported a culture that imagined itself to ‘counter’ the corporate mainstream, Brand was open about the fact that the Catalog itself was an “advantage seeking” product, financed through investment aid from his parents, and by means of stock bought in his name.

Anticipating the boundary-crossing New Edge culture were also academic scientists like Gregory Bateson and Norbert Wiener whose interest in cybernetics became foundational for thinking about human-computer interaction as it also became entwined with other strands of holistic thought.

Not to forget the Merry Pranksters, a group of hippies that formed around the writer Ken Kesey, who wholeheartedly embraced the blinking, speedy consumer goods that postwar America had to offer while their attitude began to involve, as Tom Wolfe wrote about them, “the main things religious mystics have always felt, things common to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and for that matter Theosophists and even flying-saucer cultists. Namely, the experience of an Other World, a higher level of reality. And a perception of the cosmic unity of this higher level.”

What connected these networks of people was an aspiration for human empowerment and positive global change that came from humanity’s heightened perception and understanding. This understanding was to come from the growing availability of chemicals such as LSD, high tech tools and exercises that were able to compensate for the otherwise poor perceptive capacities of humans. In his famous essay “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley called the human brain a “reducing valve” that, in everyday life, only allows a “measly trickle of consciousness.” Huxley talked about mescaline as a tool that could “reopen” humanity’s door of perception — it made people aware of the “totality of awareness” or “Mind at Large.” Similarly, the Whole Earth Catalog invested strongly in the idea that high tech could bring about just such a growth of awareness. The very name of the Catalog was, in fact, inspired by the greatest technological achievement of that time — a picture of the earth as seen from the Apollo, which appeared on the front cover of each edition. As John Markoff put it: “He [Brand] realized that an image of the whole earth might inspire others to have a more complete sense of man’s place within the planet’s ecology and all of the implications that flowed from such a view of the world.” The paradoxical hope was that in its union with high tech, man would restore holistic and more complete ways of seeing and experiencing that it had learned to forget in the course of modern life. Also, biofeedback equipment — which measures heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration or brainwaves and feeds such information back to the user as a way of making her aware of her level of relaxation — was advertised in 1970s manuals as a technique for obtaining a “real knowledge of the self” — a knowledge that “has been lost by humanity over centuries by civilization.”

Both the use of psychedelics and high tech endorsed the experience among these early pioneers that they were godlike in their potential for comprehending reality. “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” as Stewart Brand famously stated in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. “Being as gods” meant, among other things, not only having greater perception but being able to take part in evolution itself. Additionally, this idea cut across spheres where spiritual practices dominated and where high tech pioneering took place: at Esalen, new forms of therapeutic practice such as “Rolfing” came to be thought of as the “first conscious attempt at evolution made by any species in modern times;” while at the Stanford Research Institute, the computer scientist Douglas Engelbart employed the term “co-evolution” to describe the “symbiotic, co-adaptive learning process by means of which humans and computers develop as one intelligent system.” Whether one was taking psychedelics, hooking oneself up to a biofeedback system, logged on to mainframe computers, or taking part in consciousness raising sessions at Esalen, a pervasive sense thus existed within these networks of tinkerers that humans were taking control over their own evolutionary development.

The World Slipping Away

What makes this belief in the capacity of high tech and science to turn people into all-knowing gods so interesting to me is that it combined with a very contradictory notion. In the course of all those practices — psychedelic or technological — whereby people extended and sharpened their ability to perceive and intuit the truths of the world, the world itself seemed to slip away and disappear from view. With perception meaning not so much the ability to touch things with the hand or to taste with the mouth, but to see patterns of connections as they were translated into information by cybernetic machines or to experience synchronistic connections between events across time and space, the world came to be constructed increasingly in invisible, untouchable, and imperceptible terms. “We are migrating from a world governed primarily by the laws of thermodynamics to a world governed primarily by cybernetics — a weightless world (…) whose events are the impinging of information on information,” wrote Stewart Brand in the Catalog. “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves,” read another entry in the Catalog, in response to the cybernetic work of Norbert Wiener, Buckminster Fuller, the eclectic scientist, guru of the counterculture and main inspiring figure for the Whole Earth Catalog sketched a similar vision of the world when he wrote: “In World War I industry suddenly went from the visible to the invisible base, from the track to the trackless, from the wire to the wireless, from visible structuring to invisible structuring in alloy.” As a result, Fuller wrote, engineers and scientists have “lost their true mastery, because they didn’t personally understand what was going on. If you don’t understand you cannot master.” The writer Susan Sontag even called the “present cultural condition” one in which “Western man (…) has been undergoing a massive sensory anesthesia.” Sontag ascribed this “anesthesia” to the fact that scientific and technological developments have changed the daily environment of human beings into one “that cannot be grasped by the human senses.” And Californian therapist Peter Marin wrote: “What is real becomes still harder to touch, to sense, to act upon.”

Peons in a Simulation Game

Today, in the way that people all over the world are seeking to come to terms with the hopes and fears of living in an “information society,” these two oppositional experiences play an equally large role. Together, they make it impossible to settle permanently on the question of whether information technology gives us more or less understanding of — and creative power in — the world. Software such as Google Earth and the powers of parallel computing may give the illusion that we can see, think and self-evolve better — even better than earlier gods. At the same time, crises wrought by computer automated stock trading; the invisible ways in which small devices in our daily environments communicate with each other about personal details we didn’t even know were there; or software so complex that not one programmer is capable of debugging it; make us feel as if we are but peons in a simulation game wrought by alien powers. All over the world, opinion leaders, think tanks, politicians and educators wrestle with the question of what kinds of ethics and moralities should guide our decisions regarding technology development and use. Yet, they are increasingly at a loss because they are unable to permanently identify and locate the sources of power they are confronted with. Claims about the empowering capacity of high tech are canceled out by claims about loss-of-control… and vice versa. For instance, certain thinkers have emphasized the potential significance of self-enhancement technologies to be used by women for “self-determination.” Yet others wonder what self-determination means when technologies injected in the body work incomprehensibly, through programs created in secretive ways by globally dispersed teams with no one being clearly and visibly accountable for the outcomes.

Advanced technologies today don’t only appeal to ourselves as rational autonomous self-determined beings and as divine creators of our own fates, but also embed us in out-of-control worlds that act godlike in their totalizing powers, magical complexity, pervasive invisibility and unaccountability. In order to live happily in this world, we need to be able to use high tech tools to understand and act rationally in the world, but we also need to trust a system that we cannot understand and that is immeasurably bigger than we are. In other words, we need to both act as rational human beings and also as believers. It happens that, in western societies, these two attitudes have historically been seen as incompatible. “Belief” — the capacity to trust in a higher power and to give oneself over to it –—is generally associated with “irrationality” and “religion.” And religion has come to be seen as the absolute opposite of science — which is characterized by objective rationality; the idea that individual humans are able to logically comprehend and control their environment. To imagine a rational human being will believe in a system he cannot perceive nor understand is difficult, yet it is this paradoxical attitude that is being solicited from all of us if we are to live in this world without being continuously anxious and paranoid.

“If You Think It’s All A Joke You Miss the Punch Line”

What made New Edge culture and its 1960s antecedents significant, I believe, is precisely that it accounted for these two different experiential dimensions of living in today’s world. And I suspect that we could understand the irony of MONDO 2000 as well as the many playful aspects of New Edge culture at large, as ways in which this is done.

The irony of Mondo 2000 invited Sobchack to wonder what the actual, real message of the magazine was. She concluded that it was one of the aspects that made the magazine disingenuous in its idealism. “M2 sits squarely, and safely, on the postmodern fence, covering its postmodern ass, using irony not only to back off from a too-serious commitment to its own stance, but also to unsettle the grounds from which it might be criticized,” Sobchack wrote. For Sobchack, the irony of the magazine was proof of its nihilistic and uncommitted stance. Yet, taking into account the historical context in which New Edge emerged, I think it is more accurate to understand this irony as a way of being radically inclusive, committed to extremely different attitudes to technology simultaneously: the ironically hyperbolic tone of the first Mondo 2000 editorial, for instance, forcefully calls for faith in the power of technology to bring salvation from scarcity and other human sufferings, and simultaneously allows a rational and objective stance vis a vis this faith. Its “New Edgy” ironic posture allowed the magazine to conjure up worldviews very similar to what was being proposed in New Age circles, while also including distant, skeptical, rationalistic stances. Irony here works in the way that the literary theorist Michael Saler describes it; as a way to “reconcile enchantment with the rational and secular tenets of modernity.” It provides, he writes, a “ludic space in which reason and imagination cavort, neither succumbing to the other.”

Raves, Virtual Reality environments, postcyberpunk fiction, MMORPG’s and the Burning Man festival continue today to provide similar ‘ludic’ spaces where the unspeakable is allowed: namely the combined presence of “religious” attitudes with rational distance and skepticism. Whether through the celebration of parody cults, performance art, hyperbolic language or ironic self-mockery, play and serious devotion combine, deep connections occur that are fleeting and temporary, and one is absolutely certain of the deep Truth while being in absolute doubt about it. Here, one can be like a typical worshipper of “Bob” — God of the parody cult The Church of Subgenus, as described in one Mondo edition — displaying a “puzzling attitude combining extreme distrust, forced or at least reluctant worship, and sudden, unexpected spastic spurts of blind, unquestioning faith.”

Some may interpret such irony as taking no actual position, but I believe it expresses the desire to take all positions at once — to embrace and accept the logically incompatible realities, perspectives and experiences that are part of the current information society. As such, the best of the worlds of religion and science come together — the capacity to be subjected to a god and to be a god yourself; the cathartic experience of letting go of ego, of giving yourself over to a larger entity on the one hand, and the godlike experience of being individually empowered and able to create your own destiny on the other. As such, it offers a temporary and appealing release from the anxiety and paranoia that befall many people today and that comes from not knowing what you see, what you know and who is actually in control.