MARK DERY’S WORK IS BAT-SHIT CRAZY — in the best possible way. Though a brief scan of his output might lead one to mistake the cultural critic for a mere artifact of the cyberculture-chattering class — those techno-savvy theorists in the late twentieth century who rallied around things like Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” the “cyberdelic” magazine Mondo 2000, and Jean Baudrillard’s theories of hyperreality — Dery, to be sure, was one of the brightest and original extrapolators of subcultures sprouting up in the salad days of cyberpunks and Netscape. In 1990, he penned for The New York Times a sprawling feature on “culture jamming” — the concept of messing with consumer culture with dissident messages for the sake of exposing, as he put it, how corporations “use the media as a tool of behavior modification.” (Think spray painting “Profits” on a Coca-Cola billboard under its “Enjoy” tagline, or, if one’s inclined, what the goggles reveal in the John Carpenter film, They Live).
Dery’s 1993 monograph Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs was followed by Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture — a benchmark anthology by and for “information wants to be free” intellectuals — which came packaged with fascinating-yet-esoteric essays with florid titles like “New Age Mutant Hacker” and “Compu-Sex: Erotica for Cybernauts.” And his late-1990s follow-ups, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (1997), along with his first essay collection The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (1999), were voyeuristic chronicles of phenomena like “cyber-hippies” turning on with smart drugs and mind machines, cybersex phasing out physical intimacy, and the looming of the technological singularity. But as thought provoking as these books were, Dery often favored jargon over narrative, leaving bits of the works nearly airless. As a taste, in Escape Velocity, a little-known Japanese cult film is described as a “maelstrom of body loathing, cyborg fantasies, mechano-eroticism, information anxiety, agoraphobia, castration complexes and fear of phallic mothers.”
Thankfully, Dery didn’t stay marooned in cyberspace. Over the past decade or so, he’s toned down the critical-techno talk while still focusing on America’s bizarre and extreme outposts. The end result is Dery’s most recent effort, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, and it contains some of the finest work of his career. In the book’s introduction, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling calls the collection “more personal and also more universal than his earlier work,” and adds that the essays almost read “like moral philosophy.” But this is not to say that Dery is now America’s answer to Alain de Botton. Rather, he approaches cultural ethics as his heroes J.G. Ballard and David Lynch do: through inquiries into the “weird extremes of human behavior.”
The book contains more than thirty of his essays, culled from places like The Village Voice, Bookforum, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as small critical journals such as 21C Magazine and Cabinet Magazine, and onl...read more