…I want to peer down into that darkness, and see what’s there — to immerse myself in American magic and dread… And, equally, to induce in my readers the vertigo that comes from gazing too long into the cultural abyss — then give them a loving shove, right over the edge.
— Mark Dery, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
Gone are the halcyon days of consumer culture, when everyone watched the same TV spots, was mesmerized by the same dishwasher detergent, and coveted the same big-finned Coupe de Villes. Blotting the old mass media from view is the ever-spreading cloud of the internet and its byzantine “network culture,” which Mark Dery, writer and cultural critic, anticipated in the nineties. Dery, an early thinker on cyber- and technoculture, galvanized academic interests in cyberfeminism and Afrofuturism (a term he coined). He was, as Bruce Sterling points out in the introduction to Dery’s new book, “a prophet who predicted the past.” And now he’s moving on.
Dery has ditched the cyber beat, diving headlong into the grotesqueries of the “American Gothic,” which he defines as “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.” His recent collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, is an excursive grouping of cultural postmortems, reports from the dimmest recesses of American consciousness.
His task today, as he’ll be the first to point out, is complicated by a growing legion of citizen-critics born of American Idol, a tangle of comment threads, and the insta-judgment encouraged by Reddit and Facebook. Mass media culture, it seems, has grown and adapted; it has assimilated into our lives and therefore become less susceptible to critique — even as cultural criticism abounds. The critical examination of virtually anything takes place virtually everywhere, the analysis of pop culture becoming as commodifiable as the pop culture it considers. This is the logical extension of Dery’s 2007 essay “World Wide Wonder Closet,” in which he remarks with some horror that the “Gothic network culture” is upon us.
These, in other words, are some very Deryesque days.
We meet in the home office of Editor-in-Chief Tom Lutz, where Dery asks for coffee, “black as night.” His sheened black hair is combed back, and he’s dressed in his trademark attire — a black suit and, underneath, a dark striped shirt. The subject of fashion, incidentally, is where our conversation begins.
Mark Dery (MD): There’s a short dissertation to be written about the fashion failures of writers these days. For instance, every time I see a photo of David Foster Wallace wearing that bandana on his head, it makes my inner Don Draper cringe. What kind of age do we live in where our best writers dress like Little Steven from the E Street Band?
Mike Goetzman (MG): DFW had some justification for the bandana though, no? He was a profuse sweater, and it was a more reasonable alternative to carrying around ...read more