Mark Dery has been exploring the shifting sands of American sub-cultural trends for almost twenty years. He has built a reputation as an engaged and voluble critic hailed for his urbane, funny observations delivered with clear-eyed reason.
His new book, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams features thirty-two pungent essays covering a range of topics such as Madonna’s big toe, the link between zombies and white supremacists, the selling of Nazism and the cultural appropriations of Lady Gaga and Jack Chick.
In the introduction to his book Dery invokes as his talisman André Breton’s epitaph, “I seek the gold of time” . Dery explains that Breton refers to “the ineffable mysteries of lost time, of time passing, of things to come” which recalls Dogen Zenji’s description of time as lending a “resplendent brightness” to all phenomena. Dery would reject any comparison to religious thought (Dogen was a thirteenth century Zen Buddhist monk), but because Dery himself searches for gold in the most unlikely of temporal and spatial places the intersection of these two ideas makes an intriguing entry point into the complex matrix of his thought and writing.
I walk out onto the desert floor in the middle of a bright April afternoon. I stand still in the sun, fully exposed, surrounded on all sides by cactus, sand and rocks. I feel the heat all around. I close my eyes long enough for my thoughts to stop their tossing and turning. Gradually, new sensations begin to impress themselves on my senses. I hear the wind. I hear the buzzing of flies and the drone of faraway traffic.
Time passes. After ten minutes in a state of suspension I open my eyes. I am confronted with a stark wavering prickly electric green thing shooting up out of the desert floor. Ten minutes ago it was an ocotillo tree but now all I see is its indescribably glittering essence. In an instant I am vomited beyond the boundaries of language. Beyond the “flaming wind-hairs of thought” where time turns to gold and everything becomes rich and strange. This other shore is where Mark Dery’s writing will take you. Where no thoughts are too alien, to bizarre or too bad to be turned to gold.
AGITPROP: In the introduction to your new book, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, Bruce Sterling calls you a “botanist of the counter-culture” who samples the Kool-Aid carefully but never fails to spit at the end. What are the origins of your thirst for sipping the dregs of human thought-juice?
MARK DERY: I’m not sure the subcultural margins are synonymous with society’s dregs, but that may be my punctilious Inner Felix Unger talking. As a cultural critic, I’m drawn to subcultural ethnography in the Dick Hebdige mode, or what David Brooks called “comic sociology,” although my variation on that theme is more of a black-comedic sociology. (And when I say Brooks, I mean the David Brooks of Bobos in Paradise, not the Neo-Tory Neuroscientist who offers moral homilies from inside the Beltway, via the New York Times [ Dery is referring to different aspects of a single author, David brooks] . I liked Brooks better when he was a conservative comedian, taking the piss out of lactose-intolerant, cruelty-free yuppies, as opposed to Brooks the self-appointed morality wonk.) I’m drawn to cultural extremes—fringe thought, perverse practices, Manson-approved sociopathologies, consumer culture at its most bodaciously depraved, Bizarro-World Web memes—partly because they’re the strange attractors in our chaos culture, so to speak. In the sciences of chaos and complexity, it’s when systems are far from equilibrium that things get interesting. Not necessarily good, mind you, but inarguably fascinating. They mark the gnarly edge, as the chaos theorist (and Phil Dickian SF novelist) Rudy Rucker would say, where one state transitions suddenly into another.
My fascination with edgy phenomena also has a lot to do, I suspect, with having grown up hard by the U.S.-Mexican border, in 1970s Chula Vista—on the edge of America, in two senses: California is “where we run out of continent” in the Westward-migration sense, as Joan Didion famously observed, and San Diego—one of the most hysterically Anglo, impregnably Republican border cities in our fair Republic—is where white America draws a line in the sand between Nixon Country and that Disneyland of donkey-show depravity, Tijuana. (At least, that’s how it loomed in the gabacho unconscious of my day.) Border consciousness is edge consciousness, and even in the circle-the-wagons all-white Chula Vista suburbs of my ’70s youth, there was a percolating fear that America’s Finest City would be sucked into the libidinal attractor of Tijuana or, inversely, be overrun by the brown hordes presumably massing on the other side of the border (for which the much-feared killer bees were a tabloid metaphor), switchblades and shopping bags at the ready.
But my interest in extreme cultural phenomena has equally to do with the fact that they hyperbolize America—caricature it, melodramatize it, push the envelope of the depravity, the sociopathy, the sheer weirdness hiding in plain sight until there’s no way to avoid it. Through exaggeration, they make the subliminal liminal and, ultimately, push it into mainstream consciousness. As I say in the book’s introduction, I believe in the theory of American exceptionalism, just not as my dear friends in the Tea Party and neo-con thinktanks understand it. America is exceptional, which is to say profoundly weird: it reeks to heaven of flat-earth fundamentalism (which makes us the laughingstock of Europe, where most well-educated urbanites view religion with embarrassment); it seethes with glittery-eyed Neighborhood Watch paranoia; it incarcerates and executes more of its own citizens than any other supposedly civilized nation; it elevates radically deregulated capitalism to a state religion; it criminalizes a ridiculous drug like cannabis yet allows the whackjob survivalist fringe to conceal and carry guns in bars; I could go on. It’s gothic, it’s grotesque, it’s over the top, it’s got TruckNutz dangling from its undercarriage, it thinks Obama is a Muslim and the moon landing was faked and 9/11 was an inside job and Darwin is a rotting heap of secular-humanist hooey and anthropogenic warming is a conspiracy theory foisted on us by the Sierra Club. How can you not love this place?
My cultural criticism patrols the borders of the American unconscious because America is extreme, and the only way to understand it is to venture as far as you can, out onto its wild edge, because that’s where the purest expressions of American dread and dreams live.
AGITPROP: Arguably the most hyberbolic legacy of the twentieth century belongs to Adolf Hitler. Your book has two essays dedicated to the appropriation of his image and the impact American advertising had on Nazi propaganda. Can you delve into your findings?
MARK DERY: The essays in question, “The Triumph of the Shill: Fascist Branding” and “Endtime for Hitler: On the Downfall Parodies and the Inglourious Return of Der Fuhrer,” look at the Nazis—specifically, Hitler and Goebbels—as pioneers of branding and marketing, fiendishly artful in their use of design and the media to manufacture mass consent through misinformation, disinformation, and potent myths conjured up out of the fog of fear and hatred hanging over the German unconscious. I was struck by the Nazis’ appropriation of market-tested tricks of the P.R. trade, employed by early public-relations Svengalis such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Goebbels, especially, was a careful student of American advertising and public relations, which had taken the lessons of Freudian—and Pavlovian—psychology to heart. With a little help from Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl, he stage-managed the dream life of the Third Reich, dramatizing the virulent prejudices and half-baked theories that resulted, ultimately, in a Germany-shaped smoking hole in the map of Europe, not to mention the incineration of at least six million people.
Hitler, a failed painter and architect, emerges from the horrors of the 20th century as an Architect of Doom who dreamed the nightmare of Germany’s Gotterdammerung into awful reality and a Murder Artist on a genocidal scale. In using the term “artist,” I’m not mythologizing Hitler, and certainly am not applauding him. I mean, simply, that fascism (as Walter Benjamin argued) represented the aestheticization of politics—with unspeakably horrific results. Hitler’s dream was the dream of an antiseptic, genocidal utopia, a Wagnerian Germania populated by the kitschy Aryans in Nazi propaganda and purged of all ugliness, which is to say the troglodytic “subhumans” who teemed in Hitler’s anxious unconscious. It’s the Bayreuth-opera fantasy of a daydreaming sociopath who failed as an artist but managed to turn all of Europe into the stage for his dreams…and nightmares. And he did so through an unprecedented and, it must be admitted, virtuosic use of propaganda, stagecraft, and a bizarre theatrical talent that to the 21st-century eye looks laughable in newsreels but in its day whipped crowds into a mass orgy of adulation (for the Fuhrer) and ecstatic loathing (for the Other).
Not for nothing did David Bowie call Hitler the first rock star, a penetrating observation that earned him a fusillade of flak but was nonetheless dead-on. Hitler lavished endless thought on the insignias, banners, uniforms, movies, and above all architecture of the Third Reich, and branders and marketers and advertisers ever since have nursed a secret awe, even envy, for the Nazi branding machine. I mean, are Disney’s mouse ears, the McDonald’s golden arches, or the Apple logo as universally recognized as the swastika? Do any of them carry its third-rail jolt of fascinated horror (or is it horrified fascination)? The techniques perfected by Hitler and his henchmen are still used, albeit more subtly, by branders and marketers and advertisers. Long after the “thousand-year Reich” was reduced to rubble, the original mustachioed “Mad Man” continues to cast a swastika-shaped shadow over Madison Avenue, not to mention our political campaigns, reality TV, right-wing radio, and of course the attacking heads on Fox News.
AGITPROP: Two things…First, Hitler’s early life as a failed artist certainly adds a sickening twist to the origins of his need for control. How much should we rely on it as an explanation for his animosity toward the so-called degenerate artists of the Weimar period and marginal members of society in general?
Second, You seem to have a fascination with the intersection of conservative, even reactionary thought, and art. Your essay “The Prophet Margin: Jack Chick’s Comic-Book Apocalypse” is about the evangelical comic book artist Jack Chick. His “tracts” (pocket-sized comic books for the non-believers) were a staple in the Bible Belt churches of North Carolina where I grew up. Can we draw a direct line between him and the likes of Cotton Mather, or is Chick sui generis?
MARK DERY: I wouldn’t want to reduce Hitler’s moral depravity and psychopathology to an operatic tantrum over the fact that his hand-painted postcards didn’t go viral. I’m more inclined to the argument that sees him as an ectoplasmic manifestation of the uglier aspects of the German cultural psyche, at that historical moment. This isn’t to absolve him of personal responsibility, or to deny his unique evil. But Hitler gave shape to a toxic cloud of economic anxiety, bred-in-the-bone bigotry, right-wing fears of the Red Menace, and pervasive resentment over the punitive reparations demanded of Germany, after WWI, by the Treaty of Versailles. But this is the stuff of another argument. Interested readers will want to dig deep into Ron Rosenbaum’s masterful Explaining Hitler, which looks at the contesting theories about who Hitler was, and why he was.
As for my interest in conservative, even right-wing strains in American society, especially when they bubble up in the form of cultural expression, well, I believe in sleeping with the enemy. Meaning: I like to know what dark dreams trouble the sleep of the Michael Savage-Tea Party-survivalist-Alex Jones fusion-paranoia fringe, the better to understand our national id.
As well, I’m interested in art that’s marginalized by the transnational art economy and the curatorial and critical apparatuses that legitimate that economy. No less than the “lowbrow surrealism” showcased in magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose or the fan-culture illustrations featured on DeviantArt.com or the sorts of “happy mutant” neo-retro art spotlighted on Boing Boing, the evangelical tracts of Jack Chick can be seen as a form of pop art produced and distributed outside conventional channels of art production, consumption, and critique. I should italicize the point that I’m not necessarily interested in the aesthetic merits of any of the stuff I’ve mentioned, but rather its implicit (and largely unintended) critique of the highbrow artworld and the conspiracy of curatorial and critical opinion that underwrites the market value of certain forms of commodified expression, and not others. Why Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks, and not vernacular taxidermy? Why Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” (which I happen to think is brilliant, by the way), and not some of the fan-culture mash-ups on YouTube? But this isn’t just some Duchampian dialectical move on my part. I’m equally interested in Chick as a mutant cartoonist, appropriating the commercial mass-culture form of the comic book and turning it into a vector of transmission for his virulently hateful strain of evangelical Christianity. At the same time, as you point out, Chick sits not only within the historical continuum of popular media but specifically within the tradition of Christian media, whose earliest forms include the evangelical tract, and which has now appropriated the look and feel of godless consumer culture to produce its own looking-glass world of Christian pop culture, including a defanged, evangelical-friendly take on teen culture replete with heavy metal bands, Lollapalooza-style rock festivals, movies, YA fiction, and the like. What fascinates me about Chick, and about evangelical America’s canny use of the media tropes of consumer culture, is the weird spin they put on this notion of semiotic guerrilla warfare. Critical theorists are enamored of the cultural dynamic exemplified by Situationist and punk detournement, anti-consumerist collage music by bands like Negativland, and politicized appropriation artists like Banksy, all of whom rip off and repurpose, to politically subversive or social-satirical ends, the signs, symbols, and narratives of official power or consumer culture. But by hijacking mass-media forms like the comic book or pop-culture genres like heavy metal and the YA novel, Chick and the rest of the religious right remind us that two can play this game. The irony is delicious.