For the last couple of decades Mark Dery has been investigating the cutting-edge of American culture and counterculture with an eye at once empathic and horrified, thrilled with the creatively liberating possibilities of the future and dismayed at the still-powerful sway of the forces of corruption and bigotry. His original takes on such familiar fodder as Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey and his revealing accounts of his youth and the cultural and political milieu in which he grew up, a lonely kid made an outsider by his intellectual gifts and lack of sympathy with the mainstream (the introduction, Gun Play), show how the political and the personal, the sign and the hidden ideology, are inextricably interlinked, whether we realise it or not. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a collection of his essays, published online and elsewhere, ranging chronologically from the late 90s up to 2010, chronicling his take on American Gothic: `...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'; and ranging in subject matter from the `resurrection' of Mark Twain to the disturbing imagery of online snuff movies.
Dery is a postmodern Ancient Mariner who has plied the vast and depthless oceans of contemporary American culture and politics and come back to buttonhole us all, just as we're on the way in to the party, to show us that there is unimaginable darkness and insanity Out There. It would behove us to heed his warnings, because it looks like the Late Capitalist/Liberal Democracy party may be soon over.Read more ›
For the last couple of decades Mark Dery has been investigating the cutting-edge of American culture and counterculture with an eye at once empathic and horrified, thrilled with the creatively liberating possibilities of the future and dismayed at the still-powerful sway of the forces of corruption and bigotry. His original takes on such familiar fodder as Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey and his revealing accounts of his youth and the cultural and political milieu in which he grew up, a lonely kid made an outsider by his intellectual gifts and lack of sympathy with the mainstream (the introduction, Gun Play), show how the political and the personal, the sign and the hidden ideology, are inextricably interlinked, whether we realise it or not. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a collection of his essays, published online and elsewhere, ranging chronologically from the late 90s up to 2010, chronicling his take on American Gothic: `...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'; and ranging in subject matter from the `resurrection' of Mark Twain to the disturbing imagery of online snuff movies. Dery is a postmodern Ancient Mariner who has plied the vast and depthless oceans of contemporary American culture and politics and come back to buttonhole us all, just as we're on the way in to the party, to show us that there is unimaginable darkness and insanity Out There. It would behove us to heed his warnings, because it looks like the Late Capitalist/Liberal Democracy party may be soon over.Read more ›
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
From Hippo Press (NH) 3/30/2012 Issue31 Mar. 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
If you're one of those pain-in-the-neck smart people who see the idiocy on both sides of pretty much every dichotomy, from Democrat-v-Republican to jock-v-head, you'll like this guy. I've dug Dery's stuff for a few years now, having happened upon his work on the (very sadly) defunct True/Slant blog, which, looking back, was a super-rare Topps Rookie Stars bubble-gum-card collection of our greatest new journalists, such as Goldman Sachs-killer Matt Taibbi and porn-fascinated snark-dispenser Susannah Breslin.
Dery is hideously progressive, open-minded and New York avant-art-mongering, so be ready for that. If you're a news and/or culture junkie of a liberal/urban stripe, Dery's books will, I promise, wind up living on the same shelf as your Taibbi, Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson, not because of the implicit liberal slant but because you'll A) learn a bunch of cool stuff you never thought you wanted to know, and B) help your brain put out some psychic fires vis-à-vis our teetering American culture. This guy should be the content manager of google.com.
For instance, go reality-check his essay on Lady Gaga, which I've mentioned in a few of my own incoherent ravings on Big Corporate Music. After months of exposure to Gaga-this and Gaga-that vomited from the great media Matrix that keeps us all in line (you remember all that Gaga overexposure, right, before Katy Perry took it to a whole `nother level?), Dery - and I would have personally warned him not to do this if we were better acquainted - accidentally read a Sasha Frere-Jones article on Gaga. Frere-Jones's M.O. has always been an especially bovine blend of milquetoast-flavored suckup-ism toward and reverence for Corporate Rock. It's horrible, like reading Tom Friedman trying sneakily to justify the latest military "accidental" massacre of Middle Eastern civilians by hand-holding us through the big-picture importance of Kellie Pickler, but with fewer mixed metaphors.
Anyway, upon reading Frere-Jones's nonsense about Gaga, Dery's head finally exploded, and he went on an epic, Bowie-loving, can't-miss rant that should be required reading in every American high school. That one's here in this book.
Here's one I hadn't even thought about: non-jocks, especially guys who were bullied in school, thoroughly dreading and hating Super Bowl weekend (and don't we all, really, deep down? It's like a culture-somnabulist's Thanksgiving with Doritos instead of turkey, if you ask me). That piece, "Wimps, Wussies and W.," also covers how our modern conception of masculinity has been hijacked to mean blind obedience to authority rather than courageous, outside-the-box thinking.
In the wake of the Crocodile Hunter's death, Dery wrote a piece (that's here also) about animal attacks both wild and domestic. Delightfully gross stuff in there about killer whales, lions, "domesticated" chimps - did you know a grizzly bear can fit an entire human head in its mouth?
That last bit is what Dery's really all about. You know your buddy who likes watching bootleg videos of real deaths and stuff? Well, imagine that guy, but with intense insight into the hows and whys of each individual dismemberment, etc. and armed with one of the most fearsome vocabularies on the planet. That's Dery. He sees the information zeitgeist for what it is: a gigantic kerfluffle that's only in its gothic adolescence.
Not that he ever says so outright. That'd be too hick. A while back, I whined in some review someplace about his detachment: give those mean old dumb Republicans a nice beatdown, willya, was my intent there. But in this collection Dery solidifies his brand, not just by examining the nonsensical psychic sewage in which we all soak but by asking the right questions. And when he talks about himself ("Cortex Envy"), he's literally the greatest thing since sliced bread, at one point generally comparing his passive-aggressive, comics-fueled battles with his stepdad to a Greek tragedy starring Kevin Sorbo.
I was going to slap an A+ grade on this thing, but it's a collection of previously released items stockpiled over the last few years now, and some of it's actually still on the web, which I wasn't even going to tell you, but full disclosure and all that. But whatever, he deserves it, so I've changed my mind.
I'll warn you that you may or may not need thesaurus.com handy while you read this stuff, as he's not just a (former?) New Yawk lit professor but a good one. The thing about that, though, in this instance, is that the rewards are priceless, as are these deep, deep (bad) thoughts.
- Eric W. Saeger
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Bad Thoughts, Great Book27 Mar. 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
I find it impossible to discuss Mark Dery's I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts in anything other than the first person. The book speaks so eloquently of its time that, uncannily, I can't help but feel it speaks of me. So many of my own interests and obsessions rise from its pages -- death, deviance, intellect. I recognize my iTunes library in Dery's tours de force on David Bowie and Lady Gaga. I recognize my bookshelf in Dery's essay on Amok Books, whose productions were once textbooks in the éducation sentimentale of the counterculture. I recognize my own rhetorical strategies in the move Dery makes in "Toe Fou," updating George Bataille's meditation on the big toe by riffing on a picture of Madonna's bare feet. Weirdest of all, I recognize what I thought was my own obscure fondness for "invisible literature" in Dery's essay on the New York Academy of Medicine Library -- a place I too have plundered in quiet hours of mad and horrible research. Was I sitting across the table from you, Mark? I feel as though you, like Baudelaire, have addressed your book to "mon semblable, mon frère."
How is it that Dery is able to produce this uncanny feeling of identification? You get the sense that, while the rest of us were living the zeitgeist, Dery was holding a stethoscope to its heart. His essays are EKGs showing that our pulse goes haywire in the presence of extremes -- perversion, violence, satanism. In an introduction, Dery declares that it is "the writer's job" to "think bad thoughts": "to wander footloose through the mind's labyrinth, following the thread of any idea that reels you in, no matter how arcane or depraved, obscene or blasphemous, untouchably controversial, irreducibly complex, or preposterous on its face." All of us take in these abominations as they play across our flatscreens and iPhones, but Dery's distinction is to really think about them -- reflect on them, contextualize them, pursue their logic to sometimes unpalatable consequences. "The writer's job," he means to say, "is to transform 'bad thoughts' into good ones -- insights and observations -- through a process of examination." Will this thankless job now compel Dery to go in search of even worse thoughts? Perhaps the worst of all lies in the realization that there are so many bad thoughts, an inexhaustible supply, yet to be confronted.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Good Words on Bad Thoughts.3 April 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
Mark Dery is a forward-thinking-and-looking writer who puts many of the more insane aspects of contemporary life under a magnifying glass and dissects them with fearsome insight and intellect. As befits a modern splintered age of no common morality or life-threads or belief systems, he approaches his subjects with a pathology-anthropologist's eye and holds up some of the darker areas of life to wriggle complaining under the concise blinding light of his deep-dish musings and extrapolations about their (im)possible meanings and potential future directions. As noted science fiction writer Bruce Sterling sagely notes in his introduction, Dery "brandishes a Diogenes lantern as the smoke thickens on every side" and these "Google erudition" pieces that comprise the book (ranging from 1996-2011) read "like the contents of bottles pitched into the sea."
And what of the contents of these electronic-disinformation-sea-bobbing vessels? Well, if bemused and fascinating musings on subjects as diverse as the homoeroticism of George W. Bush, how Lady Gaga stands up in comparison to previous gender-and-agenda-bender bi-curious rockers, current zombie apocalypse obsession, Dadaist spam poetry, the homosexuality quotient of the tiresome Super Bowl (Dery does not shy away from any sexual matter, straight or not), Mayan apocalypse cultists, fundamentalist religion pamphleteers, the suicide note as a literary subgenre, the fascist-identifying proclivities of Prince Harry, and on and on (you get the general hyper-eclectic-discussions gist) interest you, then you will absolutely love this book. With a spunky, funky sensibility informed in parts by the late 70s American punk of his youth, alternative literature and an endlessly inquiring mind, Dery gleefully picks up a great many taboo-subject rocks, shows us what's squirming sightless unseen underneath them, then crushes the stupidity of the more deserving targets to death with the selfsame stone.
On a technical level, Dery is an excellent writer, approaching his subject matter with a wry, sometimes uproarious spiketop sense of humor which helps to leaven some of his more serious discussions. Dery does tend to dwell a lot on the darker side of life, which can make for uncomfortable and somewhat frightening, if enlightening, reading. It strikes me there's a slightly schoolboy prurience (back to punk and nihilism again) to the glee-degree with which he jumps into some of humanity's bleakest corners, but his reports back on the long dark night of our ever-evaporating soul are always done with a judicious amount of redeeming humanity, a lack of identification with the insane, and a sense of genuine human curiosity and inquiry. He does not fetishise stuff like the sickest corners of the net's sexual representation, he just says here's what I found and saw during examining this crash on the information superhighway, here's what I made of it, nothing hugely interesting to see here, move along, move along.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Quite literally, required reading.19 Feb. 2014
M. W. Landis
- Published on Amazon.com
I am an adjunct professor of writing at a small, public, NJ liberal arts college. I teach, mostly, argumentative writing (argument & persuasion the class is called) and we have liberties and I like challenging students to write about difficult art and artists for their assignments. I also enjoy assigning them provocative, contemporary, and smart essays in order to provide some examples of what I think good cultural analysis and essay-writing look like. So never mind the poets and short stories or films or musicians they are exposed to (it focuses on arts and humanities), but they have had to read essays/criticism from folks like Nick Tosches, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, Luc Sante, Greil Marcus, A.B. Spellman, Charles Bernstein, Simon Reynolds, Ron Silliman, Charles Olson, and yes, Mark Dery. He's a regular on my syllabus.
I have assigned this book for every class I've ever taught as an adjunct, or at least 3-4 essays from it. They have invaluable perspective, a wit which endemic to late 19th century and early 20th century essayists (Chesterton, Wilson, Wilde, Mencken), an occasionally melancholy lyricism, and a thoroughly modern and unquestionably necessary approach to things which we all-too-often overlook in our culture—or should I say, ignore. This book pokes around in our culture's abandoned houses, as it were, and surprises us with the discomfiting realization that they have not been "abandoned" at all, but rather that we are still living within them, as if it were a mirror capable of showing us that we are in fact ghosts, haunting ourselves.
The Latent Talent of a Ballardian Bad Boy11 April 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
I'll be honest: the first thing that attracted me to I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is Mark Dery's rather poetic dedication: "To J.G. Ballard/ Pathologist of the postmodern/ astronaut of inner space/ matchless stylist, generous mentor. He sought the gold of time." I'm not sure about Dery as a mentor, but everything else he praises about Ballard I can re-use to praise this collection of essays, including his clever use of Andre Breton's description of surrealism as the `gold of time'.
Dery also summons Ballard as a theme-setter for his book, finding in the Introduction to Hello, America, the Dread and Dreams of his subtitle: "Cadillacs, Coca-Cola, and cocaine, presidents and psychopaths, Norman Rockwell and the mafia... the dream of America endlessly unravels its codes, like the helix of some ideological DNA." And so it is with Dr. Dery, who peeks out of the pages as a kind of madcap CSI mortician, picking out the double spiral of ideological dualism that infuses American culture. Yes, Dery is a pathologist in his personal analyses of what makes America so... American, especially in his ballardian-conradian desire to "peer down, into that darkness, and see what's there -- to immerse myself". And for true Ballard aficionados the investigative overlap twixt the Seer of Shepperton and the Diagnoses of Dery is the psychological one: teasing out the latent meanings of our manifest follies.
Insofar as style goes, let's say both Ballard and Dery are stylists unto themselves. Dery's voice is what I used to call smart-ass columnist -- opinion dressed up as entertainment through sheer stylistic verve -- but it's like that and more, basically because of the often mind-boggling depth of research and linking of ideas that put all the flashy toppings on Dery's Krispy-Kreme donuts of topics. It's like that TV show, Connections, but on a socio-cultural level. Is this cultural criticism? Well, every now and then Dery reveals his left-of-center bias, but in the main it seems more like cultural exposition, a "look at" to see what surprising insights may be lurking in concepts most people simply take for granted. In many ways, the power of each essay is not in the topic Dery chooses, but in the fascinating places that topic takes Dery's imaginative and investigative mind.
Dery's topics run the gamut from dread to dream, all right, and some are simply classics: the argument that 2001's HAL computer is gay, the righteous trashing of the self-esteem movement, dead fun with Facebook "friends" (probably changed now, as this essay was written in 2009), the Ga on Lady Gaga, the anxiety of IQ tests, the Santa/Satan conundrum -- hey, it's 32 trips to many, many funny farms and the only criticism you might have is not a lot of interest in an essay's topic. Hey, peaks & valleys. And even then, you'll appreciate Dery's snap-ass way with the word-whacker.
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. Oh, yes you should, says Mark Dery. If "thought's the slave of life" then thinking bad thoughts is the best way to reveal the hidden forces -- aggressive, sexual, economic, social -- that seek to repress us into unconscious bundles of conditioned reflexes. Time to insert a little consciousness. This is a classy collection -- cool, quick and quite often simply hilarious. Think On!